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Evil and Mediocrity

Hannah Arendt got into trouble with some people for describing the Nazi Adolf Eichmann as a normal but mediocre person – a part of her invented phrase "banality of evil." This week Hitler's bodyguard, Rochus Misch, died at age 96, and in the press his story of being with Hitler in his last days was repeated. Misch too can be described as normal, with faults like other normal people. In 1937, at the age of 20, he joined Hitler's paramilitary organization, the SS, which he saw as a counterweight to the threat from the left, the threat of Stalinism from Russia and Germany's communists. According to Misch, he had been an anti-communist and against Stalin to protect Europe.

Misch was shot in the chest in Poland. Then he chose to serve as Hitler's bodyguard and communications operator. "I knew about Dachau camp and about concentration camps in general," he told the BBC in 2009. "But I had no idea of the scale. It wasn't part of our conversations." In an interview with the Associated Press he said that he knew nothing of the murder of six million Jews and that Hitler never brought up the Final Solution in his presence. Misch is reported by CBS News to have said that Hitler "was no brute. He was no monster." Misch said he could not fathom the "friendly, nice" man he knew as Hitler as a sociopath.

When Misch married in 1942, Hitler sent the newlyweds 40 bottles of wine and 1,000 German marks. The Washington Post describes Misch saying:

He was a "good boss," adored by his staff ... who liked to chat up his kitchen staff and other "ordinary people." He liked to stay up watching movies such as "Gone With the Wind." He was "a real human being" who took battlefield defeats to heart and welled up with tears.

The point here is that few if any evil persons are obviously evil like the villains in comic books or in movies of comic book caliber. These fantasies of villains dull the ability to see evil in the here and now.

And there are always excuses, like Misch telling the Associated Press, "You must remember there was never a war when crimes weren't committed, and there never will be." Today we have a report from CBS News of a similar comment from Syria's Bashar al-Assad, a kind family man and father figure to some in Syria, who has said, "When you have terrorism, you have a war. When you have a war, you always have innocent lives that could be the victim of any war."

As I see it, to rise above mediocrity one has to be a little more aware of what is happening in the world than was Misch, and one must be brutally honest with oneself rather than giving in to rationalization. To avoid evil as much as is humanly possible, one must rise above that which plagued Hitler. Hitler was another man of his time, another anti-communist who accepted the anti-Semitism and racism of his time. He suffered from the illusion that his country had been stabbed in the back toward the end of the Great War. These were common beliefs in Germany. He believed that the German people were in a life and death Darwinistic struggle. He had little grasp of the biological realities that contradicted his racism. His evil was the product to some extent of his ignorance. Hitler was no idiot, but he wasn't a genius in the sense of having an unusual sense of reality. Little minds can be instrumental in, or a part of, unusually extensive horrors.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.