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Sunday, 6 October 2013

Evil is Not Always Banal

I've been reading a lot of history books lately, and one of the most interesting was Andrew Marr's A History of the World, in which he attempts to condense all of human history into a single volume. There are naturally things that he misses or glosses over, but it's fascinating to see a book that, for example, draws a connection between the development of the Roman Empire with China's Han dynasty, and points out where and why they diverged.

A little closer to our time, he also discusses Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's campaign to liberate India from British rule. Even here Marr connects what's going on in the rest of the world, by also discussing how Gandhi and Adolf Hitler saw one another. Gandhi, says Marr, completely misunderstood just how dangerous Hitler truly was, and even wrote this letter to him on the eve of war. Hitler, on the other hand, is said to have been unable to understand why the British didn't just have Gandhi shot; he figured it would have nipped Gandhi's resistance and Quit India movement right in the bud.

In telling this story, Marr suggests that Gandhi fell into the same trap as Neville Chamberlain and the rest of Europe's leaders, in underestimating Hitler's willingness to carry out his plans as outlined in Mein Kampf. Nobody wanted to believe they were dealing with a madman - and it wasn't until the last possible moment that they realized he truly was going to start a war, no matter how many concessions he received. Even then, the scope of Hitler's evil, and of the Final Solution, wouldn't be fully known until a few years later when the Allies started liberating the death camps.

Since the war's end historians have gone over the events of 1933-1945, and after, in great detail. In writing about the Adolf Eichmann trial in the 1960s, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil", which I believe has become the dominant paradigm in talking about the Holocaust, as well as how and why the German people stood by or even helped the Nazis carry out their plan.

The problem is that the way we view this phrase now, of the banality of evil, blinds us to the fact that not all evil can be explained away by people just sitting by and letting bad things happen, or being so divorced from the effects of what they're doing that they simply rubber stamp the deaths of millions by sending off a memo.

Like a fire, evil on the scale of the Holocaust, or Stalin's purges, or Mao's Great Leap Forward needs a spark to start it off, and then the right conditions to let it get out of hand. Arendt's view of Eichmann was that he was non-ideological - and not particularly intelligent - but this implies to me that without Hitler, Eichmann would never have committed his crimes. Hitler was the spark that led to a greater conflagration.

I sometimes feel that we, as a culture, forget these points, and can become uncomfortable with them. I base this observation on how we treat evil in art - in fantasy circles these days, JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings comes in for a lot of criticism from the likes of China Mieville and Richard Morgan for being very black-versus-white in its treatment of the noble hobbits and elves and what-have-you against the wicked orcs and their master Sauron.

Now, I can't deny that the portrayal of the orcs as totally and irredeemably wicked makes for uncomfortable reading, especially when entire orc armies are slaughtered without mercy by victorious Gondorians or Ents or whoever. Tolkien himself would probably have replied by noting that the orcs were just as bent on genocide as the good guys, but the way he describes the men of Umbar and Harad veers off into racism more than once.

But I don't believe this violates his broader point. Tolkien may have famously disliked allegory, but his story says that there is evil out there, and that it has to be stopped. Trying to co-opt its weapons or use its own knowledge against it will serve only to corrupt the good; if not inspired by the Second World War, I think you can definitely draw parallels with it.

I'm not saying we should go back to cartoonish portrayals of bad guys in our books and movies and comics, or that we should immediately treat all our enemies as the devil incarnate. But we need to remember that there are people out there who truly are evil, and not willing to follow the same rules we obey - and we need to be able to recognize them for what they are. As evidenced by the example of Hitler and Gandhi above, non-violent resistance only works if your enemy is uncomfortable with the thought of shooting you.