When President Obama condemned the killing of US aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig as "an act of pure evil," I immediately and strongly agreed with that judgment. That thought, however, was quickly followed by the question, why do I agree? I was of course not in doubt about the evil of the act, but believed that I should think more about what “pure” here means as modifier.
It turns out that I’ve been reading about evil in the not-all-that-distant past in the book mentioned before on this blog, Jeffrey Veidlinger’s In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine. Many pages of that book are devoted to an account of murders of Jews that are a part of the Holocaust that is not as extensively written about and hence not quite as widely known as that centered around Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka, the loci of Shoah, the great 1985 Lanzmann film and of a library’s worth of books and articles published before and after.
I am familiar only with a tiny fraction of this literature. That would be a fatal disadvantage if my goal were historical commentary. My aim, however, is to make some conceptual distinctions, in the hope of coming to understand what it means to say that an act is pure evil, as the president called it.
Let’s be clear at once: the evil depicted in the Lanzmann film is millions—indeed many millions—times greater than the murder of Mr. Kassig. The “pure” here is not a quantitative measure—how big, how extensive, how many human beings affected, nor how deeply affected: lightly wounded or killed. As regards the magnitude of evil, the Holocaust has few if any rivals in human history. But if we ask, pure evil and, if not, in what way less than pure, some sorting out will need to be done. To start with, the notion we are discussing does not pertain to the (evil) action performed The deed itself that is committed may be more or less evil, but not more or less purely so. It is surely more evil to burn down a house in which a whole family is trapped than to shoot a single person, but the one is not more purely evil than the other.
What makes either of these actions purely or not so purely evil is the motive of the perpetrator. If the actor’s motive in either of these murderous deeds is to gain some wealth by taking the lives of these people or to get them out of the path of the murderer’s pursuit of a goal, however horrible the act, it is not purely evil. You could imagine the perpetrator saying that if they were not standing in the way of what I am after, I would not have killed them. Nor does the admixed motive have to be such a positive one. Indeed, it is often not such a one. I killed him to prevent him from giving away my secret; so as not to be taken for a coward; to obey the orders of a powerful superior and motives of many other kinds.
Before going on to comment on the perpetrators of the Holocaust, there is something I must make very clear. The admixed motive that makes the evil other pure is not, because it exists, an extenuating or mitigating circumstance. Of course it could be—he threatened me with an ax even after I drew my pistol, so I shot him—but mostly it is not. If the purity of an evil deed has a bearing on what the punishment should be—and what punishments are appropriate is quite another topic—the lack of purity other than one engendered by what truly is an extenuating circumstance does not decrease the magnitude of the evil that has been done and by itself does not constitute a reason to modify the punishment to be meted out. But the fact that determining what is an extenuating circumstance is no simple matter and then to what degree such a circumstance shall modify what is n appropriate punishment is indeed another topic and a quite formidable one.
But before broadening this discussion to the actors responsible for the Holocaust, let’s return to the our starting point, the murder of Mr. Kassig. Some observers have asked the question as to what the murderer was aiming to accomplish with his deed. These observers regarded the murder to be a means to some unknown end. In the absence of relevant information, however, I find it very plausible to assert that there was no goal external to the act—no additional motive—other than the demonstration that the actor is capable of performing it. That is, as I see it, what makes that evil pure; that is what I assume the president meant.
A great many people, playing many different roles were active in the murder of six million Jews and I will want to venture a few general statements pertaining to our most unpleasant topic, starting with the initiating cause of that devastation, Adolf Hitler. Yes, in Mein Kampf and on uncountable occasions thereafter, Hitler put forward reasons why Jews should be persecuted, with their lives to be increasingly curtailed and finally to be annihilated. I am, however, not alone in believing that those attributes and actions of Jews—many of them fictitious—are trotted out to persuade others and, ultimately, to justify Hitler’s hatred of Jews. If I am right, the hatred and the actions that followed upon it are prior to these reasons. In short, Hitler’s initiation of the Holocaust was indeed an act of pure evil.
That is probably not true of many others, not even of Eichmann. To be sure, he performed his duties with enthusiasm and strongly believed he was doing the right thing. But the purity of that motive was supplemented by his desire to be seen as an effective bureaucrat; hence a horrendous evil doer, but not of pure evil.
Given that a huge, Germanically efficient, state apparatus was established to implement the Final Solution, the odds are that few of the very many who played a role in that undertaking were without motives to play their roles, in addition to their desire to murder Jews. I will merely summarize by noting that in that context the aspiration to please superiors or the fear of their wrath is seldom absent. Though it is no doubt also the case that in the judicial proceedings after the end of the war these secondary motives were counted as extenuating circumstances, serving to reduce punishment to a greater degree than was likely to have been appropriate.
But this brings me back to the events that took place in the Ukraine, as told in Jeffrey Veidlinger’s book. With a few exceptions, the scale was not as great as the murdering that took place further West. The horrors, however, need not take second place to any: children tossed alive into rivers from the cliffs on their banks, many adults and children buried alive in the woods—and more. But in the Ukraine, the vast majority of the Jewish victims were horribly poor, leaving nothing from which the perpetrators would benefit. Moreover, the Germans, mostly soldiers, were far from the apparatus of the Endlösung and thus not inevitably motivated by the existence of superiors to be satisfied or feared.
And if the odds are great that many of the German participants in Jewish murders were committing evils that were quite pure, the odds are even greater that the Romanian participants in extensive killings of Ukrainian Jews were free of “extraneous” motives. While allied with Germany in its war against the Soviet Union, they were not under Nazi rule, but quite voluntary participants in the Holocaust.
I’ve briefly cited major 20th century examples of pure evil, prompted by a very recent occurrence. But I have no doubt that instances of pure evil can be found throughout history, back to Nero and beyond. Nor is there any reason to suppose that there will be a time in the future when acts of pure evil will cease to be committed. That makes the history of such deeds the best empirical argument I can think of for the doctrine of original sin.