Evil and its Social Legitimization

This talk was originally presented in Spanish in the symposium “Frente al Límite. Reflexiones en torno al Holocausto y las experiencias dictatoriales en Argentina y América Latina” (Facing the Limit. Reflections about the Holocaust and the experience of Dictatorships in Argentina and Latin America). Universidad Nacional de Rosario, organized by the Secretaría de Cultura, October 2001. It was published in “Historiografía y Memoria colectiva. Tiempos y Territorios”, Ed. Miño y Dávila, Madrid, 2002, Cristina Godoy, Editor.[1] Absolute Evil and the Shoah[2]

In a world devoid of hope, in which doubts and skepticism prevail, the Shoah is one of the few issues that generates a universal consensus. It has become an unequivocal example of Absolute Evil. When the world realized the extent and the systematization of the industry of death, the hopeful phrase “Never Again” was coined. These days, the phrase has spread to other places and other realities: “Never Again”, uttered in any language, in any country, invariably has come to mean: may Absolute Evil never be repeated again.

Hundreds of historians, academics, witnesses, sociologists and others are continuously researching and enlightening aspects of the Shoah that were previously obscure. The Shoah[3] has been documented with a seemingly endless source of testimonies – each one more devastating and intense. It allows us to ask ourselves as a society about Evil and its practice, at a time when confronting Evil has become difficult and uncomfortable.

The Banality of Evil

Hanna Arendt’s classic text, “Eichmann in Jerusalem”[4] , published in 1963, established the concept of the “banality of evil.” As a chronicler of the famous trial, she suffered the profound impact of not being able to put together the horrors described by so many witnesses with the face and figure of a gray bureaucrat: a dull, not too intelligent man who insisted that he had not acted out of hatred but was just following orders in the best and most efficient manner he could. She then concluded that Eichmann represented a different way to practice Evil: Evil that’s put into action in a banal manner, without feeling any responsibility for what he had done, thus, not feeling any guilt. When evil becomes banal, when it becomes trivial, it does not generate guilt or any sort of moral reflection.

What Arendt described, in her astonishment, can nowadays be applied to other Nazi perpetrators as well as to their thousands of disciples around the world.

Why do some people commit acts of Evil in a banal manner, while others are aware of their social responsibilities and the moral transcendence of their actions? The traditional view used to propose hypotheses based on genetics, suggesting that you were born “crazy” or “bad”, or gradually became more evil due to circumstances – always within the realm of the individual and family, as if it was about personal choices. Therefore, the solution was also applied to the individual: punishment, seclusion in prisons or mental institutions. Today, thanks to much research and new hypotheses, we can delve further into other contexts, namely, the society and the political sphere. The previous approach could not explain the mechanisms and implicit structures that fostered and enabled evil behavior among large numbers of people – supported, stimulated, and even rewarded by an institutional and legal regime. Eichmann, like many other “banal evil-doers” was a bureaucrat. He did not hate and did not define himself as evil or a bad person but as a good citizen, someone who did what was expected of him. Everyday evil

When we think about evil, we invariably think about another’s – not our own. The mere notion of our own evil is hard to accept. We tend to justify and define our own conduct as a result of noble goals, a nature that’s basically good. “It’s for your own good” is a justification often used by parents and teachers, to hide the sometimes sadistic nature of their conduct even from themselves. Punishment, many times harsh, is never justified “because I’m evil”, “because I’m full of hate”, “because I do what I want”, “because I have the right”. In the exercise of power, the perpetrator always has a positive concept of self. He justifies his actions with the circumstances of the moment, which he uses to exempt himself of any guilt. “I was provoked” or “I was tired” are everyday excuses that quiet a possibly guilty conscience.

The perpetrator always defines himself as “good” – indeed, does not even see himself as a perpetrator. One’s own evil can only be pointed out by someone else, sometimes the victim, other times an observer.

Evil of a different order Nations and political systems in general follow the same pattern: they define their policies invariably as “good”. The scale of the Nazis’ crimes raised new questions. A focus on the individual was inadequate to analyze and understand the complicity of millions of Germans in the Nazis’ crimes. Individuals do not exist alone, but are immersed in political and social systems which affect their actions and their sense of moral implications. Totalitarian states generate complex relationships between individual and states, between our own consciences and required obedience, between what is legal but may not be ethical or legitimate. It is in this context that we should examine the phenomena of open or hidden complicity and the indifference of the majority to flagrant crimes. The individuals that implemented the Nazi orders did it convinced that it was the best course of action, that the ends justified the means, that the decision makers knew the purpose and reasons behind their decisions, and that they had to be obedient – something we have been taught and that is respected in society. They believed that their actions were beneficial to the state, and did not even consider questioning the orders they received. It is in this way that people were able to commit acts of incontrovertible evil, all the while convinced of the goodness of their actions.

Arendt presents a dilemma, still unanswered: how common people, who are psychologically stable, who are not particularly cruel, are able to just follow orders and commit the most horrible crimes without questioning their legitimacy. Does this mean that any of us, under the right circumstances, would be able to carry out Evil?

Evil and evil

When the actions of many American soldiers in the Vietnam War came to light, it produced an uproar in the social sciences. The Mai Lai Massacre, and its ensuing trial in particular, rekindled Arendt’s issue: common men had committed acts of astonishing cruelty, acts that again raised the questions about the actions of the Nazis and their accomplices. This time the perpetrators were not Germans “predisposed” to blind obedience[5], nor were they ignorant, bloodthirsty peasants. This time, they were the children of the American middle class, ordinary people, raised in honest, hard-working families; not fanatics, perturbed, or different in any way from the mainstream of the population. The trial exposed with obscene nakedness the brutality of the actions of these young men against defenseless victims. How could it be possible, they asked, that sons of a country espousing principles like the right to self expression and individual freedoms, had become monsters of such caliber? What had happened to these kids? Had they changed because they were at war? Did they carry within them, without their knowledge, the possibility of cruelty in latent form? Are human beings evil by nature? Scholars and academics concentrated on trying to understand the phenomenon, and also to find explanations which could redeem their fellow citizens as well as human nature itself. Unfortunately their dedication has not yet led to a decisive answer either confirming or denying evil as an innate human condition. On the other hand, it was able to demonstrate the power of certain political systems to affect peoples’ conduct.

The independent research of Stanley Milgram[6] and Zimbardo[7] has established, with horrifying conclusions, that we all have the capacity for evil. In order for us to commit an evil act, two conditions must be met: (1) we do not see it as evil; and, (2) we unload our responsibility on someone else. I repeat: if someone -a state, an authority figure, an ideology, a religion, some condition- convinces us that what we are doing is not wrong, that it has a superior purpose, that the suffering we are inflicting has a reason and we are not ultimately responsible, it seems that any one of us is capable of Evil.

Tzvetan Todorov[8] has studied the behavior of the Nazi perpetrators in the death camps, and the behavior of the Soviet perpetrators in the gulags. As I pointed out before, he does not trust the traditional justifications based on pathology or regression to more primitive states. The sadists, he claims, were a small minority, estimated between 5 and 10 percent. Talking about regression to more primitive instincts is also inappropriate. On the one hand, in the animal world there’s no such thing as torture or extermination, furthermore, there was no breaking of the social contract since the perpetrators acted within the law and obeyed orders. Since most of them were bureaucrats, conforming, obedient, mainly interested in their personal welfare, we can’t explain it through ideological fanaticism either. Todorov believes we should look for the answer in the socio-political context, in the social conditions that make such crimes possible. He concludes that these conditions only exist in totalitarian societies, as was Nazi Germany, for example. These states exert a powerful force on the moral conduct of individuals and are characterized by:

- the designation of a clear enemy, an internal agent, a “stranger among us,” who opposes the intentions of the state, who opposes what is “good” for all of us, and who must be eliminated;

- the concepts of evil and good cease to be universal, and have become owned and defined exclusively by the State;

- the State controls the totality of the individual’s social life. The individual must submit completely since no place exists outside of the reach of the State

These conditions, which turn a society into a totalitarian state, have powerful consequences on behavior. Once the enemy is defined, hostility towards them is commendable – now, doing Evil is doing Good. The issue of responsibility is diminished and even done away with completely, since the State is in charge. In this way, people can and should concentrate on only what they’re told to do, without needing to look any further or beyond their own small part in a larger picture they are instructed to ignore. Behavior becomes docile, submissive, and malleable to orders.

The totalitarian state influences both the perpetrators and the victims. The victims come to see themselves as the “internal enemy”. Their position is one of loneliness and impotence against a superior force which undermines the possibility of a mass rebellion because the totalitarian regime dismantles every form of concerted resistance.

Todorov points out that once the totalitarian regime is in place, the limits of what’s tolerable slowly and continuously begin to slide in the population. This turns many into gradual accomplices of the crimes. Little by little the society falls into the practice of an evil which is “trivial” or “banal.” The Motives of Ordinary People

Professor Yehuda Bauer[9] says:

“To work with universal implications, we have to take the particular history of the Holocaust. We do not live in abstractions. All historical events are concrete, specific, and particular. It is precisely the fact that it happened to a particular group of people that confers a universal significance to it, because all group hatred is always directed at specific groups, for specific reasons under specific circumstances. There’s no use in fighting against evil in the abstract – evil is always concrete, specific.”

As an example, let’s look at a concrete area of everyday life for ordinary people: the employees of the rail system of the Third Reich, critical for the two wars undertaken by Germany: the war against the Allies and the war against the Jews. For these employees, transporting the Jews was a job like any other. Raul Hilberg[10] assures us that it’s impossible to understand the phenomenon of the Shoah without understanding the role of the rail system. The German rail system was one of the most complex and extensive organizations in the country. In 1942, it employed approximately 1.4 million people and another four hundred thousand that worked in the occupied territories in Russia and Poland. They transported millions of Jews and other victims to their deaths without any known instance of an employee that resigned their post, protested or asked for a transfer.

If we consider the rail system alone, the number of people involved in the enormous planning and execution of the mass murder of Jews approaches 2 million. And I repeat, only the transportation system is being counted. We are not counting the millions that kept the death machine well-oiled and running efficiently, the thousands of office workers, organizers and executors, the millions that created the industrial efficiency of the system. When asked after the war, they justified their conduct in various ways, but rarely talked about hatred, a desire for revenge, or any other related feelings. “It was what they had ordered me to do”. “I was not aware of what was happening, I was just doing my job” and other similar responses. In totalitarian and bureaucratic systems, Evil is exercised without moral consequences. Responsibility is waived because of a strong ideological context and the bureaucratic techniques of fragmentation and isolation prevent individuals from seeing the whole picture. Fear, Inertia and Well-being.

But at the same time, people must go on living. During wars, during tyrannies, during totalitarian regimes, people must go on with their lives. People continue working, continue getting sick, continue loving, continue dreaming. People are afraid of losing what they have, even if there’s very little to lose, even if they have been getting used to having less and less, they will fiercely hold on to whatever’s left. People, all of us, tend to be conservative, to find refuge in well-known places and to avoid exposure and risk. These are all conducts that undermine rebellious and risky actions. Keeping one’s job, salary, health insurance, retirement program, can be valid reasons for gradually accepting slight degradations, to look aside, to deny. This does not automatically turn us into accomplices -- it merely explains our inaction. Orders and obedience, sequences of actions, hierarchies, are all crucial aspects in the search for understanding the exercise of Evil. And also, responsibility, as demonstrated by researchers in the social sciences, responsibility that in bureaucratic systems can be replaced by discipline. Civic consciousness replaced by well-being, by the paralyzing fear to not become the next victim.

Everyday evil

Evil in and of itself, lowercase evil, is an old friend, not necessarily visible, but a vital part of our everyday lives. When we think about evil, we invariably think about someone else’s. The notion of our own evil is hard to digest. We tend to justify and define our own behavior as originating in goals that are intrinsically good. We know how hard it is to accept our own acts as harmful, how much we resist any possibility of seeing ourselves as bad people. The practice of our own evil, so hard to accept and resulting from some sort of conflict, takes place within the realm of emotions, sometimes of the most primitive kind. As such, it’s understandable and fits within our normal expectations of what’s human. The banal kind of evil, on the other hand, leaves us without arguments, defying our conception and dignity as human beings.

A Paradigm of Evil: Torture

Totalitarian states have the capacity to enter our subjectivity and reshape it using the powerful machine of mass media and propaganda -- they create currents of opinion, they generate common enemies to focus against, they create combative slogans, hypotheses of conflict, wars. They produce profound changes that require a superior critical capacity and much reflection to avoid ideological submission into accepting a new world view. This acceptance dilutes all resistance and allows the execution of any acts that serve the national interest. Sometimes, these acts are even carried out with the great pride of facing such hard challenges with dedication and integrity. For instance, many of the Latin American soldiers of torture lacked sufficient critical abilities to reflect on what they were doing, and instead, gladly accepted the brain-washing of the CIA on their bases in Panama. They dedicated themselves to the cleansing of “undesirables”, convinced of the righteousness of the task. They saw themselves as dentists that must save a cavity-riddled tooth by extracting the surrounding healthy tissue: dirty work ultimately destined to improve conditions for all citizens (at least for the ones that survived). They tortured without any feelings of guilt, many times without even feeling personally involved. The great “achievement” of these manipulation techniques is the dissociation that takes place in the perpetrator, who no longer sees the victim as a human being. Instead, the victim is seen as an enemy, whose torture and destruction is to be rewarded.

Contrary to common beliefs, the practice of torture is not a recent development: it’s as old as the history of civilization. In his book on torture, John Conroy[11] says:

Torture has long been employed by well-meaning, even reasonable people armed with the sincere belief that they are preserving civilization as they know it. Aristotle favored the use of torture in extracting evidence, speaking of its absolute credibility, and Sr. Augustine also defended the practice. Torture was routine in ancient Greece and Rome, and although methods have changed in the intervening centuries, the goals of the torturer –to gain information, to punish, to force an individual to change his beliefs or loyalties, to intimidate a community- have not changed at all.

Conroy states that the practice of torture encompasses four basic universal principles:

- The class of people whom society accepts as torturable has a tendency to expand. In the Roman Empire, the rules changed so that slaves were eligible to be tortured not just as defendants, but also as witnesses to crimes committed by others. Then freemen lost their exemption in cases involving treason. By the fourth century, freemn were regularly being subjected to the same excruciating machines, devices, and weapons previously reserved for slaves, and the crimes they were tortured for, as either witnesses or as the accused, had become less and less serious.

- Torture becomes perfectly justifiable as long as a threat to our own welfare is perceived. It’s easy to condemn it when perpetrated against non enemies, but the reverse does not hold. Until the appearance of heretics the Catholic Church had opposed the Roman’s practice of torture. In the XIII century, Pope Inocencio IV identified heretics as worthy of torture, which was to be implemented by the civilian authorities. (…) It is easy to condemn the torment when it is done to someone who is not your enemy, but it seems perfectly justificable when you perceive a threat to your own well-being.

- In places where torture is common, the judiciary´s sympathies are usually with the perpetrators, not with the victims. The victim is assumed guilty a priori. For centuries, the prevailing system of determining guilt or innocence in capital crimes had depended upon signs from God. A person suspected of a serious offense would be put through some ordeal[12]. In the twelfth century, that method of determining guilt came to be recognized as unsatisfactory. A new system of justice evolved, based on old Roman law, in which a conviction could be obtained only with the testimony of two eyewitnesses or a confession from the accused.(….) The extraction of the confession implied a tacit guilty sentence and depended on the abilities of the torturer - an employee of the judicial system - to obtain it quickly and satisfactorily.

- It arouses little protest as long as the definition of the torturable class is confined to the lower orders; the closer it gets to one´s own door, the more objectionable it becomes. In Europe, the enshrinement of torture as an acceptable form of legal investigation came to an end in a hundred-year period starting in the mid-eighteenth century. (….) Adding impetus to the desire to explore alternatives were the sentiments of influential eighteenth-century philosophers who rejected torture as something that belonged to a dark and superstitious age. (…) there had not been much objection from intellectuals to the torture of people accused of murder, sedition, and betraying their country, but the subjection of magicians, witches, and religious dissenters to hideous pain provoked protest that “was listened to and circulated outside professional or limitedly moralizing circles”.

An Example from France and the War in Algeria

These four principles continue to sustain the action of all forces of repression. As a society, we accept torture as within the realm of the possible, as almost normal, and even accepted and encouraged in our world. Governments and judicial systems seem to behave under a double standard: on the one hand, torture is declared unacceptable under the law, but on the other, it’s counted as a possible method in the implementation of their policies.

Paul Aussaresses[13] , a French General that served in the Algerian war, author of the book “Special Services, Algeria 1955-1957” states:

“They call me a murderer, yes, but I just did my duty for France, you can’t defeat the enemy without using torture and executions. We do it to get information, to follow the chain that reveals the organization... Terrorist actions involve many people: a bomb is placed by one man, but others have transported it, have chosen the targets, have put it together... We managed to identify 19 terrorists that had participated in a single incident. What should we do with the detained person? Nothing? Then the other 18 will continue carrying out terrorist attacks and killing the innocent!”

When asked whether a democratic country should combat terrorism without using torture, he responds:

“Only if there’s lots of time available. But the pressure is terrible... With lots of time you could do things differently, but when the terrorist organization is there, and threatens further attacks, we have to make use of any information we can extract from the prisoner immediately. There’s no other way to save lives and prevent suffering.”

Who is this General?[14]

General Aussaresses is now 83 years old and is decorated with a constellation of medals. He is not a common torturer. If it hadn’t been for World War II, which turned him into a member of the resistance against the Nazis and subsequently a soldier under General De Gaulle, he might have been a peaceful professor of Classical literature. He received a college education in Greek and Latin literature and had written a thesis entitled “The Expression of the Marvelous in Virgil”. The war led him into the military and turned him into a secret agent, a specialist in “special operations” of the Armed Forces, nothing more than a chaste euphemism for clandestine, sabotage operations, murder and other brutalities directed against the enemy in foreign territories.”

General Aussaresses does not feel any guilt or remorse for all the blood spilled nor for having acted outside the realm of the law. He contends that when a country is at war, the supreme duty for a soldier and a country is to win it and that this is impossible if the laws and moral principles that underline life in a peacetime democratic society are observed. Political, judicial and military authorities are well aware of this, although they cannot utter it. Therefore, they dedicate a lot of effort to statements indicating that war operations will be conducted under the observance of the law. At the same time that they implement ethnic cleansing, they simulate lack of knowledge about what subordinates are doing and they order the most cruel and inhuman actions in the name of efficiency, that is to say, in the name of victory. And that’s what the perpetrators are there for, to get their hands dirty. And after they’ve carried out these dirty deeds, Power censures or punishes them to keep face and sustain the myth of a government that acts within the law even during the apocalypse of war.”

As Conroy points out in one of his rules, the degree of horror evoked by these statements is proportional to distance: the further away they are from us, the more scathing will be our condemnation. Everything can change if the dilemma gets closer. Many people who demanded revenge for the deplorable events of September 11, 2001 have recently discovered that their deepest convictions stumble when danger knocks at their door. Their preoccupation and change in attitude should not surprise us. None of us knows how we would react in the unfortunate situation of being put to the test and how we would justify our reactions, and how we would cope with our new view of the world. Nothing new, no positive change can result if we fail to assume our own capacity to practice Evil, if we continue to see Evil as something that’s always done by somebody else.

Evil and Reason

Gerald Markle[15] describes the Holocaust as a mass murder, but one which was planned, organized and exhaustive. To carry it out to fruition and to make ordinary people cooperate, “bureaucracy had to replace the angry mass of demonstrators, routine conduct had to replace rage, emotional anti-Semitism had to turn into rational anti-Semitism.”

Humberto Maturana says[16]:

Evil is a cultural phenomenon that emerges, not because human beings are innately evil, but because it takes form whenever there is a political, religious or philosophical theory that justifies the negation and submission of the other. The damage we inflict on another in anger does not constitute an act of evil. In such an act, the injury might be violent or fatal, but it is not innately evil; only if we appeal to reason in order to justify the legitimacy of the injury, before ourselves and others, while shutting off our human sensitivity, does this injury become an act of evil. The Holocaust is an act of evil. Its magnitude is overwhelming, incomprehensible and devastating, but as an act of evil it is an act of evil like many others that have been committed in the history of humanity and that we continue to commit daily as we create rational justifications for our negation of the other. (Page 302)

... I think Holocausts have occurred many times in the history of humanity since the emergence of material and spiritual appropriation in the patriarchy. The Holocaust of the Jewish people is the most immense and moving for us due to its being so recent and it touches us more because we can see ourselves in it as object and as actors. Was it not perhaps a Holocaust when three million or more women were murdered as witches at the hands of the Inquisition? The appropriation of things, the truth, ideas, is blind before the other and before oneself. So long as we have philosophical theories that rationally justify the appropriation of truth, without reflecting upon its principles and foundations, without admitting that they are our creations and not visions of reality, so long as we have religions without reflecting upon them and admitting that they emerge from our spiritual experience and not as revelations of a transcendent truth, there will be Holocausts, large and small, because we cling to the defense of our truths, hiding our desires and, therefore, our responsibility for what we do.

Every time that, one way or another, we appropriate a truth and seek a rational justification for our actions on the basis of that truth, we open an avenue toward the Holocaust. If we become lords over the truth, he who is not with us is mistaken in a transcendental way and his error, for us, justifies his destruction without our having to take responsibility for it. Even better, if the other is not with me, his negation and destruction is justified, and the rational justification of the negation of the other exempts the destroyer from responsibility. When this happens there is no place for reflection and the other simply disappears from the human environment, his negation does not touch us and the Holocaust, the absolute negation of the other, is underway.

...The only possible way not to fall into this trap of rational negation of the other is through reflection. Reflection enables us to question the possession of truth and leads to the reappearance of the other as a human being just as legitimate as oneself. The fundamental emotion that constitutes what is human throughout our evolutionary history is love; acceptance of the other as a legitimate other with whom to coexist. When we have achieved a capacity for reflection that permits our questioning the idea that we possess the truth, the other appears as human, and love, the most fundamental human emotion, manifests its presence and a possibility opens up for responsible conduct before him or her. We cannot, nor should we, deny our desires, but we can take responsibility for them and thus act responsibly. When this occurs, human harmony is not necessarily achieved in any immediate sense, but it becomes possible, and the way toward the Holocaust closes because a way is opening toward the biology of love. Is it possible that we haven’t yet realized that love is the only emotion that enables us to recuperate the harmony, the comfort and the spiritual aesthetic of coexistence?

Evil and Good

Coming to terms with Evil that is banal, Evil that is lawful and institutionalized, Evil that becomes absolute – threatens to plunge us into the most abject despair. We feel that the hypothesis that human beings are innately evil is proven and our dignity is in tatters. But we can also find in the Shoah another mirror in which we can see ourselves and recover some of the dignity lost: the work of the rescuers. The work of thousands of European citizens: tireless, under the radar, with a low profile, with persistence and dedication, who were responsible for the survival of the vast majority of people that managed to survive the Shoah. Acting against the law, many times against their own families and their education, these anonymous and unknown people that rebelled against laws they considered inhuman, risking their lives and those of their families, constitute an example that still awaits to be unveiled and transmitted as one of the most powerful lessons of human nature. While there’s been much mention of acts of armed resistance, very little has been said about rescue acts in which heroism did not seek social acknowledgment, monuments or eternal glory. Rescue acts provide a unique pedagogical tool allowing us to address such issues as the difference between what’s legal and what’s legitimate, the individual’s responsibility for the life of other people, the relationship between the individual and the totalitarian state and the necessity for critical judgment and ethical reflection.

In the words of Professor Bauer[17]:

“At the margins of horror, there were the rescuers: too few, too isolated, but their mere existence justifies our teaching of the Holocaust. They showed that people had options, that people could act differently from the masses. In the context of desperation, they constitute the army of hope. In some cases, entire communities acted as rescuers, villages, areas, entire nations like the Danish and also the Italian, in many cases.”

Absolute Evil reached its climax in the Shoah.

So did Absolute Good.

The Shoah taught me that there’s always a way. Just like there are terminal patients who find miraculous cures, it is possible to find ways out of the most desperate situations without repeating the old ways - the only ones we already know - and without assuming the evil nature of others. What’s at risk is our own conception of ourselves, the new learning opportunities that are still to come. We are raised in a hypocritical educational system with a double standard regarding our very own condition which denies the existence of Evil. In consequence, we are not trained to discover or resist Evil in ourselves. It seems that we are born with the potential for both Evil and Good and that circumstances trigger our “best” or “worst” aspects. If we do not recognize and accept the risks and temptations of our own Evil and our vulnerability to totalitarian systems, we will not be able to fight against it and we will continue to succumb to their power.

Our fellow human being is dear to us and necessary. The enduring task is to build states as far removed from totalitarianism as possible. The focus on civic responsibility and the emphasis on ethical reflection about freedom and its limits is today, more than ever, essential to the dignified continuation of life.

[1] This talk was originally presented in Spanish in the symposium “Frente al Límite. Reflexiones en torno al Holocausto y las experiencias dictatoriales en Argentina y América Latina” (Facing the Limit. Reflections about the Holocaust and the experience of Dictatorships in Argentina and Latin America). Universidad Nacional de Rosario, organized by the Secretaría de Cultura, October 2001. It was published in “Historiografía y Memoria colectiva. Tiempos y Territorios”, Ed. Miño y Dávila, Madrid, 2002, Cristina Godoy, Editor. English translation by Natasha Zaretski and Hernán Epelman-Wang.

[2] Shoah (Hebrew): devastation. Denotes the Nazi war specifically against the Jews in the context of the Second World War. In this conflict there was also discrimination and large numbers of dead in other groups (Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled people). The word “Holocaust”, popularized universally by the media, is not accurate because it alludes to a religious ritual where an animal is offered voluntarily for sacrifice as a means to purify sins. The concept suggests the unacceptable implications that the victims in some way voluntarily elected what happened to them and that their immolation was divine in nature.

[3] The Shoah is not the only example of Evil in the twentieth century. Although it is probably the most documented and studied, it is in the company of the millions of dead in Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing, the Armenian genocide, the murder of the Tutsis by the Rwandan government, mass murders in Burundi, Cambodians assassinated by the Khmer Rouge, those massacred in East Timor by the Indonesians, countless genocides of native indigenous populations, the deprivation of basic human rights and the ongoing deterioration of the quality of life and life expectancy for the great majority of people.

[4] Hannah Arendt: “Eichmann in Jerusalem. A report on the Banality of Evil”, The Viking press, 1963

[5] This hypothesis was developed by Daniel Goldhaggen in his voluminous and well publicized book: “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust”. The hypothesis that the German people are innately evil might calm some people down, as long as they are not German, but does not contribute to our understanding of the phenomenon of Evil.

[6] Stanley Milgram: “Obedience to Authority”. About a laboratory experiment carried out at Yale University. It measured the degree to which ordinary people were willing to accept orders to inflict torture. It demonstrated that most subjects obeyed the order under two conditions: that the damage be justified for a worthwhile goal and that responsibility fell on some other authority figure.

[7] P. G. Zimbardo, C. Haney, W. C. Banks, D. M. Jaffe: “The Psychology of Imprisonment: Privation, Power and Pathology”, published in Rubin Zelig ed.: Doing onto Others, Prentice Hall, 1974. In this experiment, carried out at Stanford University, a homogeneous group of students is arbitrarily divided into two groups: the guardians and the prisoners. The change in behavior of the latter, the progressive increase in their sadistic acts as well as the changes in the prisoners, their submission and humiliation prove that the context stimulates new behaviors in people. People are able to behave in new and surprising manners, that they did not even expect in themselves.

[8] Tzvetan Todorov: Frente al límite. Siglo veintiuno editores, 1993.

[9] From his conference, presented in January 2000 in the International Forum on the Holocaust, Stockholm, Sweden.

[10] Raul Hilberg, German Railroads, Jewish Souls. April 1986.

[11] John Conroy: Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People. The Dynamics of Torture. Alfred A Knopf, 2000.

[12] Hands would be plunged into flames, hot water, or heated metal, feet would trod upon heated plowshares, and if God regarded the suspect as innocent, he or she would emerge without injury, or at least with injuries so minor that a judge examining the suspect several days after the ordeal would regard them as insignificant

[13] Página 12, 20-5-01, from El País, Madrid. General Aussaresses was fined on January 25, 2002 for having justified war crimes in his book; his publishers were also fined. (Judicial Diplomacy website: http://www.diplomatiejudiciaire.com/UK/Aussaresses4.html)

[14] Mario Vargas Llosa (La Nación, 20-5-01 from El país, Madrid):

[15] Gerald Markle: Meditations of a Holocaust Traveler. State University of New York Press, 1995.

[16] Humberto Maturana: “El sentido de lo humano”. Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago de Chile, 1995.

[17] Op.cit.