Wednesday, September 19, 2007

SS Soldiers Have Feelings Too!

I've cross-posted at

I have always been a fan of Hannah Arendt.

I have not always, however, been a fan of the "banality of evil" argument. I get it--we are all capable of evil. I agree with that. But when applied to the "logic" of the Holocaust, I think the argument becomes problematic and potentially even transgressive. By saying that anyone could have been capable of the atrocities committed by Nazis and their sympathizers during World War II, we also, whether we intend it or not, minimize the extent to which each individual is responsible for his or her own behavior. We cut the perpetrators a bit of slack by implicitly suggesting that they only did what anyone else would've been equally capable of.

My point: okay, yeah, maybe it could've been anybody, but it wasn't. Each person who contributed in any way to the destruction of Jews and others during the Holocaust is individually responsible. The "it could have been anybody" argument is dangerous because it lessens the degree to which we are all responsible for our actions. And this goes for any genocide or act of violence--not just the Holocaust.

But then . . . there are times when I want to re-think this position.

Today there's a piece in the NYT about a letter received by a young archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The letter, written by a former US Army Intelligence officer, contained photographs of Auschwitz he had found 60 years ago in Germany.

It's not uncommon for someone to send old photos from the Holocaust to the museum, but these particular pictures depict something that is not often seen.

. . . a scrapbook of sorts of the lives of Auschwitz's senior SS officers that was maintained by Karl Hocker, the adjutant to the camp commandant. Rather than showing the men performing their death camp duties, the photos depicted, among other things, a horde of SS men singing cheerily to the accompaniment of an accordianist, Hocker lighting the camp's Christmas tree, a cadre of young SS women frolicking and officers relaxing, some with tunics shed, for a smoking break. . . . The album also contains photos of Josef Mengele, the camp doctor notorious for participating in the selections of arriving prisoners and cruel medical experiments. These are the first authenticated pictures of Mengele at Auschwitz . . .

Museum curators have avoided describing the album as something like "monsters at play" or "killers at their leisure." Ms. Cohen said the photos were instructive in that they showed the murderers were, in some sense, people who also behaved as ordinary human beings. "In their self-image, they were good men, good comrades, even civilized," she said.

I still don't like the "banality of evil" argument, but needless to say, these kinds of pictures give it a lot more credibility.

I highly suggest watching the slideshow here (turn your speakers on for the audio) -- it's only around two minutes long.


Casey said...

Good post, Monica.

I think the strength of that banality-of-evil argument lies not in its treatment of the perpetrators of a specific evil, but rather insofar as it forces each of us to ask whether we could have done the same.

I agree that minimizing the extent to which an individual is responsible does little good -- but single-minded focus on individual transgression teaches us nothing: once the individual perpetrators are gone (i.e., dead or brought to justice), the danger is gone. It's necessary to point at the third reich, but when they are all gone, the threat that they embodied might remain in a different place, at a different time, in different circumstances.

We tend to think of ourselves as separate from, rather than living in, history. I find it more eye-opening to ask myself: where was I in 1861? In 1933? In 1941?

Any argument that leads to statements like this--"Back then, people X were terrible, but now we are more enlightened--may blind us to our own culpability.

Obviously, all of this requires a balance -- it is worthwhile to point out the unethical acts of others, but only if we are honest about our own unethical acts.

(see my recent post on "Criticism, Literature, and Forgiveness")

Adam Shprintzen said...

Hey Monica,

I saw this article in print, though it isn't accessible online (well, it isn't for non-members), but check out this week's New Republic for...

Chag sameach, hope all is well in Indiana. You definitely have to come visit us in Chicago soon (I actually just met Francois last night).