“Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.” Captain G. M. Gilbert, US Army psychologist, Nuremberg trials

When I’m feeling down I have two coping strategies, I either watch a feel good film that cheers me up, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is one favourite, Singin in the Rain is another. The other alternative is to watch a film so bleak that it makes me realise how totally bloody lucky I am to be me, and living here and now. Last night I adopted the second strategy and watched Schindler’s List. It worked, but the snag with watching a film like Schindler’s List is, although it makes you realise how fortunate you are, if you’re the slightest bit interested in history or philosophy, it raises hideous questions. How could the holocaust happen? How could apparently normal people become involved in such crimes? This is particularly true when you’ve been agonising the nature of evil because of an issue thrown up in your every day life by an encounter with a ‘normal’ and superficially pleasant person.

Let’s not forget most of the people who perpetrated the holocaust were ‘normal’. Just how normal was shown by the book Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning. It’s an exceptional historical work. The book takes as its basis the detailed records of one squad from the Nazis’ extermination groups, Police Battalion 101, and explores in detail its composition, its actions, and methods. The crucial thing about this and other Police Battalions involved in the Holocaust was that they were all middle aged men too old and unfit to be conscripted into either the Wehrmacht or the Waffen SS. In the book Browning introduces us to cheerful, friendly, ordinary men who were trained to perform acts of genocide on an industrial scale. The first action in which they were involved was the killing of 1,500 Jews from Józefów ghetto, approximately 100 kilometers south of Lublin in southeastern Poland on July 13, 1942. Twelve out of 500 soldiers opted out when allowed to leave freely. Those of them who felt unable to continue the shooting at point-blank range of prisoners begging for mercy, were asked to wait at the marketplace where the trucks were loaded. The action was finished in seventeen hours. Only a dozen Jews are known to have survived the slaughter. The point that comes over clearly in the account Browning gives is that soldiers who did not want to participate were not compelled to, but over 400, most of whom had reached maturity before being exposed to Nazi propaganda, chose to do so. The book shatters all reassuring fantasies that atrocities – on whatever scale – are carried out by drooling sadistic monsters. It shows how ordinary men can gradually lose their humanity and lightly, casually murder men, women and children. It makes very uncomfortable reading.

But another book, by a US Army psychologist attached to the Nuremberg Trials comes even closer to explaining how such events can happen. G.M Gilbert was the prison psychologist responsible for the Nazi prisoners at Nuremberg, in his account of his experiences, Nuremberg Diary, he wrote:

“In my work with the defendants I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men.
Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

Unless you want to explore the deeper realms of metaphysics and theology, I think that is as good a working definition of evil as any I’ve come across. But lack of empathy is not just confined to the Holocaust and the past. And this what I’ve been agonising over, a few weeks ago we were with a distant acquaintance in a pub. His marriage is going through a rocky patch, and despite his wife having a potentially terminal illness, he was joking about becoming a rich widower and planning how to spend his inheritance on a large house. What upset me most was that he was referring to the mother of his children. My skin started to crawl and it has been crawling ever since but, although such a sentiment demonstrates a total lack of empathy, both for his wife and perhaps even more importantly for his children, was it really evil? Our acquaintance will kill no one, he will function in society. But does the casual disregard for his wife’s wellbeing and his failure to consider his children’s grief at her possible death demonstrate a callousness that differs only in degree from that displayed by the ordinary men of the Nazi Police battalions?

I’ve been wracking my brains over this question for several weeks. I’m no closer to knowing the answer. I only know that the more distant this particular acquaintance is, the better I’ll be pleased.

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