What is “Evil”?

Hoess Home

The former home of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, located just feet away from Auschwitz I and within view of the first experimental gas chamber and crematoria

On Wednesday, our group toured the site of the former Nazi labor and death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, located about an hour outside the Polish city of Kraków.  During the war, the site saw the murder of around 1.2 million people – most of them Jews.  I didn’t know what to expect when our group first entered Auschwitz.  Despite the ominous “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” gate and barbed wire fences, the camp seemed rather unimposing; while large in size, the buildings and ruins gave me little sense of the horror that occurred there.  What did affect me, however, was seeing the personal belongings robbed from the victims – shoes, eyeglasses, kitchenware, and hair – there was an entire room with hair shaved from the heads of the prisoners.  I had known beforehand I would be seeing these things, but it was still a shocking experience.  I expected I might feel grief, but I didn’t feel this at all.  Instead, I felt angry.


The unloading ramp at Birkenau, where hundreds of thousands of arriving transports were “selected” for labor in the labor camp or for immediate death in the gas chambers

People talk about the impersonality of the killing, but this clearly was not the case.  Someone had to unload the deported Jews from the trains.  Someone had to select who went to the labor camp and who went to the gas chambers.  Someone had to guide the deportees to their execution sites. And someone had to dump the Zyklon B into the gas chambers.  There is nothing impersonal about this.  Seeing the piles of hair (at least for me) was the most upsetting aspect of the site.  The simple task of cutting the hair from the individual heads of murdered prisoners or forced laborers at a work camp seems incomprehensible.  The first word that comes to mind is “evil,” but this description is too easy.

The word “evil” conjures up images of malice and sadism, of monsters who enjoyed inflicting suffering and death on others.  It is an absolute term.  “Evil” gives us clear monsters, people we can easily point to and blame.  Rudolf Höss was one such monster. During his time as commandant of Auschwitz, Höss personally oversaw the camp’s expansion from a labor camp into a death camp, as well as the first experimental gassings.  He lived at a villa with his wife and family, just feet away from the camp and within viewing distance of the original gas chamber and crematoria.  Focusing on monsters like Höss, however, lets others off the hook.


Canisters of Zyklon B on display at Auschwitz I

Our guide at Auschwitz briefly spoke about the guards and bureaucrats working at Auschwitz who were not directly involved in the selections and gassings, and in particular, he mentioned the case of Oskar Gröning – a former SS guard at Auschwitz who was convicted last year of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.  Gröning worked as a bank clerk before the war and joined the Waffen-SS after the German victories in Poland and France.  Gröning worked various clerical jobs before being sent to Auschwitz.  There, he continued his clerical work, taking inventory of the various items and currencies stolen from arriving Jews.  Gröning never directly took part in the killing process, which, for him, made it easy to get cozy with work at the camp.

In a 2004 interview with historian Laurence Rees, Gröning expressed guilt for his actions during the war, but explained that he “drew a line between those who were directly involved in the killing and those who were not directly involved.”  The former SS officer never invoked the “I was just following orders” defense.  Instead, he referred to the power that Nazi propaganda had had on his thinking.  As he explained, he continued to work at Auschwitz (even after personally witnessing a gassing) not because he was ordered to, but because he genuinely believed that the Nazi extermination program was “right” – that by aiding in the destruction of Germany’s enemies (the Jews) he could protect his family back home and do his part in the war effort.  In his book Auschwitz: A New History, Rees wrote: “the essential—almost frightening—point about Oskar Gröning is that he is one of the least exceptional human beings you are ever likely to meet.”

Hannah Arendt, a famous German political theorist, termed this frightening realization the “banality of evil.” The crimes of the Holocaust did not occur because of Germans’ will to do evil and commit murder – evil intentions are not always required for evil actions to take place.  Most Holocaust perpetrators became involved in the genocide not because of their desire to kill, but because of their simple failure to recognize the humanity of other human beings and to identify the moral and human dimensions of what they were doing.  When we fail to recognize the humanity of others, it becomes impossible for us to understand their suffering, opening the door for any number of horrors and crimes to be committed.  The Jews at Auschwitz were not treated as human beings, but as raw materials.  The room full of hair at Auschwitz displayed this point quite literally.  The hair of prisoners was sewn into various products for use back in Germany.


The main entrance to the Schindler Factory in Kraków, where around 1,200 Jews were saved from death by Oskar Schindler. Today, the former factory houses a museum and is a growing tourist attraction, largely thanks to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s List

Last February, Timothy Snyder, another prominent Holocaust historian, came to Ohio State’s campus to speak about his book Black Earth.  In the book, Snyder contrasts Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil” with his own theory of the “banality of good.”  Despite widespread collaboration with the Nazis during the war, there were still thousands of people throughout Europe who courageously acted to help individual Jews escape death, even though, if caught, they could be subjected to punishment or death from the Germans.  These people were certainly not all saints, but they acted out of a basic sense of decency; even in the horror of war, they still managed to recognize the humanity of others.

Von Galen

A portrait of Bishop Clemens August von Galen at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. As the Bishop of Münster, von Galen had a large audience, and his sermons against the T4 program caused a large public backlash against the Nazis’ euthanasia policy

During our group’s trip to Poland, we encountered another Oskar: Oskar Schindler.  Unlike Oskar Gröning, Schindler was a German businessman and Nazi Party member who rescued around 1,200 Jews during the war.  After the invasion of Poland in 1939, he opened up business at an enamelware factory in Kraków, where he exploited the slave labor of Jews for profit.  Despite this fact, Schindler later took up resistance against the murder of Jews, personally protecting his Jewish workers from deportation and extermination – usually by bribing high-ranking officials and at great risk to himself (he was arrested more than once).  Why? What did Schindler have to gain by saving these Jews?  While it is hard to say what the turning point for Schindler may have been, his actions almost certainly arose from his recognition of the humanity of the Jews he was saving from death.

Schindler was not alone.  In our class with Professor Davidson, we discussed the T4 euthanasia program, which implemented the mercy-killing of thousands of mentally ill and physically disabled men, women, and children.  Unlike in the case of the Holocaust against the Jews, there had been widespread outcry in Germany against the T4 program, thanks largely to the sermons of a Catholic bishop in Münster.  What examples like these show is that there were alternatives for Germans (and Europeans at large).  It was possible for people to resist the Nazis, to recognize the humanity in others deemed “unworthy of life.”

Happy Nazis

Auschwitz camp personnel enjoying a weekend retreat in the summer of 1944. Just a few miles away from where this photo was taken, one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century was taking place (Photo taken from USHMM)

When we think of evil, we think of monsters like Adolf Hitler or Rudolf Höss, but these monsters are the exception.  In writing this blog, I thought back to a photo album on display at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  The photographs depict Auschwitz personnel – ordinary people like Oskar Gröning – enjoying a weekend retreat near the camp.  The smiling and laughing Germans in these photographs aren’t monsters – they aren’t demons with glowing red eyes and horns growing out of their heads – they are simply normal people enjoying a warm weekend retreat.  That is what I find most terrifying about the Holocaust: not the idea that the Nazis were a special kind of evil, but the realization that ordinary, every-day people are capable of evil.

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