Another wonderful piece in the LRB today about the French Resistance during the Second World War. I found a British agent’s reflection on the people he served with particularly moving:
What I shall try to get across,’ he told a symposium in 1973, ‘is the complete and crushing ordinariness of the people I worked with in France.’ Among them were a barber, a man who made bicycle bells, a village butcher, a bank clerk, a saddler, a retired schoolmistress, a baker and his wife. These were, as he puts it, unheroic working-class and middle-class families, not particularly less selfish, greedy or willing to follow orders than their neighbours, and yet capable – in the hour of trial – of sacrificial courage. That, to Harry, was the reason their ordinariness
The piece ends with Harry returning to France many years later to meet with old friends and comrades:
And then, ‘one evening, some old comrades organised a gathering in Harry’s honour, but they showed no interest in what he had been doing for the past four decades, preferring to slap backs and complain in loud voices about Arabs and Vietnamese, and also about their wives, and women in general, with the exception of Margaret Thatcher.’ He found this ‘phoney, oppressive and grotesque – “like Buñuel”, as he put it once we had made our excuses and left’. And yet, it’s hard not to feel that his hosts were demonstrating exactly the point he kept trying to make: their ‘complete and crushing ordinariness’. The times had changed; they had changed with them. Perhaps they could no longer imagine how they had once done such things. But Harry could not forget that they had once been extraordinary, and the memory hurt.
I was tempted to label this post the banality of good in reference to Hannah Arendt’s famous description of Eichmann. There seemed a cursory resemblance in the disconnect between the sheer moral weight of their actions and the plain bodies which carried them out. Were the people Harry worked with no more angelic than Eichmann was demonic?
After reading into the Banality of Evil a little more closely, I jettisoned the allusion. Any surface resemblance ignores the question of consciousness. Eichmann was banal because he had abdicated all empathy or thought. He commit crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong. It would be wrong to think him an amoral cog because that kind of abdication is itself a moral choice.
To me at least, in their hour of trial, Harry’s comrades were able to do the exact opposite of Eichmann, to find within themselves the sentience and will to make the right moral decision and stake everything on it. That they were not everyday Supermen only made these rare acts more exceptional.
Reading through one of Arendt’s original New Yorker pieces from her time in Jerusalem I discovered the shocking reference to the reluctance of West German authorities in the 1960s to prosecute war criminals:
For the first time since the close of the war, German newspapers were full of stories about trials of Nazi criminals—all of them mass murderers—and the reluctance of the local courts to prosecute these crimes still showed itself in the fantastically lenient sentences meted out to those convicted. (Thus, Dr. Hunsche, who was personally responsible for a last-minute deportation of some twelve hundred Hungarian Jews, of whom at least six hundred were killed, received a sentence of five years of hard labor; Dr. Otto Bradfisch, of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units of the S.S. in the East, was sentenced to ten years of hard labor for the killing of fifteen thousand Jews; and Joseph Lechthaler, who had “liquidated” the Jewish inhabitants of Slutsk and Smolevichi, in Russia, was sentenced to three years and six months.)
This final quote of Arendt’s, taken from Brain Pickings, felt appropriate:
“Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not… No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”