Saturday, May 05, 2007

Further Thoughts on Evil 3

Further Thoughts on Evil 3

I have already written in these pages that it would seem likely that my fascination with the topic of evil began with my viewing of the wonderful 1970s series called The World at War, an excellent documentary series in 26 parts on World War 2. It was narrated by the famous actor Sir Laurence Olivier and directed by at least six different directors, and was a marvellous collaborative exercise between the BBC and The Imperial War Museum. The list of those interviewed was enormous and so this series of documentaries is a magnum opus of historical research. The newsreel was moving and all too real, while the episode dealing with the evil of the concentrations camps was far too disturbing and had a lasting effect on my young mind. I was then 15 years old and was bowled over by the depths of man’s depravity and the extent of his inhumanity to his fellow man – in the words of the famous American war poet, Randal Jarrell, about whom I wrote in a previous post some years back, “man is a wolf to man.”

Also, I was also transfixed by the mesmeric effect of the inimitable voice of Laurence Olivier as narrator. Then, one episode had the famous, even infamous quotation from the wonderful German Romantic writer Heinrich Heine: In his 1821 play, Almansor, this German writer, referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, during the Spanish Inquisition — famously wrote: "Where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings." ("Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.") One century later, Heine's books were among the thousands of volumes that were torched by the Nazis in Berlin's Opernplatz in an outburst that did, in fact, foreshadow the blazing ovens of the Holocaust.

In Anthony Read’s excellent history, The Devil’s Disciples: The Lives and Times of Hitler’s inner circle, (Pimlico, 2004) we get a rather comprehensive insight into the minds of Hitler’s henchmen . At the end of the Prologue we read that Hermann Goering, the cleverest and most suave and polished of the dictator’s followers and the highest ranking, revealed to an American psychiatrist at Nuremberg, Dr Douglas M Kelley, that “his basic motive had been that single, driviung ambition – to achieve for Hermann Goering supreme command of the Third Reich.” (op.cit. pp. 9-10). Goering let nothing or no one stand in the way of his objective, admitting also to Kelley, the reason why he had murdered a close and former friend in the Nazi Party – “But he was in my way…” (ibid. p. 10).

Anthony Read reveals that practically all the leaders of the Third Reich cut a pathethic figure at ASHCAN where they were first kept immediately after capture – Arthur Seyss-Inquart arrived limping and with very thick spectacles; Hans Frank in an ambulance after slashing his wrists and throat while Goering was the only one to retain his suavity and composure and in the words of Britain’a judge at Nuremberg, Sir Norman Birkett, he possessed “immense ability and knowledge,” and “was suave, shrewd, adroit, capable, resourceful…and full of self-confidence …” (ibid p. 9)

As we read about the miserable wretches that these so-called upper eschelons of Hitler’s Third Reich turned out to be – pathetic, cowardly and lacking in self-confidence – one is quickly reminded of Hannah Arendt’s beautifully apt phrase, which she used when commenting on the Eichmann trial, “the banality of evil.” In other words we are astounded that such pathethic figures of men - for the Nazis were almost all totally men who believed in keeping women firmly in their place – had managed to wreak such havoc on the world in general and to have attempted the total extermination of one particular race and many minorities. One is inclined to go along with Arendt that evil can be indeed so banal. It often appears to be that the Nazis were the “accountants of death and torture” if I may coin my own phrase, insofar as they kept meticulous accounts of those whom they imprisoned and subjected to the most horrific punishments and even scientific experiments. I am always taken aback by those sad pictures of piles of boots, items of clothing and spectacles taken from their prisoners and meticulously counted and redistributed to others.

Above I have placed a photograph I took of one of the watch-towers of the Dachau Concentration Camp, near Munich. I took this picture in December 2005.

To be continued.

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