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Shifting of the hourglass: Eichmann and the nature of "evil"

Updated on March 22, 2014

A lone light bulb hangs from the center of the room, its light illuminating cold grey walls. The room is boxlike, with thick concrete that stretches deep into the fortified expanse. Only a rusted metal pipe extends from the wall leaving only silence and the flickering light to fill the empty room. The peace only lasts for a moment, as the silence is broken with distant screams and commotion reverberating down the halls of the complex. As the rigid steel door slams open, a pair of soldiers appears wearing pressed grey uniforms and dark helmets. Their gazes are stern, unrelenting, as they usher in a group of feeble looking individuals. Women, men, and children are escorted into the crypt like chamber. Their striped clothes are in tatters, hanging from their thin frames. It is obvious now that these down trodden collective are prisoners. Many attempt to push and prod in the door frame, resisting their fates. Yet the soldiers are resilient, knocking back those who struggle. This continues for many moments, until the last victim is led inside. The soldiers then seal and lock the doors. The pleading screams of the group fading into whispers as the soldiers proceed down the passageway and into the executive lab. Reporting to the senior scientist, one of the pawns mutters “it is done.” and the pair proceed to their respective posts. The gawky scientist then moves to the wall, outstretching his hand to the switch with a faded red label reading: “Gas Chamber #3”. He pauses for a moment, contemplating his actions despite the numerous times he has done the same routine. Yet with more work to be done, more forms to be filled out, the slender scientist gingerly flips the switch with his finger. He does not hear the screams of anguish as he returns to the task at hand.

Stanley Milgram

The Nature of "Evil"

In everyday life questions are asked about the inherent nature of “evil”. Do men and women commit horrid acts of evil and are inherently bad? Or are these individuals put into a circumstance where they commit immoral acts? Mankind must contemplate the point when it surrenders to authority. Surrendering morals and ideals, to appease a hierarchy or succumb to the majority. Innate fears of losing a job, serving time in jail, or any other number of anxieties keep the normal collective of humanity complacent. Leaving humankind gridlocked in a hazy monotony, living day to day in the hope that tomorrow will be brighter. This sort of hive mind ideology can put people in a complicated situation. Living each day for the next creates a condition where workers will simply bow their heads in submission to avoid conflict. The work, orders from above, will be carried out regardless of how inhumane they might be.

Who then is to blame for the monstrous acts enacted upon society and our world? A soldier is ordered to kill a prisoner. Using the gun provided by the weapons manufacturer he shoots a bullet crafted at the factory, into the person he was ordered to shoot. As Stanley Milgram, a Yale Psychologist, states in “The Perils of Obedience” a study about the immoral demands of an authoritative figure: “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”

Milgrams experiment itself was a testament that people are simply doing their jobs: experimenters forcing normal everyday sort of citizens into administering shock tests to subjects. The shocks were harmless, yet the actor participants ensured that it seemed as realistic as possible. It is haunting to discover the lengths volunteers would go to appease a scientific authority figure, to the point of harming a complete stranger in the name of “science”. Milgram goes on to say that “…about 60 percent of them were fully obedient” and “…one scientist in Munich found 85 percent of his subjects to be obedient.”

Adolf Eichmann

Erich Fromm

The Final Solution

When there is a large majority to cling to it becomes easy for a person to displace blame that they are doing anything wrong. Adolf Eichmann being a prime example of a man whose actions caused the deaths of countless men and women in the 1940s, yet could calmly state his case nearly 20 years later. When referring to the extermination of the Jews in World War II, the general consensus is one of disgust and fear for those involved. Society views these officers and soldiers of the Third Reich as terrible monsters with innate menace to all who oppose them.

Erich Fromm, psychoanalyst and philosopher, also references to the case of Adolf Eichmann in “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem” that Eichmann was “…a symbol of the organization of man” an “alienated bureaucrat” Eichmann was demonized for his work, yet was a man whose will was bent by that of many others. Eichmann surrendered his will for another cause, carrying out the will forThe Final Solution. Milgram explains that “Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but he had only to sit at a desk and shuffle papers.” Every interactive piece of the puzzle of life experiences only but a fraction of the result of their actions. Akin to the soldier who fills the gas canister, or the furnace worker who is sent into repair the machinations of torture, they do not see the end result. Society does not hunt down the lowly worker who was simply “following orders”.

The constant shifting of responsibility leaves no one to blame. The media propagates an endless cycle of back and forth, displacing accountability on democrats, republicans, the president, the people, anyone and anything. The general populace succumbs to the silver tongues of politicians, taught to never question authority and keep lips sealed. Conforming to what is socially and culturally acceptable. Fear of alienation, ex-communication, and the disapproval of authority figures creates a position where the individualist listens to general consensus and not with his or her own objective viewpoint.

Solomun Asch

Displacing Blame

As Solomon Asch, social psychologist at Rutgers University, points out in his study of the influence of group pressure upon an individual: “As long as the subject had anyone on his side, he was almost invariably independent, but as soon as he found himself alone, the tendency to conform to the majority rose abruptly.” He then later declares “…the tendency to conform in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black…” The sense of appeasing authority over rides any other personal feelings. In most cases, as long as there is another person that agrees with whatever you are doing, it is almost too easy to conform to the majority.

If Eichmann had been a general soldier, a tank driver, an aircraft bomber, would we still judge his actions so intently? Soldiers and citizens still could have died to the bullets he shelled, or the bombs he dropped. When looking to the contrasts in modern society, mankind still commits acts of “evil”. But with each specific circumstance there are a number of variables that cause a chain of effects. The world may never know the reason why a vicious warlord murders innocents. Yet, when a person is put into a situation that shakes the foundations of personal reality it can shape their lives forever. When faced with a harsh reality, people seek to escape and detach. If orders from above came down to the tough decisions, the easiest course of action is keeping eyes to the floor, nodding in silent acceptance of the fate assigned. It is better in this regard, to simply do as one is told rather than face consequences. It is simpler in this regard, to displace the consequences of ones actions and convince the super-ego that it is “for your own good”.

Were the actions Adolf Eichmann truly sinister, or a result of simply following orders?

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The Banality of Evil

In summation Milgram adequately describes the end result, that the: “…conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare to imagine.” Normal human beings can be put into a situation that can shape them into an entirely different person. It becomes easy then to conform to a vast majority, never accepting responsibility for ones actions and displacing the blame into the majority. In this regard each cog in the machine is not individually responsible for “evil” acts. The vast majority are simply doing what they can, with what they have. Given an objective and turning nose to the grindstone to accomplish whatever tasks are required. Any variety of orders or assignments is not inherently evil, but rather, society assigns meaning behind each action. The collective of humanity can only assign meaning behind each “evil” act and try to rationalize each action. Humanity seeks justice for atrocities committed in the world, but as each person displaces blame we turn the hour glass yet again. It takes a balance between an objective individual whose actions reflect his natural conscience, and submitting to authority to achieve accomplishments and make a mark on the world.

© 2014 Taylor S. Calder

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