Hitler in 1933. (via Wikimedia commons)
In the movie Hannah Arendt, the 20th century philosopher wrestled with the problem of what to make of the unimpressive Adolf Eichmann, on trial for organizing the exportation of Jews during World War II to concentration camps. But as the movie explored her thoughts, I began thinking, too. I thought about how it is a normal human tendency to want to follow rules , to do meaningful work, and to belong.
Even though Nazism was built on a twisted fairy tale woven by a madman, Germany in the 1930s was a creative but unsettled place. The modernness of art and architecture (such as the Bauhaus movement) was intimidating and strange. Berlin was filled with decadence. Too many people were unemployed. Economic troubles ran deep. Many were bitter about losing the First World War. People needed jobs. They wanted dignity. They wanted to belong. And the Nazis were efficient about providing these normal human needs. Individually, people got jobs scheduling trains or working in munitions factories or making poison gas. But each part of the operation was so fragmented from the other that many people but blinders on and thought only of their small part of the larger picture. They did not ask where the trains were going. They did not ask why the poison gas was made. As Arendt says (in the film) about Eichmann, “He was simply unable to think.” But all of these pieces, the handiwork of all these hardworking laborers, was to create one of the most evil forces the world has ever known.
Another example of this tendency of human beings to just want to do their jobs and follow the law is the behavior of the people of Netherlands during World War II. Perhaps because Anne Frank’s secret Annex is so famous, or because The Netherlands seems like such a hip, open, friendly society, many people are under the impression that the Netherlands was a safe haven for Jews, with noble Dutch farmers hiding Jewish families in their basements and haylofts. Indeed, the Netherlands had been a haven for Jews for centuries. But during the war, 75 percent of the Jews in the Netherlands were taken away and murdered—the highest rate in any Western European country. According to an article, in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, “The Holocaust in the Netherlands and the Rate of Jewish Survival” by Marnix Croes (http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/education/languages/dutch/pdf/article_croes.pdf) “Of the 140,000 people. . . . whom the Nazis considered “full” Jews in 1941, only 27 percent survived the occupation. Yet in Belgium, 60 percent of the approximately 66,000 Jews survived, and in France, 75 percent of the approximately 320,000 Jews escaped death at the hands of the Nazis.”
Not only were they betrayed in great numbers, the Jews were frequently rounded up by Dutch police. As Manfred Gerstenfeld wrote in Wartime and Postwar Dutch Attitudes Toward the Jews: Myth and Truth (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) (http://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp412.htm) “Since The Netherlands was well-administered and well-documented, it was relatively easy to round up the Jews. Orders were given by the occupiers and executed by the Dutch authorities.”
He adds,” After the flight of the Queen and the government (to England) . . .the Germans could count on the assistance of the greater part of the Dutch administrative infrastructure (to catch Jews). . . . Dutch policemen rounded up the families. . . Trains of the Dutch railways staffed by Dutch employees transported the Jews to . . . death camps. . . . Eichmann later said ‘The transports run so smoothly that it is a pleasure to see.’”
Efficiency. Hard work. A job well-done. These are important things. But what Hannah Arendt alludes to is that it is not enough to follow the law. It is not enough to do your job well. It is important to put it into a larger context. You cannot rely on your society alone as a moral compass. You, as an individual, are responsible for your little piece of what your society does.
Writing prompts: Is there some wrong you’d like to right? Do you believe your work is a force for good in the world?
But that’s not all . . . See Part 3 for more