This Thing of Darkness: Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness

By Richard Paul Hamilton; Margaret Sönser Breen | Go to book overview

Five
Hier ist kein warum? Evil at the Limits of Understanding

Richard Paul Hamilton


1. Introduction

Why are academic discussions of evil invariably unsatisfactory when contrasted with literary depictions? In this chapter I argue that the answer lies in the deep structure of our everyday moral grammar. To call someone evil is to describe a form of life. It is a form of life that we refuse to understand. The evil-doer deliberately places him or herself outside the confines of our practices of making sense. We cannot make sense of the evil-doer's motives, largely because to do so would be to welcome him or her back into our world. Great literature recognizes this; academia, as it is currently organized, does not.

Academic discussions of evil seem preoccupied with the desire to fill in the gaps, offering substitute motives, often in the form of a functional explanation. Much good can be done by such a procedure, particularly in helping us to understand complicity. Nevertheless, even the most sophisticated functional explanation leaves us feeling unsatisfied. We feel that the question has been evaded, put in abeyance. Nowhere is this more the case than in the discussion of Hitler's evil. Over the last fifty years we have become clearer than ever about the layer upon layer of corruption, cowardice and complicity in the Third Reich, in Weimar Society and in the international community that enabled Hitler to come to power and execute his plans. We know more than perhaps we would prefer about the role of both the mighty German Corporations and the “ordinary” men of the police battalions in carrying out the routine murder of Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals. At the same time Hitler remains a mystery.

However, if Hitler is synonymous with the evil he perpetrated, then we possibly know more than we think we do. We have a wealth of literature devoted to depicting the evil of the Holocaust and the occupation. In this chapter, I contrast one such literary account, that of Czech author and Holocaust survivor Jiři Weil, with the various academic attempts to understand Hitler described in Ron Rosenbaum's book Explaining Hitler. Where Weil succeeds and the academics fail is that he does not attempt to provide motive substitutes. Instead, he lays out in front of the reader the sheer horror and strangeness of evil acts. Weil, unlike the academics, does not flinch in the face of evil. He does not attempt to deny the fact of complicity, nor does he make complicity and evil synonymous. He simply bears witness.

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