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The Banality of Evil (1 of 6): Asma Abbas

Video from Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College

Banality of evil is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in the title of her 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.[1] Her thesis is that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.

Explaining this phenomenon, Edward S. Herman has emphasized the importance of "normalizing the unthinkable." According to him, "doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on 'normalization.' This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as 'the way things are done.'

Ordinary Evil and the Factory That Made Corpses

"Today, as debates continue about the ethics of killing Osama Bin Laden, another man was found guilty of being an accomplice for 28,000 murders. John Demjanjuk was a guard in the Nazi death camp at Sobibor, a place where an estimated 250,000 Jews were gassed during World War II.

Demjanjuk is now 91 years old, a retired autoworker from Ohio. He served in the Russian military during the war. After being captured by the Nazis, he claims to have spent the remainder of the war in prison camps. But meticulous Third Reich bureaucrats recorded otherwise. He actually entered SS training and served as a guard at Sobibor, a relatively common fate for foreigners captured in combat.

He moved to the States in 1958, gaining U.S. citizenship by saying that he was a POW during the war. In 1977, he was falsely identified as Ivan the Terrible, a particularly notorious prison guard at Treblinka. He was stripped of his citizenship in 1981, and a few years later, extradited to Israel. The convictions were overturned in 1993 in light of new evidence. His citizenship was restored in 1998, until 2002, when evidence again linked him to a death camp, this time in Sobibor. After years of appeals, he was deported and extradited to Germany, where he stood trial for his role in facilitating mechanized death.

These cases remind us that radical evil endures in the world. The gravity of evil in the human heart has led to genocide again and again in human history. It’s the aspiration of Al Qaeda, and it’s the legacy of Nazi Germany.

Terribly Normal

Bin Laden’s evil is monstrous and foreign. He lived a monk-like existence devoted to bringing fear and death to his perceived enemies. Equally foreign is the world of death camps, where the machinery and efficiency of the industrial revolution was put to work in manufacturing murder. But the great horror of the Holocaust is not only seen in the victims; it’s also in the SS soldier, whose complicity in such crimes made them possible.

The watching world wants to paint Demjanjuk and others like him as a maniac, another Bin Laden, bent upon murder. It helps to explain the gravity of the atrocity, and gives us at least some license to be dismissive of history. But aside from his time in the SS, it appears Demjanjuk lived a fairly ordinary life. He married and had children, who now stand by his side and see him as a victim in the current trial. His role in the camps fell upon him. He was captured and forced into a situation where he could either serve in the army of the nation that conquered his or become another victim in the prisons. He was just a soldier, just doing his job, showing up at a factory that made corpses..." from the article: Ordinary Evil and the Factory That Made Corpses (May 2011)

The Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt and 'The Final Solution' (link)


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