What would I have done?

Jilava, Fort 13. Photo taken by Ioana Hasu

I have often heard people wondering what they would have done if they lived during communism: would they have become persecutors or informants for the secret police? Would they have had the strength to say no to the temptation to save themselves at the expense of their fellow humans? The same question appears when people discuss the holocaust or other horrific events during the history of humanity. What would I have done if I had lived during those times?

The question can easily become a way to tell ourselves that we are better than others. Few of us are able to say that we may have been an agent of the secret police, a prison guard, a torturer, or a Nazi officer. The firm belief in our moral strength does not allow us to consider this possibility. Other times, however, the question becomes often torturous, because it reveals to us that the world is not so clearly divided between good and evil and because we discover that we might not have had the power to sacrifice convenience for truth. We acknowledge, in these moments, that we are rather weak before that “voice of reason” which tells us that we owe it to ourselves to remain alive, regardless of the means to do so. This “voice of reason” comes slowly and progressively; we are rarely in the situation in which we need to choose between pure good and evil. Instead, we perceive ourselves as human beings in connection with others and so we believe that it is safe to do what others do, to show, at least, that we think like them because we would be accepted and thus somehow protected. Actions that we consider glorious in stories may appear to us in a different light in such moments: they would become irrational. Here are some examples. Is it rational to say that you still believe in God if this statement produces hatred in your torturer to the point where you are left in a pool of blood? Is it rational to say no to collaboration with the secret police when you are menaced with your family’s suffering and when you perceive that many of your friends already do it? Is it rational to leave behind everything you have and go in the mountains to form a resistance movement and thus live as an outcast with a death sentence of your head? Is it rational to give your piece of bread to your fellow inmate when you are yourself on the brink of death through starvation?

I think many of us would say that it is rather folly, and we would recognize that the power of “reason” convinces us to be what we despise when we read stories of persecution: the torturers themselves, or perhaps people who have said nothing even if we witnessed horrors.

Regardless of the way in which we answer this question, “what would I have done,” it is rather a fruitless enterprise, and one that leads to nothing. Instead, it leads to separation from our own self. We disappear from the present and move into a realm that we cannot change and even less understand. We lose the possibility of being present into the world that is given to us in this moment. This is the reason why, when discussing communist persecution and the response people had in Romania between 1946 and 1989, people often have an introspection into the depth of one’s soul. To think about terror is to think about how I respond to life each and every moment: by focusing on me or by giving my life to the other.


About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
This entry was posted in Communist Persecution, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What would I have done?

  1. Reader John says:

    Your photos alway draw me in, Tavi. I should take a chapter from that book.


  2. This one is taken in Jilava, a former communist prison built underground. This cell is one of the fews that has a window outside. I was there last summer with Andrei, some of my students, and a friend. We were also accompanied by someone who spent time in prison there. It was a very moving experience.


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