Degrees of Evil

Some thoughts on Hitler, bin Laden, and the hierarchy of wickedness 

It's such a highly charged term, "evil," and so are its recently revived elaborations "evil ones" and "evildoers"—words that President Bush has applied to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. That doesn't mean "evil" is a useless term. It can specify something important, but we should know what it is specifying, because tossing the term around indiscriminately can devalue it, rob it of its very specific gravitas. There is evil and there is evil—the word has hierarchies and degrees—distinctions to be drawn and commonalities to be sought, when making comparisons between Hitler and bin Laden, for instance.

One of the curious, paradoxical things I discovered during the dozen or so years I spent examining the ways in which Adolf Hitler's crimes have been explained by historians, philosophers, and theologians (for a book called Explaining Hitler) was the reluctance of so many experts to apply the word "evil" to Hitler. This was in part a kind of displacement syndrome: it wasn't really Hitler who was responsible for Nazi crimes, but "the forces of history" that he embodied. Blame them. Or it was not Hitler himself so much as the irresistible pressure of a distorted ideology. Blame that. Or, for Freudian "psychohistorians," it was not Hitler, it was his unconscious drives. Blaming Hitler, attributing his crimes to him personally, to his conscious "agency," as it's called by the postmodernists (who don't believe in it), was considered a quaint throwback to a less sophisticated era of analysis. But there was as well an understandable reluctance to use a word—"evil"—that had been robbed of meaning and force by over-application.

I found it useful to look into the philosophical literature on the question of defining evil, where one discovers not a single, all-encompassing evil but hierarchies and degrees that distinguish natural evils ("acts of God," in the theological and insurance-company vocabularies) from man-made evils—flu epidemics from anthrax attacks, for instance. And among man-made evils one finds distinctions between the mindset of the perpetrator who does evil under the illusion that he's doing good and that of the evildoer who knows he's committing a crime. The latter falls into a more rarefied category in the literature: one often called "wickedness," which itself can be divided into "ordinary wickedness," "selfish wickedness," "conscientious wickedness," "heteronomous (just following orders) wickedness," and the highest (or lowest) degree, "malignant wickedness"—doing evil for evil's sake. (Even self-professed Satanists can be exempted from the latter category, because they believe that Lucifer deserves to be God. Satan is the good guy; there's just been a big mistake.)

But the defining moment in the learning process, the moment that crystallized the debate over Hitler's evil for me, came during a conversation with the influential British historian H. R. Trevor-Roper. Eventually I came to disagree with the view he expressed, but it dramatically defined one pole of the ongoing argument.

As I recall, during the latter part of my talk with Trevor-Roper a noisy chess tournament was going on in the common room of London's Oxford-Cambridge Club, and I had to lean forward to make myself heard—Trevor-Roper was nearly eighty back then, in 1994. I remember the details because what he said was so memorable. I had asked him about Hitler's consciousness of his crimes—one of the two crucial variables in defining degrees of evil. The other variable is the scale of the crime: at what point does an order of magnitude in the number of murders—the difference between, say, six million and six thousand, or between six thousand and six—make a difference in the order of magnitude of the evil attributable to the perpetrator? Consider the uneasiness of some over the discrepancy between the universally reported September 11 "6,000" and the newer number, now believed to be closer to 4,000. At what point do numbers matter?

Most people (not all) would agree that a difference in degree between six million and six can be discerned, if not precisely defined. But defining degrees of evil involves calculations of both mindset and magnitude, whereby a lower body count might in some cases represent a greater degree of evil or a higher body count a lesser. Stalin's body count, for instance, is now generally considered greater than Hitler's (depending on who's counting), and yet some postmodern Marxists still argue that there's a qualitative difference between Stalin's murders and Hitler's—that Stalinism was a lesser evil than Hitlerism, because Soviet communism was—originally, they say—motivated by utopian idealism rather than Hitlerian race hatred, and the tens of millions of murders were an unfortunate (but really unrelated) "side effect."

The post-Holocaust debate over the definition of Hitler's evil can be said to have begun in 1947, when Trevor-Roper published what was not just one of the first postwar biographies of Hitler but also one of the first postwar visions of his mind: The Last Days of Hitler. He brought to the subject the shrewd perspective of a historian (whose specialty before the war had been the sixteenth- and seventeenth- century religious wars) and the even shrewder perspective of an experienced MI-6 counterintelligence agent whose wartime task had been to maintain liaison with anti-Hitler plotters in Germany.

A few months after the Nazi surrender Trevor-Roper made his way through the rubble of Berlin to Hitler's bunker, hoping to find clues there to the mind of a mass murderer. His official assignment from MI-6 was to combat the "survival myth," as it would soon be called. One of the first signs of the coming Cold War disinformation struggle was Stalin's decision to spread rumors that Hitler was alive and living under Allied protection in the British zone of Berlin (even though by then Stalin seems to have had Hitler's organs stored in jars in Moscow).

Presented by

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile his neighbor, the patriarch of a 70-acre family farm

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm


Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."


Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."


An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground


The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In