On ‘understanding’ evil

This post is a follow-up to the one below on Hannah Arendt and the notion of the banality of evil. I fear, from one or two of the comments, that the reservations I expressed about her arguments may have led to misunderstanding. My point was certainly not to suggest that one shouldn’t try to understand and explain why and how these horrors happen, how people can come to commit, or be indirectly involved in, them. This is why I said, for example:

We have to understand what they [the perpetrators] did precisely as a fact about the evil human beings can do. Not only were they not devils or monsters psychologically speaking; for the most part they were not even abnormally sadistic or inherently brutal, or killers ‘by nature’, and so forth.


The literature on the Holocaust which attempts to further our understanding is huge and wide-ranging: historiographical and experiential literature; and then sociology, social psychology, philosophy and more. Much of this literature is valuable: from Arendt herself to Bauman; Primo Levi and Charlotte Delbo; Raul Hilberg, Saul Friedlander, many, many others.

All I was wanting to do was to signal some dangers, and to point to the fact that Arendt may not have altogether avoided them. If Eichmann was really marked, as she said, by a ‘quite authentic inability to think’ – and I take this to include thinking morally – then wouldn’t it lessen the extent to which we can hold him responsible for what he did?

It is well known – and we have recent examples – of how easily understanding in one sense tips over into understanding in another and much less healthy sense: the sense of excusing or condoning. In this domain some things can get to slide by which shouldn’t be allowed to. Example: In the appropriate circumstances, anyone will become a killer (torturer, etc). Not true – although many will, and we need to understand the pressures and the temptations, the better to fight against them should we ever find ourselves in such circumstances. Example: In such-and-such conditions I, too, might have done that. It should not be said! Yes, understand that, as human and fallible, we all might have or might. Understand what sorts of thing might lead us there. But if what we’re talking about is the wilful destruction of innocent human beings, we have all to say: No, I would not. Or (at least) I hope I would not. To say that we would is to make it more likely, should the relevant circumstances arise, that we will, rather than fighting against it.

13 thoughts on “On ‘understanding’ evil

  1. Norman, I’m not sure I can agree with your detached assessment that those who actively participated in mass murder on behalf of totalitarian regimes were just “normal” people. The brutal estimates of civilians killed by the most culpable regimes during the 20th century are eloquent testimony as to what, on the evidence, seems to be an inevitable concomitant of overly-prescriptive socialist regimes: http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/20TH.HTM

    As best I can judge, the road to mass killing by category started with Stalin’s policy, announced in this speech in December 1929: “we must smash the kulaks, eliminate them as a class” – from: http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/111stalin.html

    The methods employed in that case were fairly crude – mostly starvation in the Ukraine famine of 1932/3 and there seems to be some uncertainty about just how many millions died in consequence. However, what has always sent a chill down my spine are the reminders of the carefull planning and engineering of mass extermination in the Third Reich, which became part of its Final Solution.

    Almost in a minor key, a documentary programme on BBC2, some years back, unfolded the detailed notes, kept by some highly literate French bureaucrat, of transporting arrested jews in occupied France in covered road freight trucks where the engine exhaust fumes were channelled from the engine into the rear compartment. The writer evidently regarded it as a special achievement for a trip if the human cargo in the rear could be delivered dead on arrival. If the journey was too short, that wasn’t possible, so the writer engaged in a series of experiments with succsssive cargos to establish the minimum journey length to accomplish his objective. It requires a special mindset to do that with complete detachment and then compile notes in a logbook on the duration of the route and the outcome.

  2. Bob, It’s not my assessment; or not only my assessment. It’s the conclusion of a huge volume of research and writing by many scholars, which I’m merely summing up. At the same time, as I said in the post to which this one is a follow-up, the ‘normality’ thesis bothers me; and so far as I can tell from what you write, it bothers me for the same sort of reason it bothers you. That’s what I was saying in the earlier post. The thesis states a generalization in social psychology; but it is one-sided in leaving out (or in not sufficiently emphasizing) the moral dimension: that people who perpetrate these great evils have crossed a line, away from normality and into making themselves into monsters. We should try to understand the circumstances and the impulses that may have got them there, but we should not understand the choices they made; we should be horrified by them.

  3. I’m afraid I do have to imagine that in some circumstances I could produce great acts of evil. Of course, I would not be I then.

    Given thge very narrow range of human genetic composition, I have to assume that the perpetrators of such monstrous acts are biological as good as identical to me. I have to assume that if I had been raised on the American frontier, I could have slaughtered natives for bounty, I could have bombed Dresden or Conventry – all things *I* wouldn’t dream of doing being me now.

    I have to accept this because I have to accept that the I I am now could nto have existed if I had not gone to unviersity, if I had not moved from my home town, etc. I look back at my familly, at what I would have been on Teeside 100 years ago, and realise how I am shaped by history.

    That said, the difference is between me knowing I wouldn’t be me if I did these things, and not knowing/acknowledging that. But then, I am even now merely the retroactive justification for my own acts…

  4. Doesn’t Arendt say somewhere that the perpetrators of extraordinary evil are beyond punishment, and that though we’re justified in executing them, this isn’t in order to punish them, but as a way of refusing to share the world with them? Maybe she thought for similar reasons that they’re beyond normal attributions of responsibility.

  5. Surely the point about the ‘Banality’ theses is that it ignores the motivating and consoling force of ideology. For Arendt, Eichmann was motivated by a pedantic concern that the trains to the camps ran on time, something that lacks all historical foundation.

    The bureaucrats who helped send millions to their deaths were completely committed to what they were doing. Nazi hatred was irrational and was justified and inspired by ideology. The Nazi functionaries were conscious of what they were doing and proud to be doing it. Liberated from any constraints they used modern means (technocratic methods) to achieve anti modern ends (racial superiority). It was the ends they sought which allowed them to rationalise the culling of those ‘unfit’, convinced that what they were doing would make their world a better place.

  6. Reading both posts and all of the comments, it seems that the most important issues raised are, could it happen again? and is there anything we can do to prevent it?

    Recall that the Holocaust occurred in an era when there was something called the “eugenics movement.” Many although not all of the proponents of eugenics were entirely sincere in their belief in the appropriateness of conscious manipulation of the human gene pool. See:

    http://www.georgetown.edu/research/nrcbl/scopenotes/sn28.html

    and

    http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/eugenics/

    for background information. I do not know about the scope and popularity of eugenics in continental Europe in the 1920’s and 30’s; but I know that it was popular in the USA, to an extent that is hardly credible now. For example, in 1918 there was a proposal to add a diagnosis of “social inadequacy to the 1920 Federal Census. This would have created a registry of all citizens deemed to be “socially inadequate.”

    It may be that a prerequisite for another holocaust would be a resurgence in such a beleif system as eugenics, along with a pseudoscientific basis and a suitably charismatic proponent.

    This, I should think, would argue strongly for an insistence on the part of all scientists that their work not be subverted for political purposes.

  7. It HAS happened again! Look at Cambodia, or Iraq up until American/Allied intervention less than a year ago!

    When people, NORMAL PEOPLE, are denied access to ‘normal’ communications channels, they can be led to believe they are suffering an isolated case. Couple this with brutal shows of strength, with ‘abnormal’ communications which share the message ‘if you betray our leaders, our leaders will rape/imprison/kill YOU!’, as was done in Iraq and USSR and Cambodia and socialist states elsewhere, and we’re faced again with the banality of evil: normal, wannabe-good people are forced into situations where they fear for their own lives (for good reason) and partake in evil done to others, that they preserve themselves momentarily.

    This is, however, in marked contrast to the pogroms visited on Baha’i martyrs since 1844.

  8. Hi again Norman,

    The point I think is not whether we should excuse the perpetrators, thatidea, personally speaking, has never entered my head. (Although you would be right in asking: what should be our attitude to Bradey and Hindley? Once you let psychology in……..what happens?).

    Actually, I find a strange similarity between this topic, and the debate I had with ‘Laura’ over the Parmalat scandal: to what extent are we all complicit? This I take it is Arendt’s strong point. The hard-and-fast division between the perpetrators and the mere spectators breaks down once you realise that evil, all too often, is itself banal.

  9. I like to putter around out in the garden in the early spring; weeding the radishs, setting the onions, prunning the orchard. One of the things that truely astounds me is the topiary arts. Isn’t it likely that the ‘seed’ of the immoral acts these social monsters do towards others, they first did to themselves? A nip here, a bent stem there, a forced transplanting over there and shortly the ethics are transformed into something alien for social interaction. Perhaps the appearance of being ‘normal’ is a projected understanding, since these subjects have appear to have surrendered their humanity long ago. Rather like me saying that a flower is ‘pretty’ or my dog is ‘smart’. The flower ‘is’ what it ‘is’, hence even dandelions can be thought of as pretty flowers; and my ‘smart’ dog can be thought of as supper my some. So, while I marvel at the art of forcing an apple tree to grow up the side of a brick wall, another see’s only firewood.

  10. Eye Opener,

    I agree with what you said about the use of terror in creating holocausts, but I think you only have half the story. These governments, or at least the really effective ones, do not say only “We’ll rape, torture, and kill you if you don’t participate in our genocide.” They also say, “Look at these filthy subhumans. Not only are they not like us, they could pollute our bloodline or kill us if we don’t get them first.” In other words, they use the carrot of solidarity and superiority as well as the stick of terror.

  11. Many of the comments on this article emphasise genetic make-up as a determinant of behaviour. What counts is inculcated moral standards, learned from parents, religion and society as a whole.

    Evil is evil and people do evil things because they often choose to do so, knowing they should not. Even St Paul was not immune. He said so himself. We are wrong to attribute the choice to being “sick” or genetically deviant.

    Collective institutions make it easier to go along with evil, particularly if the moral base of society and individuals has been fractured. The topsy-turvydom of the German experience of Weimar and the inflation stood conventional wisdom and morality on its head. The wisdom of saving until you could afford something became the wisdom of spending any money as quickly as possible on anything before it became worthless. The laws of the currency reform tended to favour corporations at the expense of personal savings. The thrifty, moral, forward-looking lower middle class was particularly affected.

    Yet it all comes back to the individual’s response and choice. “People like us don’t do things like that” was the British feeling at the time when Nazi atrocities became known- probably right in general. Now I don’t think so. Situational ethics has done to us morally what defeat in war and utter chaos and beggary did to Germany.

    When our children were at school, they asked me to give them a letter so that they could go on an outing with friends. When I said I was not telling lies for this, they were puzzled. Other parents were doing it. I hope that the resulting lecture put them right but obviously my example and principles had not percolated through sufficiently for them to realise this was just not done in our family.
    You only have to think of the Gas Board official who recently failed to pass on to Social Services the name of an old couple who had been cut off “because it would contravene the Data Protection Act” to realise how close we are the “official” German mentality which just stamped the papers and got on with the job of “resettling” the Jews.

  12. Many of the comments on this article emphasise genetic make-up as a determinant of behaviour. What counts is inculcated moral standards, learned from parents, religion and society as a whole.

    Evil is evil and people do evil things because they often choose to do so, knowing they should not. Even St Paul was not immune. He said so himself. We are wrong to attribute the choice to being “sick” or genetically deviant.

    Collective institutions make it easier to go along with evil, particularly if the moral base of society and individuals has been fractured. The topsy-turvydom of the German experience of Weimar and the inflation stood conventional wisdom and morality on its head. The wisdom of saving until you could afford something became the wisdom of spending any money as quickly as possible on anything before it became worthless. The laws of the currency reform tended to favour corporations at the expense of personal savings. The thrifty, moral, forward-looking lower middle class was particularly affected.

    Yet it all comes back to the individual’s response and choice. “People like us don’t do things like that” was the British feeling at the time when Nazi atrocities became known- probably right in general. Now I don’t think so. Situational ethics has done to us morally what defeat in war and utter chaos and beggary did to Germany.

    When our children were at school, they asked me to give them a letter so that they could go on an outing with friends. When I said I was not telling lies for this, they were puzzled. Other parents were doing it. I hope that the resulting lecture put them right but obviously my example and principles had not percolated through sufficiently for them to realise this was just not done in our family.
    You only have to think of the Gas Board official who recently failed to pass on to Social Services the name of an old couple who had been cut off “because it would contravene the Data Protection Act” to realise how close we are the “official” German mentality which just stamped the papers and got on with the job of “resettling” the Jews.

  13. I was 11 years old when Pres. Reagan was shot, and at elementary school at the time. Another kid had a transistor radio, and the class listened to the reports. One student in particular, when he heard the news report was so happy he danced and clapped with glee at the prospect of Reagan dying. Personally I didn’t have any great feeling about it until I saw how happy this student (and others) were about someone they didn’t know getting murdered (they hoped). First I was shocked, then surprised because my teacher was smiling at the dancing students antics, which encouraged others, and then I was disgusted. As the celebration went on I became ashamed with myself for saying nothing and doing nothing, but afraid of the teachers authority, I remained silent.

    Was the child or teacher evil? Of a species of corrupt, perhaps, but evil? Well… given the chance, the woman and the boy had already dehumanized “the other”, and would stoop to truely evil deeds in the right circumstances. Banal? I think not. I was the banal one, which is why I’m still ashamed.

    To be confronted with what you believe in your heart to be unjust (evil as well) and to not act is the stain. For the various species of perpetuator there is only one burden in the end, and it isn’t what they must pay for their role in the evil, for that burden is theirs, not ours. Our burden is what we did or didn’t do upon realizing our own role (if any).

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