Wicked, banal, evil - but is there a bit of Eichmann in all of us?

Could it have happened here? Could your dad have shot women beside a pit in the Forest of Dean?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IF THE Germans had successfully invaded Britain along the south coast, and the Royal family had decamped for Canada, the plan was to hold the panzers along the line of the Thames, with a chain of fortifications called Stopline Red. The rather pitiful little concrete pillboxes that would have sheltered our last-ditch Bren gunners, still stud the river's north bank, from Lechlade down to Staines. They wouldn't have had a prayer.

And if they hadn't, would we have gone the way of France, Holland or Hungary? Would Aryan Brits have flocked to the Anglo division of the Waffen SS? Is it possible to imagine Captain Mainwaring, clearing out the Warmington- on-Sea ghetto, prior to the final solution? Would Corporal Jones have spent his war supervising the crematoria workers at the Maidstone extermination camp, and would there have been a grainy snapshot of Private Pike hanging a would-be escapee in the central square of the compound?

Not us, guv. These seem to be peculiarly un-British crimes, ones that do not suit our national personality, nor our history. We are simply not a nation of haters, of monsters.

This week the German newspaper, Die Welt, has been running excerpts from the journals of Adolf Eichmann, the SS bigwig, who was tried and executed in Israel in 1962. The journals have been in the possession of the Israeli authorities, who have refused to publish them, or pass them over to Eichmann's family.

The Simon Wiesenthal Foundation in Vienna, however, has had a copy of the 1,000-page manuscript for over 30 years. It begins with these words, "Today, 15 years and a day after May 8 1945 [VE Day], I begin to lead my thoughts back to that 19th of March 1906, when - at 5 o'clock in the morning - I entered life on earth in the aspect of a human being." Subsequently, page after page, Eichmann documents his life in pedantic detail, apparently describing his bureaucratic techniques, , h, with tedious completeness.

The peculiarly large transaction that this Austrian former travelling salesman was responsible for was the industrialisation of the genocide of an entire race. As a consequence of Eichmann's work the Jewish populations of whole European countries were rounded up, transported vast distances, robbed even of their teeth and hair, put to death and their bodies burned.

He himself would never have hurt anyone. "In the department I ran," he recalled, "I did not tolerate violence." He hated the crude bullies of the physical bit of the SS, with their foul language. Eichmann himself was a relatively low-key Nazi, who only joined the SS in the first place because his patron, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, (later hanged at Nuremberg) insisted upon it. When he took over the department for Jewish Affairs, he was all for finding the Jews a homeland in Madagascar, or Poland. But, 58 years ago, Eichmann was called into see his boss, Rheinhard Heydrich and told that, "The Fuhrer has ordered the physical extermination of the Jews." "I didn't say anything because there was nothing more to say," Eichmann claimed. "I now lost all joy in my work, all initiative, all interest."

Maybe. But the man later described by Himmler as "the Master", on account of his organising abilities, set to with determination. He got those Jews identified, collected, shipped, gassed and cremated. Yet anyone less like the demonic psychopath Amon Goeth, the SS man who Oskar Schindler dealt with in Poland, would be difficult to imagine. "A bookkeeeper, afraid to ask for a raise," was Wiesenthal's description, adding (amazingly) "there was no motive, no hatred, no Anti-semitism."

So here was an unimpressive little bureaucrat, of no very strong opinion, who regretted once slapping a Jewish doctor across the face, and yet who organised the greatest mass-murder in history. And it was watching this man throughout his trial that led the political and moral philosopher, Hannah Arendt, to write a book - and coin a phrase; "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil."

The banality of evil; the possibility of the worst possible crimes being committed by the most ordinary people. For here was (in Arendt's words), "an average `normal' person, neither feeble-minded, nor indoctrinated, nor cynical, [who] could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong." Hitler was reassuringly demented, with his ramblings and his carpet- eating. Goebbels had no balls at all. But Eichmann was just like anybody, and he'd been responsible for those lines of naked women and children entering Golgotha.

Murder, naturally, is something we wish to pathologise. It is, we demand to believe, the consequence of aberration. Or, at worst, it is an act of pre-social man. In the Hobbesian state of nature, human beings (or, as in the famous ape sequence from the film 2001, our ramapithicene ancestors) enjoy killing. But, carrying with it, as it does, the possibility always of being killed ourselves, we set up structures to repress these natural urges. Only society holds us back.

Others question this pessimism. They see society as something that humans are specifically and biologically designed to create, and which encapsulates a desire for relative harmony and peace. A sense of what we call right and wrong is, except in specific cases, almost inherited.

But the problem with Eichmann is that he fits neither the pessimistic nor the optimistic models. He suggests that, in situations where appalling behaviour is licenced by authority, many of us could kill our neighbour's children. As in Rwanda, for instance. Arendt observed that certain props could not be relied upon to save us from this possibility. "Not ordinary morality," she wrote, "for ordinary decent moral people adapted to Nazism with ease as soon as it became the established order."

So could it have happened here? Could your dad have shot women beside a pit in the Forest of Dean? Recently the historian Daniel Goldhagen has argued that the Germans were more susceptible to committing genocide because of the feelings that they already harboured against the Jews. Which is a comforting conclusion, because it suggests that we would not have fallen from grace.

Arendt is not so sure. She thought Eichmann was a murderer because he was, essentially, thoughtless. In him was not to be found that internal conversation that Socrates hinted at when he said that he would rather be wronged than wrong someone else. There was no dialogue in the mind. When pressure was on for him to conform, he did it, and it didn't take much.

The antidote must be for us to cultivate that internal voice. To tell our children never to mind their own businesses, to do it because the others do, to go along with things or ignore them. One's mind should be awkward and sore from the constant friction of conscience against the skull.