Jean Améry was an Austrian writer who with his Jewish wife fled from their home in 1938 after the German Anschluss brought the Nazis to power in their country.
Améry first escaped to France, then settled in Belgium from where he was deported back to France as a German alien. At the age of 31, he was interned in a concentration camp in southern France for distributing anti-military propaganda to the German occupying forces. Améry went on to be imprisoned in both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
After his liberation Améry wrote of his experiences in his book, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, in which he suggested that torture was “the essence” of the Third Reich.
In his book Améry took exception to Hannah Arendt’s famous expression “the banality of evil” saying,
there is no ‘banality of evil,’ and Hannah Arendt, who wrote about it in her Eichmann book, knew the enemy of mankind only from hearsay, saw him only through the glass cage.
I do not believe Arendt was intending to diminish the horror perpetrated by the Nazis throughout the Second World War by coining the famous phrase “the banality of evil”. She was merely pointing out that evil does not always come dressed in the garments of obvious violence.On the surface Adolf Eichmann looked perfectly normal/”banal”. He appeared to be merely a bureaucrat doing his job, administering the machinery of murder to transport millions to their deaths.
But Améry was understandably sensitive to anything that mightgive the impression of diminishing the evil he had faced at the hands of the Nazi regime. He had stood in the face of the worst violence and inhumanity of which humankind is capable. For him to call such reality “banal” was to diminish the horrific reality to which he had been subjected.
Christian faith asks us to take seriously the reality of evil. The belief system that rose from the crucified body of a man unjustly condemned, agonizingly tortured, and viciously executed invites us to take a cold hard look at the terrible acts of which human beings are capable. Christian faith will not allow us to escape the dark side of the human condition with a superficial nod to the inevitability that at times bad things happen.
Bad things happen in part because there are vicious forces at work in the world and, at times, in every human being. We all have a shadow side which we ignore or deny at our peril. Jesus refused to allow his followers to get off lightly. He demanded they take seriously their attitudes, words and actions. He challenged his followers, saying,
But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:22)
There is a capacity for evil that lurks within even the most “banal” of us. But, “the hell of fire,” is not the final word. Christian faith, as much as it takes seriously the sorrow and tragedy of life, affirms in the face of all darkness a love that is stronger than death and a beauty that rises out of the ashes of horror in the hearts of those who persevere in love.
Hannah Arendt challenges us to look seriously at Adolf Eichmann and to recognize that the line between him and us may be thinner than we like to think. Jean Améry asks us to acknowledge that, when we cross that line, the acts and attitudes of which human beings are capable are grievously evil and desperately harmful to life.