In a dark, personal and fascinating essay on Josef Mengele, my former colleague Jo Glanville sticks a pin in a very particular feeling experienced by those of us who work in human rights campaigning:
Had I developed an unhealthy attraction to stories of the most extreme inhumanity? I asked myself similar questions when I left journalism to work in human rights. I often used to discuss with my colleagues the adrenaline rush that would come when we heard about a new case of imprisonment, prosecution or worse, giving us the energy to take action, but it was disturbingly close to a sensation of excitement. Perhaps my motives were irrelevant, since the work was clearly necessary: whether researching historic human rights abuse or campaigning for current cases. But the intellectual thrill that can accompany investigating or campaigning against the darkest events, alongside a repulsion at the atrocities, continued to disturb me.
I call this thrill Ungerechtigkeitfreude – ‘Injustice joy.’ But I do not see it as a negative emotion. The feeling of excitment comes from the recognition that a particular human rights violation—one that sits squarely within the mandate of your organisation—offers a clear opportunity to make a case that could catalyse change. It is the recognition of an opportunity to spin an act of destruction and oppression into something positive.
I imagine that scholars of fascism, genocide, and its intersection at the Holocaust, have similar muddled feelings. As one accrues a deep historical understanding of how something terrible came about, one also gains the ability to recognise parallels in our own time and place. Which in turn offers the opportunity to sound the alarm and divert the problem.
It is a recognition that, while we have no power to change the past, we do have an opportunity, every day, to change the future for the better.