Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Not Evil, Just Human…

In an amazing find, a video has popped up on Youtube offering a fleeting image of Anne Frank (posted by the official museum, so its verified).

Last year I did the Australian thing backpacking around Europe, and in our travels visited Amsterdam and the Anne Frank House. I hadn’t read the book, but having been quickly devoured a copy just in time for our second WW2 related tour, of the concentration camp Dachau, near Munich in Germany. Visiting the camp brought into focus something I had only begun to glimpse at via Frank’s diary: That the people had to have known what was going on. Germany has made very admirable efforts to account for its past, but the people in the towns and villages around the camps, or in the big cities with soldiers marching by had to have known what was going on. Where they didn’t know, it was because it was easier not to know, it was safer not to know. But it was known. It was, in Rumsfeld’s great phrase a unknown known. Hitler ran a violent, disciplined and utterly totalitarian regime. But his power was still utterly dependent on the will of the people. The people granted him the legitimacy that the legal documents claimed. They accepted the rules and order via their compliance. They were responsible. Anne Frank and her family died after a neighbour turned them in. History (thankfully) has lost the record of who it was. It does however record the names of those who sheltered and protected them, but they were the rare and brave exceptions, in what was seen at the time as one of the most modern countries on earth.

If the concept of natural evil makes effectively zero sense as an explanation for deadly landslides, earthquakes and tsunami’s, the idea of human evil seems to me to make almost no more. The Nazi’s were not the most repressive or violent aka “evil” people that ever lived. They simply brought organised, industrialization, and discipline to the task of genocide. Where human error normally weakens plans both good or bad, the Nazi’s built in redundancies. Redundancies so that the great ovens never had to stop burning, that work didn’t go missing, that camps didn’t run empty. They were expressing views of discrimination and purity that are as old as the human species, and common to the animal kingdom. To call this ‘evil’ is to claim some unwordly or non-human influence. As if it seeped into their blood and minds and thereby excuses them of their acts. The evil man is hardly a man. This may be soothing, but it is only by an act of hiding. Most of the worlds faithful would dismiss as child like the idea of spirits or deamons taking over the body of a person and causing them to act strangely, but calling someone or some group evil is no different.

The Memorial at Dachau

The Memorial at Dachau

We give such acts a name like evil because we don’t want to believe they could be possibly carried out by a human. But this just weakens our ability to understand, and to prevent occurring again. Words like evil are soothing, because they let us name, they let us categorise, they let us define it as something ‘other’ or ‘non-human’. What the Nazi’s did will remain a stain on the human consciousness long after the last co-operator or agent of the regime has died (likely in the next decade). But it was carried out by ordinary men and women, as human as you or I. They lived in houses like ours, had partners like ours, ate the same food and drank the same drinks as we do. They were human, not us, but not something foreign either. Only when we realise this, can we get a proper grasp on the enormity of the Holocaust, of the rise of fascism and totalitarian societies such as in the USSR, Mao’s China or under the Khumer Rouge of Cambodia. Only then can we realise the importance of each of us regularlly committing to try and rid any similar such elements from our own societies, and those around us. To not simply accept and go along with the flow. Each and every one of us believes that if we saw evil emerging we would recognise it and denounce it. But when the United States started torturing suspects after 9/11, how many stepped up to condemn it? How many still excuse it for reasons of circumstance, or refer back to the essential goodness of the Americans, and the horrific intentions and designs of those who seek to attack them in the name of Islam. By making ‘Evil’ a sensible part of your world view, you lose almost all ability to make rational decisions about your own sides actions, about the complexity and shades of grey that this world forces on us, each and every day. The word and idea of evil obscures thought, obscures morality, and gives false comfort when none should be offered. The concept of evil is one of the most morally destructive ideas in human history and ought to be done away with as rapidly as possible.

If you haven’t yet, go read Anne Frank’s Diaries. They’re about the best common sense view of the war possible. Maybe with this amazing footage now up on Youtube a new generation will be inspired to go read her story.

Photo used under a creative commons licence by user edwin.11

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  1. chris

     /  October 6, 2009

    nice post, it’s very easy to treat the actions of individuals as ‘evil’ when you ignore the motives and ideologies behind them.

    Also, great little video there. Amazing that they could work out it was her, do you know how they verified it?

    The camp was certainly a highlight of the trip, in a sombre kind of way.