Ever since Hannah Arendt’s controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem, wherein she described one of the main perpetrators of the Holocaust as a study in the banality of evil, social scientists have attempted to grapple with the question of whether anyone under certain circumstances become genocidaires or perpetrators of mass killings. In all this annihilation of human life, Abram De Swann opines in The Killing Compartments, the Nazi extermination of six million European Jews stands as the nadir — which prompts the question: how do seemingly ordinary men become killers?
De Swann’s conclusion is that in time of upheaval, such as in Germany during the Weimar Republic and the subsequent appointment of Hitler as chancellor of Germany, an almost invisible selection mechanism gradually sorts out persons who are “only slightly more disposed to violent abuse than others, until they end up in a genocidal setting.” Once they find themselves in such a situation, De Swaan argues, perpetrators may regress much further than they even imagined they could. He notes that “they often feel that this killer persona is not really them. After the genocidal episode is over, if they look back at all, they like to think that they were a different person then, living in a different world.”
There is, states De Swaan, nothing “banal” about such experiences. Even if perpetrators were once regular, harmless people in most respects, after serving as part of the apparatus of mass murder they are no longer ordinary.
So are we all potential Nazis? Although, De Swaan admits, in certain situations people will commit acts that they never would dream of committing, some people are more likely to fall in than others; some will resist even at considerable personal risk, and still others may be eager to follow orders. This depends not only on the situation of the moment, but also on their prior experiences, personal history, and individual character.