History is full of examples of the sort of evil that makes most people with living souls need to find a baby to look at to rouse their spirits.
Of course, evil on the dime-lot level surrounds us; everything from premeditated murder to child-abduction to terrorists blowing up innocent people to further political goals – when any person says “my ends justify my means”, and the “means” include depriving another of their liberty or their life, it’s evil.
There are greater, more spectacular evils; people crashing planes into buildings full of people, or blowing up buildings, or spree killings, or…the list is depressingly long.
Of course, most people know, or eventually learn, the great pinnacles of evil; when nations harness their governments’ entire political system and means to power to deprive people of their liberty, their property, their sanity and their lives. The title “Greatest Murderer in History” has several contenders; Lenin and Stalin killed anywhere from 40-60 million, maybe more, between them. Mao was probably not far off that pace. Both operated over decades, of course; there were a few great surges in killing (the Ukrainian Holodomor, the Great Leap Forward, several surges in purging), but all three of the great Communists plied their bloody trade over the course of a miserable generation or two. And they – and the other great mass-murderers, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il, Robespierre, the Ottomans in Armenia and a grim list of others – as a rule did their killing the old-fashioned way; by various flavors of pseudo-judicial murder, with firing squads or destruction of food stocks or guillotines or pistols to the back of the head; with machine guns next to ditches; with mustard gas from the air; with government-induced mass-starvation.
All very slow, brutal and inefficient.
The fact is, killing people is difficult. People want to stay alive. They fight, hard, to stay that way. And while people under dictatorships learn to be docile in order to survive (especially in the absence of any other hope), they will occasionally rise up and throw monkey-wrenches in the works. And try as you may to indoctrinate your own followers to perform evil on your behalf, there will be some that will retain some innate good; they will interfere, or at least not participate in your plans with the enthusiasm needed to get the job done.
Any good engineer knows that, when you want an efficient process – an assembly line, a decision-making process, a nuclear power plant, the code for a Nintendo game, anything – you need to factor out as many variables as possible; to strip out the moving parts.
Germans are, stereotypically, great engineers. They build things. And when an engineer builds a complicated thing – a BMW or a camera or a system to eliminate a race of people – they’ll start with a prototype or two, to test out the theories and work out the bugs before going into mass production.
And so, with teutonic thoroughness, did the Germans.
In the eighteen months since they’d conquered Poland, the Germans had been testing out methods for killing people – Gypsies, gays, the mentally ill, dissidents and, of course, Jews. They’d been through the “traditional” methods; roving units of SS troops tried go from village to village trying to herd Jews to mass graves and machine-gun them; it was slow, manpower-intensive, and left too many loose ends (including a few survivors – a precious few of whom, unbeknownst to the Germans, would survive the war to testify against their would-be murderers). They settled on poison gas, of various varieties.
And like any good manufacturer, the Germans knew that the technical solution was only part of the job; the rest is logistics – in this case, the task of identifying, assembling and transporting all of those Jews.
The Germans, working with the sort of meticulousness we’d recognize in any good process engineer today, factored out the moving parts, and arrived at the solution for an industrial killing system; a series of centralized camps.
And to tie together all the pieces of this immense project, it was seventy years ago today that the Nazis held a conference at a villa at 56–58 Am Großen Wannsee, in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee.
At the conference, the senior leadership of the various bureaucracies in Nazi Germany were gotten up to speed, with the job at hand, given a mission statement and were directed to start planning.
The “Wannsee Conference” was the project kickoff meeting from Hell.
The goal of the conference – to take the “learnings” from eighteen months of “rehearsals” in the fields of Poland, and experiments at Chelmno and Treblinka, and start the actual execution of what the Germans called the “Endlösung”, or “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”.
The meeting was attended by a who’s who of Nazi leadership, and for an assembly focused on one of the greatest single acts of evil in human history, the proceedings were remarkably banal. From the Wikipedia entry on the subject – which, for Wkipedia, is pretty useful and concise:
Heydrich spoke for nearly an hour. Then followed about thirty minutes of questions and comments, followed by some less formal conversation. Luther from the Foreign Office urged caution in Scandinavia, “Nordic” countries where public opinion was not hostile to the small Jewish populations and would react badly to unpleasant scenes. Hofmann and Stuckart pointed out the legalistic and administrative difficulties over mixed marriages, arguing for compulsory dissolution of marriages to prevent legal disputes and for the wider use of sterilisation as an alternative to deportation. Neumann from the Four Year Plan argued for the exemption of Jews who were working in industries vital to the war effort and for whom no replacements are available. Heydrich (keen not to offend Neumann’s boss Hermann Göring) assured him that these Jews would not be “evacuated”. There were questions about the mischlings [mixed-race people of quarter-to-half Jewish anscestry] and those in mixed marriages: the details of these complex questions were put off until a later meeting.
Finally Bühler of the General Government in occupied Poland [the German term for the administration of Poland] stated that:
“the General Government would welcome it if the final solution of this problem could be begun in the General Government, since on the one hand transportation does not play such a large role here nor would problems of labor supply hamper this action. Jews must be removed from the territory of the General Government as quickly as possible, since it is especially here that the Jew as an epidemic carrier represents an extreme danger and on the other hand he is causing permanent chaos in the economic structure of the country through continued black market dealings.”
The meeting itself was of little note in the schedules of the men involved – it lasted less than two hours, one of many such meetings on the schedules of busy bureaucrats in a nation at war. No great decisions were made; the decision was in fact Hitler’s, and had been made years earlier. There was no “go/no-go” moment; the leadership, Hitler and Göring, Himmler and the rest, were already fully on board. There was no question of stopping the “Final Solution” – which was, in a sense, already well underway. The idea of killing Jews was well-enough known. but fairly oblique at the meeting; the actual killing was an internal matter for the SS.
In a sense, the meeting was a set-up; Heydrich’s way of making sure the civilian and petty-military leadership of the entire German bureaucracy was linked to the Solution, as accomplices. In a larger sense, it was to get the German bureaucracy’s buy-in to the idea of finding and deporting 11 million Jews from around the occupied world (Eichmann still planned on getting his hands on Jews in England and Ireland) to extermination camps in Poland.
Not a whole lot different than kicking of the adoption of an Oracle database, if you leave out the subject matter.
Which is, really, the point; evil is boring and banal. If evil came strutting onto the stage in a red cape with horns sticking out of its head and blood soaking its beard, it’d be easy to pick out and deal with.
Real evil walks among us, wearing a suit or a petty uniform or a Mao jacket, and speaks the same language you do.
And evil has meetings. Probably catered.