In college I took an ethics seminar taught by a man who had survived imprisonment in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. He was a Belgian political prisoner, subjected to the daily casual cruelties and murders committed by the guards, the starvation diet, the backbreaking work of a slave laborer and the exposure to infectious diseases like typhus and cholera. As a non-Jew he was not subjected to selections and systematic, industrial slaughter of the death camps and Einsatzgruppen.
One of the books used in this course was Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Since Donald Trump won the Electoral College in November I have found myself reflecting on that class a great deal and my lifelong reading on the history of the Holocaust. This weekend the news and Twitter are filled with images of the neo-Nazi/KKK violence and murder in Charlottesville Virginia. There were many pictures of the predominantly male, entirely white crowd attending this Nazi rally and my immediate thought on seeing these images was of Rudolf Höss.
There are a number of pictures of Mr. Höss that show him with his family – a wife and 5 kids. There are pictures of him playing with his children or on family picnics, as well as this family portrait.
He looks like a man you might see today at a youth soccer game or little league – just a regular family guy. For those of you unfamiliar with SS-Obersturmbannführer Höss, a good day at the office for this regular family guy would result in the untimely death of 7,600 people. SS-Obersturmbannführer Höss was the commandant of Auschwitz.
I thought about photos like this one when I looked at the pictures on Neo-Nazis rallying and rioting in Charlottesville, VA.
With polo shirts and khaki pants they look like the staff of some corporate IT help desk, not the latest incarnation of the evil that brought the United States Jim Crow and lynching.
Hate wears normalcy as camouflage. No one thinks of themselves as evil. These men did not get out of bed this weekend, note they were going to an evil neo-Nazi rally and put a pinky in the corner of their mouth a la Dr. Evil. When Rudolf Höss was questioned after the war, one of the Americans on the interrogation team noted that he talked like a manager who had been given a tough assignment and excelled. What was so bone chilling about the man was the fact that he was completely normal, entirely bland, except for the mass murder, of course.
If asked, I am sure these men would not see themselves as evil or hateful. How often have we heard “I don’t hate anybody” from the lips of such people? I am sure most hold jobs or go to school, go to church and maybe coach some youth sports for their kids – just regular guys.
Yet evil is the only word to describe these actions. Sinful is the only word that describes their outlook. They are supporting the notion that others are subservient to them because their ancestors came here from Europe and because they consider themselves “Christian” (though most certainly they are not).
In Genesis we find “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” Genesis 1:27(NRSV). This evil, this sin is the failure to see Imago Dei, the image of God, in every person they encounter. It is, in fact, the same way of thinking that led to the enslavement of black Americans, the lynchings of the 19th and 20th centuries, Jim Crow laws, today’s voter suppression and even the Holocaust. It is a philosophy that says you must serve me because I am white and “Christian” and you are not. It is the sin of saying that White Christians were made Imago Dei and everyone else is not and therefore a lesser being.
Evil does not come into this world with a long red tail and horns. Mephistopheles, Apollyon, Beelzebub or Satan – however you name it – does not make himself manifest and obvious anymore then these Neo-Nazis show the evil hiding in their hearts at a PTA meeting.
Gandhi was right. “The only devils in this world are those running around in our own hearts, and that is where all our battles should be fought.”