Sunday, October 7, 2018

‘The Banality of Evil’ – III

Sin and immorality cannot become tolerable because a majority is addicted to them or because the majority chooses to practise them. - Ambedkar

It is rare to find Nazi documents in which such bald words as "extermination," "liquidation," or "killing" occur. The prescribed code names for killing were "final solution," "evacuation" and "special treatment"; deportation was called "resettlement" and "labor in the East". Only among themselves could the "bearers of secrets" talk in uncoded language, and it is very unlikely that they did so in the ordinary pursuit of their murderous duties eg., when their stenographers and other office personnel were present. The function of such clichés and stock phrases is to protect people against reality.

Arendt says that these language rules proved of enormous help in the maintenance of order and sanity in the various widely diversified services whose cooperation was essential in this matter. She says the term "language rule" was itself a code name; it meant what in ordinary language would be called a lie. Eichmann easily accepted and internalized these ‘objective’ Nazi rules which deprived them of their emotional content. The net effect of those rules, Arendt argued, was not to keep the involved officials “ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, ‘normal’ knowledge of murder and lies.” Arendt says about Eichmann:
What he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such. 
None of the various "language rules," carefully contrived to deceive and to camouflage, had a more decisive effect on the mentality of the killers than this first war decree of Hitler, in which the word for "murder" was replaced by the phrase "to grant a mercy death." Eichmann, asked by the police examiner if the directive to avoid "unnecessary hardships" was not a bit ironic, in view of the fact that the destination of these people was certain death anyhow, did not even understand the question, so firmly was it still anchored in his mind that the  unforgivable sin was not to kill people but to cause unnecessary pain.  
He seemed to have an extraordinary capacity to deceive himself. So completely had he accepted the language rules that apart from the specifics of his job, he seemed to be living in an alternate reality. So much so that he once said: "One of the few gifts fate bestowed upon me is a capacity for truth insofar as it depends upon myself." He had once issued a fantastic warning to "future historians to be objective enough not to stray from the path of this truth recorded here". Arendt says that it was 'fantastic because every line of these scribblings shows his utter ignorance of everything that was not directly, technically and bureaucratically, connected with his job, and also shows an extraordinarily faulty memory'.

But the mother of all ‘objective’ statements was made by Eischmann’s lawyer, Servatious, who said that his client was innocent of charges bearing on his responsibility for "the collection of skeletons, sterilizations, killings by gas, and similar medical matters," whereupon the judge interrupted him: "Dr. Servatius, I assume you made a slip of the tongue when you said that killing by gas was a medical matter." To which Servatius replied: "It was indeed a medical matter, since it was prepared by physicians; it was a matter of killing, and killing, too, is a medical matter."

The continuum of destruction often begins with seemingly harmless acts of blaming a group for one’s misfortune or supporting exclusion of this group as a solution to one’s problems, which slowly escalates into dehumanization.  It in necessary to demonize and belittle the nature of those one wants to exploit so they will be called cockroaches, vermin, etc. (The lower an organism is in the evolutionary tree, the less the restraint of the conscience in killing it.)

If the creeping normalization of hate speech and exclusionary ideologies are not opposed at the very beginning because they still seem “below the threshold” of concern to many, it may escalate into unimaginable violence given the ‘right’ kind of leader. The ground, especially in the youth, is fertilized over time to produce evil. The dehumanization of victims slowly but surely dehumanizes the perpetrator too.

Before targeting Jews, the Nazis chose softer targets as the thin end of the wedge. Soon after Hitler took power, the Nazis formulated policy to create an "Aryan master race." People with physical disabilities, mental health needs and chronic illnesses including people with conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and alcoholism were deemed to be damaging to the common good by the Nazi party and were subjected to forced sterilization. The killings began in 1939. The model used for killing disabled people was later applied to the industrialized murder within Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. But the murders were only the end-point of what Auden called ‘a low dishonest decade’.

As the months and the years went by, Eichmann lost the need to feel anything at all. He did not meet anybody in his circle who was opposed to what was happening. An order from Hitler did not have to be in writing  (no document relating to the Final Solution has ever been found; probably it never existed). Thus the Führer's words, his oral pronouncements, were the basic law of the land. Within this "legal" framework, every order contrary in letter or spirit to a word spoken by Hitler was, by definition, unlawful. He was following orders so he was convinced that he was acting as a law-abiding citizen.

In a terrifying act of self-deception, Eichmann believed his inhuman acts were marks of virtue. He would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do. And this slow dulling of emotional  outrage extended to the general population to the point where they started believing that gassing people was actually a humane thing. Arendt illustrates this with a couple of anecdotes. She writes of a female "leader" who told peasants in Bavaria in 1944 about impending defeat about which no good German needed to worry because the Führer "in his great goodness had prepared for the whole German people a mild death through gassing in case the war should have an unhappy end."

She then tells of a woman from the countryside who says,`The Russians will never get us. The Führer will never permit it. Much sooner he will gas us.' No one who heard the statement felt it out of the ordinary. Arendt adds wryly, ‘The story, one feels, like most true stories, is incomplete. There should have been one more voice, preferably a female one, which, sighing heavily, replied: And now all that good, expensive gas has been wasted on the Jews!’ In Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott says:
Utopian aspirations per se are not dangerous. As Oscar Wilde remarked, "A map of the world which does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.’’ Where the utopian vision goes wrong is when it is held by ruling elites with no commitment to democracy or civil rights and who are therefore likely to use unbridled state power for its achievement. Where it goes brutally wrong is when the society subjected to such utopian experiments lacks the capacity to mount a determined resistance.

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