Guilty Men and Evil Men

What makes a man evil?

In life, as in fiction, individuals may be motivated to act in evil fashion by malice, by ideological hatred of victims, by wanting to impress superiors, by carrying out orders or instructions, by hunger to advance their careers.  These philosophical issues are pertinent in consideration of two recent events: a new film and the anniversary of one of the most macabre meetings in history, which can illustrate the difference between well meant mistakes and evil — a contrast between the behavior of Neville Chamberlain, British Conservative prime minister, 1937–1940, and Adolf Eichmann and the Nazi German regime.

Chamberlain is best known as the proponent of the policy of appeasement toward Hitler and the Nazi regime.  He became the epitome of the failed leader, the man who lost a confidence vote in the House of Commons and who was succeeded as prime minister by Winston Churchill, a high-profile figure who offered the country nothing but blood, toil, tears, and sweat and has been heralded as the hero of 1940.

A milder, revisionist view of Chamberlain is presented in a new film, Munich, the Edge of War, which suggests a reconsideration of the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938.  Chamberlain justified the agreement on several levels, mainly as giving Britain time to prepare for the evident war, an action that he hoped would save millions.  It was in general accord with the mood of the country at that time.  Yet this defense is not altogether plausible because it also gave Hitler more time to arm and neutralized for him, for a time, the threat of the Soviet Union.

Chamberlain can be seen as more acceptable for some policy decisions.  He advised the king to send for the then less popular Churchill to succeed him as prime minister rather than choose Lord Halifax, who was more acceptable to the ruling Conservative Party at that time.

He rejected the idea of a peace deal with Germany, which Halifax had suggested.  He opposed any approach to Mussolini, believing that this would serve no useful purpose.

Yet evaluation of Chamberlain will always be based on his policy toward Nazi Germany, his policy of appeasement, his initial trust of Hitler, and above all the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938.  This Agreement, ceding the German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Germany, was declared by Chamberlain as "peace with honor."

 Waving a sheet of paper, Chamberlain held that Hitler had agreed that the two countries would never go to war, and that he had achieved "peace for our time."

Chamberlain was guilty in his misunderstanding of Hitler but not a traitor, a villain, or evil.  He tried in his own way to save the world from a devastating struggle.  He did not anticipate the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, but he declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939.

After the Allied forces failed to prevent the German invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940, Chamberlain was criticized by members of all political parties, and he resigned as prime minister on May 10.

In his speech on the declaration of war on September 3, 1939, Chamberlain declared, "It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against, brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression, and persecution, and against them I am certain that the right will prevail."

Real evil was displayed eighty years ago, at the Wannsee Conference, the meeting on January 20, 1942 at the idyllic lakeside villa outside Berlin, where participants discussed and planned the Final Solution.  The portrait of evil is evident in the fifteen-page Wannsee Protocol drafted at a later date by Adolf Eichmann.  The conference was attended by fifteen men, representers of most branches of Nazi system, party and state.  It is significant to note that they were powerful, highly educated figures, not ordinary or banal.  Ten of the fifteen had a university degree, eight had doctorates, and eight had studied law. 

SS general Reinhard Heydrich, who called and chaired the meeting, reported that the Reich marshal, Hermann Göring, had appointed him delegate for the preparation for the Final Solution of the Jewish question in Europe and declared that the conference would discuss how Jews would be appropriately dealt with.  At Wannsee, most if not all of the participants were aware that mass murder of Jews and others had been occurring.

The meeting, which lasted only ninety minutes, did not discuss in detail how exactly to deal with the Jews, nor a specific plan to implement the Final Solution, nor an open description of the killing program, since the basic decision had already been made.  There were certain misgivings about some aspects, but no one objected to the basic policy to eliminate the Jews, said to number 11 million, in Europe.  It was Eichmann who provided the incorrect population statistics, which overstated the number of Jews in Europe.

Adolf Eichmann has become a well known subject of controversy because of his arrest and trial by Israel and the controversy over the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt, who attended the trial in Jerusalem for only a short time.  Her use of the term "banality" was and remains unclear and controversial.  Most important, Arendt was struck by "the manifest shallowness" in Eichmann.  Her view was that his deeds were monstrous, but he was quite ordinary and commonplace, and neither demonic nor himself monstrous.  In controversial conclusion, her surprise was that an apparently commonplace individual was capable of monstrous crimes.  Her assertion raises the wider problem of accountability and responsibility, important today, of who is ultimately responsible — whether an individual following an illegal order by a superior is guilty.

Whatever the meaning of "banality," Arendt was mistaken in her judgment of Eichmann.  In conversations recorded in Argentina in 1957, Eichmann admitted he was a cautious bureaucrat but, more important, also called himself a "fanatical warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood which is my birthright."  He refused to acknowledge he had done anything wrong.  Indeed, he expressed unhappiness that he was forced remain silent in the years 1945 to 1962.

Evil was manifest.  Eichmann was the key figure in arranging the deportation of millions of Jews, including 440,000 Hungarians, to death camps.  He showed no remorse or guilt for his role.  He was a monster of evil, the mastermind of unparalleled horrors, not a faceless functionary.  Chamberlain was guilty only of mistakes in judgment.

Image: RV1864 via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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