an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 12, January - April 2015, ISSN 1552-5112


Nazism and Young Toerless


Anthony H. Lesser







One question often asked regarding the Holocaust is to what extent it was “fuelled” by certain unpleasant elements in human psychology which were given a particularly free rein in the Nazi period, and for which the Jews were a natural target, given the long tradition of European anti-Semitism, but not the only possible one. A related question is whether there were features of German and Austrian society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which particularly encouraged these psychological traits. In this connection, Robert Musil’s novel Young Toerless (the English title often given to Die Verwirrungen des Zoeglings Toerless, though not to a new translation due to appear shortly) is worth some attention, even though it does not deal with anti-Semitism itself. Post-Holocaust, it is impossible to read this story of bullying and torture in an Austrian military academy, which has been called “the most terrifying ‘school story’ ever written” (Seymour-Smith (1976), p.254), without asking a) whether it was prophetic in some sense of Nazism, and b) whether it throws any light on the phenomenon of politically organised persecution.


It is worth noting that Musil himself in the 1930s, thirty years after he had written the book, and when Hitler had only recently come to power, wrote in his journal regarding the novel’s “villains”, “Reiting, Beineberg. Today’s dictators in nucleo. Also the concept of ‘the mass’ as an entity to be subjugated” (Musil (1995), quoted on p.ix). Nevertheless, objections may be raised to reading Young Toerless from this political perspective. First, it could be objected that bullying in schools, especially in boarding schools, has always been a widespread, though mercifully not universal, phenomenon, whereas the Holocaust was unique.  The Holocaust was indeed a unique event, (although other events may well have been equally wicked). Nevertheless, a) persecution of one sort or another has been very widespread, and b) the bullying described is exceptionally vicious—Musil, moreover, hinted that things equally bad or worse had really happened at the school he attended, though he was not personally involved.


Secondly, it might be held that it is morally inappropriate to compare systematic political persecution, even when it falls short of mass murder and torture, with something as relatively trivial as school bullying. Two replies may be made to this. First, the terror, and even the pain, undergone by the victim of bullying, though they fall short of death or permanent injury (in the novel Basini’s tormentors only aim to half-kill him!), are still quite horrible enough. Secondly, to compare the evil of persecution with the evil of school bullying is a way of demonstrating that, despite its even more terrible consequences for the victims, persecution does resemble bullying in being sordid and squalid, a cowardly attack on those weaker than oneself.


Thirdly, there is the objection that what happens in a small closed community, like a school or a single class within a school, is not really comparable to what happens on the political level. In particular it may be objected that the all-male nature of the school in question means that it cannot be seen as a microcosm of any society or political system. Clearly there are many differences between small enclosed communities and states; but whether there are also resemblances, and whether these throw light on the political situation, can be answered only after careful examination, and not in the abstract.


As regards the all-male nature of the society in Musil’s novel, one might reply, first, by pointing out the fact that until very recently men have been politically dominant in nearly all societies. Secondly, though physical brutality is a largely male phenomenon, a) it is not exclusively male; b) it has often been encouraged by girls and women, even if carried out by men, and c) psychological bullying and humiliation is by no means uncommon among females. There is again no a priori reason for rejecting a political reading of the novel; only after making such a reading can one decide whether it was fruitful.


So, let us start the political analysis of the novel, and see where it leads. The events in the novel with which we are concerned are as follows. The time is the very end of the nineteenth century and the place is a very prestigious boarding school for boys, a military academy (though not all the boys go on into the army) in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, situated in what is now Slovakia. (Musil wrote the novel in 1906, at the age of 26; and the school is very like one he attended himself). Two boys, Reiting and Beineberg, aged seventeen or eighteen, discover that a classmate, Basini, has been stealing money from other boys’ lockers. They use the threat of reporting him to make him do everything they say, subject him to increasingly brutal bullying, and eventually hand him over to the class, who treat him even worse. The main character of the novel, Toerless, is an associate of Reiting and Beineberg. He takes almost no part in the bullying, but knows about it and witnesses some of it. For a long time he does nothing; but finally he becomes sufficiently horrified to warn Basini to give himself up to the Headmaster before he is “beaten half to death”. Basini is expelled for stealing; the class manages to present themselves as upholders of morality; and Toerless, after briefly running away, asks his parents to remove him from the school, which they do.


Three individuals or groups need to be considered: the victim, Basini; the persecutors and instigators of persecution, Reiting and Beineberg; and the class as a whole. The bystander, Toerless, also needs to be considered briefly. We may begin with the victim.


Three characteristics of Basini are important. First, he is vulnerable. He is not of particularly “good” family; and no one in the class knows his parents or has received hospitality from them. In character he is in all probability, gay, though his actual activity is bisexual. This in a boarding school community may not be really against him; but, though many other boys are bisexual, and indeed Reiting, Beineberg and Toerless all have sex with him, it may be that we should see the attitude of the boys as combining an acceptance of bisexuality with a contempt for homosexuals and a willingness to persecute them. (Indeed, that combination of attitudes seems to have existed later on in parts of the Nazi party itself).Perhaps more importantly, Basini is physically weak and somewhat effeminate in manner, poor at games and physical activities, and unlikely to hit back when attacked. Moreover, he combines weakness with being unable to see the consequences of his actions and boastfulness. The effect of this, despite his pleasant manner and ability to make himself agreeable, is to make people see his vulnerability as contemptible rather than as deserving of sympathy, and to encourage those already inclined to target the vulnerable, such as Reiting and Beineberg. One can already make a political comparison—despite the idea that people sympathise with the “underdog”, joining in persecution of the vulnerable has been nothing uncommon.


But what puts Basini into the power of Reiting and Beineberg is that they find out that he has been committing a really grave crime, that of stealing money from his classmates. Either he submits to them, even when they beat him, torture him or demand sexual favours; or they report him to the teachers, so that he is expelled (as finally happens, when he gives himself up), or to the class, who, as said above, are ready to treat him even worse. For stealing, in many schools, is an offence condemned as much by pupils as by teachers: Basini is available for beating and humiliation in a way that others are not.


Here the political parallel is complex, because there are many reasons for persecution. Its aims may be to keep a particular group in subordination so that their labour can be exploited, to avoid a threat (real or imaginary), or to remove a group, ethnic or economic, that is politically or economically “in the way” or believed to be so. But one reason can be the wish to punish or avenge a crime or (very often) a supposed crime, though usually one committed, if at all, by other members of the group than the ones being killed or beaten. The difficult question (to which we will return) is how far the wish to avenge or punish is genuinely the motivation, and how far, as in the novel, the crime is merely a pretext for indulging sadism: Reiting and Beineberg, unlike Toerless, are not morally disturbed or shocked by Basini’s stealing, but only glad to have Basini in their power.


Thirdly, Basini cooperates with his tormentors. His whole policy, in so far as someone who thinks so little ahead has a policy, is to show friendliness and subordination, and to do everything they tell him, in the hope of thereby being treated more mildly: even after a severe beating, his face remains “just as it had been the first time, with the same fixed, sweet, cloying smile” (Musil, 1995, p.82). The policy works, up to a point, in the short term, mainly because it suits Reiting and Beineberg not to be too brutal at this stage; but it fails very badly in the long term. The political parallel is once again complex. Certainly it has often been argued that cooperation makes things worse, and resistance is the only option for those persecuted; and it is not accidental that “Uncle Tom” is a term of abuse. But there can still be many problematic issues. In particular, whether what is happening to a person or a group amounts to persecution can be contentious. One party in a dispute may claim that they are being subjected to persecution, which they can resist only through violence, while the other party may claim that there is no persecution, but a conflict of interests which could be settled by negotiation; and there may be evidence for both interpretations of the situation.


Even if it is clear that there is persecution, two problems remain: what constitutes cooperation, and when, if ever, does it work? Thus Arendt (1977) strongly attacked many leaders of Jewish communities for cooperating with the Nazis and thereby making it easier for the Nazis to put the Holocaust into operation and harder for anyone to escape. In reply, Ezorsky (1963) pointed out that there were Jewish leaders who resisted; that in some cases cooperation was the only possible option; and, in particular, that some leaders genuinely believed, with some grounds, that fewer people would die if they cooperated. The truth would seem to be that sometimes, though rarely if ever under the Nazis, collaboration or cooperation has helped the victims; and at other times it has made things still worse. One should read the account of the bullying of Basini as a terrible political and personal warning of what can happen to a victim who chooses the wrong time to cooperate with their persecutors. One should also recognise that to decide when cooperation is right and when it is wrong is far from easy.


It is to the persecutors, Reiting and Beineberg, the “dictators in nucleo”, (see above), that we should now turn. Regarding them, there are four points of importance. First, they are, though “gifted and…of good family”, “the boys who counted as the worst of [Toerless’s] year” (Musil, 1995, p.9). They are described as “at times…wild and reckless to the point of brutality” (ibid.). They have a strong desire to succeed and make their mark, but, though they have performed adequately, have not been distinguished at either lessons or sport, or respected for their qualities of character by either their classmates or the masters. This parallels at least some accounts of the kind of person likely to become a leader or early member of a party such as the Nazi, with aggressive and destructive aims. In particular, it is a milder version of the situation of Hitler just before the first World War, as described by Eric Fromm (1977, pp.522-3): “Here is a man of extraordinary vitality, a burning passion for greatness and power, with the firm belief that he would become a great painter or architect…He had completely failed in this aim; he had become a small businessman; his power consisted in impressing a small group of loners whom he constantly harangued, without even finding followers among them.”


Secondly, what these boys are now seeking, whether or not because success of other kinds has eluded them, is simple power, especially power over other people. Reiting “knew no greater pleasure than to set people against each other,…revelling in favours and flatteries obtained by extortion…<H>e had daydreams of…high politics” (1995, p.43). Beineberg has developed a half-baked and twisted version of his father’s interest in Indian philosophy, which has turned into “the firm belief that he could achieve dominion over people by means of more than ordinary spiritual powers”(1995, p.19). There are many accounts, psychological and political, of this power-seeking type of personality; but the first, by Plato, is still one of the best, and still surprisingly relevant. In the Republic, Book 9, he describes the tyrannical character as one dominated by the desire to gain and retain power over others. In politics, there are presumably some tyrants and dictators, or would-be tyrants and dictators, who go into politics already, consciously or unconsciously, having this aim, and others who begin as idealists and are seduced by the desire for power. Reiting and Beineberg are already, “in nucleo”, members of the first group.


Together with the desire for power goes a perception of people as essentially there to be manipulated, either for one’s own advantage, or, as with Reiting, also for the sheer pleasure of manipulation. The manipulation is done mainly through a mixture of charm and fear, charm predominating when one is weak, fear when one is strong. On the political, as well as the personal level, systematic manipulation, like power-seeking, has been with us for a long time.  Once again, it was Plato who first described and condemned it, especially in the Gorgias and the Republic. In the Gorgias (464-6 in particular) Socrates rejects the idea that oratory, i.e. persuasion through rhetoric, is a skill that can be used for either good or bad purposes, and argues that it is an inherently corrupt activity. Something similar is argued in Republic 493: the argument  in both dialogues (not put quite in these words) is essentially that, as long as one is engaged only in working out what words or actions will  get people to do what one wants, one will be totally indifferent to what would be really good for them and fulfil their real needs; indeed, one will have no idea what their real needs are—the comparison at one point (Gorgias 464) is with a cook who concentrates entirely on producing pleasant tastes, and is not concerned whether or not the meal is wholesome. One might object to what Plato says here--Plato himself took a more positive view of rhetoric in the Phaedrus 277-8--and replies that oratory can also be used to persuade people to do what is good for them. But Reiting and Beineberg manipulate others in precisely the way described in the Republic and Gorgias.   Indeed their attitude to their classmates in general and to Basini in particular is much worse than indifferent. “[H]e’s no loss in any case”, says Beineberg, “It makes no difference whether we go and report him, or give him a beating, or even if we torture him to death, just for the fun of it.” (Musil, 1995, p.63).


But the boys are not just examples of the kind of power-seeking and manipulation described by Plato and many after him. A reading of Musil adds something to Plato’s account. In his description of Republic 562-571, of how a tyrant comes to power, Plato sees tyranny as typically arising in a democracy: the people, fearing a takeover by oligarchs, look to a powerful man to protect them, grant him special powers, even a private army, and find too late that he has enslaved them. But in Young Toerless we see the impulse to tyranny appearing in members of the ruling class in an oligarchy: indeed, Plato might have seen the Austro-Hungarian Empire as what in Republic 545-550 he called a “timarchy”, a society in which the ruling class is motivated by the desire for honour rather than, as in an oligarchy, the desire to make money. (For Plato and Aristotle the crucial feature of oligarchy is not that the few rule but that the rich rule). Winning power is no doubt done differently in a state with a small entrenched ruling class from the way it is done in a democracy. But the principle is the same: a mixture of obtaining support from key individuals and groups by telling them what they want to hear and ruthlessly eliminating rivals and opponents (sometimes by destroying them politically, sometimes by actual murder). A fine fictional example, which may or may not be historically accurate, is Richard III in Shakespeare’s play. Hence, Musil was right to see his characters as embryo dictators, both in their aims and in their methods.


Finally, Reiting, though not Beineberg, resembles many dictators in his possession of considerable “charm and winning ways”. (Musil, 1995, p.44; cf. p.77). This may seem surprising, because the charm is often abandoned, or used politically much less, once the dictator is in power, and also because it is used alongside ruthlessness and deceit. It is very much in evidence in Shakespeare’s Richard. He, of course, may be in effect a fictional character, though based on a historical one. But Hitler seems to have had a remarkable ability to win over people from very different backgrounds and political positions; the German people, the German ruling class, the Austrian people, Chamberlain and Stalin - were all for a time deceived by him, and this must have involved the use of charm of a kind. And if Sebag Montefiore (2003) is to be believed, the same was true of Stalin. Chapter 3 of his biography of Stalin is actually called “The Charmer”, and he says (p.49): “The foundation of Stalin’s power in the Party was not fear: it was charm”. So, to the picture of the victim, as an admitted legal offender, weak and vulnerable, and ready to cooperate with his tormentors, we add a picture of the persecutors, as power-seeking, manipulative, charming, and so far not very successful in their careers. Politically, we might say, this is a picture almost of an “ideal type” of persecutor and victim: actual persecutors and actual victims will very often have some of these features, but not so often all of them.


We must now turn to considering the class as a whole, and what happens when Reiting and Beineberg, after several weeks in which their treatment of Basini becomes more and more brutal, decide to hand him over to the class, “because he’s beginning to be difficult” (Musil, 1995, p.155). We have to consider how the class is worked upon by Reiting and Beineberg, what they then do to Basini, and what happens when Basini gives himself up and the Headmaster discovers what has been happening. As regards the rousing of the class, what is striking is how quickly the hunt against Basini is stirred up: it takes Reiting and Beineberg no more than half a day to get it going. Also striking is the excitement that is generated by the prospect of humiliating and beating Basini: the classroom “grew dense with a silence that was charged with tension, with dark, hot, sinister urges” (p.160). There is, moreover, unanimity among the members of the class: only Toerless finds what is happening repulsive, and he does not dare to oppose the class openly, being convinced they would serve him the same way, but instead warns Basini in a note to confess to the Headmaster (p.159). Indeed, the note comes too late to save Basini from beating and humiliation; but he confesses in time to save himself from an even worse beating, planned for the following night.


When the class start to deal with Basini, the decent options are not even considered. They do not order Basini to report himself, which is what the School would expect. They do not give him a chance to reform, by warning him what will happen if he repeats the offence: the action suggested earlier, after careful thought, by Toerless’s parents, when he writes to them about Basini (pp.57-8). They do not even take the option of giving him a severe beating (better than expulsion) and then regarding the incident as closed, unless the offence is repeated. Instead, they proceed immediately to humiliation and brutality. Basini is stripped naked; a letter from his mother is read out, to an accompaniment of “ribald laughter and lewd jokes”; and then, after two or three boys start giving him pushes, he is suddenly being “bounced around the room like a ball, to the accompaniment of laughter, cat-calls and blows” until he collapses, bleeding and terrified, and lies still (p.161). Toerless shudders, but he is the only one to feel that way. Mercifully, as said above, Basini gives himself up that evening.


We have to try to distinguish what is specifically adolescent in all this, and what might apply equally to persecution carried out by adults. First, we have to make some allowance for the fact that almost anything that breaks the monotony of school life and offers some prospect of excitement will be welcomed by the pupils. Then we have to consider Musil’s view of adolescent male sexuality, and the form it takes in all-male boarding schools. It is very much bisexuality. Heterosexuality is regarded by everyone as the norm; and Beineberg, Toerless and even Basini all pay periodic visits to the local prostitute Bozena (pp.27-38). But homosexuality is common and largely accepted: as mentioned above, Reiting, Beineberg and Toerless all have sex with Basini. For Reiting and Beineberg, this emphasises their power over him, while allowing him for a time to feel he is their friend (p.122); with Toerless it is initiated by Basini (who is probably genuinely gay), but also very much desired by Toerless (pp117-130). It is also a sexuality very infused with sadism, and not only in Reiting and Beineberg. Toerless never beats Basini himself, but listening to Reiting and Beineberg whipping Basini and to Basini pleading, whimpering and moaning produces in him a strong desire to join in, followed by sexual excitement; and after the whipping he is the one who thinks of making Basini say “I’m a thief”. Only after all this was he “sickened” (pp.79-83).


So it is not surprising that the class, especially if skilfully worked on by Reiting and Beineberg, seize the opportunity to relieve monotony and at the same time, partly unconsciously, to indulge their sadism. There is also nothing unusual in a group of children or teenagers, even if nearly adult, turning on one person. But is this also adult behaviour?


There is certainly evidence that it can be, if the group is worked upon by a few ringleaders. Goldhagen (1996) drew attention to the fact (already known) that in the course of the Holocaust the number of people prepared to take an active part not only in murder but also in humiliation and torture was unexpectedly and disturbingly large. He attributed this to the supposedly uniquely “eliminativist” nature of traditional German anti-Semitism. But in his later book (2010), he treats “eliminationism” as something that has happened in many places. “Eliminationism” is the attempt to get rid of a particular group, or to make it powerless, whether by actual murder, or by expulsion, destruction of its culture (“transformation”), repression or prevention of reproduction (2010, pp.14-19). The reasons for this vary; the result is cruelty on a massive scale. Goldhagen (pp.440-7) distinguishes five kinds of cruelty: cruelty with political aims, cruelty to keep people controlled and subjugated, cruelty for revenge, cruelty for punishment, and cruelty for enjoyment, whether sexual or general. He says also that the last three are more common than the first two, and provide “moral and psychic satisfaction to the perpetrators” (p.447).


If we apply this to Young Toerless, the first point to be made is that all these can arise without “elimination” being an aim: it is sufficient for a group, or as here an individual, to be seen as one who may, or should, be treated without reference to “normal” moral restraints, whether simply because of who they are, or because of what they are supposed to have done. As to the exact reasons for the cruelty, Reiting and Beineberg act for political reasons and in order to control Basini, and also for sadism. The class officially are administering punishment; but in fact are acting primarily out of sadism. 


Hence, if we now try to apply what happens in Musil’s novel to the adult world, we might say the following. A great many people start out with a degree of sadism in their nature and particularly in their adolescent sexuality; a minority, but a larger minority than one would like to admit, carry this into adulthood, often partly unconsciously. If these people are then in effect given encouragement, or simply permission, to unleash their sadism against an already stigmatised group, they will take the opportunity.


So for Musil the root cause of persecution is sadism, and the exploitation of sadism by power-seeking manipulators, who may also be themselves sadists: the supposed, or even, as in Basini’s case, the actual crimes of the persecuted group are essentially a pretext.


Granted that this is more likely to happen among adolescents, particularly a small, largely enclosed group of adolescents, such as a class in a boarding school, nevertheless, if the conditions are “right” and the minority of sadists is “let off the leash”, it will happen in a much worse way among adults. We should note that even if this minority is a small percentage of the total population, it can still comprise a large number of people.


There is support for this not only from Goldhagen, but from another recent book (Neitzel and Welzel, 2012). Unlike Goldhagen’s second book, which discusses not only the Holocaust, but also “eliminationism” in Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia and many other countries, this book is based on conversations between German prisoners of war, from both the SS and from all three armed services, dating from 1940 to 1945. All secretly recorded by British intelligence at a detention centre in north London, declassified in 1996 and discovered by Neitzel in 2001. These give evidence not only of the numbers involved in murder and other atrocities, which was known already (see above), but also of the surprising extent to which people enjoyed taking part or watching. This is not a universal feature of the conversations; but many of them are about the murder and torture of Jews and other civilians. Some conversations treat this as simply part of the work of the armed forces, some as necessary to maintain control or to win the war; but few of the POWs condemn it, and a surprising number regard it as amusing or enjoyable (Goldhagen similarly, e.g., pp174ff, reports this as a feature of what perpetrators say when talking among themselves, as opposed to what they say when on trial or giving evidence to an official body). This certainly does not show that sadism is the only factor involved; but it may be more important than people have been prepared to admit; and what Musil describes may apply to adults as well as adolescents.


To return to the novel. Once Basini has given himself up, the Headmaster announces that there will be a very strict investigation, but does not call the boys up for questioning until the next day,. This gives Reiting and Beineberg time to get to work again. The whole class follow their lead and tell the same story: they did not report Basini, as they should have done, because they were sorry for him and wanted to give him a chance to reform. But Basini responded by repeating his offences, and as a result there was a “spontaneous outbreak” against him, but no other ill-treatment. Basini himself, still “paralysed with terror” as a result of the class’s violence, mindful of the threats of Reiting and Beineberg if he implicated them, finding solitary confinement a “tremendous relief”, and just wishing to get the whole thing over, “preserved a stupefied silence, no matter what was said” (p.166). “It was a well-rehearsed farce, brilliantly stage-managed by Reiting” (ibid.). We may note also the parallel with Goldhagen’s examples (see above) of the difference between what people say among themselves and what they say under official interrogation.


It is less easy to make this blaming of the victim work in an adult context, but it has been done. It has perhaps not so often worked with the authorities, who have to be guided by the law; unless, of course, they are encouraging the persecution anyway, or are carrying it out themselves. But certainly it has not been unusual for people connected with the persecutors to see their actions, sometimes even if they go as far as murder, as being a natural response to the behaviour, or supposed behaviour, of the victims, or of people belonging to the same group as the victims; and sometimes matters have as a result been hushed up, or very mild penalties imposed, even if there is no official approval.


We may now sum up the content of the novel from the political standpoint, remembering that it is a novel, and not an allegory. Two boys, highly ambitious but no better than adequate at lessons and games, eager to obtain power over other people, and (in one case), notably charming and skilled in psychological manipulation, discover that a classmate, a weak and vulnerable boy, has been stealing money from the boys’ lockers. They use the threat of reporting him to make him do everything they tell him; this involves, after a time, submitting to sexual demands and then to increasingly brutal beatings and humiliations; despite this, his policy is total cooperation. Then they hand him over to the class, who, under their influence, begin to treat him even more brutally; but, thanks to a warning from the only member of the class disgusted by the brutality, he gives himself up and is expelled. The class escape punishment or even censure by portraying themselves as having tried to get him to mend his ways and having been finally provoked into violence by his refusal to do so.


I suggest that that, as I said above about the victim and ringleaders, this represents, in sociological terms, a microcosm of an “ideal type” of politically organised persecution, such as the Holocaust. By “ideal type”, it is meant that though these are not the only key features, and though they are not all found in every instance of persecution, they are, with one important exception, all common features of the motives and behaviour of both persecutors and victims: the exception is that Basini is actually guilty of a crime, whereas persecuted groups are usually innocent of the crimes of which they are accused. It is true that Young Toerless was not written with the knowledge of what would happen in Germany and Austria later in the century; and it does not in itself explain it. Moreover, the political standpoint is not the only one from which one can read the novel; and the political is not the only thing in it of interest. But Young Toerless does bring out many points of importance for political philosophy. This study of a political microcosm can help us to understand which persons or groups are most in danger of persecution, and/or least equipped to resist it; also, which kinds of people are most likely to want to stir it up and have the skills necessary to do this, and in what kinds of societies it is most likely to take place. It might even be of some practical help in preventing it from happening.


Two issues remain, to be considered as a kind of appendix. The first is whether there is anything here which is peculiar to the culture of Austria and Germany in the first half of the twentieth century, even though persecutions have taken place in many other places and at many other times; and even though the culture today is quite different. There is perhaps one feature: the importance given to humiliating the victim—stripping him, mocking his mother’s letters, making him say “I’m a thief”, etc. Beating, torture, murder in cruel ways for entertainment, all occur in many other places; but there seems to be less emphasis on humiliation—what happens is every bit as bad, but different. Possibly this was to do with a need to convince oneself that the victim deserves what is happening to them and it is morally permissible to indulge one’s sadism; whereas in some other cultures people were simply not bothered.


Secondly, and finally, there is the behaviour, and the thoughts and feelings, of Toerless himself, the “bystander” as we would now say. For many weeks he knows about and sometimes witnesses the bullying: he barely takes part, but he does nothing to prevent it. This, one should note, parallels the behaviour of a great many individuals and a great many governments, as a response to persecution, which they take no part in but do know about (for example, see Goldhagen, 2010, pp.244-261). But finally he is sickened by the violence and genuinely horrified by what is going to happen, and he warns Basini to give himself up.


What gets him to do the right thing is the decency and good sense of his parents, and their advice by letter “to get Basini to give himself up and thus put an end to the undignified and dangerous state of subservience he was in” (p.158). What has held him back is his excessive concern with what is going on inside him instead of what is happening around him. Indeed, we are told (p.135) that he grew into an intelligent and sensitive young man, but, though behaving “with magnificent external correctitude”, was one of those who are only really interested in “the growth of their own soul, or personality”. The question is whether we should see this as making Toerless a bystander for reasons peculiar to himself, or whether there is something here true of many bystanders, though not necessarily all. Tentatively, one might suggest that it shows the limitations of a purely intellectual response to how other people are treated—only when his feeling of horror at the cruelty and his appreciation of his parents’ decency come into play does Toerless take action.


So, the novel has something to say about persecutors, about victims and about bystanders. It has most to say about persecutors, and about the influence of sadism and of the desire for power: as a practical point, it brings out the way in which these can be combined in many people with personal charm, and the political dangers of being seduced by charm. The work of Goldhagen and of Neitzel and Welzer supports the view that the release of sadism (whether specifically sexual or as a general enjoyment of violence) in many (though by no means all) ordinary people was a factor in the Holocaust that has been insufficiently recognised: Young Toerless has something to say about how this is activated, which can be applied to adults as a well as adolescents.


About victims, what is most strongly brought out is the danger of collaborating with one’s persecutors. With regard to the Holocaust, there is still a dispute about how far this took place, and how far (when it did ), it was a rational response, given the extent to which it had worked in the past, even though it was still the wrong response. But the point remains as an important practical one for the future.


Finally, there are the bystanders, who in the Holocaust were very numerous. It perhaps is now generally agreed that what is needed to reduce the number of potential bystanders is moral education. This novel, in the treatment of Toerless himself, shows, I suggest, that moral education cannot be a purely intellectual exercise but must involve the education of the emotions. How this is to be done is a complicated question. But something that certainly contributes to it is reading Young Toerless!








an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 12, January - April 2015, ISSN 1552-5112




Arendt, H. (1977), Eichmann in Jerusalem; a report on the banality of evil (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books)

Ezorsky, G. (1963), “Hannah Arendt against the facts”, New Politics, 2,4

Fromm, E. (1977), The anatomy of human destructiveness (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books)

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