2010-04-27

Why it would be a good thing to humanize Hitler

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by Neil Godfrey

Adolf Hitler as a baby

Adolf Hitler as a baby

I have begun to ready my second Chris Hedges book, this one, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, and have even more deeply mixed feelings about it than I had for American Fascists. It was not what I expected. I had expected a more philosophical treatise about atheism per se, but it’s nothing like that. I agreed with just about every criticism he makes of Sam Harris, and with a number of his criticisms of Chris Hitchens. I was particularly pleased to see Hedges refer to Robert Pape’s research (Dying to Win) debunking the myth linking suicide terrorism with a particular race or religion. (Suicide bombers have included Christians, Buddhists, socialists as well as Muslims – and the reasons for it are despair in the face of tyranny/evil, not religion. See also Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism.) Hedges casts his rhetorical net far too wide, however, in his interpretations of the writings of Daniel Dennett as some form of intolerant “new atheism”, and is certainly tendentiously selective in his treatment of the Enlightenment.

But I do find myself in strong sympathy with one of his themes in particular, on condition that I can change one key word. Hedges speaks of “sin”. I would substitute “evil”.

We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. (p.13) [let’s say, “who do not believe in evil”].

Evil seems a more universal reality, sin strikes me as a particular cultural and religious concept that itself has been responsible for much evil. I fully agree with Hedges that the human species is not advancing morally. What is advancing, with however many reversals, are some aspects of our social evolution through which we have learned to modify and control some of our more destructive natures.

But evil can only come of seeing evil in others and not in ourselves. Waging a war on “evil” (equating it with terrorism) is only perpetuating the bloody evil at the root of “terrorism” in the first place.

Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect, is worth a read to remind us, according to its subtitle, “how good people turn evil”. He shows how normal healthy everyday people can so quickly turn into the very image of psychopathic and sadistic monsters in their treatment of others.

I fear that thinking in terms of “sin” only opens the door of religious faith for certain people to think they can be completely absolved from sin, meaning they are free from the same propensity for evil that we all share. Born again Christians have been known to launch wars of aggression. And as per the Nuremberg principles, “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

It’s been a mistake (understandable, of course, but still a mistake) since the Second World War for media and leaders to regularly sign up to any opportunity to demonize Hitler and the Nazis. (And any other monsters you might prefer to think of.) There was outrage with the film Downfall a few years ago because it showed the human side of Hitler. He was shown as a man with normal human compassion, sensitivities, loves, feelings, like the rest of us.

This is a mistake because it enables us to deny the facts of our common humanity. Hitler really was one of us. We are all the same basic nature. Sure, some of us wish others had some curative lobotomies or brain-cell laser treatment to make annoying and malicious people “more like us”, or just more “normal”. Yet of course all such variations of propensities and predispositions is part of the collective human experience. It’s hard to recognize the range of our real natures when ensconced in modern state-controlled environments, with the benefits of enlightened education and relative prosperity. We are a bit like our pet dogs that seem to have been part and parcel of our evolution. Domesticated, they know how to behave. They are nonetheless by nature wolf-pack animals, and we know what our pet topsies can become when they escape outdoors to join a pack of their own kind.

What fascinated and disturbed me when I saw the film of Eichmann’s trial was the undeniable fact that I was watching a man who was like me and my colleagues. The banality of evil, etc. What is the difference between those who snuff out thousands of civilians with an atomic bomb (to save the lives of their soldiers) and the Nazi officer who shoots half a dozen villagers (to save the lives of his soldiers)? I suggest it is only personal circumstances and conditioning experiences. Is this also enough to explain those who oppose the evil of both?

Recognizing the dark side of  our common humanity — this is the horror that hits home when we understand Hitler. Demonizing him is a denial of our real natures.

One word, I suspect, in Chris Hedges’ book prompted me to write this now. He spoke of the Weimarization of the United States. The alienation and disillusionment of the public in relation to the political processes. Coincidence, of course, but I recently linked to an interview by Chris Hedges with Noam Chomsky who spoke of the same thing. A warning.

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8 Comments

  • kelvin
    2010-04-27 11:34:04 UTC - 11:34 | Permalink

    To advance morally the concept of sin must stay but forgiveness must go. If religious people believed not that one little sin will send you to hell for all eternity but if you say these magic words or whatever all your sin is gone and you go to heaven scott free but instead that everyone is punished after they die for whatever they did wrong and there is no form of magic absolution then people would live more moral lives.

    The concept of forgiveness of sin, or put in a better way the notion of special people who have the forgiveness of sin because they were better than everyone else (maybe even predestined) and so they obeyed God’s magical ceremonies (or believed the unproveable dogmas) and therefore consitute a higher form of being–that is what fuels mistreatment of others. The notion that everyone is going to get what they deserve in the end would produce a more reserved propensity toward morality, in that people would seek to do what is right themselves without the over-ocupation on bossing everyone else around which characterizes religions where belief/ceremony are taught to produce absolution.

    What produces evil more often than anything else (I conjecture) is when a man or woman thinks they are beyond being judged by God. They have the magical amulet, the ultimate incantation, the perfect belief–whatever their supersitition may be–that makes their actions beyond scrutiny. God will just look the other way when they do wrong, and somehow this constitutes them in their mind as his avenger on everyone else who doesn’t have the mojo. They will condemn and persecute those who commit the same sins as themselves and not even see the irony, because to them, they have a sort of diplomatic immunity. This is the sort of reasoning that must be abolished. There is no diplomatic immunity before God. He judges all on the basis of works. No faith, no ceremony, no amulet, no incantation will render you above judgement nor make you the judge of others.

  • kelvin
    2010-04-27 11:39:24 UTC - 11:39 | Permalink

    By sin obviously I mean evil not deviation from the rules of a capricious maltheistic deity. One reason for retaining the word sin is so that when some religious nut says his god commanded genocide I can say his god is a sinner.

  • jack
    2010-04-27 11:48:24 UTC - 11:48 | Permalink

    Whenever there’s a shooting, what do the neighbors and such always say? “He was such a nice guy.” So the movie shows Hitler being nice to his secretary. Just proves what is proven every week. Evil monsters are nice guys when they aren’t being evil monsters. I’ve heard people say they know nice Calvinists. I find it hard to believe because to me a CAlvinist is the incarnation of Satan, but hey, they must really be nice when they aren’t perforating tongues and burning Servetus at the stake because everyone keeps saying so. When will we learn that just because someone may be pleasant to sit down and have a beer with that doesn’t mean that they aren’t burning Jews alive in their oven or killing Spanish antitrinitarians for fun?

  • Joe P
    2010-04-27 11:56:53 UTC - 11:56 | Permalink

    Noam Chomsky says “The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen,” — what? Obama isn’t charismatic enough to be a Hitler? How the hell did the guy get elected then? “What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’?” I thought Obama did that too already. Capitalists and bankers are the enemy Obama says. Didn’t Hitler say the same thing?

  • maryhelena
    2010-04-27 16:52:49 UTC - 16:52 | Permalink

    I’ve found Lyall Watson’s book “Dark Nature; A Natural History of Evil” to be well worth reading on the subject of evil. This comment has stayed with me:

    “Evil is not simply an absence of good, it is an absence of balance with good, and becomes manifest by such disequilibrium in a human being. The only real danger perhaps is already in us, not lurking in some infernal pit. There is little merit in search for evil in witches, devils, demons or other scapegoats. We are it. In the words of the cartoonist Walt Kelly’s Pogo: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us’. But that does not mean we can’t fight it”

    Watson also refers to Eichmann:

    “At Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1960 the prosecution hoped to use him to personify the horrors of the Holocaust and made every effort to bring out the evil in the man, but he turned out to be a disappointingly ordinary person. Hannah Arendt subtitled her book about the trial, ‘The Banality of Evil’, saying: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted, nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal”.

  • maryhelena
    2010-04-27 17:50:31 UTC - 17:50 | Permalink

    “Evil seems a more universal reality, sin strikes me as a particular cultural and religious concept that itself has been responsible for much evil.”

    While the idea of ‘sin’ is tied up with religious and cultural concepts – it is not that, in and off itself, that is such a serious problem. The real problem is the idea of forgiveness that is tied up with the idea of ‘sin’. And, unfortunately, it is the forgiveness idea, whether attached to the religious ideas of ‘sin’ or to the more universal idea of ‘evil’ that compounds the problems of ‘sin’ and evil into a far greater danger than they already are. It is the forgiveness culture that has a big role to play in the perpetuating of ‘sin’ and evil. (One only needs to think of the battered wife syndrome or the present child abuse scandal in the RCC).

    I first got interested in the whole forgiveness debacle some years ago while watching an episode of the Oprah show. Dr Phil was ‘helping’ a young woman get ‘closure’ by having her stand in front of a large picture of the man who had murdered her father – and forgive him – which she did with tears running down her face. My immediate reaction was of a cold sense of apprehension, disquiet, unease. Since then I’ve read a number of books and found that my reaction was not without merit. I was heartened a little while back to read about the Reverend Julie Nicholson who was unable to forgive the London Tube bombers for killing her daughter – and she subsequently resigned her priestly job – as she could no longer celebrate the Eucharist because of her un-forgiveness position. She made the point that “a re-examination of the concept of forgiveness” is necessary”.

    That re-examination is not about to come from the religious cultures – but it is coming from secular sources. Theological infiltration into psychotherapy has been deep seated but perhaps the tide is turning…

    Three books well worth reading on the subject are:

    Before Forgiving: Cautionary Views of Forgiveness in Psychotherapy. Edited by Sharon Lamb and Jeffrie G. Murphy.

    Getting Even: Forgiveness and its Limits: Jeffrie G. Murphy.

    Forgiveness and the Healing Process: A Central Therapeutic Concern. Edited by Cynthia Ransley and Terri Spry.

    My own view is that if forgiveness works it is only because of the placebo effect i.e. it is what one believes about it that might bring about some benefit. However, it is not our illusions that will help to create a moral social environment – logic and reason can lead the way – and, as in the case of Julie Nicholson, our emotional reaction to evil acts, our reluctance to forgive these acts, should be applauded not dampened by expectations to forgive.

    • 2010-04-28 16:32:10 UTC - 16:32 | Permalink

      I think I first saw through the mind-game of Christianity when I realized that believing oneself to be totally forgiven (loved, accepted) by a god-figure is all it takes for a “new birth”, a transformation of one’s life, a conversion, etc. It doesn’t matter if the god is Jesus or a totem pole. It’s the psychological trick that does it all.

      I think you are right here. We don’t have to forgive to be “good”. We don’t have to descend to the same level as the psychopathic types, either, in revenge. We can still work through justice and treatment and punishment without having to always “forgive”. (Not that I’m against forgiveness for normal offences. But why not speak of magnanimity or graciousness? They do just as well, don’t they?)

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