Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Hitler and the banality of evil

As Godwin's Law demonstrates, Hitler is the modern world's archetype of evil.  Mao Zedong killed more people, and his henchman Ernst Roehm was a more violently depraved individual, but the Fuehrer has a unique iconic status as the closest that humanity has produced to an embodiment of malignity.  Norman Mailer thought that he was literally a minion of Satan.

Of course, he wasn't.  He was a human being with his own personal history, which was not that of a cartoonish Dr Evil figure.  Hitler wasn't a genocidal antisemite in childhood or adolescence: his initial political outlook seems to have been that of a fairly conventional pan-German nationalist.  He imbibed antisemitic attitudes while living in Vienna before the Great War, but it is not until 1919 - by which time he was in his 30s - that we find the first real evidence of what became his characteristically virulent race hatred.  Likewise, his general anger and bitterness about the world can plausibly be traced back in some form to his early adulthood, or even to his father's poor parenting, but it was many years before he made the transition from having a chip on his shoulder to engaging in violently antisocial behaviour, in the overripe atmosphere of 1920s Munich.  In different circumstances, he might have ended up as a mediocre Austrian artist with semi-respectable right-wing opinions.

It was the crimes of Nazism that produced Hannah Arendt's famous characterisation of the "banality of evil", as incarnated in Adolf Eichmann.  Eichmann was one of the central figures of the Holocaust and must be counted as one of the 20th century's greatest mass murderers.  Yet, when he was captured after the War, a series of Israeli mental health professionals concluded that he was psychologically normal.  Likewise, closer to home, the 7/7 bombers were mostly ordinary British Asian lads who played cricket, talked with Yorkshire accents and worked as teaching assistants and the like.

On the subject of Islamist terrorism, research on the radicalisation of violent jihadis suggests that there is no identikit profile of a potential terrorist and no single consistent cause of radicalisation.  At most, we can say that some factors recur across individual cases, such as interpersonal contact with other radicals and exposure to charismatic leaders, and that radicalised individuals usually have some source of vulnerability in their background, such as social marginalisation, family problems or financial hardship (for the research, see e.g. here, herehere, here and here).

Speaking of financial hardship, a traditional left-wing analysis would predict that individuals become violently asocial because of economic misery.  Yet research on Islamist terrorists shows that a surprising number of them are educated and gainfully employed: we are not talking about the wretched of the earth here.  Likewise, extreme right-wing parties in Europe tend to attract support not merely from the dregs of society but from a combination of the lower middle classes and skilled and unskilled manual workers.  The Nazi Party itself attracted support from across broad sections of German society: Richard Evans has called it a "catch-all party of social protest".

If economics is of no help, can psychology help us out?  There are certain personality types, known as authoritarians and social dominators, who seem to be predisposed towards radical beliefs and behaviour.  It might be suggested that, for example, Hitler was a social dominator while Eichmann was an authoritarian follower.  There is also a body of research on the phenomenon of psychopathy.  But psychology does not provide the explanatory key that we are looking for here.  It is far from clear that all or even most recruits to groups like the SS and al-Qa'eda belong to discrete, well-defined psychological categories, or that they can be identified in advance by means such as psychometric tests as having homicidal tendencies.  It's not that difficult for "normal", psychologically unremarkable people to become violent and barbaric.  This was famously demonstrated in the 1961 Milgram electric shock experiment (which was inspired by the Eichmann trial) and the 1971 Stanford prison experiment.

Child abuse is probably the most severely stigmatised act in modern Western society, and there are parallels to be drawn here with the academic research on abusive Catholic priests.  The really disturbing thing about this research, as I have noted previously, is that abusive priests do not differ statistically from other priests in their psychological and personality characteristics or their developmental histories (save that they are more likely to have been abused themselves).  Only a small minority suffer from the psychiatric disorder of paedophilia, and - contrary to claims made by conservative Catholics - most of them do not have a homosexual orientation (they tended to abuse boys because it has traditionally been a lot more difficult for Catholic priests to get private access to girls).  In other words, to all appearances, most of them were normal people like me and you.

The lesson is not that we are all Hitler - clearly, we're not - but that evil is more mundane and closer at hand than we think.  Compared with the Godwin's Law image of the Nazis as barely human cartoon villains, this is an altogether more disturbing thought.