About Evil, Part 2

(continued from here)

In Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, it is repeatedly, variously, and insistently noted how no person is of his own making, since each person finds himself in contexts, in situations which are forced upon him and which restrict his actions and shape his will. For instance, this theme comes up when the main character, Maximilien Aue, interrogates a recently captured Regimental Commissar, Ilya Semionovich Pravdin, who says:

… you can at least agree with me on one point … our ideologies have this basic thing in common, which is that they are both essentially deterministic … We both believe that man doesn’t freely choose his fate, but that it is imposed on him by nature or history … we both reject the homo economicus of the capitalists, the egotistical, individualistic man trapped in his illusion of freedom, in favor of a homo faber: Not a self-made man but a made man … or a man yet to be made … constructed, educated … (pp. 394-395)

Aue is not as much of an ideologue as the Russian appears to be, but Aue certainly thinks that each person is hemmed in. Contrary to the Russian, Aue would likely say that each person is defined more by chance than by nature or history [1], and although Aue would allow that there is some freedom [2], that freedom is of no consequence. So, despite the distinctions in the details of Aue’s and the Russian’s manners of thinking, Aue still stresses the point that no individual is free enough or sufficiently in control to make the world as he would have it:

When a soldier is sent to the front … not only is he risking his life, but he is forced to kill, even if he doesn’t want to kill; his free will abdicates … The man posted to a concentration camp, like the man assigned to an Einsatzkommando or a police battalion … knows that his free will has nothing to do with it … (p. 592)

Aue insists that when a circumstance is forced upon an individual (such as when one man by chance is assigned to serve in an extermination camp while his neighbor is not), since the forced circumstance is not of the individual’s making, that situational necessity makes it veritably impossible to judge the person as evil or good based on what the person does in that circumstance:

What I wanted to say is that if man is certainly not, as some poets and philosophers have made him out to be, naturally good, he is not naturally evil, either: good and evil are categories that can serve to qualify the effect of the actions of one man on another; but they are, in my opinion, fundamentally unsuitable, even unusable, to judge what does on in the heart of that man. (p. 590)

Aue uses the story of an acquaintance he had made with Untersturmführer Döll in order to clarify or justify the point he was making about judgments and evil:

… he had gone to a technical school; he wanted to be a farmer, but with the crisis he had joined the police: “My children were hungry, it was the only way to be sure I could put food on the table every day.” At the end of 1939, he had been assigned to Sonnenstein for the Euthanasia Einsatz. He didn’t know how he had been chosen. “On one hand, it wasn’t very pleasant. But on the other, it wasn’t the front, and the pay was good, my wife was happy. So I didn’t say anything.” (p. 589)

When asked about his work in the Sobibor extermination camp, Döll

shrugged his shoulders: “Sobibor? It’s like everything, you get used to it.” He made a strange gesture, which made a strong impression on me: with the tip of his boot, he scraped the floor, as if he were crushing something. “Little men and little women, it’s all the same. It’s like stepping on a cockroach.” (p. 589)

The character of Ikonnikov, a prisoner in German concentration camp in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (New York: New York Review Book, 2006), contrasts starkly with that of Untersturmführer Döll.

One day, Ikonnikov hands “some dirty sheets of paper covered in writing” (p. 303) to a fellow prisoner, an old and still dedicated Bolshevik who is no friend to Ikonnikov. Ikonnikov tells the Bolshevik, “Have a look at this. Tomorrow I might be dead.” The Bolshevik replies rather flippantly, “All right. But why’ve you decided to leave us so suddenly?” And Ikonnikov says, “Do you know what I’ve just heard? The foundations we’ve been digging are for gas ovens. Today we began pouring the concrete.”

Another prisoner, a “former Menshevik”, responds, “Yes, there were rumours about that when we were laying the railway-tracks.” And to this Ikonnikov pleads, “But how can people carry on working? How can we help to prepare such a horror?”

The former Menshevik shrugs his shoulders and answers, “Even if eight thousand people refused to work, it wouldn’t change anything. They’d be dead in less than an hour.” Ikonnikov insists, “No. I can’t. I just can’t do it.” And then the old Bolshevik chimes in, “Then that’s the end of you.”

Ikonnikov asks (p. 304) another prisoner, a priest named Gardi, “What must I do?” After the priest assures Ikonnikov that God will forgive, and after the Bolshevik snidely chimes in by tacking on, “It’s his job”, Ikonnikov addresses the Bolshevik saying:

But that’s just it … you too think you’re going to be forgiven.

This Bolshevik, as is the case with the Russian prisoner interrogated by Aue, thinks he and his acts are justified by his goal even though that goal is not yet achieved. Ikonnikov had earlier told him (p. 27), “For you, the end justifies the means – and the means you employ are inhuman.”

Ikonnikov will have nothing to do with this. He continues with his address to the Bolshevik:

I’m not asking for absolution of sins. I don’t want to be told that it’s the people with power over us who are guilty, that we’re innocent slaves, that we’re not guilty because we’re not free. I am free! I’m building a Vernichtungslager; I have to answer to the people who’ll be gassed here. I can say “No.” There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction. I will say “No!” (p. 305)

Gardi, the priest, put his hands on Ikonnikov’s head, then told Ikonnikov to give him his hand. The Menshevik announced that the priest was about “to admonish the lost sheep for his pride”; the Bolshevik nodded his agreement:

But, rather than admonishing Ikonnikov, Gardi lifted his dirty hand to his lips and kissed it.

Aue insists that there is something amiss in the notion that someone like Untersturmführer Döll could be judged to be evil; he is, after all, trapped in a circumstance, a situation which is his only by chance and only because of necessity, including the need to ensure that his children and wife will be able to eat and go on living. Ikonnikov is also trapped in a circumstance not of his own making, and, yet, to him it seems perfectly proper to insist that what Döll does is evil. When Ikonnikov first met and spoke with the Bolshevik, Ikonnikov told him:

On the fifteenth of September last year I watched twenty thousand Jews being executed – women, children and old men. That day I understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist. In the darkness of the present day I can see your power and the terrible evil it’s fighting. (pp. 27-28)

Whereas Aue asserts that the circumstances forced upon each person can – and often does – effectively result in the abdication of free will, Ikonnikov insists that a person can be and is free in those very circumstances to which Aue refers. Whereas Aue appears to deny that there is evil so long as there is good “in the heart” — Döll, after all, “was a good man to those close to him” (p. 590), Ikonnikov appears to insist on the utter reality of evil regardless of any good — especially regardless of any good intentions that there might be .

These and other conflicts regarding (notions of) evil will be taken up as this blog series continues.

[1] For instance, see p. 592

[2] In response to von Üxküll, Aue says to himself but not aloud, “We don’t always have a choice.” The “don’t always” qualifier and Aue’s description of “free will abdicat[ing]” somewhat moderate the determinism asserted by the Russian.

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One Response to About Evil, Part 2

  1. Pingback: About Evil, Part 3 | The Kindly Ones

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