The Banality of Evil vs The Inevitability of the Acceptance of Evil

re-posted from the old blog, but well worth looking over again.

Excerpted from Vanity Fair, March 1991

The Years of Living Dangerously
a profile of Ryszard Kapuscinski by Stephen Schiff

"I want to tell you now something," he says quietly. "You know, like
every Polish writer I was censored, for forty years. The most
difficult result of censorship is self-censorship
, because it changes
your way of thinking, and it's completely unconscious after a time.
All of us after the Communists, we all have to fight this, and I am
fighting all the time. But the reason I am saying this here, in this
place [the former Warsaw Ghetto]: you know, Hannah Arendt in her book
about Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem, she was unable to
understand why the Jews were going so passively to their death – why
the Holocaust was possible, why there was no resistance. But I
understand it, because I was there and I saw the thing. And I have an
answer that I would say to Hannah Arendt.

"There was nothing strange in the behaviour of those people. It was
natural. Because if you don't see any hope, you are very passive. I'm
not speaking of individuals. You always find a hero willing to fight
against everybody. But the masses, if you put them in a situation of
extreme hardship, they beome very passive. Lack of hope paralyzes
their will, paralyzes their brain, paralyzes their movement. That's
why people who are really in a famine, who have real hunger, do
nothing. They are waiting for death, unable to move. If you went to
the market in Ethiopia during the famine, you would see that the
market is full of food. And around the market, you have people dying
of hunger. So your first reaction is to ask yourself why these people
don't just attack the market dealers – the food is right there. Plenty
of food. Their lives are at stake. But if you ask that, you are like
Hannah Arendt and you don't understand what it means to be in a
situation of complete desperation with no way out. It makes you

But wait a minute, I say. You of all people have witnessed the
opposite. You've been there when a change, a revolution, becomes
possible. He smiles. "Yes, you're right," he says. "When a revolution
comes, it is at the very moment when there is some improvement. But
improvement is too slow, too limited – that's when people revolt. But
first they have to be set in some motion. If you are in a motionless
situation, you will never revolt."

He seems to be formulating a kind of Newtonian physics of revolution.
Laws of political inertia, political velocity. The very thing that
happened in Eastern Europe in 1989, that happened in South Africa in
1990, that continues in the Soviet Union even now. A body at rest will
remain at rest. And a body in motion…

"It's true," he says. "I was not in Pinsk at the time, but I know
people who witnessed the liquidation of the ghetto in Pinsk. At that
time there were some 30,000 people in the ghetto of Pinsk. And when
the moment of the Final Solution came, they were sent through the
town, in columns. Rabbis marched at the head of each column. And in
columns – one huge, huge column – they walked to the place which is
about ten kilometers outside of town, in a small forest. There were
mass graves dug there, long graves, and on the opposite side of every
grave was a Nazi soldier with a machine gun. And the Jewish people of
Pinsk were taken to the verge of the grave and were shot. One row fell
in the grave, and the next row came, was shot, fell down, and the next
row, shot, fell down – in silence. All in silence.

"The machine gun in World War II was still a very heavy instrument,
and those soldiers became, after some minutes, very tired. So they
asked the Jews to stop so the soldiers could rest and smoke a
cigarette. Then the soldiers would be sitting on the dirt piles of the
gave, smoking cigarettes and taking a rest. After resting for some
time, they picked up their machine guns, and they asked the rabbis to
walk again, and again they continued to shoot. There were eyewitnesses
to this, because some people survived. So Hannah Arendt couldn't
understand it, but it is understandable.
If you are in Pinsk, and you
are already so desperately run-down – no food, sick, hopeless, no way
to escape – you will just follow the orders of your religious leaders.
You will march in columns. You will wait while they smoke. You will go
to your death."

One thought on “The Banality of Evil vs The Inevitability of the Acceptance of Evil

  1. Pingback: welcome to the blogroll: eteraz « raincoaster

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