Multinational corporate accountability and control during the Nazi period

In a previous post I considered the question of the culpability of multinational corporations with affiliates in wartime Nazi Germany (link). There I discussed a number of books that address this question, including Billstein, Fings, Kugler, and Levis’ very important 2000 contribution, Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany during the Second World War. This book provides a detailed business history during the Nazi period of the activities of General Motors (through its subsidiary Opel) and Ford Motor Company (through its German subsidiary Ford Werke in Cologne), including especially the use of forced labor by both companies. Here I want to focus on a crucial question of corporate responsibility: to what extent were these practices under the knowledge and control of the US-based corporate executives? 

Begin with General Motors. Adam Opel AG was General Motors’ subsidiary in Germany, and was the largest producer of automobiles and trucks for the Reich. GM acquired Opel during the Great Depression and took full ownership and control in 1931. Ample evidence is provided in Billstein et al concerning Opel’s use of forced labor during the war years. However, there is disagreement over the degree of management control exercised by General Motors in the US over its Opel subsidiary in Germany. 

Bradford Snell’s testimony to Congress in 1974 addressed this question (link, pp. 16-23). The Snell report to Congress maintained that US senior executives continued to exercise virtually full control over Opel’s operations for the first 11 months of declared war between Germany and the US. However, GM and other researchers have rebutted this claim vigorously. GM claimed that the “enemy property custodian” appointed by the German authorities had sole authority over the management and operations of Opel. Billstein et al take a nuanced view of the question in Working for the Enemy. They take issue with Snell’s assessment that GM exercised “complete management control” at Opel (35), but they argue that Opel executives and managers continued the general strategies preferred by GM before the war. And they argue that US executives of GM during the pre-war years were eager to gain contracts for vehicles and other materials that were crucial for the Nazi government’s military buildup. “In fact, the evidence suggests General Motors’s willing collaboration in the conversion [to armaments production]” (36).

Billstein et al raise a crucial and foundational question: could GM have vetoed the conversion of Opel’s manufacturing capacity to wartime production in the 1930s and the use of forced labor in the 1940s if they had wished to do so? Henry Ashby Turner, Jr.’s General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe’s Biggest Carmaker sheds more light on the business activities and decision-making of General Motors during the Nazi regime. Turner has special expertise on this question, since he directed the documentation project during 1999-2000 sponsored by General Motors to review its private corporate archives during the Nazi period. Turner has special authority in his judgments about GM’s wartime behavior because of his direct involvement in the 1999-2000 review of General Motors’ internal documents and records during the relevant time period. Further, Turner is an acknowledged expert on the corporation’s behavior during the period. (The complete archive of all documents recovered and reviewed has been deposited in digital form at Yale University’ Sterling Memorial Library, designated as the General Motors-Opel Collection.) Based on systematic review of massive quantities of internal GM documents in 1999-2000, Turner concludes that GM’s management control over Opel was extremely limited after 1941. 

The question of management control of Opel’s operations is a crucial one. To what extent did GM’s headquarters in the US direct operations and strategies at Opel? Turner addresses this question directly. Legally GM had complete authority over Opel prior to 1941, as the sole owner of its shares; so GM had the ability to remove members of the board and the director, and to accept or reject the annual report. In practice, however, its ability to control was attenuated by distance and language. And its investment in Opel was entirely hostage to the Nazi regime: profits could not be repatriated, the enterprise could not be sold to a German buyer at a “fair market value”, and the Nazi regime had the political and legal ability to compel compliance with its policies — including “Aryanization”.

The American executives assigned to Opel exercised wide-ranging discretionary authority. Under Sloan’s leadership, GM operated on a managerial principle of “co-ordinated decentralization” that reserved control over allocations of capital to the central leadership but otherwise left most decisions to the corporation’s various divisions, which were monitored by a hierarchical system of committees. The Americans at Opel were, however, from the outset heavily dependent upon the German members of the managerial staff, who far outnumbered them. Of necessity, they had to rely upon these colleagues for information about what was happening at the firm and elsewhere in the country as well as for communications with employees and government officials. Returning to the United States frequently for vacations and for consultations at GM’s New York headquarters at a time when trans-Atlantic sea travel required a week or more each way, the American executives were absent for substantial periods of time. As a result, those charged with responsibility for Opel exercised at best a tenuous control over the firm. (6)

The archives reviewed in 1999-2000 establish clearly that while under ownership and legal control by General Motors (between 1940 and the end of the war), Opel made extensive use of forced labor. However, Turner’s considered view is that General Motors had little actual management control over Opel’s decision-making after the declaration of war between Germany and the United States in 1941. The American strategy from the United States was to “camouflage” the US ownership of Opel and to maintain the value of their investment of Opel pending the end of the war. And in fact Alfred P. Sloan expressed an explicitly non-interventionist philosophy of business management in a letter to a shareholder quoted in the book: “an international business operating throughout the world, should conduct its operations in strict business terms, without regard to the political beliefs of its management, or the political beliefs of the countries in which it is operating” (Turner, 27).

By 1936, after three years of Nazi rule, Opel and the GM executives in charge of it had undergone a far-reaching adaptation to the Third Reich. Faced with a ruthless regime and a company workforce the Nazis had brought under their control, the Americans responsible for the firm had acquiesced in the politicization of factory life and intimidation of their employees. To cope with the xenophobia promoted by the regime, they had withdrawn into the background and sought to conceal the firm’s foreign ownership. (30)

What about Ford Motor Company and the corporate relationship between Dearborn and its subsidiary in Germany, Ford Werke Cologne? The view taken by Billstein et al of Ford’s corporate behavior during the Nazi period is quite negative. The primary source of evidence upon which they depend is a set of interviews conducted by the city of Cologne of individuals who had been forced workers at Ford Werke during the war years, and who had accepted an invitation to return to Cologne to help to document the realities of forced labor at the complex during this period. Excerpts of these interviews are included in the book, and they are very powerful. But they do not shed light on the organizational question: where does responsibility for the use of forced labor fall — in Cologne or in Dearborn?

The key finding of the Ford archive review (link) mentioned in the prior post is the conclusion, endorsed by Simon Reich, that Ford headquarters in Dearborn had essentially no knowledge or control of Ford Werke management decisions after the declaration of war in 1941 — including the use of forced labor. Further, the review finds that Ford Werke made minimal profits over the period of wartime manufacture. (Here is a summary statement by Simon Reich of the central findings of the archival research; link.) The Ford report confirms that Ford Werke Cologne made use of forced and slave labor during the wartime period, but the report is unequivocal in asserting that there is no documentation in the 98,000 pages of archive materials that suggests either knowledge, acquiescence, or control by Dearborn of this practice in Cologne, and Reich endorses this conclusion. The report takes the view that Ford Werke was functionally autonomous from its nominal owners in the US during the wartime years, and that its management in Cologne was eager to cultivate business and military relationships with the Nazi regime in order to maintain the business viability of the operation.

This discussion is a complex one. It is clear that Opel, Ford Werke, and all other heavy industries in Germany were fully involved in the Nazi war effort, and searched aggressively for opportunities to gain military contracts for trucks, tanks, aircraft, engines, and other technologies that were essential for Hitler’s ability to wage war against Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium, Ukraine, Lithuania, and the USSR. Further, it is clear that these companies conformed to Nazi policy concerning the use of forced labor, Aryanization, and slave labor. Moreover, from other case studies in the auto industry, it seems clear that refusing the use of concentration-camp labor was a feasible choice — witness that Opel largely avoided making use of KZ labor while Daimler-Benz was very willing to use that labor (Gregor 194). Rightly, officials of these German companies were investigated and interrogated after the war concerning their conduct towards workers during the war. (It would be very interesting to see a case study of a major business under Nazi jurisdiction where management nonetheless managed to avoid committing crimes against their own workers and other civilians. Were there industrial companies in Norway that managed to maintain decent labor practices under Nazi occupation?) 

This suggests that it is important to assess culpability for illegal and immoral actions taken by these companies when these actions are uncovered. If Opel or Ford Werke provided only starvation rations for its forced workers; if these companies used lethal force as a way of controlling their forced-labor contingents; if the companies provided unconscionably low levels of medical care for their unwilling workers; if these companies actively sought out the use of concentration-camp prisoners as slave labor; then the officers and executives who were responsible for these actions should be held responsible.

But what about the parent corporations? In the cases of Opel and Ford Werke, the balance of available documentation today seems to indicate (based on largely independent study of corporate archives) that it is most credible that the US headquarters had little knowledge and virtually no effective control over its subsidiaries in Germany after about 1940. If we find the independent reviews of GM and Ford archives largely credible — along with the assessments of these reviews by independent and respected historians Turner and Reich — then it would appear that the responsibility for corporate decisions made by Opel, Ford Werke, and Daimler-Benz falls chiefly on the German officers and decision-makers who conducted the affairs of those companies in the period from about 1940 until the end of the war, as well as the Nazi agencies and divisions that largely governed them. In particular, it would appear that responsibility for the use of forced labor in Russelsheim and Cologne cannot be assigned to New York and Dearborn headquarters for the parent companies. 

Does this mean that multinational corporations bear no responsibility for the actions of their subsidiaries? Certainly not. Rather, we might judge that World War II seems to represent a special case for multinational corporate responsibility. The circumstances of total war appear to have severed the arrangements of oversight and control that normally exist between parent and subsidiary. In more normal circumstances — Ford in Argentina, Coca Cola in India, Exxon in Nigeria — we should expect that the multinational corporation has an overriding duty to oversee and control the actions of its subsidiaries in other countries. Those duties extend to ensuring minimal labor standards, a non-violent relationship to labor unions, and a good-faith environmental stewardship of its operations. And if it fails in these duties, its officers should be held accountable. And the “non-interventionist” language put forward by Alfred P. Sloan cannot be accepted. Rather, the multinational corporation has a duty to be vigilant about the political and military choices being made by the governments of the countries in which it does business.

Three war-crimes trials took place after the end of World War Two involving German industrialists who were responsible for making use of forced labor by conquered civilians, use of slave labor from concentration camps, plundering and despoliation, membership in the Nazi party, and other crimes. These were among the “subsequent Nuremberg trials” conducted by US military authorities. These included trials of executives from IG Farben, Krupp, and Friedrich Flick. Here is an important finding from the dissent by Judge Paul Hebert in the Farben trial concerning the charge of the use of slave labor and the defense of “necessity” by Farben executives: “Willing cooperation with the slave labor utilization of the Third Reich was a matter of corporate policy that permeated the whole Farben organization… For this reason, criminal responsibility goes beyond the actual immediate participants at Auschwitz. It includes other Farben Vorstand plant-managers and embraces all who knowingly participated in the shaping of the corporate policy.” Jonathan Wiesen’s West German Industry and the Challenge of the Nazi Past, 1945-1955 is an important exploration of the moral responsibility of German industry and corporations for the crimes of the Nazi period.

Much of the evidence currently available to historians about corporate behavior by the auto companies and other major industries resulted from class-action lawsuits by survivors of the use of forced labor, including especially a suit led by the Ukrainian woman Elsa Iwanowa in 1998 and 1999. These lawsuits led to a sudden willingness on the part of General Motors and Ford Motor Company to make their corporate archives from the Nazi period available for study by researchers. Here is the 1999 judicial opinion issued by U.S. District Court for the district of New Jersey dismissing the Iwanowa class-action lawsuit by against Ford Motor Company and Ford Werke; link. Though the lawsuits were largely unsuccessful, they contributed to the establishment in Germany of a $1.7 billion fund, the German Companies Foundation Initiative: Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future, which was designed in part to provide financial compensation for individuals who had been forced to work in German factories, mines, and construction sites during World War II (Wiesen, kl 203). (The fund has now grown substantially.) The US District Court opinion is worth reading carefully, in that it provides a reasonably full background to the use of forced labor at Ford Werke; the conditions of labor in the Ford Werke factory; and the structure of international and German law with respect to the issue of forced labor.

Forced labor and multinational corporations

What role did American multinational auto companies play in the rearmament of Germany during the early period of Nazi rule? And to what extent did these companies participate in Nazi practices like forced (slave) labor and Aryanization for which they should have been held morally responsible?

An early discussion of the responsibility of American corporations for their conduct in Nazi Germany was provoked by Bradford Snell’s testimony to Congress in 1974 (link, pp. 16-23). Snell, a specialist Congressional staff member, argued that the auto companies played a crucial role in supplying the German state with the vehicles and equipment needed for its conduct of war in Europe:

In Germany, for example, General Motors and Ford became an integral part of the Nazi war efforts. GM’s plants in Germany built thousands of bomber and jet fighter propulsion systems for the Luftwaffe at the same time that its American plants produced aircraft engines for the U.S. Army Air Corps. (17)

Snell makes clear the economic and business cost of non-cooperation by the auto companies:

Refusal to aid in prewar preparations, of course, was unthinkable. It would have resulted in confiscation and irreparable economic harm to GM and Ford stockholders. In any event, due to their concentrated economic power in both economies, they were able to shape the conflict to their own private corporate advantage. Whether in fact their profit-maximization determinations were also in the best interests of international peace or, more specifically, in accord with the national security objectives of the United States at that time is entirely unclear. (17)

It was, of course, in the best interests of GM and Ford to cooperate in the Axis war effort. Although GM, for example, was in complete management control of its Russelsheim warplane factory for nearly a full year after Germany’s declaration of war against the United States on December 11, 1941, its refusal to build warplanes at a time of negligible demand for automobiles would have brought about the economic collapse of its Opel plant. (22)

Here is Snell’s summary conclusion: “In sum, they maximized profits by supplying both sides with the material needed to conduct the war” (16). Importantly, however, Snell does not provide detailed evidence or analysis of the degree to which the US-based corporate headquarters of these companies were in a position to exert management control over their German subsidiaries. And he does not address the question of internal management decision-making at these companies and their use of forced labor. In fact, significant data about forced labor in these plants only became available to researchers in the 1990s.

In 1974 there was only limited documentation of the decision-making and management structure of the auto companies in their German subsidiaries. However, a series of class-action lawsuits emerged in the 1990s that prompted the auto companies to open their private business archives to inspection, and several books have been written since 1998 that document the kinds of collaboration that occurred between multinational companies and the Nazi regime. Two in particular are of special interest here: Billstein, Fings, Kugler, and Levis, Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany during the Second World War (2000), and Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe’s Biggest Carmaker (2005). Also important in this context is Neil Gregor’s book, Daimler-Benz in the Third Reich (1998), which provides a great deal of documentation of Daimler-Benz’s willing use of forced (slave) labor in its factories. 

These books are important for our concerns because they address the issue of how to understand the evils of the twentieth century, including mass killings, slave labor, and the destruction of human lives and dignity on a grotesque and massive scale. There is the question of evil state action to consider; the question of the evil deeds of particular individuals, from Rudolph Hoess to the ordinary policemen of Reserve Police Battalion 101 described by Christopher Browning (link), to the question of the public that accepted these horrendous actions. But along the way, there is the question of the actions and decisions of business firms that continued to operate in Germany, supplying the crucial war materials needed for blitzkrieg and operating according to Nazi principles. Those principles included official anti-Semitism and the use of forced labor of civilians and prisoners of war. There are many important questions that need to be addressed in this field, but the most important is the question of responsibility and culpability. To what extent were the US-based corporate executives aware of these practices, and to what extent did the company have effective control over their German subsidiaries?

The use of forced labor in auto and truck manufacturing plants

Labor shortages were a critical problem throughout wartime Germany, and at the Russelsheim Opel plant in particular. (Extensive documentation of Nazi use of forced and slave labor between 1933 and 1945 is provided by Ulrich Herbert, Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich.) Billstein et al and Turner provide a good deal of detail about the practices of Opel with regard to forced labor. Skilled workers were drafted into the armed forces from the GM-owned Opel ranks in large numbers, and plant managers were unable to persuade the labor control authorities Arbeitsamt to exempt skilled workers from further conscription cohorts. Conscription then broadened to include unskilled workers. A possible solution was seen in enemy prisoners of war. The first Opel Russelsheim prison camp was built in July 1940 and was soon occupied by 600 French and Belgian prisoners (Billstein et al, 47). In October 1941 the state authorized the use of Soviet POWs as industrial workers under severe conditions of oversight and confinement, but few of the several million POWs taken during the Barbarossa operations survived to be deployed as industrial slave workers (Billstein et al, 54). In February 1942 the SS central agency approved the Ostarbeiterlasse permitting the conscription of Soviet civilians (and later other civilians from Eastern European conquest zones), and Opel Russelsheim was the first location to receive a consignment of forced workers from the East. A report from September 1942 lists 2449 forced laborers, including Russian civilians, French POWs, and other foreign civilians (Billstein et al, 56). Opel did not make use of concentration-camp labor, according to Billstein et al:

Opel was the only large German vehicle producer not to employ KZ camp prisoners in the period that followed, at either of its two production plants. The company’s tradition was conservative, and not at all anti-Semitic. Opel’s forced laborers, both prisoners of war and civilians, were guarded by company Werkschutz. Concentration camp prisoners were guarded by SS henchmen. (Billstein et al, 63)

What about Ford Motor Company and the extensive use of forced labor in Ford Werke Cologne? More insight into this question has emerged as a result of the same class-action lawsuits initiated in 1998 by former forced workers. In 2001 Ford Motor Company completed a very extensive review of its corporate archives as well as those of Ford Werke and German and US government sources (link), in a report supervised and validated by Simon Reich, a well known scholar of the period. The findings of this review are quite different from those offered by Billstein et al. The Ford Archive Report provides a fairly extensive set of facts about the use of forced and slave labor at Ford Werke Cologne. Here is an overview:

The use of foreign and forced labor at Ford-Werke began in 1940, and generally followed the same pattern as at other industrial facilities in Germany. Foreigners from Eastern and Western Europe, as well as Italian and French POWs were put to work at Ford-Werke. These men and women lived in barracks constructed by Ford-Werke adjacent to its plant site, in what became known in Cologne as the “Ford camp.”[308] After the Reichsbahn [the German railways], Ford-Werke was the next largest employer of forced workers in Cologne.[309] Late in the war, men from the concentration camp Buchenwald worked at Ford-Werke as slave laborers. (See Section 7.7.) (49)

Postwar reports indicate that the first civilians from Eastern Europe began working at Ford-Werke in the spring of 1942. An internal Ford-Werke memorandum written in June 1945 stated, “As far as we can remember, the first Russian men and women came to us in March 1942.”[319] Other postwar documents reported that the Eastern[320] workers arrived in April 1942.[321] In oral history interviews conducted during the 1990s, several Russian and Ukrainian former workers recalled arriving between April and June 1942.[322] Wartime financial records from Ford-Werke reported 320 Eastern workers in May 1942, with the numbers increasing each month to a maximum of 900 workers in October 1943. Between November 1943 and August 1944, the number of Eastern workers indicated in these records varied between 777 and 882.[323] (50)

Forced and foreign workers were a sizable percentage of the total workforce at Ford Werke. The Archive Report indicates that “the highest number of foreign and forced workers at any point during the war was approximately 2,000. This peak occurred in August 1944” (51). This is roughly 40% of the workforce. Here is a graph of the composition of the Ford-Werke labor force from 1941 to 1944 (52):

The report makes an attempt to assess pay rates and living conditions, and notes consistently that conditions and pay were substantially worse for eastern workers than western workers. Food rations for Russian and eastern European workers were especially poor:

Statements from denazification files report that Russians – children as well as adults – received poor food rations.[439] In an interview conducted in the 1990s, one former Eastern worker recalled that her rations typically consisted of three slices of bread and unsweetened coffee for breakfast, soup made from turnips and flour siftings for lunch, and bread and coffee again for dinner. (64)

This is clearly a starvation diet for an adult worker, amounting to perhaps 700-800 calories per day.

The report also provides clear documentation that Ford Werke made use of slave labor from the Buchenwald concentration camp:

On the same day that Schmidt and von Gusmann attended the Schaaf meeting [8/1/1944], the main Buchenwald concentration camp prepared a list of 50 prisoners to send to Ford-Werke.[467] Included in the group of prisoners deployed to Ford-Werke were Russian and Czech political prisoners, Poles, and two Germans, one of whom was described as a “criminal” and the other as “work shy.” Among them were carpenters, bricklayers, a painter, a tailor, a cabinet maker, plumbers, electricians, agricultural workers, shoemakers, a barber and a nurse.[468] Their first day of work was August 13, 1944.[469] … Buchenwald transfer lists show that at least 65 different men were assigned to the Ford-Werke satellite camp at one time or another, and that several were transported elsewhere or fled from Ford-Werke and new prisoners brought in to replace them.[470] Most documentation from the period indicates that there were 50 or fewer Buchenwald inmates at Ford-Werke at any given time from August 1944 through the end of February 1945.[471] A 1944 list of Buchenwald satellite camps designates “Ford-Köln” with a capacity of 50 prisoners. (68-69)

This is a long list of moral wrongs committed by Ford Werke — extensive use of forced labor, including POWs and civilians from occupied countries; some use of slave labor from the Buchenwald concentration camp; and a pervasive and dehumanizing differentiation across groups of workers concerning their treatment, housing, and food, with harsh and meager conditions for eastern workers and more moderate conditions for workers from France, Belgium, and other countries of western Europe. It would seem evident that the corporate directors of those companies in Germany bear significant moral and legal responsibility for these actions. In a later post I will turn to the question of the possible culpability of the parent companies, General Motors and Ford Motor Company. It will emerge there that careful review of company archives by independent researchers strongly suggests that the US-based corporate leaders had neither knowledge nor control over events in their German subsidiaries after 1940.

Corporations and the Nazi regime

It is apparent, 90 years after the beginnings of the Nazi period, that large corporations played an important and lamentable role in Nazi power and administration, and the implementation of the atrocities of slave labor and mass murder. This is true for domestic German industries, like I.G. Farben and Siemens; and it appears to be true for some multinational companies with subsidiaries in Germany, including the major automobile companies such as General Motors and Ford Motor Company. In his important book Industry and Ideology: I. G. Farben in the Nazi Era Peter Hayes summarizes the involvement of I.G. Farben in these terms: “By 1943, the concern’s 334 plants and mines across Germany and occupied Europe were turning out more than 3 billion marks’ worth of goods and earning net profits of more than 0.5 billion. Nearly 50% of IG’s 330,000-person work force had come to consist of conscript or slave laborers, among whom were some of the perhaps 30,000 inmates of Auschwitz who eventually died in the company’s new factory and mines near the camp” (xxi-xxii). And one of its subsidiaries was the industrial source of Zyklon B, the extermination gas used to kill more than a million concentration camp victims.

There are two important questions to address here. First is the question of involvement and complicity itself: what was the extent of the involvement of major companies in the Nazi genocide and slave labor system, and were their executives and governors aware of the crimes to which their corporate resources were being devoted? This is an enormously important question, given that the likelihood of significant moral complicity in the crimes of the Nazi period by companies and large organizations. 

But the second question is, if anything, more important and more difficult. What were the features of corporate organization that led to knowing participation in these monstrous crimes by executives, leaders, and other operatives? Is this fundamentally the result of corporate and organizational dysfunction, beyond the reach of individuals within those organizations? Or is it possibly the indication of direct, personal evil-doing by executives, managers, and boards: a knowing and continuing engagement in evil relationships, leading to slave labor and mass murder, for the purpose of corporate business success and profitability? Were corporate leaders of industrial enterprises in Germany themselves fervent Nazis, committed to Hitler’s ideology? Consider Peter Hayes’ assessment of the question of ideological support by corporate leaders in the foreword to the new edition of Industry and Ideology: “Very few studies still posit enthusiasm for or even general acceptance of Nazi economic policy among the nation’s industrial and banking elite during the late 1930s” (x). Perhaps; but certainly there were committed Nazi supporters among German’s executive class, including Willy Heidinger, director of IBM’s German subsidiary Dehomag (mentioned below).

Rather than ideology, Hayes emphasizes “business rationality” as the motivating factor for business executives during the period. And he cautions that these same motivations may recur in many other contexts.

The amoral pragmatism and professionalism that propelled Farben’s executives dwell within all large-scale organizations, whether they be corporate or political, whether they seek to maximize power or profits, whether they claim to serve the individual, a class, or a race. These drives make Farben an instructive case study in the plasticity of private interests and the consequences of permitting any single-minded doctrine to grasp the levers of a state. Lest that point be lost and readers distance themselves too far and easily from Farben’s behavior, I have emphasized here the specious rationality of the concerns’s deeds and largely let the self-evident wickedness of some of them speak for itself. (xxvi)

Hayes argues that there was a parallel organizational motivation at work leading executives to conform their business practices to the will of the Nazi regime a kind of accommodating instrumental rationality:

No one who grapples henceforth with the role of industry in the initiation and intensification of the Nazi forced-labor system will be able to do without the terms devised by Lutz Budrass and Manfred Grieger to describe a “clandestine entrepreneurial ethic,” a “morality of efficiency,” that came to dominate industrial decision making during the war years more than concern for profit or fear of punishment. (xi-xii)

It would appear that this “morality of efficiency” involves a truncated worldview that looks something like this: “We make X (synthetic oil, punchcard machines, automobiles, …); our organizational goal is simply to design and manufacture these goods as efficiently as possible, without concerning ourselves about the uses that others will put them to (and perhaps without regard to the origin of the resources, including labor) that the regime puts at our disposal to facilitate the process”. A “morality of efficiency”, then, is a deliberate form of tunnel vision or myopia, in which the product and process are the sole object of attention, whereas the uses and intentions of the state are not.

Since 1998 there have been numerous investigations of corporate behavior during the Nazi period, stimulated by class-action lawsuits concerning liability for slave labor. These lawsuits have led a number of corporations to open their archives to independent historians for careful scrutiny. One of the fruits of this new wave of research on corporate behavior under Nazi dictatorship is a volume edited by Christopher Kobrak and Per Hansen, European Business, Dictatorship, and Political Risk, 1920-1945. The book confines itself largely to the question of the business environment created by the rise of the Nazi dictatorship and the power of Nazi party organizations in the control of industry, and its editors are cautious about offering normative judgments about corporate behavior during this period. (I will return to this point below.) Currency controls, direct government mandates, and attractive contracts with large German government agencies all served to create a distinctive business environment for multinational enterprises.

In particular, many of the contributors to the volume pay special attention to the degree to which companies doing business in Germany had latitude to make decisions steering their companies away from the increasingly clear goals of the Nazi regime. Mira Wilkins focuses on the separation of ownership and control that was a crucial organizational fact for numerous multinational corporations in this period:

Owners may not (and usually do not) have full control over managers. The principal-agent problem is multiplied many times over within MNEs. Information is asymmetrical. “Control” is always constrained, but in different manners. Increasingly, I find the concept of managerial control in a purely domestic context elusive, but far more so in an international one. Under dictatorship, rules and regulations limited the decision-making of outward and inward MNEs (and domestic enterprises) in varying degrees. Managers of an affiliate within the host country may understand, interpret, or follow the rules and regulations in accord with the parent company’s interests or with their own separate agenda. (23)

Here is Wilkins’ summary of the situation of multinational enterprises with subsidiaries in Germany in the 1930s:

Ford in Germany encountered a similar quandary. Sir Percival Perry, head of the British Ford company and until 1937 chairman of the board of the German Ford affiliate, sent Edsel Ford in the United States in 1933 numerous letters on German government interventions. “The Nationalist Socialist Party — Nazis — interfere with everything and although their interference is not exactly officially Government, yet it is political and very influential,” he reported in June 1933…. Like it or not (and many executives in IG Farben did not like it), IG Farben managers came to recognize that business and politics in Nazi Germany were closely bound. So, too, Ford officials realized that they had to take steps to adjust to certain political realities. What seems increasingly clear are the restraints on corporate choices and the differences that developed within individual MNEs between financial, legal, administrative, and operational strategies and structures. (26)

Wilkins does indeed describe a quandary: Ford (or Farben) would harm or even destroy its business in Germany if it refused to cooperate with German political imperatives. But some of those imperatives should have been refused nonetheless.

Lars Heide explores this “principal-agent” problem between parent and subsidiary in greater detail with regard to the example of IBM and its German subsidiary Dehomag. Heide argues that Dehomag, under the direction of the management of Willy Heidinger, had achieved almost complete autonomy with respect to IBM’s corporate management in the United States. Heide takes this evidence to refute the arguments made by Edwin Black in his controversial book about IBM during the German dictatorship. Heide argues that the US-based executives could do very little to control Heidinger’s decisions and actions. (Heide also documents that available research does not support Black’s claim that IBM punchcard technology was used by German authorities to identify Jews for deportation (171).)

While Heide argues that IBM’s US-based corporate leaders had little effective control over the IBM subsidiary, the company continued to profit from the business success of Dehomag in the Third Reich. Dehomag became “IBM’s most successful affiliate” (150), with a very extensive business involvement in the Nazi war machine. And Heide makes it clear that Heidinger was himself a vocal supporter of the Nazi dictatorship. The issue of control vs. ownership came up again in the case of IBM and Dehomag:

Simultaneously, the German campaign in May-June 1940 provoked pressure on IBM’s relation with its German subsidiary. The conquest of Benelux and France caused Thomas J. Watson of IBM to return a German decoration that he had received in Berlin in 1937 while Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce working for appeasement with Nazi Germany. From June 1940, this act triggered a Heidinger Putsch to regain majority control of Dehomag, apparently supported by the German authorities. However, the IBM majority ownership was rescued by the introduction of enemy company custodianship when the U.S. entered the war. The custodianship gave Heidinger’s management free hands, which implied that he had regained his company but for the ownership. (168)

A note is needed concerning the stance the editors and contributors have taken towards the question of moral responsibility of corporations:

For a long time, business and other historians, working on the interwar period and dictatorships, have concentrated on the question of what business contributed to the rise of dictatorships and why. For understandable reasons, the ethical and moral questions have had a rather high priority. With a great deal of justification, there has been no shortage of condemnation of companies and business managers who profited from cooperating with the dictatorships of the interwar period. However, moral condemnation of historical actors and events is not really the role of historians. It is more important to try to understand what happened and why. Moreover, we want to extend the analysis of how this period affected the strategies and structures of modern business…. (x)

But contrary to this sentiment, I believe that the moral question is central for historians of this period: in what ways should the current generation hold business organizations of the past to account for egregious actions such as use of slave labor and facilitation of the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population? It is of course relevant to know the context of decision-making and latitude that was available to corporate decision-makers. But we also need to be very clear in our judgments of the business decisions that were made: some were perfectly legitimate business decisions, some were regrettable but understandable compromises with an almost impossible situation, and others were wholly unacceptable crimes. Is it too “present-ist” to maintain that multinational corporations like IBM, General Motors, or Ford should have ceased business operations altogether in Germany once Hitler’s crimes became apparent? 

Of interest in this context is a 1962 article by the progressive American historian Gabriel Kolko, “American Business and Germany” (link), published only a few years after the end of the Nazi regime. Kolko offers a detailed treatment of both the US business press and the business behavior of a number of major US corporations with respect to issues of war and dictatorship in the 1930s, and he finds that the “official views” of the business community (the business press) do not align closely with the actual behavior of US corporations. A key point in the article has to do with multinational cartels and agreements:

American business’ functional role in world affairs in the decade or so preceding the war found expression in cartel and contractual agreements between key American firms and German industry. The economic significance of the involved companies is much greater than their numbers. Although only twenty-six of them could be found among the top one hundred industrial corporations fo 1937, together these twenty-six accounted for over 60 per cent of the total assets of the hundred. More important, these corporations generally were the largest in their respective industries, and as such were price and policy leaders. (718)

He also makes several observations about I.G. Farben and its role within the Nazi dictatorship:

The existence of both the Nazi party and I.G. Farben was, from the point of view of the expansionist goals of both, a fortuitous coincidence. The United Steel Works had a strong Nazi group among its top executives, centered about Fritz Thyssen, from its inception. German industry was naturally extremely conservative and alarmed by the growing strength of the Social Democrats and Communists. The unification of I.G. Farben and the cartels with the Nazis was not forced by any means. When the Nazis came to power the essential cartel structure was maintained as the economy was divided into eight major national units, continued under the same leadership, and guided only insofar as unified national production and price policies were concerned. (718-719)

And further:

American companies not only knew of I.G.’s relationship to the Nazis, but to other American concerns as well. This was inevitable, for I.G. made a large number of exclusive agreements with American firms which bound companies not formal partners to their restrictions. Du Pont, to cite one case, was forced to recognize the agreements of I.G. and Union Carbide and Carbon in certain fields and to keep out of them. By making innumerable similar arrangements I.G. was able to prevent many major American chemical and metal firms from following independent commercial and development policies and building the productive facilities which were later to become vital to the prosecution of the war…. It is almost superfluous to point out that the motives of the American firms bound to contracts with German concerns were not pro-Nazi, whatever else they may have been. The arrangements with German firms were stimulated by a fear of international price and market competition and a desire for predictable economic conditions as a basis for business planning. (720)

Kolko concludes the article with these lines:

In their public relations roles the large American corporations inextricably bound to German industry declared their sympathy for the public’s antagonism to strategic aid to Germany after 1936, but in their actual behavior these firms pursued a course whose dominant objective was to satisfy their private interests. The export philosophy of General Motors, the agreements for postwar re-establishment of cartel arrangements, the conscious disinterest in the political implications of strategic materials sales by Dow, Standard Oil, and others, suggest that the guiding values of business were distinctly class values. Such conflicts between the business community’s actions and the business press indicate the limited usefulness of considering only the business press and corporation press releases in attempting to evaluate the historic relationship of American business to foreign affairs. Equally important, the basic policies of large corporations on the international scene in the 1930s were motivated less by the attraction of new trade frontiers and markets than by their desire for the economic stabilization and predictability which only cartels and market agreements could create. The basis of such “anti-imperialism” by American business was not altruism, but its recognition that its aim of profits with stability could best be attained by international business solidarity. (728)

There is much more to be said about the conduct of corporations during the German dictatorship, and later posts will discuss some recent research on Daimler-Benz, General Motors, and other multinational corporations with respect to the use of slave labor and possible involvement in management of the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population.  

Buffy the existentialist vampire slayer

Here is a hard question. Can the creators of television shows and other kinds of pop culture be understood sometimes to pose fundamental and important questions about human life and morality? We probably all believe that great novelists are able to confront and explore hard human moral predicaments and life contradictions — often in ways that are more penetrating than the most astute philosophical writings on these subjects. Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary, James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, Alice Walker in The Color Purple — all of these writers have complex moral imaginations and they confront and question some of the profound issues of real human lives. Can the same be said of the creators of television series? Is there an existential or moral side to Hill Street Blues or Grey’s Anatomy? And what about Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

I suppose the conventional answer is that there is a sharp and uncrossable line between great literature and popular television culture — the former can be profound and insightful, whereas the latter is unavoidably shallow and empty, from a philosophical or moral point of view. Shakespeare was great in ways in which Steven Bochco could never attain. And yet this seems not to be so clearly the case as one might imagine. Many viewers of The Wire, for example, have felt that the series has some very important sociological insights about race and urban life in America today, and David Simon is credited for a genuine artistic achievement in the five seasons of the show (link). 

This brings me to Buffy. At first glance the series looks like pure adolescent fodder, with a dollop of horror show stirred into the mix. The show is the creation of Joss Whedon, who has earned a great deal of praise for his creativity and also some harsh criticism for his style and behavior with the cast in production.

The concept of the show is fairly simple. Buffy is a high school sophomore in California, a new arrival after her expulsion from another school for unexplained absences. As it turns out, her absences and other forms of weird behavior all stem from the fact that she is a “slayer” — the unique young woman of her generation who is specifically ready to confront and slay the vampires and other demons that most of the normal world fails to see. The series rolls out a handful of high school kids as main characters, as well as a growing roster of horrible and long-lived demons and vampires just seeking a way to overturn the dominion of humans on earth. The high school side of the story is roughly as engaging (or unengaging) as Community, another television series about young people who are students at a community college — pure sitcom. But the secret world of demons and vampires that makes up the dramatic thrust of the plot of Buffy is complex and involving. And this fictional world is involving because of the issues of evil, freedom, personal identity, responsibility, and “soul” that it raises. (Here is an appreciation of the show in Vox by a pair of talented television critics; link.)

Two characters in particular carry a great deal of the moral and existential weight of the series — Angel and Spike. Both are vampires who have managed to regain their souls, while retaining their memories of their horrible actions as soulless vampires over a thousand years. Each of them has committed terrible acts against humans, without conscience. Having regained their “souls”, they are able to reflect on these acts in the past, and to reflect on their personal responsibility or culpability for these past actions.

These are philosophical issues; if only there were a philosophical tradition within which they might be discussed. It turns out that there is such a discourse. The Whedon Studies Association was formed a few years ago by a number of individuals with a serious interest in Whedon’s corpus, and it has attracted a number of very interesting discussions and commentaries on Buffy. One contribution that I find especially valuable is an article written by Dean Kowalski, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, titled “Visions of the Soul: Looking Back on Buffy and Angel” (link). Kowalski approaches the topic in a rigorous philosophical way: What is the soul? What different interpretations of “soul” have been offered in explication of Whedon’s fictional universe? How do these theories help to shed light on the moral situation of the various characters in the drama? Kowalski considers an ontological theory of the soul — “the soul is a thing that a person possesses; when he or she is infected by a demon he loses his soul and becomes a vampire”. And he considers an existential theory — “the soul is a metaphor for our capacity for moral choice”. A vampire regains his soul when he or she chooses to act in a deliberate and free way. A vampire is a soulless monster; but he or she or it can become good by exercising a capacity for choosing to act in a morally good way; she can regain her soul. Kowalski quotes Scott McLaren, an early contributor to the Whedon Studies Association:

Scott McLaren acknowledges that “soul-talk” on Buffy and Angel can be interpreted metaphorically. He writes, “The soul can also be defined existentially: Angel resists temptation not simply because he ‘has’ a soul… but rather because, existentially, he makes a deliberate moral choice” (McLaren 13). McLaren further claims that “soul-talk” is also “an existential metaphor for a particular moral orientation” (13). Thus, the soul as metaphor can apply to any one ethically significant choice or a concerted effort to continue making similar choices. Due to the emphasis upon altering one’s own existence via the choices one makes, let us call this the existentialist interpretation of the soul. 134

Like a good literary critic, Kowalski and the other authors he discusses make substantial use of the details of the dialogue and plot to provide evidence for their claims; and like a good philosopher, Kowalski engages in careful conceptual analysis and analytical probing to attempt to gain clarity about difficult moral questions. It is therefore a little difficult to identify Kowalski’s own genre. His article is a careful philosophical essay on freedom, identity, and the concept of the soul; and it is also a detailed analysis of the thought-world involved in a seven-season drama about supernatural creatures who do massive evil. This may be confusing; but it is also very stimulating and challenging, in exactly the way that a philosophy essay ought to be. It is good philosophy on a non-orthodox topic.

So what about Buffy? Does the series over its seven seasons have “literary or philosophical” value? Here is a very interesting quote about Buffy the Vampire Slayer from Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker (quoted in the Vox article linked above):

[1999] was a year when I was not yet a professional TV critic, just a woman, standing in front of a television show, begging everyone to love it. Every week, I watched The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; I was an avid fan of both, convinced that [Sopranos creator] David Chase and [Buffy creator] Joss Whedon were turning television into something radical and groundbreaking, the former by deconstructing the mob genre (as well as capitalism and psychotherapy), the latter by forging a mythic, feminist-inflected meld of horror, comedy, and teen drama.

What this implies to me is that there is no clear line between those genres that provide real insights and those that do not — Madame Bovary on one side of the line, The Young and the Restless on the other. Rather, talented creators take up their tools in many locations and in many genres, and it is possible to find substantive, important discussions of large human questions across a very broad range of cultural products. And along the way, it is possible that some of the toughest moral questions that we face may find some degree of clarification as a result of the dramatic and creative work done by people like David Simon and Joss Whedon.

One reason I find the hidden world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer of interest is the unexpected convergence it seems to create with the allegory I wrote in the blog a few months ago (link) — without any knowledge of Buffy. In that entry I imagined a thousand-year-old man attempting to uncover and come to terms with the sometimes awful things he had done in earlier centuries — which sounds a lot like the situation of Angel in the series. And my reason for writing the allegory was to consider whether there is a serious insight we can learn from this imaginary story that helps us make sense of the evils of the twentieth century — certainly one of the toughest moral questions we can pose for ourselves. But in a way, it seems as though Joss Whedon has something equally ambitious in mind as well for his teen-oriented horror show.

LaCapra on history, memory, and the Holocaust

Child’s drawing from barracks wall in Auschwitz

Dominick LaCapra’s History and Memory after Auschwitz (1998) is an important contribution to the topic of “history’s responsibility in front of the Holocaust”. His aim in this book, and elsewhere in many of his other writings, is to express his “conception of the relations among history, memory, ethics, and politics” (6). 

Here is an especially arresting sentence from the introduction:

I discuss Heinrich Himmler’s famous Posen speech of October 1943, addressed to upper-level SS officers, for it may be taken as the paradigmatic assertion of the sublimity and “glory” of extreme transgression and unheard-of excess in the Nazi treatment of Jews. Often such features are marginalized or downplayed in the emphasis on factors such as the banality of evil, the well-nigh inevitable consequences of totalization (or totalitarianism), the role of bureaucratic routine and cold duty, the inertial force of social pressure, the effects of depersonalizing and fragmented relations to the other, and the significance of a massive technological framework, instrumental rationality, and industrialized mass murder. (3)

LaCapra draws attention here to the striking contrast between these fairly ordinary causal factors often highlighted in discussions of the Holocaust and the “regression to barbarism” represented by much of the treatment of Jews and the insane “sublime elation” of Himmler’s speech.

LaCapra seeks to address the question of “uniqueness or comparability” of the Holocaust:

The more general point … is that the Holocaust was “unique” in a specific, nonnumerical, and noninvidious sense. In it an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression was crossed, and whenever that threshold or limit is crossed, something “unique” happens and the standard opposition between uniqueness and comparability is unsettled, thereby depriving comparatives (especially in terms of magnitude) of a common measure or foundation. (7)

This is a somewhat paradoxical-sounding statement, but it seems to make sense. The “killing fields” of Pol Pot were also unique, different from the Holocaust, horrific, and “an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression”. Each such crossing is “non-comparable”, in the sense that each demands its own sorrow, its own lack of comprehension, and its own determination that “never again” will we permit such violations. There is no common measure; each occurrence is evil in its own unique and horrific way.

LaCapra quotes Saul Friedlander on the topic of the uniqueness of the Nazi extermination of the Jews, including especially Friedlander’s view in Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe that “The Nazi regime attained what is, in my view, some sort of theoretical outer limit: one may envision an even larger number of victims and a technologically more efficient way of killing, but once a regime decides that groups, whatever the criteria may be, should be annihilated there and then and never be allowed to live on Earth, the ultimate has been achieved” (quoted in LaCapra, 26). LaCapra approves of this idea: “The essential consideration is that an outer limit was reached and that, once this limit is reached, something radically transgressive or incommensurable has occurred”. But he also fears that this perspective may “normalize” (banalize) the Holocaust “by prompting a dogmatic assertion of absolutes, a grim competition for first place in victimhood or the type of research into similarities and differences that easily becomes diversionary and pointless” (26).

Here is LaCapra’s considered judgment about how to understand the uniqueness and generalizability of the Holocaust:

I would change metaphors and note the role of a tragic grid that achieved a paramount place in the Holocaust but in other ways is also evident elsewhere in history. It is the grid that locks together perpetrator, collaborator, victim, bystander, and resister, and that also threatens to encompass the secondary witness and historian. A goal of working-through should be the better understanding of this grid and the attempt to overcome it toward a more desirable network of relations. (40-41)

And what about the historian in this tragic grid?

The historian must work out a subject-position in negotiating transference and coming to terms with his or her implication in the tragic grid of participant-positions. The conventional stance for the historian is often closest to that of the innocent bystander or onlooker. But this safe position is particularly questionable in the case of the Holocaust and other extreme or limit-events. (41)

Working through the past in any desirable fashion would thus be a process (not an accomplished state) and involve not definitive closure or full self-possession but a recurrent yet variable attempt to relate accurate, critical memory-work to the requirements of desirable action in the present. (42)

One thing that is especially noteworthy about LaCapra’s approach to the topic of history, memory, and trauma is his use of some basic ideas from psychoanalysis. This is an approach that is somewhat foreign to the ideas that analytic philosophers bring to the philosophy of history, but it seems especially relevant to the question of how to confront the evils of the twentieth century. Here is a very interesting description of how LaCapra treats psychoanalysis as a tool of inquiry in history:

My basic premise in this chapter is that the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis (such as transference, resistance, denial, repression, acting-out, and working-through) undercut the binary opposition between the individual and society, and their application to individual or collective phenomena is a matter of informed argument and research…. One should rather call into question the very idea that one is working with a more or less flimsy analogy between the individual and society and argue instead that there is nothing intrinsically “individual” about such concepts as repression and working-through. These concepts refer to processes that always involve modes of interaction, mutual reinforcement, conflict, censorship, orientation toward others, and so forth, and their relative individual or collective status should not be prejudged. (43)

This perspective makes sense in two different ways in the setting the history of the Holocaust or the Holodomor — first, as a means of making sense of the thoughts and actions of perpetrators and victims (for example, in the lengthy Posen speech of Himmler’s that LaCapra treats in detail); and second, as a way of addressing the historian’s own blindspots, aversions, and rationalizations in the telling of the story. The second part of the passage following the ellipsis captures very well the situation of “collective memory” and historians’ collective efforts to uncover a narrative of a complex and horrific period.

This is a good place to draw attention to the current crisis in Holocaust historiography in Poland occasioned by the libel suit successfully pursued against Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking for entirely legitimate assertions they made in Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland (published in 2018, not yet available in English translation) (link). Their work is based on thorough historical research, and aligns with the moral necessity of facing unhappy truths honestly through historical inquiry. Like Jan Gross two decades before (link), their work honestly confronts the involvement of ordinary Polish people in the murder of Poland’s Jews. The government-backed insistence on “historical research supporting the national dignity of Poland” is entirely inimical towards history, truth, and memory, and is rightly opposed by historians and writers throughout the world.

Compassion and the moral emotions (Nussbaum)

image: Philoctetes injured on Lemnos

How can the atrocities of the twentieth century lead to the creation of a better version of humanity? One theme to explore involves the moral emotion of compassion, and the idea that this is an emotion that human beings learn through experience and reflection. Crucially, we need to explore whether knowledge of history can help to inform the development of a culture of compassion. Both John Kekes and Susan Neiman provide some useful insights into the key question: how should a current generation engage with the history of the atrocities of the past century? Kekes contributes to this idea through his discussion of moral imagination, and Neiman contributes through her analysis of Rousseau’s theory of the malleability of human nature.

The philosopher who has shed the most light on compassion is Martha Nussbaum. In “Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion” (link) she explores the importance that compassion and pity play in the moral ordering of human social life. (The subject is treated as well in Part II of Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions.) As the title suggests, Nussbaum regards compassion (or pity) as a prerequisite moral emotion for much of social life; and she believes that it must be learned. Moreover, literature, drama, and history can be crucial components of that learning.

Tragedy, as ancient Athenian culture saw it, is not for the very young; and it is not just for the young. Mature people always need to expand their experience and to reinforce their grasp on central ethical truths. To the young adolescent who is preparing to take a place in the city, however, tragedy has a special significance. Such a spectator is learning pity in the process. (39)

If we believe that the ability to imagine the ills of another with vivid sympathy is an important part of being a good person, then we will want to follow Rousseau in giving support to procedures by which this ability is taught. Much of this will and should be done privately, in families. But every society employs and teaches ideals of the citizen, and of good civic judgment, in many ways; and there are some concrete practical strategies that will in fact support an education in compassion. (50)

Nussbaum approaches the topic of pity or compassion through the story of Philoctetes, as related by Sophocles. She finds that Sophocles provides a nuanced and reflective demonstration of the emotion, within the context of a complicated social story. The value of literature in exploring moral concepts has been a strength of Nussbaum’s approach to moral philosophy for a long time, and its use here is illuminating.

Nussbaum rejects the Humean view that emotions are the contrary of reason, knowledge, or deliberation; instead, she argues that at least some emotions, like pity and compassion, embrace both representation of the world and affective response to the world. Compassion is a crucial part of inter-personal knowledge: “compassion, in the philosophical tradition, is a central bridge between the individual and the community; it is conceived of as our species’ way of hooking the interests of others to our own personal goods” (28). Further, “compassion is a certain sort of reasoning” (29). And “all compassion is “rational” in the descriptive sense in which that term is frequently used—that is, not merely impulsive, but involving thought or belief” (30-31).

Here is the analysis of pity or compassion that Nussbaum attributes to Aristotle:

Pity, Aristotle argues, is a painful emotion directed at another person’s misfortune or suffering (Rhet. 1385bl3ff.). It requires and rests on three beliefs: (1) the belief that the suffering is serious rather than trivial; (2) the belief that the suffering was not caused primarily by the person’s own culpable actions; and (3) the belief that the pitier’s own possibilities are similar to those of the sufferer. Each of these seems to be necessary for the emotion, and they seem to be jointly sufficient. (31)

Nussbaum does not explicitly draw the connection between compassion and evil here that I believe is crucial — in fact, she does not explicitly discuss “evil” in either of these works — but the tie is straightforward. One fails utterly to understand the Holodomor or the killing pits of Poland or the Cathar Crusade if one fails to imagine the pain, suffering, and loss that each of these historical events involved, for millions of human beings. (Nussbaum refers to this particular form of moral blindness in her treatment of Emile in Upheavals; 322.) And, conversely, if one has a strongly developed capacity for the moral emotion of compassion, it is hard to see how he or she could consent to playing the role of an Eichmann or a Stangl. Here is a relevant comment by Nussbaum in the context of the dehumanization of the victims so often observed in the Holocaust and other instances of genocidal conduct:

This fact explains why so frequently those who wish to withhold pity and to teach others to do so portray the sufferers as altogether dissimilar in kind and in possibility. In The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg shows how pervasively Nazi talk of Jews, in connection with their murder, portrayed them as nonhuman: either as beings of a remote animal kind, such as insects or vermin, or as inanimate objects, “cargo” to be transported. (35)

Nussbaum refers in Upheavals of Thought to other demeaning and dehumanizing mechanisms through which committers of atrocities reconcile their actions — for example, by portraying the victims as unclean and disgusting. “Thus the Germans forged the will to carry out the atrocities”(Upheavals, 348).

To what extent are our moral sensibilities subject to growth, education, and development? Like Susan Neiman (link), Nussbaum draws a connection to Rousseau and his treatment of the emotion of pity in Emile. She finds that Rousseau’s analysis of this moral emotion captures the fullness of reasoning and affect that she has described; and, crucially, she finds that Rousseau believes that compassion must be learned:

If Emile really does the cognitive work, if his imagination really contains the thoughts of pity, with all their evaluative material, in such a way that they become part of his cognitive makeup and his motivations for action, then he has pity whether he experiences this or that tug in his stomach or not. No such particular bodily feeling is necessary. To determine whether Emile has pity, we look for the evidence of a certain sort of thought and imagination, in what he says, and in what he does. (38)

And in Upheavals she returns to Rousseau:

I think that this, indeed, was Rousseau’s idea, when he said that Émile would learn compassion without hierarchy if his teacher taught him to focus on the common vulnerability of all human beings. “Thus from our weakness,” he concludes, “our fragile happiness is born.” Surrendering omnipotence is essential to compassion, and a broad compassion for one’s fellow citizens is essential to a decent society. (350)

Moreover, Nussbaum believes that the “teachability” of compassion is important: human beings and human cultures can improve their capacity for compassion through reflective experience.

If we believe that the ability to imagine the ills of another with vivid sympathy is an important part of being a good person, then we will want to follow Rousseau in giving support to procedures by which this ability is taught. Much of this will and should be done privately, in families. But every society employs and teaches ideals of the citizen, and of good civic judgment, in many ways; and there are some concrete practical strategies that will in fact support an education in compassion. (50)

Nussbaum believes that immersion in literature can assist with this learning. But I think she would agree with the idea that a close and honest reading of historians like Tim Snyder, Primo Levi, or Alexandr Solzhenitsyn can help with this form of moral development as well.

So several things seem clear. Compassion is crucial for recognizing the evil of the twentieth century; further, we can deepen our capacity for compassion by honestly confronting the atrocities of the period; and — just possibly — our future history will be better than our past because of this honesty. And Rousseau’s comments about compassion in Emile suggest another possibility as well: that we become different people, and our culture becomes a different culture, through this kind of immersive experience.

Organizational evil

image: IG Farben headquarters

A number of posts have confronted the historical realities of atrocities, genocide, and cruelty on a massive scale. The general question tying these discussions together has to do with individual human beings: “How could a normal human being with normal social emotions commit these atrocious acts?” And the individual question can be posed at a variety of levels of activity — the “ordinary men” whom Christopher Browning considers in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland who directly killed thousands of men, women, and children; the mid-level commanders who did not themselves conduct the killings but ordered and organized them; the bureaucrats like Eichmann or Speer who oversaw the massive organizations needed to carry out mass genocide; and the dictators like Hitler and Stalin who deliberately ordered these actions. Concerning each of these men (and occasionally women) we can ask the question, “how could they have done this?”. This is a good question, and one that needs serious and extended study.

But there is another dimension of the evil of genocide: the role that organizations play in carrying out mass acts of atrocity against the innocent. Armies, governments, corporations, religious orders — organizations at many levels of scope were an essential part of the evils of the twentieth century. So it is important to ask the question of evil about organizations as well as about individuals; and the remedies we might consider are not likely to be the same. For example, it might have been effective in attempting to quell murderous ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to attempt to trigger the impulses of compassion, pity, and fellow feeling among the ordinary people whom Michael Mann describes in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing who were readily recruited into killing teams and paramilitary groups that carried out murderous ethnic cleansing of Muslim neighbors; but this strategy is patently impossible with regard to organizations. Organizations do not feel sympathy, pity, or fellow feeling; rather, they carry out the tasks that have been set for them without moral appraisal. Organizations aren’t persons; there is no essential “humanity” in an organization. Organizations are more like machines than they are like individual human beings.

There is a field of research in organizational studies that is dedicated to the examination of “organizational evil,” and much of the content of this field is represented in the very interesting and challenging book edited by Carole Jurkiewicz, The Foundations of Organizational Evil. Jurkiewicz describes the concept of organizational evil in these terms in chapter 1 of the volume:

“Organizational evil” is used here to signify the institutionalization of a set of principles whose purpose is knowingly to harm individuals, with disregard for consequences beyond those that would cause immediate repercussions to the evil-doer. Whereas unethical behavior is episodic and individualistic in nature, evil is systemic and embedded in the culture of the organization. Programs, policies, practices, reward systems, hiring and training, external and internal relations—all are designed with the intention to seek immediate advantage through the deliberate harm of others.

It is noteworthy that contributors to this field are somewhat beguiled by the analogy between individual human beings and “corporate individuals”. This analogy shows up in several forms in the volume, including the application of Kohlberg’s theory of stages of moral development and the application of individual-level theories of psychopathology and the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to organizations. Both analogies are put forward in Chapter 1. For example: 

While the original research was focused on the individual level, it can be extrapolated to the organizational level as well being that organizations are defined as legal persons, as addressed later in this chapter. (chapter 1)

This is a surprising lapse, given the reality that organizations are fundamentally different from individuals in their forms of intentionality, purposiveness, and normativity (link). In particular, the Kohlberg theory of stages of moral reasoning seems to have no real relevance to corporate “persons”.

More convincing is the analysis that Jurkiewicz and Grossman give of the influence that organizations wield on the motivations, emotions, and behavior of the individuals who work within them. The “normalization” of killing documented by Christopher Browning is a relevant example: the validation by the organization and its leaders of the atrocious actions of killing the innocent offers participants part of the motivation needed to carry out their horrific tasks. Jurkiewicz and Grossman put the point in these terms:

As employees identify with the organization, a stable social system develops that perpetuates the culture while, at the same time, being defined by it. The stronger the culture, the more deeply employees share the value system, the greater the employee commitment, and the more willing employees are to submit to behavioral controls imposed by the organization. (chapter 1)

They also argue that, once established, a pattern of organizational imperatives to commit atrocities and compliance by subordinates creates a “leader-to-peer bonding” that makes further atrocity easier. They summarize this line of thought in these terms:

Organizational culture exerts powerful influence over individual behavior, because of both the reward structure and humans’ need to belong, but also significantly because the individual looks to those around him or her to determine what is right and what is wrong. (chapter 1)

Significantly, the authors emphasize that these dynamics can support “extreme evil” (killing squads) as well as more mundane forms of unethical organizational behavior (taking advantage of gullible elderly clients). 

In their contribution to the volume Guy Adams and Danny Balfour provide more detail about how organizations contribute to largescale evil-doing (“The Dynamics of Administrative Evil in Organizations”): 

What distinguishes administrative evil from other forms of evil is that its consequences are masked within the ethos of technical rationality. Ordinary people might simply be acting appropriately in their organizational role, just doing what is expected of them while participating in what a critical observer (usually well after the fact) would call evil. (chapter 2)

With diffuse and scattered information, literally no one in the organization might have a complete enough picture to adequately comprehend the destructive activity to try to reverse course. Those who have enough of a picture to perceive that something is wrong might well assume that higher management must be aware of the problem and has chosen to do nothing about it. (chapter 2).


While the psychological incentive to deny and cover up are clearly powerful, individuals in the organization have made a fundamental shift at the turning point from engaging in harmful or evil activities unknowingly to doing so knowingly. This has been termed the “evil turn” (Darley, 1996). It is evident that the incentives to cover up are socially powerful, if not indeed overwhelming, because it is widely known that a cover-up is highly unlikely to succeed and often results in the complete disclosure of the harmful or evil activities. (chapter 2)

These points all concern the social psychology, incentives, and motivation that exist for participants within an organization. 

As compliance accounts of human behavior suggest, social structures and organizational roles are far more powerful in shaping our behavior than we typically think. Within a culture of technical rationality, a model of professionalism that drives out ethics and moral reasoning offers all too fertile soil for administrative evil to emerge. (chapter 2)

But these authors do not appear to address the most fundamental question: are there features of organizations themselves that facilitate and encourage evil actions and policies in the world, quite apart from the intentions of the leaders of the organization? Are there organizational tendencies or dynamics that facilitate the capture of an organization by individuals or groups for evil purposes? Do evil-doers create organizations, or do organizations create evil-doers?

These points raise a number of important unanswered questions about organizations and the doing of evil. Do organizations sometimes create novel evils, or are they simply inexact tools for the goals of evil leaders and executives — transmission belts rather than motors? Do organizations amplify the willingness of individuals to engage in atrocious actions, or are they merely one relatively small source of influence on individual behavior? Does “organizational behavior” amount to more than an application of the Milgram results or the Stanford Prison Experiment results about the ways in which individual behavior is influenced by peers and authority figures (link)? Can we be at all precise about the role that organizations played in the carrying out of the Holocaust or the Holodomor? What is the connection between ordinary organizational functioning and the “banality of evil”? Are all organizations vulnerable to evil-doing, on a small scale or a large scale?

(See earlier posts on organizational culture and corruption for relevant material from Edgar Schein, Robert Klitgaard, and David Hess.)

Evil and the history of philosophy (Neiman)

As recent posts suggest, I am interested in finding appropriate ways of rethinking the philosophy of history so as to provide us with greater ability to confront the evils of the twentieth century. This involves some concrete questions about how we as human beings define ourselves in the world, in light of the histories our predecessors and contemporaries have created. How should human beings of the twenty-first century relate to the evil events of the twentieth century? And how can humanity grow from confronting this history honestly? I hope to address these questions through the idea that human beings can learn compassion and evil from history, and we human beings can change as a result. The idea is that reflecting upon the history of the Holocaust or the Holodomor seriously and honestly has the potential of changing our natures, making these crimes less likely in the future. 

Susan Neiman offers an abstract and philosophical treatment of evil in Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (2002). (Fred Rush provides a highly thoughtful and detailed review of the book here.) Neiman describes her goals in the book in these terms:

This book traces changes that have occurred in our understanding of the self and its place in the world from the early Enlightenment to the late twentieth century. Taking intellectual reactions to Lisbon and Auschwitz as central poles of inquiry is a way of locating the beginning and end of the modern. (introduction)

The subtitle of her book is meaningful: “an alternative history of philosophy”. She wants to understand how philosophy changed its content by progressing from making sense of the Lisbon earthquake to making sense of the Holocaust. Plainly, her book is more about how philosophers have reacted to “evil” events in general terms, and less about the nature of those events themselves, or their perpetrators. (Indeed, there was no human perpetrator in the Lisbon earthquake.) Like John Kekes (link), she rejects the idea that the problem of evil is largely an issue for theology. But her interest is in philosophy, and how philosophers have conceptualized evil. “My interest is, rather, to explore what changes in our understanding of the problem of evil reveal about changes in our understanding of ourselves, and of our place in the world” (kl 264). And she proposes a novel way of classifying philosophers in the history of philosophy — not as rationalist vs. empiricist, and not primarily driven by epistemology and skepticism; but rather over their fundamental positions on the moral nature of the world: “is there another, better, truer order than the one we experience, or are the facts with which our senses confront us all that there is? Is reality exhausted by what is, or does it leave room for all that could be?” (kl 264). With this way of sorting philosophical approaches, Neiman finds justification in holding that the evolution of western philosophy is driven by the fact of indigestible evil in the world.

Here are the main premises of her argument:

1. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophy was guided by the problem of evil.

2. The problem of evil can be expressed in theological or secular terms, but it is fundamentally a problem about the intelligibility of the world as a whole.

3. The distinction between natural and moral evils is itself a historical one that developed in the course of the debate.

4. Two kinds of standpoint can be traced from the early Enlightenment to the present day, regardless of what sort of evil is in question, and each is guided more by ethical than by epistemological concerns. (introduction. kl 199)

Here is a fairly concise statement of her view of the relationship between the projects of European philosophy and evil:

Since I do not think an intrinsic property of evil can be defined, I am, rather, concerned with tracing what evil does to us. If designating something as evil is a way of marking the fact that it shatters our trust in the world, it’s that effect, more than the cause, which I want to examine. It should follow that I have even less intention of solving the problem of evil than I do of defining evil itself. My interest is, rather, to explore what changes in our understanding of the problem of evil reveal about changes in our understanding of ourselves, and of our place in the world. (kl 244)

I have called this an alternative history of philosophy because its aims are as different as its style and methods. One aim, in the felicitous expression of an anonymous reader, is to reorient the discipline to the real roots of philosophical questioning. I am grateful for the metaphor, which allows me to argue that, in some form or other, the problem of evil is the root from which modern philosophy springs. Once brought to life, philosophical discourse can grow on its own, and its branches may extend or tangle in all directions. Thus entire schools of thought could develop that have little to do with the questions raised here. (kl 290)

Though her primary interest is in developing the “alternative history of philosophy” that she presents, Neiman offers a view of the Holocaust and Auschwitz at a number of points in the book. She describes the atrocities of Auschwitz and Nazi extermination policies:

What occurred in Nazi death camps was so absolutely evil that, like no other event in human history, it defies human capacities for understanding. (kl 118)

Auschwitz, by contrast, stands for all that is meant when we use the word evil today: absolute wrongdoing that leaves no room for account or expiation. (kl 154)

And she provides an extended discussion of Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann in the final portion of the book.

But even here, her interest is less about “what happened?” and “how should we make sense of this episode of human history?” than about how twentieth-century philosophers sought to incorporate this specific and complex evil into their moral reckonings of the world — the “metaphysics” of evil rather than its practical importance in how we conceive of our lives. So it is fair to ask whether Neiman’s approach has much to contribute to these more the more concrete and experiential questions outlined above. But interestingly enough, Neiman’s book does have something to say about this idea. Specifically, Neiman’s treatment of Rousseau emphasizes Rousseau’s view of the malleability of human nature and emotions such as compassion. Neiman holds that this is a crucial part of Rousseau’s approach to the situation of evil in the world as well; in fact, she maintains that it is the feature of Rousseau’s philosophy that made him the “Newton” of the mind, according to Kant.

For Rousseau, both the problem of evil and its solution depend on the idea that evil developed over time. This assumes, in turn, that human beings develop over time, both as species and individual beings. Human nature has been altered…. For Rousseau, by contrast, human nature itself has a history. Our choices affect it.

History is the right kind of category to introduce because it enables us to understand the world and gives us hope for changing it. History leaves space between necessity and accident, making actions intelligible without being determined. If the introduction of evil was necessary, we can be saved only by a miracle. If it was an accident, then the world, where it matters, makes no sense. History, by contrast, is dynamic. If evil was introduced into the world, then it might also be eradicated—as long as its development is not fundamentally mysterious. After Rousseau, we need not deny the reality of evil. We can, rather, incorporate it into a world whose intelligibility is expanding. Exploring evil as historical phenomenon becomes part of our efforts to make the world more comprehensible in theory, and more acceptable in practice. (kl 862)

These are suggestive ideas for the experiential questions, because they point to the fundamental malleability of human culture and morality. Human nature and history are reciprocally intertwined. And this in turn suggests the possibility of the kind of “self-positing” and learning from history that seems most relevant to the approach to evil I want to take when it comes to bringing historical understanding into productive conversation with the extreme evils and atrocities of the twentieth-century.

It is clear that Evil in Modern Thought presents a radical thesis in intellectual history. Neiman argues that philosophers have quite fundamentally misunderstood the driving questions of their traditions: not epistemology, not metaphysics, but theodicy; not the question of how we know about our position in the natural world, or what is the nature of the world we inhabit; but rather, how can nature, humanity, and a benevolent god conspire to create such vast and incomprehensible suffering? Is this reorientation convincing? I find her arguments interesting and thought-provoking, but ultimately unconvincing. Her position is unconvincing, most fundamentally, because it is categorical. Neiman suggests an “either-or” interpretation of the driving questions of philosophy. This seems in the end to be too simple to accommodate the patchwork and plurality of questions, themes, and frameworks that have stimulated the development of various tributaries of European traditions in philosophy. 

More narrowly, Neiman’s point of view is only glancingly relevant to the most pressing question: how should we as human beings respond and change as a result of honest encounter with the facts of the Holocaust, Holodomor, genocide, torture, and enslavement? Here is an allegorical effort to begin to answer this question through an act of imagination (link). And here is a discussion of literary efforts by veterans of the Great War to make sense of their experiences through poetry and narrative (link).

Thinking about evil in history (Kekes)

I am currently grappling with how to bring the horrendous events of the twentieth century into the philosophy of history. After doing a lot of reading about recent thinking about the Holocaust (link), it seems clear that we still have failed to fully comprehend the atrocities of the Nazi period, Stalinist rule before and after World War II, and many other episodes of genocide, mass murder, and enslavement in the past century. Only the idea of radical evil seems to remotely capture these historical atrocities. I’ve added two sections to my article on the philosophy of history in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to address this set of problems; link. But these lines only serve to introduce the subject; much more remains to be done.

The “problem of evil” has a long history of discussion and debate in theology and in philosophy. However, the perspective I take on atrocities is entirely secular and non-religious, so theological debates are not relevant to my analysis. And much philosophical discussion of the topic of evil occurs at a highly abstract and conceptual level, which is likewise not very helpful to my topic. However, a recent book in philosophy that I have found useful is John Kekes’ The Roots of Evil (2007).

Kekes’ book is interesting for three primary reasons. First, he provides six case studies of evil events in history, for which he provides fairly extensive historical detail. Second, he focuses the problem on the question of “why” the perpetrators did what they did. And third, he attempts to present and refute a handful of existing theories of evil actions, all of which he finds wanting.

Kekes offers a precise working definition of what he means by “evil”, a definition that separates it from a religious or theological context. He argues that the idea comes down to three necessary and jointly sufficient conditions:

The evil of an action, therefore, consists in the combination of three components: the malevolent motivation of evildoers; the serious, excessive harm caused by their actions; and the lack of morally acceptable excuse for the actions. (2)

(Parenthetically — I’m generally unpersuaded by overly precise definitions offered by philosophers. Most interesting concepts don’t have “necessary and sufficient conditions” that define and exhaust their meaning. And that seems true in the case of the concept of evil as well. The working definition that I prefer is less precise: “cruelty on a massive scale, including systematic torture, murder, starvation, and enslavement of ordinary, innocent human beings”.)

The cases of atrocity that Kekes presents make for hard reading, because they involve horrific cruelty and human suffering. But, of course, this is why they represent evil. Here are the cases that he presents:

  • The Cathar Crusade (1200)
  • The Terror conducted by Robespierre during the French Revolution (1792)
  • The actions of Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Treblinka
  • The Manson family murders of Sharon Tate and others
  • The “dirty war” conducted by the Argentinean army, navy, and air force
  • The psychopathic violence of convicted murderer John Allen

These cases give Kekes’ discussion a specificity and detail that is often lacking in philosophical discussions of evil.

Kekes focuses on the psychological causes of evil-doing — psychological propensities and motivations:

My aim is to provide a causal explanation of why evildoers do evil. There are excellent recent works giving historical accounts of past explanations, but they are relevant to my aim only insofar as they contribute to the right explanation or illustrate mistakes. The facts I appeal to are psychological propensities familiar to normally intelligent people, not the fruits of research or deep reflection. Common knowledge of them makes it possible for novelists, playwrights, biographers, and historians to write about the character, motivation, and actions of people at places and times other than their own and feel confident about being understood. I have in mind such propensities as desiring a meaningful life, needing to be loved, having conflicting motives, deceiving oneself, wanting to appear other than one is, being ignorant of some of one’s motives, resenting injustice, embellishing the past, fearing the unknown, minding defeat, caring about the opinion of others, and so forth. These propensities are commonplaces of human psychology, but they also have moral significance. (7-8)

He considers a handful of theories of the psychological basis of evil actions, which he finds inadequate. And he considers the theological and quasi-theological theories that have been offered in the past — e.g. “the world is an inherently good place” — which he rejects. In place of these traditional theories he offers his own “mixed and multicausal” theory of evil actions:

The explanation of evil has the following general characteristics: it is

  • mixed because it involves the combination of internal-active, internal-passive, external-active, and external-passive conditions;
  • multicausal because the conditions that jointly cause it vary with individuals, societies, times, and places;
  • particular because it involves the detailed consideration of conditions that differ from case to case. (243)

There are two specific points that I find most useful in The Roots of Evil. First, Kekes rejects the relevance of moral relativism in the discussion of evil (as I do):

Slavery, clitoridectomy, blood feuds, assassination, terrorism, mutilating criminals, persecuting religious dissenters, torturing captives, holding innocent people hostage, dooming children to life as prostitutes or castrati are also culturally conditioned practices, but they are evil. The toleration of such evils, the implausible attempts to excuse them, and the reluctance to condemn them endanger civilized life by countenancing the violation of the physical security of their victims. Morally committed people ought to be intolerant of such evils. Those who mouth the catch-phrases of toleration avert their gaze from evil. (214)

The way I would put the point about relativism goes along these lines: In considering terrible events in the past, it is necessary to acknowledge the two perspectives (participant and observer). As became evident in an earlier discussion of the Athenian massacre of the Melians (link), the authors and perpetrators of horrific acts in the past sometimes choose to perform these acts within a moral worldview that they believe justifies their actions. However, we can dispense altogether with the question of moral relativism. It is perfectly reasonable for us in the present to judge that these practices and actions in the past were wrong and unjust (slavery, genocide, deliberate starvation, mutilation, …), whether or not participants at the time found these practices morally acceptable. Their moral frameworks were defective and corrigible.

And second, Kekes places “decency” and “moral imagination” at the center of what is needed if we are to learn from the historical experience of evil.

It is reasonable to conclude, then, that if moral imagination had enabled evildoers to understand better their victims and their own motives and to realize that they had attractive alternatives to evildoing, then they would have been less likely to become or to continue as evildoers…. Moderately intelligent people have the capacity of moral imagination, but like other modes of imagination, it has to be cultivated. (237)

We can cultivate moral imagination by paying attention to the realities of the experience of other human beings — through our personal experience, through literature, and through the horrors of the histories of the Cathar Crusade or the Argentinian “dirty war”. Human beings are not fixed in their moral capabilities; rather, we can gain compassion and resist the impulses towards participating in evil actions.

The cultivation of moral imagination in this way provides not only personal enrichment but also a moral force that can help make lives better and cope with evil. By increasing self-knowledge, presenting attractive alternatives to evildoing, and providing a basis for the comparison, contrast, and criticism of one’s own way of being and acting, moral imagination helps to avoid the falsifications involved in unintentional evildoing. (238)

This observation about the cultivation of moral imagination points in the direction of a view of how it is possible to learn from history. Learning and confronting the horrific circumstances of the massacres of the Cathars, the torture of Argentine leftists, or the deliberate starvation of Ukrainian peasants, unavoidably brings us to a more vivid understanding of the moral evil of those events: the pain, suffering, and loss that these actions created for human beings much like ourselves. The strongest impression I took away from Hannah Arendt’s account of the trial of Eichmann is the utter lack of sympathy, pity, or compassion he showed for the victims of his activities. Atrocities often depend on the total dehumanization of the victims, and compassion makes it more difficult to accomplish that trick.

Making sense of atrocities

Reading Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 has made me aware of something outside his storyline: the normal, routine, and unremarked willingness of medieval peasant-soldiers, leaders, bands, and armies to slaughter one another, to kill the disarmed, to enslave prisoners, and to do all these things with apparently no compunction. Vikings, Franks, Bulgars, Huns, and Romans massacred and burned. Here is just one example, from the wars of Charlemagne:

Saxony was hard to conquer precisely because it was disunited, and it was the theatre of considerable violence, not least for the 4,500 Saxon prisoners massacred in 782 after a Frankish defeat. The conquest was by 780 associated with a conscious process of Christianization; this was one of the few conversion processes openly brought about by force in our period. (378)

Or, when we get around to the high and mighty, we find kings, generals, and emperors who maim and kill their rivals, including often enough members of their own families. Blinding one’s rival or one’s brother-in-law, maiming the face or body, these were familiar ways of dealing permanently with a rival. The crimes represented in Greek tragedy were not imaginary.

What are we to make of this fairly simple historical fact about the behavior of our human ancestors a mere 1500 years ago?

Does it imply that “human nature” is inherently cruel and indifferent to the suffering of other human beings, and that compassion is a cultural discovery or innovation?

Does it imply that restraints on violence depend upon social structures and cultural creations — laws, norms, and institutions setting boundaries on violence?

Is there such a thing as a “civilizational” turning away from violence against the innocent? Did human institutions (military law, international conventions, religion) and invented and disseminated moral values (“it is horrible and shameful to harm or kill the innocent”) change the occurrence of atrocity? (John Keegan quotes views to this effect to explain the fact that studies indicated that only 25% of battlefield soldiers fire their weapons in World War II.)

The Ten Commandments have been the foundation of monotheistic religious ethics for more than three thousand years — including the prohibition against murder. Did monotheistic religions change the behavior of individuals, bands, armies, and states? Were Christian Visigoths or Vandals less cruel in war? Did the armies of Islam commit these same kinds of atrocities, or did the kindness preached by the Prophet prevail? What about ancient Judaism and Jewish communities? For that matter, what about the converts to Judaism in the Khazars — did they massacre their enemies just as wantonly?

Most importantly, does this changing history of cruelty on a mass scale suggest that our human sensibilities themselves have changed in a millennium and a half, so human beings in typical social circumstances are no longer so ready to kill and maim their fellow human beings? Does a religion, a personal value scheme sincerely embraced, or adherence to an ideal of how one should value the human experience and life of anonymous others effectively change a person’s social psychology? Can compassion and pity be learned or culturally reproduced?

But if so, what about My Lai, Lt. Calley, and Ghraib Prison? What about Isis beheadings, burnings, and rapes? What about the vicious brutality of Trump rioters against police on January 6?

Here is a fairly concrete question: what did ancient writers and philosophers have to say about the killing of the innocent? Did Seneca or Lucretius make any pronouncements on the behavior of armies, massacre, or killing of the innocent? Here is Seneca, writing in roughly 50 CE, about the morally corrosive effects of the crowd at the “games” (Letters from a Stoic):

2. To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger. 

But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure. 3. What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation,—an exhibition at which men’s eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men. But it was quite the reverse. The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder. The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain. 4. Many persons prefer this programme to the usual pairs and to the bouts “by request.” Of course they do; there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death. In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty. 5. You may retort: “But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!” And what of it? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? In the morning they cried “Kill him! Lash him! Burn him! Why does he meet the sword in so cowardly a way? Why does he strike so feebly? Why doesn’t he die game? Whip him to meet his wounds! Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to the stroke!” And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: “A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!” 

Come now; do you not understand even this truth, that a bad example reacts on the agent? Thank the immortal gods that you are teaching cruelty to a person who cannot learn to be cruel. 6. The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority. Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue. 7. Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbour, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it! You must either imitate or loathe the world. (Seneca, letter VII)

The text treats cruelty obliquely. This is not his primary target; rather, Seneca uses the scene of the “exhibition” as an occasion for making a different point — the harmfulness of associating with “the crowd”. But in his framing of the example, he makes it clear that he sees the behavior of the crowd as detestable and awful in its bloodthirstiness and cruelty. And he sees the behavior as contagious: when a virtuous person — even a Socrates or Cato — is exposed to this sight, he will be harmed in his virtue. And why is this cruelty awful? Because, it would seem, it involves the horrible imposition of pain, mutilation, and death on the weak, for the entertainment of the many. It is recognition of the human reality of the pain and desperation of the victims that motivates Seneca, it seems; he is empathetic with these other unfortunate human beings.

The historical evolution of massacre and cruelty raises huge and important questions. The topic converges with an earlier discussion of the Athenian massacre of the Melians, described in Thucydides (link). And the questions are genuinely difficult to answer. Human nature? Moral progress? The favorable role of religion? Institutions designed to limit violence? Perhaps some will even consider the intuition embraced by Dr. King in 1967 — “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But if we want to understand the particular evils of the twentieth century — Holocaust, Holodomor, and Gulag, to name just the most awful — we need to consider the nature and situations of the human beings — versions of ourselves — who have committed acts like these at other times in history.

(Relevant books to consider on this topic include John Keegan’s The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, and Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.)