The Banality of Hitler
It’s a natural law of online debates that someone will eventually end up comparing the people they disagree with to Hitler. Indeed, Hitler occupies a unique place in our culture: a figure so universally reviled that a comparison to him is the ultimate rebuke (at least to the unsophisticated), so iconic that just a side-sweep of hair and a thick vertical line prompts instant recognition:
There’s perhaps no comparison so abused, such that it’s often used against any tin-pot despot, any leader perceived to be overreaching his power, or even anyone who’s vaguely to the right of the political spectrum (if only from the speaker’s perspective).
Then there’s the opposite fallacy: the notion that Hitler is the epitome of evil – so evil that no one can possibly be as evil as him, such that comparing someone to him is always absurd, always hyperbole. But Hitler is not as uniquely evil as people commonly suppose. In her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s lieutenants, Hannah Arendt, shocked to find that this mass-murderer, this great war criminal, actually seemed so normal, so ordinary, coined the term “the banality of evil” to describe him. Something similar could be said of his boss.
Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem
Hitler’s murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust was horrific, but he’s hardly unique when we also look at Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who led the Islamic State as it slaughtered the Yazidi people in their thousands and turned their women into sex slaves, and Theoneste Bagosora, the military officer who orchestrated the Rwandan genocide that killed some 800,000 Tutsis, and Pol Pot, the dictator behind the Cambodian genocide that claimed 2 million people – a quarter of the country’s population.
Photos taken by the Khmer Rouge (Pol Pot’s Communist party) of their victims, now displayed at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh (Picture Credit: Dudva)
Sadly, it wasn’t even Hitler’s genocide that prompted the Allies to take up arms against him; it was his insatiable greed for territory, which manifested in his habit of annexing neighboring countries – but here he’s even more ordinary. Stalin did the same thing; so did Napoleon, and Charlemagne, and Genghis Khan; so did every conqueror who ever lived, including those we now romanticize, like Alexander the Great. The British Empire did it, the Roman Empire did it, the Chinese Empire did it – basically everywhere that was ever an empire did it at some point. Indeed, throughout history, often one of the main determinants of a great ruler was whether he or she was successful in expanding the country through territorial conquest. In this respect, Hitler was completely normal.
Jacques-Louis David’s romantic depiction of the great conqueror, Napoleon
The point is not to diminish Hitler’s crimes, or to suggest that genocide or seizing another country’s territory and incorporating it into your own regardless of the wishes of the populace is acceptable because this was common practice historically: it’s not. We live in a much more civilized time when some things that were once considered acceptable (like slavery) are now rightly viewed as abhorrent – abhorrent enough to be worth fighting to stop. Nor is the point to engage in bootless whataboutism and moral relativism – yes, pretty much every civilization has committed atrocities in the past; what’s important is that some have faced up to these atrocities and renounced them (and divested themselves of their colonies), whilst some not only refuse to face up to them, they continue to commit them today. We should obviously be more concerned with what someone is doing now than with what his ancestors did long ago.
The point is that if we view Hitler as sui generis, as a one-of-a-kind monster who appeared once and will never manifest again, as a boogeyman only evoked to scare people, a creature of distant legend, we blind ourselves to the fact that there really are people as bad, or near as bad, as him today. Uyghurs aren’t being gassed to death in China, but a million of them are being kept in detention camps, often for no better reason than their religion and ethnicity, and, in forcibly sterilizing them en masse, Xi Jinping’s government is engaging in genocide. In his obsession with restoring Russian “greatness” Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine, and, if not stopped there, will likely do the same to other neighboring countries. Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian dystopia puts the Third Reich to shame in its level of thought-control. The Taliban’s theocracy makes even Nazi Germany seem attractive: say what you will about Hitler, at least he never banned music or education for girls.
Uyghur detainees at a “reeducation” camp in Xinjiang
In his book, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that people tend to be complacent about the monsters in their midst until it’s too late, and underestimate the importance of constraining them, through military force, if necessary:
[W]e almost certainly will not recognize the Hitlers and Stalins in our midst until they have emerged as full-blown, unmanageable threats. There are always dangerous people out there, lacking only the power and the opportunity to achieve their destiny […] Many people have evil in them, and many of those people harbor grand designs, mad or not, that they never have a chance even to try to fulfill. They are constrained by the powers and forces around them, the “order,” whatever it may be, and so they never have a chance to reveal their true selves, even to themselves. The circumstances in which Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini rose to power – a world in which no nation was willing or able to sustain any kind of international order – gave them ample opportunity to show what they were capable of. Had there been an order in place to blunt those ambitions, we might never have come to know them as tyrants, aggressors, and mass killers. Perhaps if Weimar democracy had somehow survived, or if the Versailles Treaty had been effectively enforced, perhaps if the United States had done in 1919 what it later did in 1945, we might never have known the Hitler of our history books.
The “order” Kagan refers to is the system set up by the US and its allies after WWII, whereby seizing a country’s territory and incorporating it into your own regardless of the wishes of the populace is no longer considered acceptable. When the US and its allies were willing to go to war to prevent aggressors from doing this, as they did in the Korean War in 1950, in the Gulf War in 1991, and in the war against ISIS in 2014 – and were perceived to be willing to do so – this order held, which is why such aggression has decreased so dramatically since WWII. Now, however, that war-weariness and isolationism have blunted this willingness, such aggression is resurging – as Ukrainians are discovering to their sorrow.
Bodies in civilian clothes, some with their hands tied behind their backs, lie in a street in Bucha, Ukraine, after Russian occupation (Picture Credit: Ukrinform TV)
After WWII, a popular refrain was “Never again.” But what does it mean? If Hitler really is unique, that vow is meaningless (Hitler’s dead, of course he’s never coming back) – it only has meaning if he’s not unique, in which case it means “Never again will we allow someone like Hitler to commit the kinds of atrocities he did.”
Unfortunately, there are many people like Hitler today. He may be gone, but the same racism and fascism and aggression and greed that motivated him lives on in others; they always have, and they always will. (If we’re being honest, perhaps some of these traits are present, to a greater or lesser extent, in us too.) He may be gone, but there are others who are committing atrocities as horrific, or near as horrific as his, or would if given the chance, and trying to appease them is just as foolish, and just as dangerous. Such people triumph whenever good people do nothing, whenever they’re not willing to take up arms to stop them when push comes to shove. The question is: Who’s willing to fight them now?