When we reflect on evil events of the past and present, it's natural for us to relegate the perpetrators into categories separate from ourselves. We often believe that something innate in these perpetrators’ personalities inclines them toward evil, something neither we nor anyone we know possesses. By placing these individuals outside ourselves, we do not have to think about whether we would be capable of despicable acts.
Photographs recently unearthed from historical obscurity perfectly encapsulate this inner struggle of capability. According to an essay in the latest issue of Culture (pdf available online), a publication of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, an American soldier last year anonymously donated a photo album found in an empty German apartment to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. At first glance, the photos from the album appear to depict summer camp or a corporate retreat; the subjects are laughing, eating, and relaxing. They are on a retreat of sorts, but not from the daily grind of a corporate office. Instead, the smiling faces are decompressing from their duties as SS personnel at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Writer Jennifer L. Geddes points specifically to Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil” and thoughtlessness as a “moral failing of the highest order,” applying these concepts to those in the photos:
“We are given a chilling vision of this ‘strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil,’ of the ways in which these SS personnel refused to think about what they were doing, failed to be reflective about the evil in which they were thoroughly engaged, and were able to enjoy a good time together with bowls of fresh blueberries and accordion music, even as they took part in mass murder.”
Nothing about the people in the photos signifies an innate evilness. One can easily imagine themselves and their own friends lounging on a porch or laughing in the rain. With context, however, the photos assume an ominous, eerie sheen. Taken less than 20 miles from the killing center, during a time when Auschwitz was working over capacity, the photos show the “interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil” better than words could ever tell.