Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Banality of Evil

A new Nazi photo album has just resurfaced from an old attic in Germany. The interesting thing is that the photos look as if "normal people" were in them. The American museum who collected the photos said that they therefore must be placed in the context of other photos which appear to show the evil of the Nazi regime.

The photos were originally collected by an SS officer named Karl Hoecker, who was stationed at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Many of the photos depict him as a normal person undertaking normal tasks, like training his dog, or entertaining and laughing with the Nazi women who worked at Auschwitz.

Historians and museums are still compiling documents and knowledge about the Holocaust, and preserving its integrity. That part is clear. However, why these photos took so long to surface, is another question. These pictures, and others like it, would obviously give credence to the idea that these Nazi soldiers were "human" after all. The collector of the photographs, interviewed on NPR, seemed particularly worried that, while Nazis are indeed human, that they would be viewed as too human, all too human. And this is a problem for the cultural condemnation of a people. Nazi Germany was rightly condemned. Looney Toons cartoons affirm this. If humanizing images of Germans were shown in tandem with dehumanizing images, this could have seriously affected the state propaganda. This sort of Lyotardian monopoly on knowledge is a tool of propagandists who, for decades, would liked to have silenced knowledge of human life under an enemy regime.

In fact, this is exactly what Hannah Arendt has said about how evil regimes like the Nazi party give rise to a "banality of evil". That is, the Holocaust and other evils of history, are not carried out by sociopaths and fanatics, but they are carried out by people performing their duties and their obligations to their governments. All of the people in these photos have accepted the premises of their state and therefore acted under the view that their actions and their duties were normal, and to be accepted. This is the same sort of reply we hear from neoconservatives today. Soldiers in Iraq are simply doing their duties. This is fundamentally why this answer, this appeal to "duty", never fulfills and never answers the question or the criticism.

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