Best of Freshman Writing
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PSU – Mont Alto
The Law of Morality
In May 1960, Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped from Argentina by the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, and taken to Israel in order to face trial for his actions in the Third Reich. During the years of Nazi Germany, Eichmann was an SS officer tasked with organizing transportation of Jews to the ghettos and concentration camps set up by the Germans. Though he was never directly involved in the killings, his actions facilitated the deaths of millions of Jews. However, Arendt stresses that Eichmann was not an anti-Semite. In fact, prior to the war, Eichmann was a Zionist, one who favored the re-establishment of Israel as a homeland for the Jews. If one were to meet Eichmann, one would have thought him to be a normal human being, certainly not someone partly responsible for millions of deaths. The concept that normal people can commit these atrocities is one that Arendt emphasizes, with her term “The Banality of Evil.” This theory holds that many of the atrocities throughout time were not committed by inherently evil men but rather those who came to believe that their actions were normal under the premises of their state. The question then becomes: how did Eichmann, indeed how did most of Germany, not realize their actions were wrong?
Much of the willingness to exterminate the Jews can be explained by the slow progress of anti-Semitic measures. Throughout the Middle Ages, anti-Semitism was present in one form or another, particularly in lands that now constitute Germany. Jews were often viewed as foreigners in European lands, even by themselves. In the late nineteenth century, the concept of the Aryan master race was introduced by German thinkers. Also included in this concept was the viewing of Jews not as a religious group, but as an ethnic group. When the Nazis gained power, it was already an accepted custom that for the most part, Jews and non-Jews did not have intimate relationships. However, in order to preserve the Aryan race, the Nuremberg laws were passed in 1935. These prohibited marriage and intercourse between the races. Then came Hitler’s “solutions.” The first, and most benign was to deport the Jews. This came in various forms, from shipping them to other counties, or even fulfilling Zionist goals in an attempt to return the Jews to Palestine, or to move them to Madagascar. When it became clear that all the Jews could not be deported, the second solution came into being—the Jews would be concentrated in ghettos. Finally came the exterminations, where two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population was systematically wiped out. The “final solution” was built on hundreds of years of prejudice in such a way that the Germans hardly realized that what they were doing was wrong.
However, the slow progress of anti-Jewish measures do not alone account for Eichmann’s willingness to participate in Hitler’s solutions. Before his role in the SS, Eichmann had been a failure. He had been unable to finish school, and was only able to find a job through family connections. He did not join the Nazis because of their beliefs, but rather because
From a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement that always kept moving and in which somebody like him—already a failure in the eyes of his social class, of his family, and hence in his own eyes as well-could start from scratch and still make a career. (Arendt 33)
Eichmann did not join the Nazi party because he admired its doctrines or because he believed it would save Germany, as had so many others, but rather out of a desire to live a life where he could make an impact. Because of this, he was able to suppress his own conscience and commit acts that enabled genocide, simply because of his desire to succeed in life.
In contrast to Eichmann, Hannah Arendt gives an account of an entire people who, when faced with injustice, did not comply, but instead took a stand and resisted it. When the Germans began the process of making a country “judenrein,” meaning Jew-free, their first steps were to issue yellow stars that Jews were required to wear, and to go after the “stateless” Jews first, those who were refugees from other countries and were often viewed as pests, similar to how the Irish and Chinese were viewed in nineteenth century America or how people crossing from Mexico to the United States are viewed today. When the Germans invaded Denmark in 1940, the country quickly surrendered on the terms that it would maintain much of its sovereignty. Because of this cooperation, most Danish officials continued serving as they had before the war, and Denmark was viewed as a “model protectorate.” However, when the implementation of the yellow star was proposed by the Germans,
They were simply told that the King would be the first to wear it, and the Danish government officials were careful to point out that anti-Jewish measures of any sort would cause their own immediate resignation. (Arendt 171)
While stories of the King riding through Copenhagen wearing the star are false, the star was never implemented in Denmark due to the resistance of members of the Danish government. Similarly, when the Germans tried to take Jews who were German refugees, they were told, “Because the stateless refugees were no longer German citizens, the Nazis could not claim them without Danish assent” (Arendt 172). In both of these cases, the Germans were afraid to harm their relationship with the Danish government so the issues were dropped, at least for the moment.
However, in 1943 it became apparent that the Germans were going to lose the war. Because of this, resistance to the Germans, in the forms of sabotage or strikes that hindered the German war machine, greatly increased. Martial law was declared and the SS believed it was time to bring the Final Solution to Denmark. However, living in Denmark had changed many of the soldiers stationed there. Arendt says,
The German officials who had been living in the country for years were no longer the same. Not only did General von Hannecken, the military commander, refuse to put troops at the disposal of the Reich plenipotentiary, Dr. Werner Best; the special S.S. units employed in Denmark very frequently objected to “the measures they were ordered to carry out by the central agencies”—according to Best’s testimony at Nuremberg. And Best himself, an old Gestapo man … could no longer be trusted. (173)
On October 1,1943, the Germans were to seize all the Jews in Denmark and move them to a concentration camp. Fortunately, the plan was leaked (possibly by Best), and the Jews were easily able to go into hiding because, “all sections of the Danish people, from the King down to simple citizens, stood ready to receive them” (Arendt 174). Furthermore, the German police involved in the searches were told they were not allowed to break into residences, meaning they could only seize those who let the Germans in. This was supposedly to avoid trouble with the Danish police, but may again indicate that Best was attempting to save the Jews, as it was his order. Because of this, as well as Danish funding for the Jews to be evacuated to Sweden, only a small portion of the Jews in Denmark found themselves in concentration camps.
Another example of a man doing what is right at great personal risk is in the film A DryWhite Season. For most of the late nineteenth century, South Africa used the apartheid system. Under this system, blacks and whites were heavily segregated and the white minority held all the military and political power. Due to this, black protests against the white government were quite common. Even more disturbing was the frequent use of police brutality against those who protested the system, even when the protests were peaceful. Most of the whites, including the main character in the film, Ben Du Toit, were unaware or did not care about this injustice. As a wealthy white man, Du Toit had several black servants. When one of his worker’s sons is taken by the police after a protest, Du Toit believes the police must have had a legitimate reason for the arrest. However, when the boy is arrested again and killed by the police, Du Toit begins to recognize the injustices of the system. Despite the ostracism that will come from his fellow whites, he hires a lawyer to prosecute the police captain who took the boy. While the captain is acquitted, it does bring attention to the issue from many reporters. In response to the trial, the police begin harassing Du Toit in an effort to scare him off. However, he continues with his search for justice and begins collecting statements from blacks who had suffered from the police. However, unlike Du Toit, his family (with the exception of his son) are unwilling to cope with the implications that helping the blacks will have on their social standing. Du Toit is faced with a dilemma even more difficult than following the law or doing what is just. If he continues to seek justice, not only will he himself be threatened, but he will alienate his own family. In the end, he chooses to continue with his work and his wife leaves him. Ultimately, Du Toit is murdered by the police captain, but before his death, he is able to deliver the statements to a reporter who publishes them. Du Toit pays the ultimate price, but his actions help bring justice to South Africa similar to how Martin Luther King Jr. helped bring racial justice to America.
By looking at these instances, several conclusions can be drawn. Simply following the law does not make a man just. Martin Luther King says in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” that, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law”(661). Laws made by just men are put in place so that those who commit an injustice can be punished. Laws made by unjust men are put in place so that they may benefit from the law. Therefore, a just man does not need the law to keep him just.” The American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau comments on this concept in his essay, “Civil Disobedience,” saying that “Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice”(2). Unfortunately, when an injustice is put into law, those who follow the law, even if they disagree with it, perpetuate the injustice. Thoreau says of this,
Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacle to reform. (7)
An example of this is the “white moderate” that King is so displeased with, who prefers a “Negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” (King 663). This raises an understandable conflict: is it a citizen’s duty to follow a law even though it is unjust or is it his duty to break the law? King and Thoreau certainly believe that it is right to break the law if it causes injustice to others. Thoreau says,
If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. (8)
The interesting point that King and Thoreau make, however, is that for the resistance to be effective, it must be nonviolent. If there is violence, progress is not made, as injustice is being fought with injustice. King says of nonviolent protest,
One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly … and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty … is in realty expressing the very highest respect for the law. (662)
By protesting peacefully, the protesters will show that the law must be changed because it is evident that they are being unjustly punished. At the same time, they are showing that they respect the law by accepting its consequences and wish to see it changed so that it embodies justice.
History has shown us the consequences of injustice. Men like Eichmann will support it in order to further themselves, and many will simply ignore it because they are afraid of the penalties of resisting it or the consequences of changing it. However, there are also many who are willing to stand up for what is right, such as the people of Denmark or Ben Du Toit, even if it means making sacrifices to bring about justice. Through these examples, it becomes evident that, unfortunately, the law is not always just. Men must use their own “law of morality” and act according to what they know is right, not what they are told is right. The Biblical phrase, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (NIV, Mark 12:31), holds true here—that for the world to be a better place, we must treat others the way we would want to be treated. As King and Thoreau propose, when an injustice is present we must resist it. This resistance must also be nonviolent, or it is only using one injustice to end another, and in many cases will make the situation worse, as those in power will be less willing to change the law if they think the protestors are unreasonable. In conclusion, the law is only a tool. Used correctly, it preserves order in our society. Used incorrectly, it subverts justice, and must be changed. Men must look beyond the law and evaluate for themselves if its use is correct or not, and then act according to their own judgment.
* This quote is often attributed to Edmund Burke, the British statesman. However, Burke was never recorded saying this, and it is thought that it is a paraphrase of his quote “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York:
Penguin Group, 2006. Print.
Burke, Edmund. Quotation. Dictionary.com. Web 13 Dec. 2011.
Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Corporation, 2006.
King, Martin L. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Letter. 16 Apr. 1963. MS. Birmingham City
Jail, Birmingham, Alabama.
“The History of Apartheid in South America.” Web. 14 Dec. 2011.
Schluter, Hans. “Danish Resistance During the Holocaust.” Holocaust Research Project.
Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team, 2A07. Web. 14 Dec. 2011.
Thoreau, Henry D. “Civil Disobedience.” 1849. Civil Disobedience and Other Essays.
New York: Dover Publications, 1993. 1-18. Print.
John Ritenour's essay appears here with his express written permission and cannot be reproduced in any manner or fashion without his express written permission.