The more I think about it, the more I see the problem of evil as a triple-layered one. Put another way, it is three circles of hell. It is not only that those of us who believe in some kind of divine dimension have to accept that “God” allows evil to happen, though we don’t understand why. We also have to face up to the second-circle fact that evil is done by people. People like you and me do evil to other people like you and me. Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” applies in every generation. Why do such ordinary-seeming people do what they do?
Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the 1950s demonstrated that certain types of people are prepared to obey authority, however unethical and demanding, to the point of torturing people if ordered to do so. But this do not provide a complete answer to our question. There are, after all, plenty of people around who would not feel they had to wait for permission to torture someone if the opportunity was there. Sometimes we catch them.
The Third Circle
More sinister are those in the third circle of hell who are not waiting for orders but are eager to enlist torture, violence and murder in the cause of Doing Something Good. They are the ones who carry out atrocities and call them right, or deserved, or beneficial in some way. They are the ones that claim to have no alternative: this must be done. They would be outraged to be told that in this they were catastrophically wrong or, in a word, evil.
William Burroughs wrote, “The face of evil is always the face of total need.”
All this gets worse, much worse, the more we narrow our focus on individual people and incidents. This is not sentimentality but the cold brutality of detail. I want to mention one in particular, amply covered in the colossal, baleful literature of the Holocaust.
The Kaunas garage massacre
In June 1941 German army formations drove Soviet forces out of Lithuania. Over the next few weeks, many Lithuanians took the opportunity to turn against the country’s substantial Jewish minority. This savage pogrom reached a climax of sorts on 25 June, a bright summer day, when some men herded 70 or so Jews into the forecourt of the Lietukis garage in Kaunas and there subjected them to water torture before beating them to death with steel poles, iron bars and crowbars.
Eye-witness accounts of this atrocity have been collected by historians and assembled on a website: to read these accounts is to stumble into horror. It is unbearable. There are photos too, only too easy to find on the web for those who wish to; I am not linking them here. One shows a young fair-haired man, pole in hand, standing triumphantly smiling over the bodies and the blood.
The point I want to draw attention to is the fact that the whole incident was watched by a crowd of ordinary people. Testimony says that they did so approvingly, applauding and cheering frequently.
They had their children with them.
The children saw everything, as did a group of German army officers who took the view that it was not their place to intervene. One of these officers, however, gave evidence to an official enquiry years later:
“At first I thought this must be a victory celebration or some type of sporting event because of the cheering, clapping and laughter that kept breaking out. However, when I asked what was happening I was told the “death dealer of Kovna” is at work and he would make sure that all “traitors and collaborators” received a fitting punishment for their “treachery.” When I drew closer I witnessed a display of brutality that was unparalleled by anything I saw in combat during two world wars.”
It is minutely fair to say at this point that some youngsters were prevented from seeing what was going on, and the German military soon became alarmed at ‘excesses’ of this kind and took steps to control them. But it is the children, some of them in their mother’s arms or on their fathers’ shoulders, that I think about. What did they feel in later life? That their parents had been right? What depths of evil drag in children?
A candle in the dark
I think more often of a famous incident that took place not seven weeks later than this, in Auschwitz. There, the Polish Franciscan Fr Maximilian Kolbe was a force for good in his part of the camp. When another prisoner managed to escape, the commandant ordered those remaining to be paraded in front of him so that he could send some to die in the ‘starvation block.’ A Catholic devotional website has the most detailed account of what happened next, but here it is in brief.
One of those selected, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children! I will never see them again!” At this point, Fr Kolbe stepped forward and, describing himself as ‘elderly’ (he was 47), offered to go in Gajowniczek’s place. His offer was accepted, and he was shut in with the others. After they had all starved to death, and he was the last one left alive, the priest was executed with an injection of carbolic acid.
Maximilian Kolbe was declared a saint and martyr by Pope John Paul II on 10 October 1982, at a ceremony attended by Franciszek Gajowniczek, who lived until 1995, and members of his family.
I leave the last words to Elie Wiesel who, in his Nobel Lecture in 1986, said this:
“Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered. New Year’s Day, Rosh Hashana, is also called Yom Hazikaron, the day of memory. On that day, the day of universal judgment, man appeals to God to remember: our salvation depends on it. If God wishes to remember our suffering, all will be well; if He refuses, all will be lost. Thus, the rejection of memory becomes a divine curse, one that would doom us to repeat past disasters, past wars.”
In memory of our third cousin Alfried Kraushaar, deported from Vienna to Riga, date unknown (1941?), date and place of death unknown.