Never having had one before, I am enjoying the first week of a sabbatical (study leave). Having, however, spent most of the week suffering from a miserable lurgy, I am already seeing the benefit of a clearer mind and time to read and think.

Back in August I passed through Johannesburg airport on my way back from a short visit to our link diocese of Central Zimbabwe and picked up a book in the airport bookshop. Called Dinner with Mugabe, it is presented as ‘the untold story of a freedom fighter who became a tyrant’. In fact, I learned little that was new from the book, but I also found it a rivetting read. Based on interviews with people who have known Robert Mugabe – some since childhood – it adds anecdotal flesh to the bones of other narratives of his extraordinary life.

In the book Heidi Holland does some basic psychological analysis of Mugabe in an attempt to understand the man who became a monster. She rightly observes that we can do little to address the challenges thrown up by someone like Mugabe if we simply see him as a monster and don’t penetrate through to the humanity that has become so distorted. Of course, understanding is never the same as condoning or justifying.

In the case of Mugabe, several episodes in his life (abandonment by his father, adulation by his mother, the inculcation of the idea of God-given specialness, treatment by Ian Smith, paranoia and megalomania, etc.) are identified as possible roots for the appalling cruelty and apparent unemotionality of this haunted, fearful and (ultimately) disastrous leader. Though not exactly ‘deep’ and ultimately predictable, this is a book worth reading.

But it reminded me of another book I read back in 1980 called The Face of the Third Reich. Joachim C. Fest wrote the first attempt by a German (or anyone else for that matter) to understand the psychological make-up of leading Nazis in the Third Reich. Instead of simply damning them, he attempts to understand what made these people into the monsters they became. Again, he says that we cannot progress unless we seek to understand rather than simply categorise and vilify who do horrendous things. So, he looks at people whose names are notorious and tries to comprehend what shaped them. It is a remarkable (and, in its time, a very brave) book.

What these two books do is to reject what we often see as the ‘tabloid’ worldview: let’s demonise certain people (for example, murderers, paedophiles, rapists, etc.) and call them monsters – an approach that absolves the rest of us from doing the hard stuff of examining ourselves honestly and intelligently in order to find root causes of bad behaviour. If we can assume that the ‘monster’ is not like us (or, better, that I am not like him/her), then we have an object for our vitriol and someone on whom to pour our ownunreflected judgement. We never get challenged because ‘he is not like me/us’.

Of course, to think seriously about such stuff is to risk being called a wet liberal by those who think the world needs to be made up of ‘us’ and ‘them’. But a society that refuses to address the real and complicated roots of human badness is one that is condemned to repeat the unaddressed fruits of that individual and collective badness.

I was reminded of this when I first visited the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The memorial to the Warsaw uprising is located on two walls of one side of a square. One has a relief of the heroic young people who started the uprising and fought against the tyrants. The other has a group of Jews with bowed heads being led like sheep to the slaughter. The message is clear: people respond in different ways and both are to be respected.

However, the German soldiers herding the doomed Jews have no faces. Our guide explained that the sculptor could not bring himself to humanise such evil by giving them faces. I asked if this was actually a problem in itself: that we remove the behaviour of Nazis from the ambit of our own potential and thus exonerate ourselves from having to face our own evils – that ordinary people easily become corrupted into behaving inhumanely. That in the right circumstances anyone of us might become ‘monsters’.

It was made clear to me that the question was unwelcome, inadmissable and should not have been asked.