Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Holocaust and boredom

Today in the Netherlands we commemorated those killed, wounded or otherwise damaged by war since WWII. So a bit of a different post this time.

I went looking for this movie a couple of months ago because a miniatures company had posted the box art for its new Elite German Infantry 1939-1943 (read: SS) accompanied by 'hot' and 'awesome'. Some people commented that is was bad taste, others ended up saying something on the line of 'war is hell', and referred to war crimes by allied armies in WWII and Guantanamo Bay.

As worried as I am by Guantanamo Bay and drone attacks in Afghanistan, and although I am aware that there were serious war crimes perpetrated by Allied forces during WWII  I think that it goes to far to equate this to the Holocaust. In terms of principle and size, the mass murder of 6 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of gypsies (and other 'unwanted') is of a different order.

The following movie for me sums up why.

This movie gave me a profound insight into the Holocaust. I saw it first in the Imperial War Museum exposition on the Holocaust, without the commentary. But the commentary is spot on and ends with the same thing that I took away from it: the soldiers involved look kind of bored. I can still see the guy throwing down his cigarette and stamping on it as he moves of, shoulders sagging, to fetch another batch of victims.

Yes. Mass murdering German soldiers were bored while doing it.

It shows an emotional withdrawal, but also a routine. How this works has been described in general by Milgram's sociological experiments, but detailed in Ordinary Men by Brown and Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners.

Since the 1990s historical research has shown that the Holocaust was not a matter of a few SS Sonderkommando's and a few Vernichtungslager. No, it was a massive organisation. About half of the Jews murdered were shot close to their homes, not gassed. Many Wehrmacht units were involved as well as police battallions.

But the cigarette flicked away by a bored soldier shows why this could happen again easily (as it has already in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the Sudan): we humans have an incredible ability to adapt to the most deplorable circumstances. I hope that soldiers had nightmares for the rest of his life (like my grandfather had of his wartime) but I doubt it.

The only hope we have is to make that kind of moral autism as difficult as possible. Tell your friends, tell your kids that this happened and how, and why it could happen. Don't take their moral compass and courage for granted.


  1. 'The banality of evil.' Never again.

  2. Yes indeed... there was an article called 'The banality of evil', which covered exactly what your post does. It is indeed surprising how small a step it is from 'shocking incident' to 'routine' and how easily 'ordinary people' can subscribe to almost any activity if 'authority' says it is acceptable.

  3. Recently CBC Ideas replayed The Human Factor - Hannah Arendt . Worth listening to and it is available as a podcast from CBC

    When Hannah Arendt’s "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" was published 50 years ago, it created an instant uproar that has never ended. A discussion on the ideas of Hannah Arendt and why she was so controversial.

  4. The discussion is still ongoing. Not for nothing did Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners stir such controversy. So I guess the explanation of the Holocaust will involve strands from all three theories: some Germans were fanatical about it, others submitted to peer pressure and authority, others just shrugged their shoulders.


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