Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

August 21, 2006

The Banality of Evil

Filed under: — Different River @ 4:22 pm

With apologies to Hannah Arendt, here’s this telling quote from a panel discussion on antisemitism:

Ella Ringens-Reiner:“Those who actively approved of the mass murder — were people who conformed to the common picture of the SS men. They were sadists, the brutal criminals, organized, legalized, and dressed in uniform.”

“Worse, because more dangerous, were the people in their everyday life, and frequently, in their dealings with prisoners, were quite kindly, looked normal, and behaved like any other average citizen — and who were pleased with the mass murder, without any deeper emotion, simply because it was an opportunity for getting a pigskin bag or gold watch which they could never have afforded to buy. Among them were people little concerned with National Socialism … and yet belonging to it heart and soul — indeed, with fanaticism — out of their joy at the annihilation of the Jews.

“They were drab little people who would never have been conspicuous if no occasion for extraordinary behavior had not offered to them. … In normal living conditions they would have had their coating of civilization, and their coating would not even have been so very thin. Under the impact of steadily repeated slogans … they shook off their coating as if with a jerk, with a certain violence. And then part of their being was unleashed and began to rage.”

“Months after leaving the concentration camp I talked with a young National Socialist woman who, in the official classification, had not been a ‘bad’ Nazi, had never been in a position of power or personal profit, and in private life was a quiet, modest, friendly person. I hoped to move her by my story of Auschwitz camp, and finished by saying that no people had ever inflicted so much evil on another group as the German nation on the Jews. In reply she asked me blithely, ‘Why? Is gassing such a disagreeable death?’”

As it turns out the Muslims esteem the Europeans for the very accomplishment the Europeans would rather not boast about in broad daylight, that is, the Holocaust. When the Malaysian prime minister spoke to the Muslim heads of state last year he drew a standing ovation when he proclaimed that the Europeans murdered six million Jews and you too can achieve success if you improve your education standards.

This is another nugget of data for my theory: In most situations, most people just “go with the flow.” Some people are independent thinkers, and a few people are leaders — but most people will just go along with the crowd, doing great good, or great evil, or in between, depending on what’s going on around them.

Which is one reason why it’s very important to pick good leaders, and to establish and support a culture that makes good behavior fashionable.

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