The Banality of Evil

My parents recently returned from visiting relatives in Singapore. As they sat on our sofa and regaled us with stories about their trip, one of the things they talked about was the fact that this kiwi couple (having recently moved to Singapore themselves) were having to adjust to the reality of having a maid. Part of the lease of their new apartment included a domestic servant – in this case a 30-something woman from the Philippines (whom I will call Ana) who got one day off per week, and who was sending money back to her mother and 7-year-old child back home.

When I enquired, there seemed to be no father in this 7-year-old’s life, although my parents admitted that they didn’t ask Ana about that. Perhaps the child’s father was similarly working overseas somewhere else.

They also talked about the fact that the apartment was quite spacious, with enough bedrooms for the family plus a guest bedroom and another bedroom that they could use as an office. Ana, however, got the “maid’s room”, which was a standard inclusion in all the apartments – small windowless space with a heavy, double-skinned metal door. My mother described it as “like a panic room… or a storeroom”.

“Well which is it?” I asked.

“A panic room,” she decided on the spot. “… In case people break in.”

“Does the door lock from the inside or the outside?”

“Oh, it locked from the outside.”

“So it’s a storeroom… Or just the room where you lock your slave when you don’t want to pay them anymore.”

And although the conclusion made them a little uncomfortable, my mother then related a story that they’d heard about while they were there, regarding another maid who’d been imprisoned and starved by her “employers” and who was only sprung when a lady she’d travelled with had seen her on the street and noticed the dramatic weightloss. “But those people were Chinese,” my mother added… as if Chinese people are somehow magically more inclined towards keeping slaves and non-Chinese people are immune to such urges.

I’ll admit that it did make me ponder about at what point did otherwise nice, normal, egalitarian people decide that it was perfectly fine to give an employee a windowless cupboard to live in instead of an actual bedroom. Is it just because that’s what everyone else around them is doing? Is it a requirement of their lease, or simply too difficult a thing to swim against the flow? And I also wondered whether my misplaced sense of morality would see me deny a poor person such employment just because I found it too demeaning. Surely any job is better than no job, and there was nothing in my parents’ story to indicate that Ana was mistreated or in any way unhappy with either her room or her employment. When you need to work, you go where the work is available. But it still didn’t sit well with me – as though the denial of a proper bedroom meant that she wasn’t seen as a full human being. “Poor people are happier living in cupboards thousands of miles from their children because it’s better than what they had back home.”… Even if that were true, it’s really no reason not to give them a bedroom with a window.

Oddly enough, I was reminded of these thoughts today when I read this piece in The Guardian, about the life and death of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was a Lieutenant Colonel in the SS, and a bureaucrat responsible for organising the deportation of European Jews, first to ghettos and later to concentration and death camps. He prepared the minutes for the Wannsee Conference in 1942. Although there’s no evidence that he ever shot anyone himself, he was certainly aware that his pencil-pushing work would result in death for many millions of people. However, right up to the end of his life, Eichmann did not feel that he was guilty of any wrongdoing. In his mind, he was just a bureaucrat doing tedious paperwork for an organisation that happened to be murdering people – but that didn’t make him a murderer.

In her famous account of the trial, the philosopher Hannah Arendt described Eichmann as a small-minded functionary, more concerned with the managerial hows of his job than the moral or existential whys. According to Arendt, Eichmann wasn’t a man for asking difficult questions, he just got on with the job of managing timetables and calculating travel costs – thus her famous phrase “the banality of evil”.

Now obviously the Holocaust and giving your maid a smaller room to live in are in no way equal on the scales of man’s inhumanity to man. Yet the sheer size of something like the Holocaust tends to blind people to the fact that it was not just one big, grand evil carried out by big, grand villains, but a compilation of lots of little acts of evil carried out by otherwise quite normal people who could’ve been your friends, relatives or neighbours. Eichmann was unremarkable before he joined the SS, and led an unremarkable life after fleeing Germany at the end of the war. If he’d been employed by the Nazi government in a less evil department (say overseeing the building of bomb shelters) then he probably wouldn’t have drawn anyone’s attention and could have lived out his days quite happily after the war. It’s unlikely that he set out on his career in government with murder as his driving force… but he still became a murderer, and probably for no other reason than that he didn’t see himself that way. I’m sure it’s much easier to kill people when you can rationalise it and you don’t consider yourself to be a bad person.

All of which doesn’t make Eichmann any less disturbing. It makes him more so. For what Arendt’s Eichmann did was to demonstrate that ordinariness is no protection against doing great evil. Cesarani too, sees Eichmann as a sort of “everyman”. No, he wasn’t just a travel agent, indifferent to the destination of his passengers. He was personally responsible, a responsibility he blindly denied right to the end. Which is precisely why the moral message of his story remains profoundly unsettling: if ordinary people were capable of such great evil, then, given the right circumstances, so are the rest of us.

And really, to me, that’s always been the point of studying history. It gives me a wider lens through which to view the world around me – a greater understanding of what we, as human beings, can do to ourselves and each other given the right circumstances. It’s not really a morality play about the actions of other people. It’s a mirror.

Which brings me back to the maid’s room and the reality of our grossly unequal world. While the scales are much heavier on Eichmann’s side of the equation, his example is simple the logical end point of the same idea: that some people aren’t really people like you and me, and they don’t deserve the same considerations. It’s actually not that big a step between giving your maid a cupboard and locking them in said cupboard after a disagreement. If you never stop to talk to the people who bear the brunt of your decisions, then in the right circumstances we can even justify that we are doing something good while we are really doing something very bad. If we look around us, we all see this every day.

But if you see evil as something that only bad people do… if you’ve never been the maid… then how easy is it to understand your own role in this?

After reading the article in The Guardian, I also read a local piece about the difficulties faced by renters in New Zealand when stuck with bad landlords. More than a few commentors felt the need to say that a mouldy house in New Zealand is the fault of the tenant and not the landlord, and that the “whinging” tenants just needed to open their windows more often (as if that will fix a leaking roof) or simply buy their own house (as if they could afford it). Our world is reaching a tipping point where inequality is becoming so entrenched that it’s no longer being seen as bad or undesirable. It’s seen as deserved. “I’m owed a window, and a decent place to live, and you… you’re not”.

I like to think that if I’d moved into that building in Singapore I would’ve run down the halls, throwing open the doors to all the “maid’s rooms” and yelling “You’re free!”… and got a lot of strange looks in return, and probably not one maid would’ve fled their employment. But in reality I likely would’ve just ground my teeth and kept quiet about the injustice of it all. It takes a lot of bravery to stand apart and not be complicit in the greater evils of your society, or even to just identify them as evil.

Just ask Eichmann.

Except you can’t. He was hanged by the people who survived his paperwork.



2 thoughts on “The Banality of Evil

  1. Great piece! I particularly like the part about it often being a lot of small actions that snowball rather than one big incident. There’s a great German film that came out last year (2015) called 13 Minutes aka Elser and it studies the ordinary people that contributed to the holocaust, reminded me of your observation. Definitely worth a look.


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