The Banality of Evil

The Nazi death camp at Auschwitz was not at all as I had envisaged it.

For a start, it was bathed in sunshine. I had expected Auschwitz, the concentration camp in which more than a million people were exterminated, to be covered in dark clouds, drenched in rain and buffeted by a bitterly cold wind. But no, the weather was near perfect.

I had expected Auschwitz to be grotesque and ugly. In reality, it was almost pretty. The death camp’s streets were lined with lovely trees, the grass was green and I’d have thought the buildings, had I been ignorant of their evil use, to be rather quaint.

As I walked the streets in which so many were slaughtered, I was reminded of the phrase Hannah Arendt used to describe Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann. She coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe his averageness.

She was shocked, when confronted by the Nazi war criminal, to find he did not have horns protruding from his head or a pitchfork in his hand. Eichmann was a monster to be sure, but a very ordinary one. He appeared very much as any other man.

And this was the most confronting thing about Auschwitz. This place, where such evil was done, was not the edge of hell. In fact, it was just a short drive from the beautiful city of Krakow. I was standing where some of the worst deeds in history were perpetrated, and yet I could very well have been standing anywhere. The soil, the stones, the grass, the trees, the sun overhead … they were all shockingly familiar.

Sure enough, there was horror to be seen. The nearly 2 tones of human hair that had been collected from those marked for death; the mountains of shoes, bags, brushes and personal affects that had been taken from people who were told they were to be showered, only to be gassed; The rows and rows of ‘mug shots’ – men and women, all of them with heads shaved – hanging along the corridors of the buildings. Someone’s mother, father, daughter, son … their fearful eyes, surely knowing death was imminent, following you as you walked the hallways. But it wasn’t the horror that shocked me; it was the ordinariness of it all.

Better if Auschwitz was on the edge of hell, then we could climb into our cars and tour buses (there were a lot of them) and drive far, far away. We could dismiss Auschwitz as a blip, something that happens on the edge of Hades, but thankfully not in the real world.

And so I cursed the sun that shone where it ought not, making my day a pleasant one. And I cursed the leafy trees that made me admire them when everything within me wanted to despise everything around me. What happened at Auschwitz was horrible, but I can’t say Auschwitz was a horrible place. It wasn’t some ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of evil that we could just determine to avoid from now on.

Alexander Solzenitsyn wrote in his classic work Gulag Archipelago: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor even political parties – but right through every human heart and through all human hearts.”

Pogo put it more succinctly – “We have just met the enemy, and he is us.”

The ordinariness of Auschwitz makes it a reminder, not only of what did happen, but more frighteningly, of what can happen.

Ordinary evil is indeed the most frightening evil of all.