It has become unfashionable to talk seriously about Hitler and the Nazis. Unfashionable is of course an unusual word to apply to discussing Hitler and all that he implies. Insensitive, some might say. There’s a sense in some quarters that it shouldn’t be talked about at all because it was a period of events so horrific, so aberrant that it simply cannot be discussed or understood—nothing is appropriate. Conversely, in other places, the sense is rather that this has all been gone over too many times as it is. That it happened a long time ago. That we’ve learned everything there was to learn from it and it could never happen again. In fact, to wonder aloud if it could happen again is likely to attract the withering scorn of pragmatists and hard-nosed realists who have long since moved on and are now engaged in the serious business of taking ideology out of public life and implementing policies based on ‘what works’.
To invoke the Holocaust in discussion today is to invite simultaneous accusations of trivialising and overweening sincerity. This fatigue is best expressed by Godwin’s Law, which asserts that the longer any internet discussion goes on, the more likely it is that someone will invoke Hitler. Once this happens, the discussion is usually declared ‘Godwinned’ and shut down.
If we want to understand the world and the people in it, we cannot ignore the darkest side of humanity.
For all sorts of reasons, that period of history is a painful memory and we would prefer to acknowledge it without having to think about it. In other words, we would like to forget about it. Indeed, the process of social forgetting is well underway. We recall the symbols, the people and the numbers of course. The Swastikas. The yellow stars. Hitler. Stalin. Churchill. Roosevelt. Truman. 60 million dead. 6 million Jews. The World War II mythology lives on too in books, art, movies, stories and games of all kinds.
But how much do we really remember? For instance, it’s hard to imagine any sort of coherent understanding of the twentieth century that doesn’t include nationalism, but it is possible today in some places to be a student of the history of ideas and remain completely ignorant of nationalism as a political force. Furthermore, do we remember that eugenics was not just a Nazi fad but a worldwide preoccupation first championed in the US? Indeed, coerced or compulsory sterilisations were still taking place in the USA as recently as the 1970s.
One of the aims of this publication is to rehabilitate memory. It seems to me that we have forgotten a huge wealth of important things, and, more distressingly, ways of thinking and talking about important things.
One thing in particular we seem to have forgotten about is evil, which has largely been banished from the public discourse. One can still hear the word itself deployed fairly often of course, but almost always simply as a way of explaining away something we don’t understand and don’t want to.
If we want to understand the world and the people in it, we cannot ignore the darkest side of humanity. This it not to deny hope or optimism their essential place, it is simply to acknowledge that for hope and optimism to have meaning, both must spring from a deep awareness of the tragic aspect of humanity.
When it comes to Hitler, our first duty is to remember that he was only one man. Much has been made over the years of Hitler the man, his personal history raked over countless times as if in an attempt to discover the elementary particles that combine to produce a genocidal madman. Presumably this is so we might better be able to identify the next one.
If this is our aim, perhaps we would do better to look at Adolf Eichmann, the man who calmly and expertly organised the efficient transport of hundreds of thousands of Jews to concentration camps where they would subsequently be calmly and efficiently shot, gassed and disposed of en masse.
Eichmann did monstrous things, but he was no monster. Not in the sense we usually imagine, or would like to think. He was a bureaucrat—unimaginative, eager to please, task-focussed, unable to think or speak outside cliches. Indeed, the sheer overwhelming ordinariness of Eichmann, in stark contrast to the crimes that he committed, led Hannah Arendt to coin one of the twentieth century’s most luminous phrases—the banality of evil. Eichmann admitted freely to what he had done but did not seem to grasp the import of it, even afterwards. He was just following orders.
Much of intellectual life in the wake of World War II took place in the shadow of the Holocaust. How could this have happened? How could so many ordinary people have become complicit in such atrocities? Why did no-one stop it? These were bewildering but essential questions.
Some of the answers, when they came, were no less disturbing.
In the 1950s, social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a groundbreaking study on conformism. The confronting implications of Asch’s experiment are such that it still has impact today.
In the meetings where policies are discussed and actions are decided, can we afford to forget this tragic human truth?
Asch’s student, Stanley Milgram, made an even more disturbing contribution to our understanding of human behaviour with his infamous experiment involving obedience to authority.
Milgram’s findings have devastating implications, but of these, their reproducibility is perhaps the most alarming and difficult to accept. Most of us in the enlightened liberal tradition would like to believe that better knowledge and awareness is the best prophylactic for evil. We would like to agree with Socrates that if we truly know the act we are about to commit is a wicked one, we would not commit it. We know of course that wicked acts are committed, but they are committed by other people. Evil people.
That is why the Milgram experiment is so unsettling to watch. It shows, incredibly but unmistakably, that evil is something that we are all capable of, and with unnerving ease. Evil springs out of ordinary situations—all it seems to require is a certain kind of thoughtlessness.
In 2009, the BBC conducted its own instance of Milgram’s experiment for the Horizon program ‘How Violent Are You?’. Here you can see exactly what that sort of thoughtlessness looks like.
Evil is a word we tend to use when we want to explain away something we don’t understand. It’s an aberration. It can’t be made sense of. It’s evil.
This is a spectacularly unhelpful way of looking at things if we wish to do something about the problem of evil.
Consider Anders Breivik, the Norwegian ultra-nationalist who killed 77 people at a political youth camp in 2011. Breivik’s actions were unambiguously evil and to be condemned in the strongest terms. But can they be understood? ‘How did this happen’ is still an essential question, but how willing are we to answer it? Predictably, much of the discussion of Breivik has been focussed on painting him as a dangerous madman, with all the usual cliches being trotted out. But while Breivik is many things, dangerous ranking high among them, it is hard to conclude that he is anything but sane, if by that we mean rational, aware and in full control of his faculties.
He freely admits his actions. He did not enjoy doing what he did. He didn’t want to do it (he had to play loud music throughout the killings to help distance himself from what he was doing). But he had to do it because it was necessary, and he would do it again.
What are we to make of this? Indeed, what can we make of it without an understanding of nationalism as a political force? This is how Breivik explained his actions in his statement to the court:
Norwegian media and prosecutors have argued and will continue to argue that the reasons that I executed the 22.7 attack was an accident and because I was a pathetic and spiteful loser who does not have integrity, does not have dignity or trust, that I am a notorious liar, that I lack morals, I’m crazy and that I therefore should be immediately ignored and forgotten by other cultural conservatives and nationalists in Norway and Europe.
They try to say that I lost my job, that I had father’s desire, a lack of networking, that I am a cruel and insane person, who is only looking for attention to my own person. All of this, they claimed. They also claimed that I am narcissistic, antisocial, psychopathic, that I suffer from germ phobia and put on a face mask daily for many years, I only like red sweaters and that I have an incestuous relationship with my own mother. They also claimed that I am miserable, pathetic, a baby killer, a child killer despite the fact that I am not accused of having killed someone under the age of 14. That I’m a coward, inbred, homosexual, pedophile, necrophilic, racist, sociopath, fascist, Nazi, Zionist and anarchist. All this has been claimed. They also claimed that I am physically and mentally retarded with an IQ of about 80.
[...] The answer is simple: I have implemented the most sophisticated, spectacular, and the most brutal political assassination committed by a militant nationalist in Europe since World War II.
[...] More and more nationalists and conservatives realize as I have realized that the democratic struggle is pointless. It is not possible to win when there is no real freedom of speech, and many more realize this in the coming decades, it is way short of weapons. When peaceful revolution is impossible, violent revolution becomes inevitable. It’s no secret that the opponents of cultural Marxism and multiculturalism have been silenced after World War II.
[...] People who call me evil have misunderstood the difference between brutality and evil. Brutality is not necessarily evil. To call anyone evil assumes you know something about a person’s intentions and motives. It is equally ignorant to call me cruel as to call the U.S. military leaders during World War II evil, who decided that 300,000 Japanese civilians were nuclear bombed.
They did so not because of evil, but because they calculated that an early end to the war would save millions of lives. They killed 300,000 innocent lives, therefore, to perhaps save millions of people. This was out of good intentions and motives, that is goodness and not evil. Although the methods they used were brutal. I and other Islamic militants are using exactly the same logic. If we could force Labor to change immigration policy, and stop the deconstruction and colonization, if we can force them to change direction by executing 70 people, or otherwise help to destroy the multicultural ideology, it will of course contribute so that we do not lose our ethnic group, our Christianity and our culture. This will help prevent a future civil war in Norway, which can result in several hundred thousand dead Norwegians.
[...] And yes, I would have done it again. Because the crime against my people and my culture is a thousand times as barbaric. The implementation of a small barbarism is sometimes necessary to stop a much greater barbarism.
There is genuine moral reasoning going on here. Deeply flawed, abhorrent reasoning, but we cannot afford to ignore it. Here we must modify Socrates’ assertion that nobody would knowingly commit a wicked act—instead we might agree with Mary Midgley that we may knowingly commit a wicked act if we think that in doing so we are aiming at some good.
We may knowingly commit a wicked act if we think that in doing so we are aiming at some good.
It is on this basis that we might approach other similar instances of deeply flawed, abhorrent moral reasoning, such as dropping atomic bombs on more than half a million civilians to achieve peace, or destroying the village to save it. These no doubt were also deeply regrettable actions that were nevertheless thought necessary and we would not hesitate to do again.
Having largely given up on moral absolutes in public discourse (except in situations where they are advantageous), it’s difficult to fit someone like Breivik into the contemporary moral landscape, except by putting him outside of it. It seems just too much to accept for those who believe in tolerance, multiculturalism and progress that Breivik could be both rationally self-possessed and able to do what he did. This is how we end up with awkward moments of tragicomedy like this one, where a sociology professor (acting for Breivik’s defence team no less) tries to explain that Breivik’s tendency to play World of Warcraft makes it difficult for him to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Distinguishing between fantasy and reality is of course a well-known difficulty for sociologists, so perhaps we should not be too harsh on the poor professor. But easy though it is to criticise the naive optimism of progressive liberals, it is no more preferable to succumb to the Hobbesian nightmare, a tradition that asserts that everyone is irredeemably wicked, and, were we freed from the restraints of civilised society, would act on it at the first opportunity. If I am omitting religion from this discussion, it is not out of neglect for its rich tradition of thought on this subject, but only to make the point that the problem of evil is no less real for being put in wholly secular terms.
The Breivik situation is no less uncomfortable for those from the more conservative part of the political and moral spectrum—the hawks, neocons and new breeds of disillusioned nationalists—because in some respects all Breivik has done is put into practice the sort of thinking that they elsewhere keenly espouse. It’s not in these people’s interests to understand Breivik either or to politicise his actions. Could this be why almost no-one can be heard describing Breivik’s crimes as Big-T Terrorism? Or how we are able to observe Andrew Bolt meekly put it down to Breivik having a troubled childhood?
No matter how many times we have gone over it all, it seems we are not yet done with the lessons from World War II—the sort of things that simply shouting ‘Godwinned!’ and moving on encourages us to quickly forget. All that stuff about morality, evil, conformism, obedience to authority etc etc. We still need that stuff, and even to lump it under a grammatical annex is a kind of intellectual barbarism. Et cetera, as Hector reminds us in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, is what the Nazis would’ve said. ◾