On the Holocaust, Genocide, and Evil

December 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s brilliant pamphlet, On Evil. (This came out in 2010, the ever-prolific Eagleton has churned out 4 books since then).  It is, as you’d expect, a meditation on evil, what evil is, what it looks like, how it functions.  And as you’d expect from a literary theorist, Eagleton looks at various examples from literature and the real world.  This includes 20th century fascism.

I’ve always been disappointed with explanations of the Holocaust (or any other genocide) that reduces the motivation of the génocidaires down to “evil,” as in Hitler (or Pol Pot, the Young Turks, the Serb military leadership, etc.) were simply evil and that’s all there is to it.  This is a cop out explanation.  It’s reductionist and absurd.  Genocides, and other horrible acts, are perpetrated by human beings.  Indeed, this was Hannah Arendt’s point about Adolf Eichmann in her monumental Eichmann in Jerusalem: that Eichmann wasn’t a raving anti-Semite, evil excuse for a man. Rather, he was “just doing his job.”  She went on to argue against this idea that evil is responsible for the horrid acts humanity has visited upon itself, that, rather, these horrid acts arise out of rationality.

And certainly, the Holocaust is one of those events.  Eagleton notes that the Holocaust was exceptional, though not due to the body count.  As he notes, both Stalin and Mao killed more people than did Hitler.  Rather,

[t]he Holocaust was unusual because the rationality of modern political states is in general an instrumental one, geared to the achievement of specific ends.  It is astonishing, then, to find a kind of monstrous acte gratuite, a genocide for the sake of genocide, an orgy of extermination apparently for the hell of it, in the midst of the modern era. Such evil is almost always confined to the private sphere.

Eagleton is both right and wrong here.  What makes the Holocaust perhaps more horrifying than other genocides is the sheer rational organisation of it.  What happened in Rwanda in 1994 was arguably more vile and disgusting, as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were hacked to death in a 100-day spree.  But Rwanda was largely wanton violence and indiscriminate killing.  In many ways, it was the more evil event.  But the Holocaust was organised by the state, it was rational, and it was far-reaching.  In short, it was the Enlightenment taken to a horrifying extreme. By the state; the modern state, of course, is based upon these same Enlightenment ideals.

But the Holocaust was not an acte gratuite, as Eagleton argues, it wasn’t a genocide for the hell of it.

But he is right that such organised, rational terror is usually smaller scale, and in the private sphere, simply because it is easier for a serial killer to organise himself than it is to organise an entire state machine dedicated to the eradication of a group of people from the face of the earth.

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