It’s tempting to regard the atrocities committed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as uniquely barbarous. I can't help thinking of the scores of young Yazidi women, torn from their families, raped, and forced to marry IS fighters, with no prospect of an end to their ordeal, and of the despair that they and their loved ones must experience. Surely this transcends anything perpetrated in the recent history of warfare? But then, over Christmas, reading Joachim Fest’s account of growing up in an anti-Nazi family in Germany during the Second World War, I came across this:
In those days almost every story ended with acts of violence of some kind. As the Red Army approached, my sisters had left their grammar school in the Neumark, east of Berlin, and returned to Berlin; they now learned that their classmates – all aged between twelve and fifteen – had been raped, transported and disappeared into the expanses of Russia.
There are many similar accounts of atrocities by the ‘liberating’ Red Army in Anne Applebaum’s devastating book Iron Curtain. Perhaps we make too much of the peculiarly religious character of Islamic State’s reign of terror. The quotation from Fest, with its uncanny foreshadowing of recent events in the Middle East, is a reminder that religious and secular totalitarianisms have more in common than we sometimes think.