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Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The banality of evil

Danny Finkelstein's natural repulsion in a Times piece at the idea of describing John Demjanjuk as a victim is perhaps understandable but perhaps also too simplistic.

Germany, like the UK at time, had the death penalty on the statute book, and throughout the war undertook the judicial murder (by Guillotine) of German citizens just as we did here (by Hanging). Putting people to death per se was not seen as wrong, unjust or illegal in either Germany or the UK. Statutes defined capital offences, courts passed judgement and those at the bottom end of the criminal justice system, the policemen and prison guards, carried out the confinements and executions.

Indeed, all societies with law enforcement agencies depend on a certain kind of person to fill the ranks; those with a respect for authority, those who find it easy to defend the supremacy of Law, those who don't question too deeply the moral legitimacy of their orders and instructions. In a free and democratic society, with local rather than State control over law enforcement agencies, such human qualities are not a bad thing, and recruiting such people, as we do now, into the ranks of the police and prison services puts the most suitable sort of people into the job. But only because they have others standing over them who do scrutinise, question and poke at the morality and legitimacy of the legal framework within which they operate.

Franz Stangle, Commandant at Sobibor extermination camp where Demjanjuk worked, started life as an ordinary Austrian policeman. After Anschluss, a law was passed allowing the compulsory euthanasia of the severely mentally and physically handicapped without hope of recovery. The law required the signatures of two doctors and a court order, and the subjects were (at first) 'humanely' killed by lethal injection. This was the T-4 programme, and Stangl was put in charge of carrying out the judicial killings.

Now this was the point at which we expect a law enforcement official to cavil; we can see the difference between guillotining a rapist and euthanising a paraplegic in a permanent coma, why couldn't Stangl? Was it because he was inherently evil (as Finkelstein would have it) or was it because he was, as just an ordinary policeman, too overwhelmed by central State authority and legitimacy to question? And when the method of euthanasia changed from medically-administered lethal injection to Carbon Monoxide gas why didn't he question then? Many policemen did - after their first T-4 killings they requested return to normal duties, and were not penalised or persecuted.

Finkelstein has the answer, I think, in the Milgram experiments. Some subjects turned the voltage knobs right up to 'lethal' - not brainwashed Nazis, but preppy American college kids. Some individuals are just programmed to accord a legitimacy to authority that others are not. Are they evil? Or victims, their 'flaw' misused and exploited by those in authority above them?

This isn't an obscure debate about the events of sixty years ago, but the most cogent and compelling reason to take great care of the way in which we design and develop our own system of justice and law enforcement. It is the reason I am unequivocally opposed to judicial murder, particularly if imposed and determined by a remote central State. Once you let them start killing, once the initial hurdle is cleared, then broadening the 'offences' of those to be killed becomes much easier. It may start with paedophiles but could rapidly include those caught with illegal firearms. Once the process and apparatus of judicial murder is in place, once the executioner has tasted his first legal blood, then it becomes so much easier to expand the process.

It's also the reason I'm unequivocally opposed to a national police force under central State control. As much as we need those individuals with character traits that make them suitable for law enforcement work, we need also to keep them under close control and not to allow others to exploit those traits against our own interests. If Demjanjuk represents evil, it is a banal and unremarkable evil, an ordinary human evil. And it's everywhere amongst us.


Weekend Yachtsman said...

Thank you for an interesting and humane post.

Aleksandr Isaievitch has a phrase that covers this thinking to some extent. He quotes many of his ex-KGB interlocutors as saying "if you had been there, you would have done exactly the same".

Perhaps not everyone, and perhaps not in exactly the same way, but which of us can confidently stand in judgment and say "I would have resisted them"?

This old man should be left to die in his own way.

Budgie said...

Raedwald said: "I am unequivocally opposed to judicial murder, particularly if imposed and determined by a remote central State."

Me too. Now, here, old people are routinely killed off. How? When an old lady has a stroke that is 'considered' by the consultant as terminal, she can be put on a medically approved 'nil by mouth' regime (it seems to depend in which NHS Trust area the victim resides).

If she is lucky she will be on a drip, so won't dehydrate to death. But she will starve to death, where the actual stroke (or other complications) do not kill her first.

This is not as off topic as it sounds because the whole Nazi death ideology started with getting rid of those too feeble to cope.

Umbongo said...

I may be wrong but in my understanding the Ukrainians and Balts (and other non-Germans) who did much of the dirty work in the extermination camps were volunteers. Of course, they may have been presented with a choice between that and fighting on the eastern front against the Russians (which many, apparently, opted to do). Weekend Yachtsman's quote from Solzhenitsyn is apposite in that the choices faced by those living under nazism or socialism are not enviable.

In similar circumstances most opt for a quiet life (if that is on offer) and avoid membership of the KGB or the SS or other grubby supporting organisations of the regime. It took a lot of guts not to join the Hitler Youth, for instance. However, membership of the KGB and the SS (not the Waffen SS) was difficult to obtain. Until near the end in Germany only the most loyal of the loyal could enter the SS. Similarly, since the Soviet regime relied on the KGB for its continuation, KGB recruits were also an elite loyal force.

Solzhenitsyn's interrogators were, I bet, "volunteers" in the sense that they opted to do the regime's dirty work since the alternatives were pretty unattractive: however, they weren't, I suspect, actually forced to join the KGB.

Coming back to the "old man": if he did what he is accused of doing then, unless he can prove (difficult, I agree, if not impossible) that he only acted because there was a real or metaphorical gun held to his head, then he should spend his last years either in gaol (or contemplating the scaffold). Many in his position did not become camp guards. God knows what I would have done: I thank my ancestors for creating a country where the choices facing John Demjanjuk have not been posed (yet!). In one sense John Demjanjuk is a victim but not a victim of the nazis: rather, like many of his generation, a victim of history. Apparently, given the choice, he went down a very dark road but a road rejected by many who could have followed him down there.

Jackart said...

A brilliant post.

Krauser said...

It's the same old case of modern morons needing to relearn ancient wisdom.

Milgram had this stuff locked down in 1962 (oh, and check out Zimbardo's prison experiments too). People are so used to the good guy / bad guy dichotomy and all sorts of other pretty lies that they can't get it that normal people will do very evil things when incentivised properly.

Anonymous said...

Based on WW2 most of you would sink a bayonet into someone's belly - with the right training - but officers tended not to carry such a weapon and left it to the 'private' to do this.

Anonymous said...

I fear you have erred in important respects in your interesting piece. Your statement that "a law was passed allowing the euthanasia of the severely [...] handicapped" and, in particular, your reference to the need for a court order are incorrect.

Firstly, no law was passed. As was typical of important measures in the later years of the Third Reich, Hitler's verbal authority alone sufficed, although in this case, unusually, it was subsequently confirmed in a signed note.

Secondly, no court order was required - Hitler despised such formalities - and it was left up to doctors alone to determine the fate of their patients. You are wrong, therefore, to call these "judicial killings", although they were subsequently at least acquiesced in by the Minister of Justice, Franz Guertner.

Your central point - that the authority and legitiacy of the state overwhelmed the capacity of individuals to resist - nonetheless holds good. A judge - one Lothar Kreyssig - who did protest, was simply eased into early retirement.

The matter is dealt with fairly fully in Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler, although there are no doubt more complete accounts to be had.

TDK said...

The switch from mass shootings to gassing was motivated by the reluctance of the Germans to carry them out. famously Himmler was upset by the blood.

Even in the extermination camps the Germans had others do as much of the unpleasant work as possible. I understand they were only required to guard the prisoners to the "showers" and then put the pellets in the vents. After that the bodies were cleared and burnt by other prisoners retained for the task.

It would appear that people are relatively more willing to do harm to others remotely.

There is evidence that Germans who asked to be excused from both processes had their wish granted. It's some comfort that even in the midst of this, some people refused to participate.