Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil: A Report on the Beguilings of Evil

In Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil: A Report on the Beguilings of Evil (1993), Fred E. Katz begins where Hannah Arendt’s examination of the banality of evil ended. Katz tries to apply the techniques of sociology to the question of how ordinary people, without deliberate evil intent, commit horrendous deeds.

Katz himself narrowly escaped the massacre of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. When he returned to his former village after the war, he heard the villagers explain their passivity or collaboration during the Nazi persecutions by using the same language they used at the time: “There is nothing we could do about it. We are just little people. It’s the government.”

But he noticed that the village had erected a plaque in honor of the boys and men who had died fighting for the Axis, and remarks that it was just this loyalty and willingness to serve that doomed the victims of the Nazi era.

Yet some little people, in some little villages, did do something about it. They hid some of these hounded people. They fed some of these hounded people. They helped some of these hounded people escape.

During the visit to my village I found out that there had been one exception to the pattern of passively leaving Jews to the evil deeds of the Nazi government: A lone woman stood by Jews. She brought them food. She talked with them. She did not join in the distancing by the rest of the villagers. But she was not able to save anyone or offer much protection. She said to me, concerning the Nazis, “what they did was not right.” And she wept.

Despite such exceptional human beings, the Nazi-German government achieved its objectives of carrying out massive evil because it had the help of a multitude of “the little people,” who paid their taxes, sent their sons to the front, and closed their eyes to the savaging of innocent people in their midst.

How do ordinary people, who largely profess good values, and who have no particular interest in doing evil things, nonetheless become instrumental in horrible crimes? Katz set himself the task of analyzing this question from the perspective of sociology, concentrating mainly on the Holocaust but also looking at some other examples. Here are some of the conclusions he draws:

Some of the most important, far-reaching, portentous decisions that we make in our lives as ordinary people — whom we marry, what profession we adopt, etc. — we tend to make without thinking at the large scale. Instead, we make these decisions in the form of a culmination of smaller decisions that we make with a very short-term, here-and-now focus on transient priorities. Katz gives the example of someone who has spent her professional career as a nurse despite never having had any passion for nursing. She went into nursing school because a high school friend did, or in the hopes of catching the eye of a marriageable doctor, then got out of school with no better job prospects, then had no experience in anything but nursing, and finally found herself to be a life-long nurse in spite of herself.

In the same way, Katz argues, we can be beguiled into great careers of evil by taking many small steps in which our minds are only focused on the concerns of the moment. Never intending to be an evil monster, like never intending to be a nurse, one can nonetheless find oneself fulfilling that role.

Also, our roles and our enterprises tend to be a package of many elements, some of which we find engaging or are passionately invested in, and to others of which we are indifferent or even opposed. In these packages, we will emphasize to ourselves the parts that we care about, and play down the other parts. Because of this, we may find ourselves doing evil things, thinking that those things are merely incidental to our real purpose. (Am I designing a terrible new weapon of mass destruction? I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’m solving a difficult engineering challenge… I’m serving my country ably… I’m impressing senior management… I’m providing for my family… etc.)

In addition, our values tend not to be held as absolutes, but as things in flux and in competition with each other. At any time, and in any circumstance, certain values may be prioritized over other ones. Rudolph Hoess, the commandant of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, said he was repulsed by his job of mass extermination of the victims of the Nazi regime — it offended his idea of the value of human life. But he held other values, such as his loyalty to the Nazi government and its ideology, and his bureaucratic ambitions, at a higher priority, and so not only did he do his job, but he did it well, in an enterprising and inventive way.

For the unfortunate victims of Hoess’s deeds it made no difference whether he had renounced the sanctity-of-human-life value or merely placed it in a very subordinate position in his personal package of values. But for Hoess, personally, it made a great deal of difference. By placing that value in a subordinate position, and not explicitly renouncing it, he could continue to tell himself that he was still a sensitive and humane person, still the same person he had always been.

Indeed, Hoess used the revulsion he felt at the job he was assigned as a way of justifying his acts — as a variety of personal suffering that consecrated his deeds. His twinges of conscience ironically served him as further evidence of his virtue.

Hoess also used compartmentalization to help preserve his self-image. At work, he was a ruthless and efficient mass murderer who brooked no squeamishness from his underlings. At home, he tried to have a placid, mundane, warm home life, at which concerns from “the office” were not allowed to intrude.

Katz also notes how important it is to respond to qualms of conscience quickly. When you have started doing evil deeds you will also start developing justifications for them, and these justifications will make it easier for you to continue doing more evil. Many times these justifications take the form of reprioritizations of your values, so that by justifying an evil act in one area, you open the door to committing evil in many others (after all, if I was justified in killing this Jew with impunity because Jews are subhuman, why should I have to be at all humane to any Jews ever?)

I found this slim book to be thought-provoking and its project to be an important and welcome one. I am a little concerned that the application of what he insists is the “science” of sociology to the question may run the risk of merely inventing “just-so” stories that offer the illusion of being explanatory or predictive without actually being so. Even so, I think that the process of taking this issue seriously and soberly trying to understand and defend against it can be beneficial, even if it isn’t yet literally scientific.