Man’s Great Capacity For Evil

3 books appear time and again on reading lists:
1) Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking
2) Viktor Frankl: Man’s Search for Meaning
3) Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Gulag Archipelago

So, some time back, I decided that I had to start reading them. If not then, then when? I finished the first two, but am still deliberating my way through the third. These books were enlightening yet difficult to comprehend at times for me. On one hand, they contain accounts of things that happened in real life. On the other hand, they seem to reflect lessons in psychology and sociology. I read them while trying to understand the madness through the lens of science.

Let me tell you that it is no easy task.

Iris Chang writes of the horrific atrocities that the Japanese soldiers enacted upon the Chinese civilians and soldiers. The civilians, already helpless, were not spared of their dignity and often found every little bit of respect torn from them. Their lives were brutally taken away in as devastating a manner as possible.

Till this day, the Rape stands as a testament to the sheer brutality projected by the Japanese soldiers. The collective history of mankind is marred by such unmistakable acts of horror. The Nazi concentration camps and Soviet labor camps served to distill such horrors into commonplace incidents. Viktor Frankl, a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, remained steadfast.

Now, I will never know if my late grandparents knew about Nanking. It was telling, however, when my grandpa voiced his pleasure at watching Donnie Yen beat up 10 Japanese black-belts in “Ip Man”. I remembered my grandpa clenching his fists and punching the air at seeing a Wing Chun master knock his opponents senseless; Some see it as the best action scene ever. My grandpa resonated with that scene on a conceivably different level. Yet, I am always reminded that our collective heritage was severed; I could not understand my grandpa when he spoke dialect. I imagined he said something like “yes! punch him!” I will never really know.

Still, Donnie showed time and again that the Chinese would beat down foreign adversaries. However, the victims in Nanking, Germany and the Soviet Union would have marched to a wholly different tune instead. Standing up for the right cause is sometimes and often, not an undertaking that one readily slips into.

These 3 books shed light on the deepest, darkest depths that Man can sink down into. It was difficult to fathom why a human being can turn into an absolute monster, with blind faith and obedience to his Master–whether Government, Emperor or Dictator.

There was a sense of revulsion in going through these books and picturing myself as a soldier committing horrible deeds upon civilians of another country. That words can paint vivid imagery and instill in me a feeling of experiencing life through the eyes of the helpless oppressed and mindless oppressors must surely be reason enough to–read–and commit every waking moment to ensuring that I must, with every ounce of power in me, not contribute to suffering in the world.

We must act to alleviate suffering and we bear in us the power to ensure that no one is ever subjugated to another.

Yet, in those troubling times, there arose heroes who brought relief to the oppressed. Some of them died while saving tens of thousands. Those that helped others in oppressive conditions and survived went through life experiencing a deterioration in mental health. Survivors would go on to share stories of how seemingly ordinary people uplifted the spirits of others in camps. There is light everywhere you see, even in times of great despair.

These 3 books should be recommended reading for every social scientist, and anyone who seeks to understand what great depravity looks and feels like. There are lessons of extreme resilience to be learned at the very least, and it is something that all of us can benefit from. Crucially, we must ensure that the world never falls into states of darkness that allow history to repeat itself.


  1. May I know how u obtain that book title:
    “The Gulag Archipelago” from?
    It’s not available at Kinokuniya and NLB.

      1. Hi Weiyong,

        Which forum did you obtain it from? Reddit, you refer to? I find it hard to read online in this manner.

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