Fyodor Dostoevsky observed in his final work The Brothers Karamazov that, despite our alleged civility, human beings possess a capacity for cruelty far beyond that of any other creature—his specific phrasing was that we humans are “artistically cruel,” if I correctly recall.
When I first read Karamazov, I had been at that time taking an intro-level philosophy course. My professor, a kindly 77-year-old Korean War veteran of significant academic distinction, relayed to the class a story pertaining to Nazi Germany’s conduct in rural Russia, Dostoevsky’s homeland, during the Second World War:
Germany began her colossal conquest of the Soviet Union during the summer of 1941. German forces often came across villages buried deep within the Russian countryside: villages which had maintained so little contact with the outside world, it was as though they had been preserved from progress and the passage of time—a pristine glimpse into the age of Peter the Great, perhaps. So isolated were these tiny towns that their inhabitants had hardly ever before been exposed to the power of music.
German unit commanders became quickly aware of this fact.
With the artful cruelty that so deeply pervaded Nazi hegemony, Wehrmacht armor and infantry would surround one of these anachronistic villages, whose residents had in all probability never seen so much as an automobile before. The tankers, their massive machines running idle in place, would then begin playing a recording of Rossini’s William Tell overture in unison—and at a deafening volume—through loudspeakers mounted to the tanks’ armor plates.
Nearly halfway through the piece, the Panzers would begin to inch toward the village—almost imperceptibly at first, but soon accelerating, gaining speed commensurate with the music’s mounting intensity—tracks turning faster and faster, engines roaring louder and louder—as though Rossini himself had composed a part specifically for those armored machines, penning it into his score nearly a century before the tank was invented.
At this point, the piece’s recording began to approach its final measures. The sound grew maddeningly loud as the orchestra played to a cacophonous crescendo.
Then, at long last, the finale’s first notes rang out. The order was given to take the village.
The 75mm guns fixed to each Panzer’s turret spoke with burning breath—horrific hellfire percussion echoed behind the climactic close of William Tell. Engines of decimation roared with demonic rage; the full fury of modern industrial warfare struck the village like lightning. Within minutes, the life which existed there unmolested for centuries was obliterated.
And the music did onward play, an encore for which no request was made, when the Panzers again happened upon similar places.
Just as Dostoevsky once noted, over half a century before those lands which he has immortalized in literature were ravaged by the Nazi war machine, we humans are indeed imbued with a unique capacity for cruelty—such awful, artful cruelty.