It is a blessing to governments,
that human beings do not think for themselves.

Adolf Hitler

Postscript: The Normality of Evil

How could it happen? How could one single person, Adolf Hitler, succeed in staging a whole world according to his own personal world view with death and destruction as the appalling consequence? How was it possible to convince so many millions of his divine status that they were willing to sacrifice both their own lives and the lives of other human beings for this faith?

The Führer committed suicide on April 30, 1945, to make the Führer Myth live on. He had then succeeded in transferring his own war trauma into a collective trauma for the whole world. He had demonstrated the shadowed side of modern, industrial mass society and left behind the inheritance of a question mark after the very view of human nature in our cultural tradition and civilization. This inheritance was the knowledge that it had been possible to carry out the systematic genocide of European Jewry.

In an attempt to confront this trauma, the world community signed a convention in 1948 with the intention of preventing new genocides. Nevertheless, all over the world there are today wars going on against groups who, according to the men in power, do not belong to their society. These wars often have a genocidal character because the 20th century has become the century of total war and genocide, where war no longer is carried out between armies alone, but is also aimed at the civilian population - or parts of it - which is pointed out as the enemy.

Our century has been called the century of the media. It is especially the century of the visual media - the century of the eyes. With our own eyes we can see and follow what other people see. We can see the same pictures as others see - or wish us to see. The pictures can arouse happiness or fear within the individual viewer, because what we see has a decisive influence on our perception of the world we live and act in.

This is the key to the knowledge of how Adolf Hitler succeeded in transferring his own traumatic hatred of Jews into a systematic mass-murder carried out by others. It was with his eyes that the Führer persuaded his closest followers to believe in his self-imposed role as saviour of a nation. It was with his eyes that he experienced confirmation after confirmation from the outside world of the truth in his world view. And it was the recollection through photographs and films that pulled the Führer Myth together inside Adolf Hitler himself - and within his followers.

In particular it was the ability of the medium of film to produce and reproduce the world of reality that changed his private hatred of Jews from an inner instinct to a conscious decision. It was the "close-to-reality" reproduction of his private images of Jews that legitimized the Holocaust to him and made Auschwitz into a necessity, if his Gesamtkunstwerk - the Third Reich - was to survive. And it was the combination of Führer Myth and this reproduction of "reality" that created the genocidal mentality which made it possible for the perpetrators and other accomplices to believe that their killing was accomplishing something good.

The Nazi propaganda activated existing images of the enemy and traumas in the population - and the fear for the effects of anti-Semitic propaganda still exists in modern Germany. Neither Der ewige Jude nor Jud Süss are allowed to be shown in public, and only three minutes of each can be shown in television programmes. [1] In order to be able to confront a trauma it is, however, necessary to know it in all its uncomfortable features and to discuss it openly. Only then it is possible to weigh the relation between human behaviour in general and the concrete historical situation that aroused it. Otherwise it will continue to stay deep in man's mind as an unsolved trauma which will surface again when cynical politicians use it as a means in their struggle for power.

The parallel between the Holocaust and the Genocide in former Yugoslavia is depressing for all those who had hoped that our civilisation had learned from the Nazi era. It was the media in the former Yugoslavia that created - or at least activated - the genocidal mentality within the conflicting parts. It was especially the television that made the old ethnic enmity between the different groups into a topic for everybody - in particular through activating the trauma, repressed under Tito's rule, of the atrocities committed by Croat ustasjies and Serb chetniks during World War II.

In a similar way, in the Germany between the wars, it was the untreated trauma of the lost World War I, with the many fallen soldiers, that together with the traditional-enemy picture of Jews created the fundamental premises for Hitler's private war aginst the Jews to become a genocide.

The world community has not succeeded in banning armed conflicts. The struggle for resources still arouses war; war causes new collective traumas that can be used by politicians to engage in new wars. We have not learned from the Holocaust - and maybe we can't, because emotions often are stronger than sense.

Modern warfare has become industrialized, and this industrialization helps remove the responsibility of taking others' lives from the individual soldier. At the same time, the media-created image of the enemy the individual soldier has been ordered to kill becomes of growing importance, which also in turn helps efface that soldier's responsibility. For the person that pulls the trigger, it simply has become easier to repress responsibility.

This dark side of modern mass society becomes clear when one looks upon the complicated process that led to the Holocaust. The real responsibility - if it is a relevant way of saying so - is to be placed with Joseph Goebbels, who passed the theshold to genocide on October 16th, 1939, when he saw the slaughtering scenes he himself had ordered to be part of his "film document" about the Jews. At that point, the radical anti-Semite put pressure on the Führer for him to invoke the ultimate consequence of his own world view. Although the Minister of Propaganda was only an adviser, not the decision-maker, it was his actions which provoked decisive steps in Jewish policy within the Third Reich.

Adolf Hitler was the real decision-maker and began passing the theshrold of active genocide when he on May 20, 1940, approved Der ewige Jude for public screening. The Führer, however, needed more confirmation of his own role before he took the conscious decision to physically destroy European Jewry. When he delegated the assignment to Heinrich Himmler, he immediately started to blur his own responsibility because it was not Adolf Hitler, but "Foresight" in the feature of his inner voice - the Führer Myth - that wished to remove Evil. And because the Führer always had been right in his prophecies, he would also this time be right. The prophecy turned out to make him right.

Everything seems to show that it was with very mixed feelings Heinrich Himmler accepted the task which the Führer put on his shoulders. The Reichführer-SS found it "un-Germanic" to exterminate whole people, but he nevertheless accepted the task because he put his oath of fidelity to Adolf Hitler as Führer higher than his inner moral voice. Indeed, his reward for doing it was as high as it could be in the Third Reich: Heinrich Himmler was promised the very society-constituting Führer Myth after the death of the Führer.

The Reichsführer-SS then tried to repress his gnawing doubt through delegating the organizing responsibility to his right hand, Reinhard Heydrich, who was used to taking care of the more dirty work that belonged to building up the Third Reich. The Chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt could on one hand claim that he acted according to an order given to him through Himmler. On the other he cynically used the power it gave him in the struggle for power with others. Neither he nor his collaborators in Berlin murdered Jews themselves. They had others to do it; and these could also after the war claim that they just had followed orders.

Hannah Arendt concluded her analysis of the trial of Adolf Eichmann - one of the key persons in the bureaucratic process where human beings were reduced to mere figures - in her famous book on the banality of Evil in 1961 with the following words:

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 terrifying normal. From the point of view of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied ... that this new type of criminal, who is in fact hostis generis humani, commits his crimes under circumstances that makes it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

With this famous characterization, Hannah Arendt mercilessly points to the problematic feature in our modern society where the media-created 'reality' more and more replaces - and creates the framework for - that reality that arises out of personal encounters with human beings. The story of the propaganda film Der ewige Jude is an ominous example of what can happen when the media-created 'reality' is conceived as the 'real' reality and thereby creates conditions which make it impossible for the individual to discern between "Good" and "Evil."

The use of media-created 'reality' in the civil war in former Yugoslavia unfortunately demonstrates both the range of and the continuing topicality of the analysis of Hannah Arendt which perhaps more rightfully should have been called:

The Normality of Evil


1. The Allied Control Commission prohibited the two films after 1945. By the 1960s, the Federal Republic of Germany was considered to have become so democratic that it was able to administer this part of its Nazi inheritance. Der ewige Jude lies today at the Filmarchive of the Federal Archives in Berlin, whereas Jud Süss is at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung in Wiesbaden. The Transit-Film in Munich (fully owned by the German state) administers the commercial rights to both films (and others from the Nazi period) includings sales of excerpts (maximum three minutes) to the TV-stations of the world. Danish TV2 asked for permission to use more in a series based on this book. With reference to the German Foreign Office, such permission was not granted.

Note to the chapter on Heinrich Himmler as the doubter:

The American sociologist Daniel J. Goldhagen titled his heavily discussed - and disputed - book "Hitler's Willing Executioners". He demonstrates carefully the radicality of the anti-Semitism held by most members of some police forces that participated in the extermination of Soviet Jews. As they were not members of the SS, but simply "ordinary Germans" who more or less accidentally landed in these death-patrols, he takes the existence of their anti-Semitism as evidence of the depth of the anti-Semitic tradition in Germany and as evidence of a special German "character" (cf. the account in this book on the premises of the Third Reich, chapter III).

This conclusion has of course aroused a lot of discussion and has been critized by a long row of leading historians as being too far-reaching and too rigid. Another American historian, Christopher R. Browning, has made research into the same source material, but has reached another conclusion. He stresses instead the growing brutalization of the war and the psychological pressure of obedience and demands for solidarity which the individual police men were given by their superiors and comrades.

Serious, and in my opinion justified, questions have been raised about the methodological apparatus of Goldhagen, although some of the criticism derives from the skeptical attitude of traditional historical research regarding the theories and methods of the social sciences.

In my view the main problem of his scientific approach and methods is to be found in his overly-superficial evaluation of the very differentiated debate on the decision making process that led to the Holocaust - and in the lack of analysis of the actual way that the latent anti-Semitic image of the enemy was activated by the Nazi system.

In my opinion Goldhagen therefore is missing the decisive link between his more theoretical analysis of German anti-Semitism on the one hand and his empirical analysis of the attitude of the perpetrators to their killing job on the other. Or to put it down to the point: exactly the process which is the very topic of this book.