Today, as debates continue about the ethics of killing Osama Bin Laden, another man was found guilty of being an accomplice for 28,000 murders. John Demjanjuk was a guard in the Nazi death camp at Sobibor, a place where an estimated 250,000 Jews were gassed during World War II.
Demjanjuk is now 91 years old, a retired autoworker from Ohio. He served in the Russian military during the war. After being captured by the Nazis, he claims to have spent the remainder of the war in prison camps. But meticulous Third Reich bureaucrats recorded otherwise. He actually entered SS training and served as a guard at Sobibor, a relatively common fate for foreigners captured in combat.
He moved to the States in 1958, gaining U.S. citizenship by saying that he was a POW during the war. In 1977, he was falsely identified as Ivan the Terrible, a particularly notorious prison guard at Treblinka. He was stripped of his citizenship in 1981, and a few years later, extradited to Israel. The convictions were overturned in 1993 in light of new evidence. His citizenship was restored in 1998, until 2002, when evidence again linked him to a death camp, this time in Sobibor. After years of appeals, he was deported and extradited to Germany, where he stood trial for his role in facilitating mechanized death.
These cases remind us that radical evil endures in the world. The gravity of evil in the human heart has led to genocide again and again in human history. It’s the aspiration of Al Qaeda, and it’s the legacy of Nazi Germany.
Bin Laden’s evil is monstrous and foreign. He lived a monk-like existence devoted to bringing fear and death to his perceived enemies. Equally foreign is the world of death camps, where the machinery and efficiency of the industrial revolution was put to work in manufacturing murder. But the great horror of the Holocaust is not only seen in the victims; it’s also in the SS soldier, whose complicity in such crimes made them possible.
The watching world wants to paint Demjanjuk and others like him as a maniac, another Bin Laden, bent upon murder. It helps to explain the gravity of the atrocity, and gives us at least some license to be dismissive of history. But aside from his time in the SS, it appears Demjanjuk lived a fairly ordinary life. He married and had children, who now stand by his side and see him as a victim in the current trial. His role in the camps fell upon him. He was captured and forced into a situation where he could either serve in the army of the nation that conquered his or become another victim in the prisons. He was just a soldier, just doing his job, showing up at a factory that made corpses.
No one has better described this phenomenon than Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Eichmann, like Demjanjuk, was found years after the war was over. He was kidnapped and taken to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes. Arendt’s critique of the prosecution is fascinating. To the prosecutor, it was important to paint Eichmann as a monster, someone who hated Jews and eagerly embraced the Nazi vision of extermination. Arendt saw it otherwise: Eichmann was a talented administrator whose skill led him up the ranks of the SS. He facilitated the Final Solution because he was a gifted organizer who suspended judgment, not because he had a vendetta. Eichmann was, to his own mind, merely guilty of doing his job: scheduling trains and so forth. He was not the type of person who would have killed someone with his own hands. Certainly, there were people in the SS who would have, and people like Hitler, Goebbels, and others were truly murderous. But many Germans, perhaps most, were ordinary people so dominated by the totalitarian reality around them that they became complicit. On Eichmann’s ordinariness, she said, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
The Reich went to great effort to re-orient their soldiers’ thinking away from the horrors they witnessed and carried out. Arendt says:
A systematic effort was made to weed out all those who derived physical pleasure from what they did. The troops of the Einsatzgruppen had been drafted from the Armed S.S., a military unit with hardly more crimes in its record than any ordinary unit of the German Army, and their commanders had been chosen by Heydrich from the S.S. élite with academic degrees. Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler—who apparently was rather strongly afflicted by these instinctive reactions himself—was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around, as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!
“The banality of evil” has become a catchphrase for describing how ordinary people find themselves caught up in great, horrifying, systematic atrocities. It’s truly frightening to look at the psychological weapons the Third Reich used to weaken and ultimately dominate the consciences of people like Eichmann and Demjanjuk. These weapons so shaped their worldview, so corrupted their ability to discern good from evil, that they willfully participated in the Holocaust. They suspended their willingness to judge. All this in an age before mass communication really developed. If a totalitarian government could accomplish that kind of evil in the early years of the industrial age, what could they do now?
We must not allow our awareness of our own sinfulness, and the fact that all of us die as a result of that sin, to flatten the distinctions between sins. There is such a thing as great evil, and to recognize the fact is not the equivalent of denying that you yourself have sinned. A man can say, with the old Puritan watching a man being taken off to be deservedly executed, “There but for the grace of God go I,” without saying, “There am I, the grace of God notwithstanding.” Christians should be the last people to allow the grace of God to be used as an instrument to blur moral distinctions.
I think he’s right. It is true that evil lurks within all of our hearts, and that all of our sins rightly warrant God’s judgment and wrath. But there is also such a thing as great evil, the kind of murderous evil that marked the life and work of Bin Laden, Hitler, and Charles Manson.
We should see no such distance when we look to Demjanjuk or Eichmann, because their evil was so entirely normal, so entirely commonplace. Their crimes were committed by showing up to work each day. By obeying the law of the land. And by allowing their judgment to be suspended into a totalitarian milieu. In their cases, we can say, “There am I, the grace of God not withstanding.” And that should concern us deeply.