“Without Doing Anything Against It”: The Evils of Tacit Agreement

Print Share on LinkedIn More
Auschwitz

Auschwitz / Fabrizio Sciami

June 17, 2016, The Guardian

In what’s likely one of the last Holocaust trials, this one lasting four months, a German court sentenced Reinhold Hanning, 94, to five years in prison.

Under a retroactive law passed in Germany in 2011, it is considered a crime to have worked in any capacity at one of the Nazi death camps. Hanning was found guilty for his complicity as a guard in the mass murder of 170,000 people at Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland.

According to a handwritten CV he wrote while stationed at Auschwitz, Hanning joined the Hitler Youth at 13. At 18, he volunteered for the Nazi Waffen SS. After being wounded in battle, Hanning convalesced at Auschwitz. He stayed at the death camp as a guard and was promoted twice during his tenure from 1942 to 1944.

Hanning’s lawyers argued for a not-guilty verdict, saying that there was no proof of direct participation in the killing. Hanning remains free pending an appeal.

Hanning apologized for belonging to a “criminal organization.” He said, “I am ashamed that I witnessed injustice and let it happen without doing anything against it. I am deeply sorry.”

Leon Schwarzbaum, another survivor from Berlin, said he would have liked Hanning to use the trial as an opportunity to speak more about what happened at the camp so that future generations would know.

“It is a just verdict, but he should say more, tell the truth for the young people,” Schwarzbaum, 95, told the Associated Press. “He is an old man and probably won’t have to go to jail, but he should say what happened at Auschwitz. Auschwitz was like something the world has never seen.”

One of the most dramatic moments of the trial came when Schwarzbaum took to the witness stand and told Hanning to speak out before he died. “Mr. Hanning, we are virtually the same age and soon we will face our final judge. I would like to ask you to tell the historical truth here, just as I am,” he said.

An estimated 1.1 million people were killed in Auschwitz, and 90 percent of those killed were Jews. More than three-quarters of the prisoners were marched directly from the railway cars to the gas chambers.Last year, a 94-year-old former SS guard at Auschwitz, Oskar Groening, “the bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” was convicted on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.

Hannah Arendt witnessed the end of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” which has since become a misunderstood cliché. She described Eichmann as being neither brilliant nor a sociopath. The attending court psychiatrist described him as a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.”

In the introduction to Arendt’s book (originally written as a New Yorker article), Amos Elon wrote:

[Arendt] insisted that only good had any depth. Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet—and this is its horror!—it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.

Opportunities abound today in all our walks of life to be complicit or to speak out in all manner of evil. NPQ strives to be vigilant and straightforward with the truth. But we all need friends we can trust to make sure we are seeing and hearing everything we should and challenging each other to do the right thing.—James Schaffer