BARRETT: The banality of evil: A lesson from Auschwitz

Tom Barrett

While traveling through Central Europe last year, I had the opportunity to take a tour of the infamous grounds at Auschwitz. A six decade-long silence hung over the concentration camp-turned-museum as I followed the footsteps of over one million Europeans who would find their final resting place here. The cruelly deceptive words “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work will set you free”) hanging over the main gate welcomed me just as they did the doomed souls who passed through it in the early 1940s.

From the safe distance of time and display glass I saw the prisoners’ squalid living quarters, the fields where they were literally worked to death, the “shower rooms” where their last breaths were of lethal Zyklon B fumes and the crematoriums, where any physical proof of their existence vanished into thin air.

Most members of my tour group found themselves paralyzed by a sense of bewilderment as we questioned, “How could any human beings be capable of such unfathomable cruelty?”

Equally striking as the preserved grounds of the camp, my tour guide – a young Polish woman a year or two older than myself – told the tales of the fallen Europeans not only with articulate intelligence, but also with sincere passion that soaked every word she spoke. For most of the tour I couldn’t wrap my mind around how someone could tell the same stories over and over and over and maintain her enthusiasm … that is until she concluded our day.

As we stood in the prisoners’ bathroom – a barn filled with three long covered troughs on which prisoners had only seconds to sit and finish whatever they had to – she told us why she worked there. For her, Auschwitz is a powerful symbol of the evil ordinary people are capable of if they do not stand up for what is right. The perpetrators of these horrendous crimes were not otherworldly monsters vastly different than you and me; rather, they were ordinary people who got caught in the current of a country turned barbaric.

She implored that we not look at the Nazis as foreign creatures from us. Rather, she asked us to recognize the potential within us to become what these individuals became, so that we know better than to let history repeat itself.

Most of us are stupefied when we think about the unbelievable acts of savagery that humanity has been capable of throughout history. When we are so confused and disturbed we look for an easy answer. For many of us, it is easy to imagine ourselves on the front lines of the eternal battle between the forces of good and evil in the universe.

Reality is not so black and white, however, and the line between good and evil is not so clear. All human beings try to pursue what they think is best for themselves and perhaps also the people they care about. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The transition from good to evil is not a giant leap but rather a subtly slow shuffle. And if we are not critical of ourselves and the institutions we support, then we may wake up and find ourselves too far gone down a path we never thought we’d follow.

Though none of us would admit that we are capable of committing the attempted extermination of an entire people, the seeds of what drove the Nazis to torment and kill millions are still in us. The problem with evil is that it starts as something small.

Perhaps it is something as seemingly benign as buying fruit from a company that supports drug lords and corrupt governments in Latin America in order to keep prices low.

Or maybe it is supporting immigration legislation that attempts to keep out drug dealers and terrorists but also oversimplifies the issue and perpetuates stereotypes.

These examples do not seem so extreme, but that is precisely my point. As these seeds begin to dig their roots in the ground they won’t set off any warning sirens.

If we fail to recognize their spreading, we need only to look back in history to see the horrors that we as a species are capable of.


Tom Barrett is a senior philosophy major from Colonia, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected].