Thursday, December 16, 2010

Duty: Two Points

According to a Swedish diplomat's published memoir, in the fall of 1944 he hosted a dinner at a house in the Buda hills of Budapest. Attending was his superior officer, Raul Wallenberg, and Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi in charge of deportation of the Hungarian Jews. Eichmann is reported by him to have responded to Wallenberg's attack on Germany and his prediction of Germany's impending defeat as follows. He does not believe Nazi party ideas. He has gotten to the top in life, has an enviable life of power and pleasure. He understands Germany has lost the war, and that he has a limited time left to live his life of grace. But in that time and until the end he would continue to do his duty to the best of his ability and to reap the great rewards for doing his duty.

His duty in Hungary was arranging the murder of 800,000 people. He succeeded in sending 400,000 to their deaths.

Note in the words of Adolf Eichmann:
1. his pride and satisfaction in doing his duty
2. his gratitude to his group for providing a better life
3. his knowledge of unjustified group practice

At dinner parties we celebrate our lives together, and Eichmann took the opportunity of being questioned to make one final affirmation of his life. Our definition of evil is the deliberate denial of our human nature for the sake of the rewards of acting in a group. Eichmann then is a perfect example of evil. Evil is the deliberate choice of belief over knowledge. Obedience to one's group, mere convention, is allowed to overpower knowledge that grows from one's own experience. Evil is the wrong way, a turning on its head the civilized precedence of knowledge over belief.

That is the first point. The second point is even harder, even uglier.

What made the Jews a unique target of mass murder is their religion of an individual contract with god, with the group functioning only as a reminder of that contract. It is a religion that makes those who practice it incapable of evil. That is not to say it makes them good.

In The Nazi's Last Victims, a book published in 1998, Rudolf Vrba tells the story of his escape from Auschwitz concentration camp, his making his way into his native Slovakia and contact with the Jewish community leaders there, his drawing up of his eye-witness report of the preparations for the mass murder of the Hungarian Jews. That report was sent to Switzerland and published there, was also placed in the hands of the Jewish leaders in Budapest. They chose not to inform the Jewish people, thousands of whom a day were being loaded onto boxcars, 80 or more to a car, to be killed in Poland. Instead, the community leaders arranged with massive bribes to protect one or two thousand of the rich and influential including of course themselves. (Some later said they tried to tell, but were not believed. Some denied they knew.)

We want to call this behavior evil, but it does not fit our definition, group loyalty leading us to do what we know is wrong, and definitions are important, are all we have to hold onto ourselves in a world that defies us to give up the job of making sense of it. The Jewish leaders in Hungary were not evil, rather they were simply failures, intellectual failures. Individual responsibility to know and act on the truth is one component of what is necessary for a good life. The other is love. We tell the truth and do good for the sake of love, not for ourselves. We think for ourselves, act for others.