Good and bad men are less than they seem. —Samuel Taylor Coleridge
People just love the word evil. It is small, powerful and can be liberally applied to basically any situation where severe deviance or misbehavior defies explanation. In a clear, no-nonsense way, the word evil fills the void of what we don’t understand about darkness with a neat, digestible definition. Evil has become a crutch for the weak of heart, those who are incapable of looking into the eye of the storm, the mouth of the dragon, or the face of villainy without it—otherwise, they would have to look at themselves. When something is evil, it has no salvation, no way to the light, and therefore no alternative to being what it is—wicked, corrupt, and malevolent beyond the scope of reason. Politicians use the term to describe whole populations of people they dislike, while religious types toss it about like confetti at a Christmas parade. Its mythology is potent and dependable. But when evil is picked up and examined more closely, all its hard surfaces and sharp edges begin to dissipate into a porous and unstable solution of questions. What does evil really mean? How do we define morality? What is the true nature of wickedness? Placed next to the heat of reason, evil melts into a filament with no electrical current and no real power. It becomes lifeless and limp—because as the curtain is pulled back and the ugly truth of evil is revealed, there are no demons or goblins or fiends lurking to take credit—but rather, only the actions of gloriously flawed and monstrous humans.
When looking back through the annals of dark history, the term evil has been a wildly convenient tool for digesting the machinations of some seriously heinous people. If all the genocides, massacres, enslavements, and mind-boggling atrocities from the past can tell us anything, it’s that evil is alive and well on earth. But is the assignment of evil enough to explain why they happened? Is it powerful enough to explain the Holocaust? Is evil mighty enough to explain the motivations of a man like Heinrich Himmler, the most powerful influencer in Hitler’s Third Reich? Is it robust enough to explain how Himmler—a quiet, bookish, and dutiful individual—was able to orchestrate the murder of 14 million people through the Einsatzgruppen’s death squads of Nazi Germany—an operation so atrocious it had its own war crime tribunal? Calling these things evil feels a bit like pouring a teaspoon of water on a raging fire. Against these images, the notion of evil shrivels up and becomes anemic, impotent. In fact, when placed next to the dreadful life of someone like the Nazi Heinrich Himmler, the word evil loses its strength entirely. It simply can’t keep up—and we are left with the realization that Himmler’s role in the Final Solution of the Jewish People, his role in their systematic and sadistic annihilation, and his orchestration of several horrific massacres, was not based on any Satanic directives or diabolical natural urges, but instead on the baser human need to be validated and accepted.
This sentiment about evil’s true identity was beautifully captured by the anonymous street artist, Banksy—known for his subversive and dark commentary—in one of his 2013 artworks. After purchasing an inexpensive oil painting of the American landscape from a thrift store, Banksy proceeded to “vandalize” it by painting in the image of a Nazi soldier in the foreground. While the contrast between the placid scene and a fully-uniformed Nazi in repose was jarring, the title, The Banality of The Banality of Evil was what really earned it some symbolism. It referred to the famed Jewish German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt’s assertion in The New Yorker that evil is not carried out by fanatics or sociopaths, but rather by ordinary people who have accepted their problematic thinking as reality. Her theory ruminates on the sobering idea that the average person can and will commit horrific acts simply because they were told to—simply because they don’t have the mental mobility to evaluate the situation for themselves. They don’t know any better, as it were. And as such, their seemingly evil deeds are really just the result of an unoriginal, weak, and obtuse mind. This phenomenon perfectly sums up the movement of Nazism. In the painting, the landscape itself is fairly banal, the Nazi is obviously vile, and together they emphasize the notion that what we regard as evil is perhaps far more pitiful and meager than anyone believed.
But despite Arendt’s intellectualization, a reflection on Himmler’s career as a state-sanctioned serial killer appears to contain nothing but evil. When he led the Einsatzgruppen “Mobile Killing Units” into the occupied territory of Soviet Union in June of 1941, a two-day mission of systematic killing ensued that would mark the first step in the Final Solution and ultimately bring about the deaths of 150,000 innocents, 33,771 of whom were Jews. Now known as the Babi Yar massacre, this campaign was considered to be the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust. On September 26th, 1941, an order for “resettlement” was posted on the city wall:
All Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dorohozhytska streets. Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc. Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.
Because about 100,000 Jews fled Kiev before the occupation, the Nazis only expected about 6,000 Jews to turn out for the exercise—but instead, more than 30,000 mostly women, children, and elderly people arrived who, until the moment of their execution, believed they were going to be resettled elsewhere. Victims were ordered to undress and beaten if they resisted. Naked and terrified, they stumbled through various lines where they were forced to surrender their luggage—which held all of their most precious belongings—and to gather in a nearby ravine. Once in the ditch, they were indiscriminately shot and the living forced to lie down on top of the dead in the efficient “sardine method.” Marksmen stood at the top of the ravine and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun to ensure their demise. When it was dark, the Germans buried the dead under a thick layer of earth and took the discarded valuables—money, clothes, shoes, jewelry, bags, toys—and turned them over to the local ethnic Germans for better use.
While it would be easier to say Himmler oversaw this atrocity, turned the Schutzstaffel (SS) into a paramilitary group of over a million-strong, and controlled the concentrations camps because he was an evil man, the truth is his terrifying convictions rose from a rather ordinary life, comprised of feeble beliefs, and exposed to extraordinary historical conditions—overall, a narrow and limited existence. Born in 1900, his childhood was forged through the usual fire of fear and indoctrination under the guise of a conservative Roman Catholic family. His father was an upright man of intellect, a teacher and a mentor, who tried to use his connections with Prince Heinrich of Bavaria to further his son’s military ambition throughout his early life. But success did not come easy to Himmler, and he struggled with chronic sickness and a lack of natural athletic ability in his youth. He was known by his classmates to be a studious and awkward young man who was often seen trying to improve himself through lifting weights, reading, and writing in his diary. Upon later inspection, these personal writings painted him as a curious lad who was keenly interested in the art of dueling and “the serious discussion of religion and sex.” Nothing so very evil about that.
Himmler’s father wanted him to be a soldier, and he encouraged him to accept the role of an officer in the Bavarian Regiment after his initial training in 1917. Himmler’s brother had already seen combat on the western front and had been promoted to lieutenant after receiving the Iron Cross. But before Himmler could prove himself militarily, the war ended in defeat and he was transferred back to school at the Technical University in Munich where he studied agronomy. Although this scientific approach to plant production involved clean subjects like physiology and ecology, it also ruminated on methods of classification through plant breeding, soil categorization, and pest control. As a German university student, he internalized bits of the antisemitism around him but still spent most of his leisure time with members of his fencing fraternity, some of whom were Jews. However, these connections lacked the magnetism of radical unity, of being part of something, and Himmler turned his attention once again to a military career. Even though he was still unsuccessful, this effort brought him closer to the officer scene in Munich where he met a highly decorated combat soldier named Ernst Röhm who convinced Himmler to join his nationist society Bund Reichskriegsflagge in 1923. Acceptance at last.
At this point, Himmler’s diary began to reflect an interest in the “Jewish question” and a deep fascination with German myths and occult narratives. Like many other figures in the Nazi party, including Hitler himself, Himmler eventually abandoned Catholicism and turned to the occult for spiritual guidance, a place where his hateful opinions could be more-readily soothed by the white-washed ideology of Ariosophy. But while Hitler was pulled towards the occult through “visions” he could not control or really explain, Himmler pursued these fascinations in an academic and intentional way that supported his hateful beliefs. Unlike typical religious relationships, he crafted theology to fit his own beliefs—literally. In 1935, he founded the Ahnenerbe project (“inherited from the forefathers”) in Nazi Germany focused on researching the archeological and cultural history of the Aryan race. The society’s official mission was to find new evidence of the racial heritage of the Germanic people and to prove that mythological Nordic populations once ruled the world, much like the race of giants from the fictional island of Hyperborea. But this was just pseudoscience, not theology, and Himmler quickly twisted it to rationalize funding all sorts of archeological expeditions in far-flung places like Romania, Croatia, Africa, and Tibet. Through this pursuit of ancient relics, mystical texts, and other magical artifacts, Himmler hoped to supplant the Christian religion with one of his own making, one that stemmed from the modern movement of Germanic Neopaganism and Heathenry.
As the Ahnenerbe expanded into some 50 separate branches, their research turned to outlandish pursuits like ESP and the supernatural, the discovery of Atlantis, alien technologies, magical spells, finding the Holy Grail, and portals to other unknown realms. And when WWII began, the odd dealings of the Ahnenerbe morphed into the monstrous Institut für Wehrwissenschaftliche Zweckforschung, which used human experimentations as a way to prove some of their more drastic theories. Thus began the dark era of gruesome research where concentration camps prisoners of all ages were subjected to various degrees of amputation, sterilization, suffocation, poisoning, contagion, and general torture. There was no limit to the medical mysteries that could be explored. Identical twins in Auschwitz, most of who were children, had their body parts amputated and surgically grafted onto the other to create a grotesque conjoined abomination before they both died from pain and blood loss. Nazi “doctors” not only researched human limits, revived the near-dead, and looked for psychic connections, but they also sought to improve the human form to create unstoppable “super soldiers.” This particular area of study called Lebensborn involved impregnating ideal human specimens who could give birth to the “pure” offspring of a master race. Ahnenerbe believed this would unlock vast superhuman psychic powers that had been lost over time through mixed breeding. While these ghastly activities surely must have embodied evil in its finest form, they were wholly unimaginative in their sense of humanity and riddled with vapid motivations of glory and fame.
The Nazi connection to the occult and whether it constituted a political religion has fascinated historians and researchers through the years and for good reason—it questions the very essence of why the Nazis committed such atrocities in the first place. Yes, many of them were just following orders—but they were also functioning under the power of a shared (albeit demented) fiction, a Germanic religion comprised of Old Norse beliefs and Gothic paganism, bastardized further through the inclusion of more racially-aware ideologies like Ariosophy and the folkish völkisch movement. It is from here that ideas of glorious Germanic histories sprang, resplendent in their display of racially pure peoples. Just like the caliphates and zealots of the past—all of whom were fueled by religious doctrine—the Nazi brand of evil was really just an amalgamation of twisted ideology and the workings of a mundane mind. Yes, their wicked acts mushroomed into monumental tragedy, but as humans, they were marked not with the grandiosity of the demonic but with absolute ordinariness—and the ability to safeguard against reality. This deliberate disconnect from reality, now known as “alternative facts,” empowered their insipid and blunt minds to make atrocious decisions without consequence, decisions that came remarkably close to the appearance of something radical, maybe evil—but they were not. Only goodness has the dept for that.
Although joining the Nazi Party in 1923 was a no-brainer for Himmler, his first foray into hatemongering did not go so well. Hitler had led his men into the failed Beer Hall Putsch—a coup in Munich meant to overthrow Germany’s Weimar Republic government—and was arrested, charged with treason, and sentenced to five years in Landsberg Prison. Himmler was questioned by the police about his involvement, and even though they lacked evidence against him, he ultimately lost his job and was forced to move in with his parents. Again, this brush with power and violence—turned sour by the sting of failure—left him feeling frustrated, irritable, alienated, and oh so banal. But as Hitler was carted off to prison, Himmler took advantage of the disarray to advance his own position in the party, working as a propaganda assistant and readying himself for Hitler’s return.
When the Führer came back to fire up the Nazi engines in 1925, Himmler found himself elevated to a higher station where he could move about with considerable freedom and plenty of time to meditate on the statistics of Jews in the area. And it was at this point that Himmler began to do more than just follow, he began to shape enormous evil with his two little hands. Not only did he observe the numbers of “enemies” around him, he developed an elaborate bureaucracy to support the hateful functions he wanted to impose. And he used this seemingly legitimate system to convince Hitler that he was the man to transform the SS into a powerful, elite, and racially pure unit of strength. He was awarded the highest ranking job in the SS as Deputy Reich Leader and began his affiliations with monsters like Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the infamous Auschwitz camp. He tested and produced various methods for the planned genocide of the Jews; used his studies in agronomy to create poisons for executions, and ultimately rose to commander of all German police where he established the Third Reich’s first death camp at Dachau in 1933. By 1935, Himmler had secured Hitler’s approval and the money needed to establish and run additional camps. By the end of the war, hundreds of camps varying in size and function, holding nearly 715,000 people, had been established, a process that intensified as the Nazis faced more and more defeat.
Himmler’s rise to dark glory was swift and steady as he became the assistant chief of the Gestapo in 1934, where he strengthened and consolidated SS forces by overseeing the “bloody purge” of certain overly violent factions, including his once-close comrade, Ernst Röhm. The outbreak of WWII was like a homicidal fantasy come true for Himmler who saw his personal empire blossom into a landscape of sanctioned death. As the head of the German antipartisan campaign, his role was to enter occupied territories, tear apart their governance and culture, and oversee the massacre of Jews and anyone else who was not deemed suitable for the new world order. These missions, along with the running of the Gestapo, were ultimately what eliminated all opposition to Hilter and instituted the reality of the Final Solution. He organized the extermination camps in Poland where millions were systematically executed while providing cheap forced labor and involuntary medical experimentation. Gorging himself on the suffering of others was not enough, however, and he attempted to set up an independent SS industrial empire that would give him even more control under Hitler’s authority. But Himmler’s ongoing grasp for more power did not sit well with the other ego-driven sociopaths in Hitler’s entourage, and he found himself increasingly shunned.
During the initial phases of the Holocaust in Latvia, the Einsatzgruppe forced labor upon thousands of Jews until Himmler decided it was time to get down to the true business. He chose Rumbula as the site of the execution and organized his resources in preparation for the big event. The nearby Riga ghetto was forcibly cleared with violent shouts and gunfire and the inhabitants marched six and a half miles to a trench where they were broken into batches and shot. Some 25,000 Jews lost their lives this day, making the Rumbula massacre the single bloodiest event in Latvian history and one of the deadliest events in the European Holocaust.
As the war was wrapping up in 1945, Himmler’s fanatical devotion to Hitler began to falter, and it was discovered that he had tried to negotiate with a Swedish Count and the Western Allies to arrange his own succession to the Führer. When Hitler discovered his transgression, he promptly stripped Himmler of his titles and ordered his arrest. Disguised as a common soldier with an eye patch, Himmler tried to escape but was arrested with two other men by a British soldier in Northern Germany. At first, he was believed to be a harmless member of the “field police,” that is until he was taken to an internment camp and outed by the other soldiers who identified him as a senior Nazi.
When searching him, British authorities confiscated two cyanide vials, but they did not realize he also had one lodged between his teeth until he bit down on it and collapsed on the floor. Of course, his suicide was fraught with conspiracy theories on whether he was killed by British Intelligence and buried in an unmarked grave or if it was even him and not a double who ate the poison. As a man who indirectly killed millions upon millions of people over the years, the sight of his tubby, flaccid body lying dead on the floor did not feel like much of a vindication. There was Henrich Himmler, the most wanted man—the most evil man—in the world, Hitler’s right-hand guy, Chief of the Nazi SS; head of the dreaded Gestapo; lord of the concentration camps; architect of several massacres; and the individual whose orders had ended the lives of countless innocents lying peacefully on the floor, drained of his power, his wickedness now replaced with peace.
As long as human banality exists in the form of ignorance, fear, and a disconnect from reality, what we understand as evil will continue to thrive. It takes root in the shallow waters of our weaker character, where we always seem to save its place. The eternal mythology of evil has never resided in the shadows of filth and vice that surround us—but rather, in the deepest pockets of our most ordinary selves.
All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.” —John Steinbeck
And the rest is history.