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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

Did Hitler think he was doing good?

Actor Will Smith's comment highlights the paradox of evil


I usually take little interest in American pop culture but was unable to resist when a news item mentioned the uproar actor Will Smith caused when speaking about Adolf Hitler. The Daily Record, a Scottish newspaper, quoted Mr. Smith as saying: “Even Hitler didn’t wake up going, ‘Let me do the most evil thing I can do today.’ I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was ‘good.’ ” Web sites began posting articles alleging that Will Smith believed Hitler was a good person.

After Mr. Smith angrily denied he meant such a thing, Jewish human rights groups said they accepted his explanation that his quote was misinterpreted. However, the mass media seemed fixated on the exact wording of Mr. Smith’s interview and entirely missed the major point he raised: Did Hitler think he was doing good? But why was this idea overlooked? How do we define goodness and distinguish good acts from evil acts? Lastly, how should we resist those who claim to be doing good but instead commit unspeakable horrors?

The individual who assassinated Benazir Bhutto and then blew himself up, killing 22 people, believed he was doing good. When President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, he not only believed he was doing good but fulfilling God’s will. The six French aid workers who were sentenced by a court in Chad for kidnapping thought they were doing good by taking 103 malnourished children and orphans from Darfur to Europe. Osama bin Laden believes he is doing good in driving the “infidel,” or the West, from the Middle East. President Saddam Hussein thought he was doing good but was found guilty and executed last year in Iraq.

Roy F. Baumeister, a sociologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and author of Evil: Inside Violence and Human Cruelty, believes there is a paradox when studying the behaviors of good and evil people. According to Dr. Baumeister, “On the one hand, there is evil aplenty: People perform violent, harmful, cruel and oppressive acts all over the world, and they have done so throughout history.” He continues, “On the other hand, hardly anyone recognizes himself or herself as evil. Ironically, many who have perpetrated what history has come to condemn as some of the worst excesses regarded themselves as trying their best to do something good and noble.”

Dr. Baumeister claims that a huge emotional and psychological gulf exists between perpetrators -- those who commit wrong -- and victims -- those who are wronged and suffer. After interviewing victims and perpetrators, he found that victims elaborated on the event in great detail. The consequences of the transgression were portrayed as continuing for many years afterward and extending even to the present. The perpetrators, on the other hand, remembered their hurtful actions as taking place within a much shorter time span and usually oversimplified the event. The crime and injury were either justified or dismissed, and the perpetrators denied that there were any lasting consequences at all.

Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and his massive crimes against humanity occurred after Germany lost World War I. The Treaty of Versailles blamed Germany for starting the war, forced it to pay reparations, took land away from it and limited its military while millions of Germans were suffering and starving. It was in this context that Hitler felt humiliated and blamed the Socialists and Jews for Germany’s defeat. Hitler dreamed of someday making Germany into a great and secure empire based on law and order. In 1936, he stood in the Reichstag and said, “I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews and Socialists, I am fighting for the Lord’s work.”

So convincing was Adolf Hitler that many German churches and pastors believed in him and his promise of making the homeland free and safe for the Germanic people scattered across Europe. The conservative Faith Movement of German Christians even published a 10-point program supporting the goals of Hitler and the Third Reich. It affirmed that the German churches “will fight against Marxism and the Christian Socialists ... both of which groups are enemies.” Congregations prayed for Adolf Hitler on Sunday morning, while pastors made favorable comparisons between Jesus and Hitler and preached that “the German state idea, the evangelical church and God’s purpose in history are all bound together.”

Military historian John Laffin believes the West has a mistaken image of Hitler, focusing on him only as diabolical. He proves his point in his book Hitler Warned Us by reprinting many of the photos of Hitler contained in the 1935 Nazi Party book, Adolf Hitler. The latter became a popular book for many Germans until after the war when the books were hastily destroyed due to de-nazification and “guilt by association.”

The book is filled with pictures of Hitler smiling, embracing the young and elderly, and consoling mourners. Because we do not see these images, we compare ourselves only with the evil Hitler, who murdered many millions. We believe ourselves to be ethically superior and mistakenly believe our thoughts and actions could never intersect with Hitler’s beliefs and behaviors. Yet our hatreds and inabilities to forgive, our jealousies and prejudices, our power grabs and dreams of empire building do overlap with Hitler’s thinking that he was doing good, maybe just not on such a grand scale.

In his mind, Hitler believed that he was making a better world, at least for himself and the Germanic people. However, the victims in concentration camps who every day read his messages saying, “There is a road to freedom. Its milestones are Obedience, Endeavor, Honesty, Order, Cleanliness, Sobriety, Truthfulness, Sacrifice, and love of the Fatherland,” experienced great suffering. This is troubling for it indicates the concept that we automatically want to dismiss: One person’s goodness may be another person’s suffering and death. If this is the case, how do we define goodness and distinguish good from evil? How can different acts of goodness seemingly appear to be so polarized?

Whether it be the Taliban and al-Qaeda, or George Bush and his imperial ambitions, or the French aid workers and their cultural insensitivities, or Saddam Hussein and his autocratic rule, they all have two things in common with Hitler: the use of force in achieving their goals and the failure to bridge the gulf of empathy that Dr. Baumeister mentioned. In fact, the clinical definition of a psychopath, also called a sociopath, denotes someone who has no thoughts or feelings for his victims. It is an individual who does not feel empathy with others, or is unable to imagine the pain and suffering of victims.

If peace with justice is to ever be established on earth, the single and collective perpetrators of violent acts will have to stop long enough to understand and empathize with their victims. If this can be accomplished, then goodness that benefits everyone may prevail.

A pastor in rural America for 10 years, Dallas Darling currently teaches U.S. and world history in Alice, Texas. He was active in the Central American peace movement and works with Pastors For Peace in delivering humanitarian aid to foreign countries.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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