SS-Sturmbannführer Ernst Lerch started adult life working in his father's cafe in Klagenfurt. A secret Austrian Nazi, when war came he served with the infamous Otto Globocnik in the purges of Jews in eastern Europe, being deeply implicated in the extermination programme. After the war, and whilst the British were occupying Kärnten, Lerch sneaked back to more or less openly run the family cafe. Oh, both the Brits and the Austrians tried to prosecute him, but not very hard. A charming schmaltzy character who presided lovingly over the Tanzcafe Lerch whilst tipsy British officers waltzed with dirndl-clad Mädchen. A loved and respected family man, he lived until Tony Blair formed his first government in the UK. A new play here, 'Tanzcafe Treblinka', explores the myriad issues around the astonishing tale of the man implicated in over a million murders.
Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, was of course also Austrian. He was captured in 1970, and in the brief period between incarceration and death was interviewed at length by Gitta Sereny, whose book, Into That Darkness, remains one of the most profound and affecting books I have read. She believes that when he finally allowed himself to admit his guilt, the weight of his evildoing crushed him. His heart attack struck him 19 hours after the admission.
When I search for common characteristics, common backgrounds, amongst these people, not monsters of horror but ordinary, dreary men - Arendt's 'Banality of Evil' - I find unquestioning conformity, a willingness to believe, respect for bureaucracy and hierarchy, trust in the establishment, unwillingness to voice contrary opinions, dogmatism and, yes, limited emotional intelligence. All the characteristics, in other words, that you and I spend our time on the interweb decrying, destroying and combating, whether we find them in individuals or institutions.
Every illiberal bully who wants to ban and control thought and language, to restrict personal choice, to subvert democracy, to limit people's control over their own lives, to coerce and twist and emotionally blackmail, has the potential to grow into an Ernst Lerch or Franz Stangl if allowed enough oxygen. Our work in checking them can never be done.