In 1961 Hannah Arendt looked at the trial of Adolph Eichmann and was surprised. She expected to see a sadist, a perverted monster revelling in mass murder.
Instead, sitting in the dock was a hard-working bureaucrat who had taken the necessary steps towards career advancement. Eichmann had certain administrative skills and put them to the service of evil. In a different situation, he would have been transporting schoolchildren to summer camps, not prisoners to death camps. All in a day’s work.
Arendt then spoke of the “banality of evil”, as if she expected evil to be extraordinary. It isn’t, as anyone who has heard of original sin will tell you. Evil lurks in human nature, just waiting for propitious circumstances to come out and defeat equally innate virtue.
Yet all children of the Enlightenment are brought up on the presumption of human goodness. We are believed to be born in conditions of primordial virtue, and any reasonable person will put two and two together and realise it makes sense to be good.
Hence evil has to be purely visceral. The presumption of goodness doesn’t let us accept a situation where evil is done for rational reasons, especially on a mass scale.
This brings us to the question in the title.
That the horde of invading Russians includes many pathological, thoroughly brutalised sadists is evident to anyone who has followed the bandit raid on the Ukraine. Yet it would have been easy enough for the Russian officers to order that the bodies of horrendously mutilated Ukrainian POWs be hidden or otherwise disposed of.
Instead, they encourage turning that monstrosity into a global show, if not one for the whole family. That seems to make no sense.
After all, the laws of human nature haven’t yet been repealed. The response of Ukrainian soldiers to the sight of their comrades with various body parts missing and abdomens opened like a tin of sardines is entirely predictable. They are going to retaliate, aren’t they?
Of course they are. As it is, they are reluctant to take prisoners and only do so on explicit orders. Now they are going to shoot first and… I’d rather not even ponder what they might do second.
Since a certain number of combatants on both sides are always taken prisoner, the Russian command is depriving its soldiers of any chance to save their lives by surrendering in a hopeless situation. That has to drive up the KIA statistics, which seems like an unnecessarily stupid, or at least irrational, thing to do.
It isn’t though – and history explains why.
For the Russians did exactly the same thing in the Second World War. When the Wehrmacht advanced at a march speed between 22 June, 1941, and mid-1942, some five million Red Army soldiers found themselves in captivity.
Their lives were at the Nazis’ mercy, which wasn’t in good supply. In any case, no army in the world would have been able to look after five million POWs in compliance with the terms of the Geneva Convention (which the Soviets hadn’t signed anyway). Half of those men died of hunger, disease and neglect – which, alas, was inevitable.
Yet many others didn’t even make it to captivity. They were shot on the spot, and those were the lucky ones. For the advancing Nazi troops found in their path the bodies of their comrades taken prisoner by the Soviets and mutilated just like today’s heirs to the USSR are mutilating Ukrainian POWs.
That made the Nazis even more brutal than they were in the first place, and hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers bore the brunt of their savagery. But don’t accuse the Soviet command of stupidity. They got exactly the reaction they wanted.
They desperately wanted to discourage their soldiers from surrendering. Every one of them, from private to general, had to realise that his choice wasn’t between life and death. It was between dying as a hero fighting to the last breath and being tortured to death by the Germans.
The tactic worked: during the remaining three years of the war only 175,000 Red Army soldiers were taken prisoner – compared to five million in the first year. Much of that drop was due to the changing fortunes of war: the Russians went on the offensive, and, while the attacking side always tends to suffer heavier casualties, the number of its POWs goes down.
But it doesn’t normally go down by a factor of 25, as it did then, or rather 75 if we consider the time element. Much of the reduction was caused by the tactic I mentioned, augmented by other inhuman practices.
Stalin declared that the soldiers’ families were hostages to their valour. If any Red soldier was taken prisoner, his family automatically lost its ration cards, which often meant starving to death. And the Red Air Force routinely strafed columns and camps of Soviet POWs – this at the beginning of the war when one would have thought there were more vital targets on offer.
But turning the advancing army into raging beasts was an important part of the whole ploy. To the same end, NKVD units were left behind enemy lines to commit acts of senseless terrorism whose sole purpose was to force Germans to respond with violence against civilians (not that the Nazis took much forcing).
Thus, for example, when German troops entered Kiev, the NKVD blew up Kreshchiatik, the city’s main thoroughfare. Only a few Germans were killed, along with several hundred locals. The Germans predictably responded by taking and shooting hostages, thereby turning against them the very people who until then had been welcoming them as deliverers.
It’s drawing on such heritage that makes Russian officers encourage, and widely publicise, acts of inhuman savagery against Ukrainian POWs (and of course civilians).
At present, the number of Russian POWs is small for the Ukrainian army is fighting strictly defensive action. But all signs point to an impending counteroffensive, with the Russian army group in the Kherson area at risk of being cut off and surrounded.
That could produce thousands of POWs, but Putin’s thugs are trying to do their worst to make sure it won’t. They want to brutalise Ukrainian soldiers enough for them to commit such atrocities that Russian soldiers would prefer death to surrender.
So yes, evil is banal, Arendt was right about that. But it can also be perfectly rational, provided that reason is wielded by evil men.