Sunday, October 21, 2018

‘The Banality of Evil’ – IV

Evil is never intended as evil. Indeed, the contradiction inherent in all evil is that it originates in the desire to eliminate evil.  – James P. Carse in 'Finite and Infinite Games' 

I was shocked by this report that there is brisk sales of Mein Kampf in Delhi with some management students seeing it as "a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it".  Young people seem to crave success (whatever it means) without bothering about the means employed to achieve it. If education is only about learning skills at the cost of basic human values then there is something rotten at the core of modern education. Arendt writes in Eichmann in Jerusalem about Eichmann's chief motivation that made him mistake a demagogue for a demigod:
What he fervently believed in up to the end was success, the chief standard of "good society" as he knew it. Typical was his last word on the subject of Hitler …Hitler, he said, "may have been wrong all down the line, but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up from lance corporal in the German Army to Führer of a people of almost eighty million. . . . His success alone proved to me that I should subordinate myself to this man." 
His conscience was indeed set at rest when he saw the zeal and eagerness with which "good society" everywhere reacted as he did. He did not need to "close his ears to the voice of conscience," as the judgment has it, not because he had none, but because his conscience spoke with a "respectable voice," with the voice of respectable society around him.
Within a couple years of Hitler coming to power, he was hailed as a great national statesman. He made rousing peace speech - "Germany needs peace and desires peace," "We recognize Poland as the home of a great and nationally conscious people," "Germany neither intends nor wishes to interfere in the internal affairs of Austria". The massive rearmament program had removed unemployment and eliminated the initial resistance of the working class. So what if Jews were being discriminated against? The economy was doing well, right?

Although Eichmann had been doing the jobs in connection with the Final Solution that were being assigned to him, he had harboured some doubts till some point. But then he found at a conference all the elites of the Third Reich ‘vying and fighting with each other for the honor of taking the lead in these "bloody" matters’. He says, "At that moment, I sensed a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling, for I felt free of all guilt." Who was he to judge? Who was he "to have [his] own thoughts in this matter"? Arendt adds grimly, ‘Well, he was neither the first nor the last to be ruined by modesty.’

There were physicians, engineers, military leaders, etc. who were in support of the Nazis. Many prominent scientists and engineers built the Nazi war machine and helped Hitler to come close to world domination. German physicists and engineers built solid- and liquid-fuel rockets, worked on developing an atomic bomb, invented nerve gases such as sarin, produced a cruise missile (the V-1), and much more. Ferdinand Porsche (the founder of the company that makes Porsche sports cars) worked enthusiastically for the Nazis. He designed the Volkswagen Beetle, which was intended by Hitler to be a “people’s car.” Werner Heisenberg (one of the giants of quantum physics who discovered the ‘uncertainty principle’) was director of Germany's nuclear-fission research project.

The ethologist Konrad Lorenz was a card-carrying National Socialist and he actively participated in Nazi activities.  Doctors tested new drugs on the prisoners, presenting the results to a scientific conference. The Nazis poured resources into medicine, increasing doctors' pay, setting up new health care facilities for "Aryan" citizens and by 1939, around two thirds of all German doctors had some connection or other with the Nazi Party. Nazi racial hygienists were among the top professionals in their fields.

Academics in every field gave support to the Nazi regime.  Many university faculty used party membership as a method of advancing their careers. How easy it was to set the conscience of the Jews' neighbors at rest is best illustrated by the official explanation of the deportations given in a circular issued by the Party Chancellery in the fall of 1942: "It is the nature of things that these, in some respects, very difficult problems can be solved in the interests of the permanent security of our people only with ruthless toughness".

For Nazi operations in Hungary, there were protests from neutral countries and from the Vatican. The Papal Nuncio, though, thought that it should be explained that the Vatican's protest did not spring "from a false sense of compassion". Arendt comments that it was ’a phrase that is likely to be a lasting monument to what the continued dealings with, and the desire to compromise with, the men who preached the gospel of "ruthless toughness" had done to the mentality of the highest dignitaries of the Church.’

In short, the most educated, privileged and respected people were Nazi sympathizers. There has been no evil in history that has failed to find support among many of the great and the good who will find myriad ways to rationalize it as essential for national progress and morally justified. The cleverer the people, the cleverer the justifications. A result of modern higher education seems to be to dull the sense of moral outrage while internalizing simplistic concepts like 'maximising rational utility' which are applicable to  a species known only to economists. The Supreme Court once said that education helps people distinguish between right and wrong. The evidence doesn't support the statement. Arendt writes:
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together for it implied - as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels - that this new type of criminal, who is in actual act hostis generis humani, commits his crime - under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

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