I remember as a young child having trouble sleeping for weeks after reading in the newspaper about local squirrels that had been found to be infected with the plague or rabies or something. I’d seen squirrels, even fed them, patiently waiting for them to come take nuts out of my hands, and it terrified me that their seeming harmlessness had hidden a potentially fatal danger (that my parents had failed to protect me from and that I had only learned about in the paper). Being wee, I became frightened of malicious squirrels hiding under the bed or coming through the windows at night to attack me.
My fear of the Nazis was at first of a similar irrational bent — but more easily countered. The Nazis were on a scale between squirrels (which certainly existed, but which I was assured weren’t generally menacing) and wicked witches (which were undeniably malevolent, particularly toward children, but which didn’t actually exist) — the Nazis were real and evil, but no longer existed, and so I didn’t have to fear them.
And so I came to see the problem at first as something that was confined to the (to me) distant past, and that was essentially a battle between a group of evil people and a group of good people, and the good ones won, end of story.
One of my earliest attempts at creative writing was called “The Japs! They’ve Found Us!” and is part love-story, part action-adventure and centers around a tunnel escape from a Japanese P.O.W. camp. It was based almost entirely on the understanding of World War Two I had gleaned from my collection of Sgt. Rock comic books (which, comics though they were, did occasionally confront some ambiguities, ironies and tragedies of war that helped to break down my early naïveté, that is when they weren’t occasionally introducing super-robots or caped heroes in tights onto the battlefields of World War Two).
As I grew older, I came to understand that the evil I feared wasn’t an aggressive race of inhuman slant-eyes (nice to get our crudest bigotries out of the way early), or a strangely-moustached set of men in funny pants and jackboots from a country that existed in black-and-white. It started to dawn on me that the evil was still around, and that if it came to where I lived, there’s a good chance it would come speaking my language, handing out gold stars to good boys, and looking far more respectable and civilized than its victims. And I came to understand that I needed to learn how not to be one of the victimizers as much as I needed to learn how to keep from being one of the victims.
Recent history had given liberal adults a wariness and a respect for civil disobedience as well, and this had trickled down to me. The civil rights movement was largely responsible for this, although Deep Throat’s Watergate leaks and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers were also examples of individuals defying authority for (what my parents and many teachers certainly believed to be) good reasons.
When I was born, a delusional and aggressive lunatic was in the White House, the country was at war, and the state security apparatus was out-of-control and was being used to silence and intimidate critics of the country’s war policy. An unconventionally conservative adventure movie actor was California’s governor. People wrote op-ed pieces about America’s imperial ambitions — although in those days they usually meant this rhetorically, and they considered it a bad thing.
Today, some things have changed, but I’m still wrestling with Nazis and still using books to help me along — this week with Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
Eichmann, as I discussed , went on trial in Jerusalem for Nazi crimes against humanity in after having been apprehended from his refuge in South America. Eichmann was one of the Reich’s experts on the “Jewish problem” and on the practicalities of implementing its solution. If you needed to get a bunch of Jews concentrated into a ghetto, Eichmann could help. If you then needed to get those Jews into freight cars and transported to Auschwitz and sorted out properly, he’d make sure you got the right number of cars and the tracks were clear.
He’s a monster of history, and after his capture and during his testimony he’s all the more infuriating because he’s so relentlessly oblivious. He doesn’t seem to have any grasp, except when he occasionally resorts to cliché, of the scale, or even of the sort of activity he was engaged in. He uses the “I was only following orders” excuse, but not in the form in which it might have made sense (if I didn’t follow orders, I’d be shot) but in a shameless exhibition of moral surrender (I followed orders because I felt that completely replacing my conscience with the Führer’s will was the best and safest thing I could do under the circumstances).
Arendt’s subtitle is “a report on the banality of evil” (by which she means this grotesque obliviousness — Eichmann didn’t seem to even care about the evil he was doing; if Hitler’s Final Solution had been to cover Poland with racquetball courts, he would have just as cheerfully taken part) — but it reads more like “Hannah Arendt, concurring in part and dissenting in part in The People of Israel v. Eichmann.” Not that the language is formal and tedious legalese — far from it — but that the tone resembles a legal opinion. She’s reporting on the trial, she insists, and so she’s interested in judging the case (and the judgment) against Eichmann, which she finds legally and logically flawed (the prosecutor comes off as a grandiose buffoon, the defense lawyer inept, the applied standards of justice incoherent, the judges honorable but prevented by pressure from outside the courtroom from making a clean and worthy decision).
But although in the epilogue she retreats from some criticism (before her book was published, it had appeared in The New Yorker, and even before that people were criticizing what she was rumored to have written) by saying that she meant only to comment on the trial itself and the evidence raised in the trial without addressing larger issues the trial might have suggested, this is disingenuous. Some of her conclusions are controversial and challenging and more far-reaching.
In the course of reviewing the evidence and the greater historical record it corresponds to, she explains the bureaucratic apparatus that accompanied the Final Solution — the overlapping and competing bureaucracies as it turns out — and how they accomplished their duties in different parts of Nazi-occupied and -allied Europe as the war ran its course and as Nazi policy about the “Jewish problem” changed.
One of the things she finds is that by and large, the Nazis expected more opposition to their plans than they encountered in the countries they occupied. They instead often found a country eager or at least willing to turn over its Jews and a Jewish leadership eager to accept ultimately empty promises and flimsy concessions in return for their cooperation.
Furthermore, where popular resistance was encountered it often was at least somewhat successful in discouraging the Nazis from carrying out mass exterminations. A case in point was Denmark, of which Arendt says:
One is tempted to recommend the story as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence.
It was not just that the people of Denmark refused to assist in implementing the Final Solution, as the peoples of so many other conquered nations had been persuaded to do (or had been eager to do) — but also, that when the Reich cracked down and decided to do the job itself it found that its own personnel in Denmark had been infected by this and were unable to overcome their human aversion with the appropriate ruthlessness, as their peers in more cooperative areas had.
(“Students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action” can indeed learn from the story of occupied Denmark, as told in Gene Sharp’s books on nonviolent action and elsewhere.)
Arendt quotes a German Army physician who had witnessed some atrocities and who, after the war, tried to explain why it had been so difficult for him to oppose what he saw:
“Anyone who had seriously protested or done anything against the killing unit would have been arrested within twenty-four hours and would have disappeared. It belongs among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don’t permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr’s death for their convictions. A good many of us might have accepted such a death. The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity. It is certain that anyone who had dared to suffer death rather than silently tolerate the crime would have sacrificed his life in vain. This is not to say that such a sacrifice would have been morally meaningless. It would only have been practically useless. None of us had a conviction so deeply rooted that we could have taken upon ourselves a practically useless sacrifice for the sake of a higher moral meaning.” Needless to add [Arendt adds], the writer remains unaware of the emptiness of his much emphasized “decency” in the absence of what he calls a “higher moral meaning.”
As Arendt points out, such protests were not necessarily “practically useless” at all:
[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.