Evil or Banal?

18 Aug

I must argue that what occurred in Germany in the thirties and forties was basically the most science- minded people on the planet practicing what was still considered to be, in that era, good science. Having been regarded as an academic discipline at many universities, the popular movement leading to the horror shows was supported in the US by Theodore Roosevelt, by scientists like Linus Pauling and by W.E.B. DuBois. In fact, this was not a decidedly right-wing effort, many progressives were onboard with it. Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Dalton, founded the movement in the U.K. and coined the phrase “Eugenics”.

[“ It is a social philosophy advocating the improvement of human genetic traits through the promotion of higher rates of sexual reproduction for people with desired traits (positive eugenics), or reduced rates of sexual reproduction and sterilization of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics)”.]

Eugenics – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


The movement was soon picked up enthusiastically in America and in time became legal in 50 states and some 60,000 so-called ‘defectives’ were forcibly sterilized with the intention of thereby improving society. Adolph Hitler included eugenic ideas in Mein Kampf but then, at the time, Winston Churchill and Margaret Sanger were supporters as well.  Hitler went on to institute legislation in Germany sponsoring eugenics to sterilize ‘defectives’ copying what  had been first pioneered in the United States known as the California method.

Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Progeny became law on July 14, 1933 in the Reich and led to 350,00 forced sterilizations in five years. However in order for the legalization of  “mercy killings” more time was needed to coax public opinion.  Hitler feared negative reactions by Christian churches. Modern propaganda techniques would eventually provide  the impetus to change public opinion.

[The first euthanasia episode emerged in the 1920s, as an adjunct to the eugenics campaign. “Racial improvement” stood at that time as a certified science, in America as in Europe. Professors of eugenics took posts in many prestigious universities, with the goal of improving the racial stock by encouraging the genetically “fit” to reproduce and by discouraging the so-called unfit from having children. Laws for the forced sterilization of these “unfit”—usually defined as the mentally ill, chronic alcoholics, epileptics, and persons with physical defects—enjoyed particular popularity in the United States. Indeed, experts saw the California law as the most progressive, a model of applied science devoted to “the public good.”] Dr. Allan Carlson


William Inge,  Anglican clergyman who wrote for the Eugenics Education Society in Britain, was an invited speaker at the International Eugenics Conference in 1921 endorsed by the Archbishop of New York. Popular support continued with such notables as H.G.Welles, Havelock Ellis and George Barnard Shaw on board until the excesses and sheer madness of the extermination camps in Europe were uncovered at war’s end.  Some of the defendants at the Nurenburg Trials after the war offered as defense that their actions were similar to what had originated in the United States. Most countries turned away from eugenics at this point but the US still continued with its sterilization programs.

It is tempting and very human to rail at the discovery of “pure evil” lurking in other humans. The discovery of the merely banal doesn’t seem to have enough sizzle for us.  To project absolute and intransigent loathing on a person or group seems a better fit somehow. So let it be with the Third Reich. Or perhaps we need to consider the solemn advocacy of learned and respected voices in Germany and abroad for prior decades that had preceded the terrible excesses.  Perhaps also we should acknowledge there had existed within the populous  a genuine desire to improve society and then add  the relentless  propaganda of radio, press and film they were subjected to for a generation. Top off with the grinding conditions suffered in a time of war. Does banal begin to deserve equal billing with evil here?

If one generation subjected to modern propaganda techniques championing a flawed scientific agenda placed a culture in lockstep towards such horrors as occurred how are we immune to a similar fate after being subjected to three additional generations of much improved propaganda now labeled “manufactured consent”? Consider our own society in light of recent adventures home and abroad:

Forced internment in camps of tens of thousands of American citizens. Fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo.  Hiroshima. Nagasaki.  Evil? Nope. We hear no Evil.

Continuing to forcibly sterilize Americans even after the WW ll revelations. Blitz bombing of North Korea. Agent Orange in Viet Nam.  Evil?  Nope. We see no Evil.

Torture regimes in Guantanamo. At Abu Ghraib. Afghanistan. Iraq. Ethiopia. Syria.  Evil?  Nope. We speak no Evil.

If the American collective consciousness neither sees, hears nor speaks of our own Evil, do we not then resemble, considering our same abiding interest in science and progress, the vast proportion of German citizens in the 1940s? And if this is so, how then are we immune to the ministrations of a forceful or seductive set of false values that will bring us as a people to equal horrors and actions?


2 Responses to “Evil or Banal?”

  1. Disaffected September 11, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

    Brilliant post! I’ve been thinking the same thing for years, but you spelled it out here.

  2. ibonobos September 11, 2016 at 2:06 pm #

    We do tend to abuse or trivialize language until it is next to useless i.e evil. Now terrorist is in the barrel and on its way to banality. Cheers.

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