The banality of evil

So many years have passed since my last good argument over Hannah Arendt, I’ve forgotten which side I was on. Her pregnant phrase, “the banality of evil,” from her book on the Eichmann trial (published 1962), was usually under attack from the “intellectuals.” So I probably defended it. I even read the book, as I recall, for Arendt’s characterization of the SS-Obersturmbannführer, who had organized logistics for Nazi death camps. The Mossad kidnapped him from Argentina, to put him on public trial at Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion apparently thought Israel would benefit from this propaganda stunt, at a time when people were beginning to forget why the country existed. (Perhaps we forget, that David Ben-Gurion was a politician.)

According to Arendt, Eichmann cut an unimpressive figure on the stand. The audience was looking for a bug-eyed, psychopathic monster. Instead this fellow was middle class. He wasn’t terribly smart, either, and his vain exaggeration of his rank, apart from sabotaging his own defence, made him seem the smaller. His offer of a moral argument (that he had always followed Kant’s “categorical imperative,” which simple as it is he could not understand), was lamer still. His conversation was a clutter of semi-military jargon, damp euphemisms, and clichés. He could not construct a competent sentence in any language.

The truth was he had been following orders, since a young man — when he flunked out even of vocational school. But with family connexions, he still found a job; and was a loyal employee. He had always been a joiner. The YMCA, the Wandervogels, the Freemasons, the Nazi Party — whatever. He wanted to belong, and always tried to fit in.

He had been shown to half a dozen psychologists, in preparation for his “show trial.” None of the shrinks could find the slightest evidence of mental illness.

The Nazis were bores, and in Adolf Eichmann the Israelis had caught themselves a typical Nazi. The publicity would have been more favourable to them, had they somehow found an eccentric one.

Eichmann could tell them about the day his boss, Heydrich, sprang the proposed “Final Solution” on the Wannsee Conference, to senior civil servants. He “stunned” them with the ambitious plan to exterminate all the Jews in German-controlled realms. Except, they were not stunned. They reacted just as bureaucrats, to this initiative. No outrage, but no great enthusiasm, either; rather the professional upbeat of, “When do we start?”

Reinhard Heydrich himself, the “man with the iron heart,” the “darkest figure in the whole Nazi elite” — lacked visible fangs. He was a capable amateur violist, from an operatic family; he showed real organizational skills, from Kristallnacht forward. He dressed sharply. He was popular with the women. But to the men, he seemed only a company man, getting on with his departmental agenda: at the time, annihilating Jews. (There was jargon for this, including the term, euthanasia.)

The phrase, “I was only following orders” — or giving them, as the case might be — became famous from the post-war Nuremberg trials. It seemed so glib, in light of what the Nazis had done: the great mountain of bodies. It was assumed to conceal the most horrible secrets. But it was meant straightforwardly. That’s what they were all doing — following orders. And getting their paperwork in on time. It was glib.

The camp guards, too, had a job to do, and managed to make it routine. They might be feeding human beings down the chutes, into the ovens. But it was nothing personal. Sure, a few of them may have been sadists; but no more proportionally than in, say, the Canadian tax department.

Here we are considering the bureaucratic “mindset,” and while it may benefit from a Prussian pride in efficiency, it is common alike to Italy and Spain, to India and China, to Britain and Australia and all fifty United States. As well, to any large private enterprise: one has a job to do, and a head to keep down, and a nose assigned to whichever grindstone.

I think of these things when I consider the 80 percent of North Americans who favour “euthanasia” in the polls (see yesterday’s Idlepost). And the men and women who will do the killings, when instructed by their superiors in the organizational chain. They aren’t the “monsters” it would be convenient for the opponents of “mercy killing” to depict. They are dull people, of “average” intelligence (which is to say, pretty low), with a work ethic. I’m sure 80 percent of Germans agreed there was “a Jewish problem” when Hitler was at his apogee. (Though later: “We did not know what was happening.”)

And we, of course, have our own demographic “problem,” with the disabled and the aged — more of the people Hitler killed off, “for their own good,” and to free up their beleaguered guardians.

He, too, from what I have heard, was on the personal level, rather boring. No particular interests, talents, skills; a failed Sunday painter. A few obsessions, perhaps. It took considerable stagecraft to make him look big — much bigger than some troublesome Alpine peasant. But a patriot, determined to “make Germany great again”; and “a man of the people,” who could command obedience — according to his rank.

Evil is so banal. Only sanctity is interesting.