Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A new photo album, and reflections on Hannah Arendt’s “The banality of evil”

The phrase “ the banality of evil” was used by philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt to refer to Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi criminal, arrested and put to trial by a court in Israel.

Arendt, who covered Eichmann’s trial, raised the questions whether evil was something radical, or as banal as people just following orders, playing safe, or going along uncritically with mass opinion.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday unveiled a new addition to its collection -- a personal photo album containing 116 pictures taken between May and December, 1944, chronicling the life of SS officers and other officials at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

The images capture SS guards and Nazi officials relaxing and enjoying time off—hunting, singing, trimming Christmas trees, and more --— all while Jews were being murdered at rates as fast as anytime during the Holocaust. The album was created and owned by Karl Höcker, an adjunct to camp Kommandant Richard Baer, according to a statement by the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

When you browse through Höcker’s album you come across pictures as ordinary, and as banal, as SS officer Karl Hoecker shaking hands with his sheep dog Favorit, SS officer Karl Hoecker lighting a candle on a Christmas tree, Nazi officers and female auxiliaries, called Helferinnen, posing on a wooden bridge in Solahutte, and sing-alongs with an accordion player.

The lives of these SS and Nazi officials is in glaring contrast to the massacre of Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau. To be sure, these men and women frolicking, indulging in normal human pastimes, must have been aware of the inhumanities, the Holocaust perpetrated by them and their colleagues on the Jews!

Did they not feel guilt for what was happening in Auschwitz-Birkenau ? Were they cruel monsters pretending to lead normal soldiers’ lives ?

Or was it just the banality of evil again – the uncritical following of orders, and going along with the others that Arendt warned us about.

I say warned, because it can happen again, anywhere in the world.

"He did his duty...; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law,", wrote Arendt in “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”, a book that emerged from her coverage of the trial of Eichmann for The New Yorker.

A lot of the crimes against humanity today come from such banal people....who were just obeying orders.

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