BERLIN — At the end of Bertolt Brecht’s “Life of Galileo,” there is a sharp exchange. Andrea Sarti, a student of the astronomer, says, “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” To which Galileo shoots back: “No, Andrea. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”
Michael Wolffsohn, a German historian, mentioned Galileo’s line the other evening with reference to Syria, an unhappy land of the dead and dying in need of heroes to redeem humanity. The hopelessness of resistance does not diminish its redemptive power in terrorized societies; in fact hopelessness may even be one of the defining characteristics of heroic resistance.
Abdalaziz Alhamza, the young man sitting beside Wolffsohn at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, prompted the historian’s reflections. “We don’t have the necessity today to resist in Germany because this is a free country,” Wolffsohn said. “Resistance is the readiness to incur lethal personal risk.”
That is what Alhamza has done. He is from Raqqa, the stronghold of the Islamic State, a town now synonymous with beheadings, immolation, enslavement of women and every form of barbarism. Alhamza, who is 24, left Syria two years ago and in April 2014 founded a resistance organization called “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS). ISIS has killed four of its members.
I was in the southern Turkish town of Sanliurfa in November to write about one of those murders. On Oct. 30, 2015, ISIS beheaded Ibrahim Abdel Qader, age 22. Qader had been working to publicize and document ISIS atrocities in Raqqa through online video and other reportage.
“We won’t stop,” Alhmaza said. “We have too many friends and family dead. The only way we will stop is if ISIS kills us all or we go back home.” RBSS will not stop its efforts to spread word of the crimes of ISIS. To record is to resist evil; to forget is to permit its spread. As Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “The poet remembers. You can kill one, but another is born.”
Wolfssohn drew a parallel between Alhamza’s resistance and that of the White Rose group to the Third Reich. Formed in 1942 by Munich University students and their professor, the White Rose members, in the face of certain death, distributed leaflets denouncing Nazism. The first read:
“Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes — crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure — reach the light of day.”
The “dimensions of shame” awaiting the perpetrators and bystanders to the crimes of the Syrian war are as yet unknown, but they will be ample. German has a better word than bystander for those — always the majority — who make their accommodations with evil. That word is “mitläufer” — roughly “fellow traveler.”
There has been a lot of discussion of the origins of ISIS, of the complexity of defeating it, of its digital slickness, but little of its pure evil — its desecration of human life and its exaltation of death (even delivered by children).
To dwell on the group’s iniquity — its contempt for humanity — would be to suggest the necessity of its immediate extirpation; and no Western government wants to deploy soldiers to do that. That is a moral capitulation, whatever else it may be.
Of course, ISIS is far from the Third Reich, as Wolffsohn conceded, even if its “absence of consideration for human life” is identical. But the parallels between the White Rose and RBSS are strong. As the historian told me: “The White Rose knew from the very beginning that they would lose but that their loss was necessary to show that humanity and human dignity cannot be wiped out completely. It’s the same with the Raqqa group.”
White Rose distributed leaflets, six before its members were executed. The work of RBSS, some of whose members are still in Raqqa, is the digital leaflet. On the existence of that work our humanity hinges.
Alhamza, like most RBSS members in exile, now lives in Germany, having moved on from Turkey where the ISIS threat was too great. His younger brother drowned trying to escape Syria. Countless family and friends are dead. One friend, a doctor, joined ISIS; he needed money. Terror bends most people’s will — but not all.
“It’s been more than two years,” Alhamza told me. “Western powers have held a lot of meetings, made speeches and done nothing, although the Syrian regime crossed every red line. The regime created ISIS. We do not believe the West will help.”
The second White Rose leaflet spoke of how hundreds of thousands of Jews had been killed by the Nazis in Poland while “the German people slumber on in dull, stupid sleep and encourage the Fascist criminals.”
The United States and its allies slumber on. The loss and the risk are all of humanity’s.