The anatomy of Evil

Sixty years after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, our contributors reflect on man's inhumanity

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April 14, 2021

There is nothing either good or bad, the Nazis liked to insist, but thinking makes it so. Eichmann, interviewed in Argentina shortly before his abduction by Mossad agents, scorned the notion that there was anything evil about his role in the Holocaust. Far from repenting the deaths of six million Jews, he expressed regret that so many had survived the genocide. Just as it was the responsibility of a doctor to combat viruses, or a pest-control agent to eliminate vermin, so was it the responsibility of a good Nazi to defend the fellow members of his race from its most noxious and pestilential foes. To steel oneself for one’s duty, to suppress enfeebling notions of humanity, to keep always before one’s mind loyalty to blood: this, quite simply, was the right thing to do. What, then, was there for Eichmann to repent? “I cannot pretend,” he declared, “that a Saul has become a Paul.”

And even if Eichmann had pretended, what then? It would have made no difference. Once a Jew, always a Jew. Saul, by becoming Paul, had merely transmuted all that was most baneful about the Jewish conspiracy against the Nordic race into a more infectious, and therefore more lethal, form. Hitler, who traced the glories of ancient Greece and Rome to Völkerwanderung from the northern reaches of Europe, also attributed the downfall of classic civilisation to the virus introduced by Paul into the bloodstream of the Roman Empire. Its devastating effects had been evident ever since. Lethal variants had evolved. In January 1942, even as war was raging in the snows of Russia, Hitler placed Operation Barbarossa in the context of 2,000 years of history:

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“The Jew who fraudulently introduced Christianity into the ancient world — in order to ruin it — re-opened the same breach in modern times, this time taking as his pretext the social question. It’s the same sleight-of-hand as before. Just as Saul was changed into St. Paul, Mardochai became Karl Marx.”

Two particularly toxic evils, both of them derived from Christian teachings, threatened the Nordic race with ruin. First, there was the insistence that the weak, the sick, the persecuted merited compassion. So infuriating did Hitler find the objections of church leaders to the Reich’s on-going sterilisation of mental and physical defectives that already, by 1937, he had begun to envisage the elimination of Christianity once and for all. Clearly, there was no prospect of the Germans fulfilling their racial destiny while they were cancerous still with compassion. Hitler’s own preference — one that he was quick to put into practice the moment Germany went to war — was for a mass programme of euthanasia. This, a policy that was sanctioned both by ancient example and by the most cutting-edge scientific thinking, could never satisfactorily be carried out by a people who persisted in seeing it as evil.

Yet it was their own folly, their own blindness, that constituted the authentic evil. The Christian morality they clung to had resulted in any number of grotesque excrescences: alcoholics breeding promiscuously while upstanding national comrades struggled to put food on the table for their families; mentally ill patients enjoying clean sheets while healthy children were obliged to sleep three or four to a bed; cripples having money and attention lavished on them that should properly be devoted to the fit. Idiocies such as these were precisely what National Socialism existed to terminate. For the Germans to continue in their opposition to policies so transparently vital for their own racial health was insanity. The churches had had their day. “Harping on and on that God died on the cross out of pity for the weak, the sick, and the sinners, they then demand that the genetically diseased be kept alive in the name of a doctrine of pity that goes against nature, and of a misconceived notion of humanity.” The strong — as science had conclusively demonstrated — had both a duty and an obligation to eliminate the weak.

They also had a duty to trample down the second doctrine with which Christianity had poisoned the world. In 1942, an SS pamphlet quoted a line from Paul’s letter to the Galatians to illustrate just what it was that they had been summoned to fight against. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Here, the pamphlet warned, was a universalism that had dimmed the claims of blood, that had privileged the inferior races over the superior, and that over the course of the centuries had served to geld the Nordic race. A doctrine as pernicious in its effects as this could only have come from one source.

Of course Jews were not Greeks, and of course they could not be permitted to live alongside other, healthier races — of whom the healthiest was the Nordic. “Apes massacre all fringe elements as alien to their community. What is valid for monkeys must be all the more valid for humans.” Hitler knew that there was nothing particular about man. He was as subject to the struggle for life, and to the need to preserve the purity of his race, as any other species. To put this into practice was not evil. The truest evil was to do as Christians did: to oppose the ways of the world.

The Nazis, of course, did not succeed in their attempt to redefine for Europeans the parameters of morality. Their Reich did not last a thousand years. Their programmes of euthanasia and genocide are not commemorated today as models of enlightened statecraft, crafted in accordance with ancient wisdom and modern science. Quite the opposite. Today, across the Western world, the Nazis serve as the very archetypes of evil. The old supernatural cosmography that for centuries structured how people in Christendom understood the dimensions of hell may no longer possess the currency it once did; but the concept of hell itself still endures. It has become difficult, since the liberation of the death camps, to imagine it as anything other than a muddy cesspool, surrounded by barbed wire, crematoria silhouetted against a wintry sky. A belief in the satanic as Christians had long construed it, as a literal demonic force, may have faded in the West; but not the conviction that evil is to be identified with a single, sulphurously charismatic figure. Who needs the Devil when there is Adolf Hitler?

Who indeed needs Jesus? It is no coincidence, perhaps, that the more Nazism has come to shadow the imaginings of people in the West, the less they have gone to church. Other regimes in European history have aspired, as Hitler did, to eradicate the hold of Christianity; but only Hitler aimed to eradicate, not just the institutional forms of the religion, but the doctrines of charity for the weak and sick, and the universalism, that lay at the heart of its traditional teachings.

This is why, 80 years on from the Second World War, the Führer retains his starring role in contemporary demonology. Communist dictators may have been no less murderous than fascist ones; but they — because communism was the expression of a concern for the oppressed masses — rarely seem as diabolical. Today, when we ask ourselves “what would Hitler have done?”, and do the opposite, we are as obedient to the weathering effects of Christian morality as our forebears were when they wondered “what would Jesus have done,” and sought to do the same.

Nietzsche, declaring in a famous parable that God was dead, declared as well that in the great cave that had once been Christendom His shadow still fell, an immense and frightful shadow. It is there in our readiness to use “fascist” as the ultimate insult; to sanctify those who suffer oppression; to regard racism as a sin beyond compare: a shadow that continues to define for us, even in this godless age, the meaning of evil.