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Two war histories investigate banality of evil

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Human nature being what is, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote, "War is a harsh teacher. The strong do what they wish and the weak do as they must."

These two absorbing books speak to the truth Thucydides described some 2,500 years ago.

British journalist and filmmaker Thomas Harding has written a duel biographical sketch of his great-uncle Hanns Alexander and SS Col. Rudolf Hss. Alexander was the British officer who captured Hss, the commandant of the infamous Auschwitz extermination camp who oversaw the murder of more than a million people.

Dr. Douglas Kelley, the protagonist of Minneapolis-based medical science writer Jack El-Hai's narrative, was the American army psychiatrist assigned to assess the mental state and sanity of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering and other 21 Nazi leaders who were tried for war crimes at the 1946 International Military tribunal in Nuremberg.

Hanns was the son of a prosperous Jewish family in Berlin. They escaped to England after the Nazis came to power in 1933. Hanns joined the British army and, in May 1945, was assigned to the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.

He became the interpreter for the newly formed War Crimes Investigation Team. What he saw at Belsen and learned about the Nazi death camps and Auschwitz, in particular, shook him to his core.

The hunt for Hss began, and in March 1946, after months of dogged detective work, Hanns captured him. Hss gave testimony at the 1946 Nuremberg trials. He was hanged at Auschwitz in April 1947.

Hss had climbed up the ranks of the SS, under the patronage of SS leader Heinrich Himmler, and was referred to as Himmler's "unexceptional disciple." He was assigned to Germany's ever-growing internal concentration camp system and eventually became a commandant.

In 1939, Himmler ordered Hss to organize a camp near the town of Auschwitz in occupied Poland. In 1941, he received a new order: set up the camp for mass annihilations.

All the while, Harding explains, Hss and his growing family lived a near idyllic life outside the walls of the crematoria. It was all so ordinary, yet so vile.

How could life could be so compartmentalized? Hss loved farming, his children and music, but willingly and efficiently orchestrated and participated in mass murder.

This was the question Kelley, who was an expert in treating combat fatigue and a pioneer of group therapy techniques, wanted to answer, writes El-Hai. What were the personality patterns of these men that allowed them to win and hold power?

Was there some kind of discoverable Nazi illness that could infect people anywhere?

Kelley assessed all the imprisoned Nuremberg defendants, but spent the most time with Goering. Many thought Goering nothing more than a bombastic, opportunistic, drug-addled buffoon.

However, Kelley discerned the garrulous captive to be remarkably intelligent, a capable, driven individual who was devoid of empathy for any friend or foe who got in his way.

To an extent, El-Hai writes, Kelley disagreed with Hannah Arendt's famous banality-of-evil thesis. Yes, of course, some of the Nazi leaders were merely efficient high-level bureaucrats, like Hss. Some, however, were exceptional.

He found that their personalities were no different from successful Type A politicians and business leaders. Kelley, as he wrote in his book 22 Cells in Nuremberg, came to believe that any society, including the U.S., could succumb to totalitarianism.

Ian Stewart teaches at Cecil Rhodes School in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 A1

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