Mean Spirits

Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945

by Bernard Wasserstein
Oxford University Press, for the Institute of Jewish Affairs, 389 pp., $17.95

In a well-known work on the Eichmann trial Hannah Arendt perversely floated the notion of the banality of evil. What seems to lie behind this idea is that Eichmann was no more than a dim little man whose crimes were simply a byproduct of the daily official routine to which it was his duty as a bureaucrat to attend. But bureaucrats are also human beings, and part of what makes a human being is the capacity to make choices, and specifically moral ones. Contrary to Miss Arendt’s glib phrase, choices of this kind can never be banal. If they were, we would not, every time we hear or read about the Nazi treatment of the Jews, feel intimately and profoundly devastated. The horror which Nazi actions will continue to inspire arises in part from our inability to fathom, and fully account for, their monstrousness. The malice which, without the shadow of a provocation, and for no seeming advantage, diligently and relentlessly destroyed the happiness, security, and lives of whole multitudes will always be matter for awed puzzlement. None of its manifestations can possibly ever be judged banal.

The multitudes who were thus hounded to their deaths were citizens or subjects of states on which they had a legitimate claim for protection. This they were in most cases denied. Fellow-feeling was generally stilled, the Jews were isolated from other citizens and made into aliens and outlaws. The achievement in these countries of a Rechtstaat, the result of centuries of civility, supposed to restrain the violence of lawless appetite and secure for all undisturbed enjoyment of the fruits of their labor, was by the devilry of the Nazis suddenly destroyed. Poles, Hungarians, Rumanians, Slovaks, Croats, Italians, Frenchmen (both men in authority and ordinary people) became in this the accomplices of their conquerors, and were tainted with their evil. Such was the bitter culmination of a European development which at its inception a hundred and fifty years earlier had seemed full of promise—the promise of a new social contract to bind the inhabitants of a country into one political community, in which religious belief or ethnic origin would have no bearing on the citizen’s rights or his duties.

A merciful Providence prevented the stain of this abomination from spreading to the English-speaking world, where relations with the Jews are not burdened by the memory of those unspeakable crimes and of the murder of trust between neighbors and fellow citizens. But the fate of the Jews on the European continent could not but concern, in a variety of ways, the British government (which for a time stood alone in facing the triumphant Nazis), and the US government as well. How the British (and to a lesser extent the American) government reacted to the Jewish predicament is the subject of Dr. Wasserstein’s lucid, comprehensive, indeed exemplary, account.

The Nazi war on the Jews began in 1933, and it created a stream of refugees which went on swelling during the Thirties as …

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Letters

The Banality of Evil’ March 20, 1980