Excerpts from recently discovered portions of Heinrich Himmler's diary have made the news, especially in Europe and Israel. They seem to portray a family man who, as Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany, would dote on his wife, hang out with his daughter, get a massage, authorize atrocities, then go to dinner.
As Hitler's "Number Two," it was Himmler's job to oversee the genocidal task of slaughtering the world's Jews, and similarly, winnow out other "genetically inferior" specimens of humanity.
On one occasion, the non-emotive, ho-hum, entries in Himmler's diary note a daytrip to Poland. After landing, he ate lunch at the airport, then drove to his destination: the Majdanek concentration camp. At the camp, he was keen to see a new diesel powered engine in action. On this particular day, however, there was no incoming shipment of Jews. Undeterred, he ordered a roundup of 400 women and girls from the nearby Lublin ghetto. Successfully gassed while he watched, pleased with the new diesel engine, Himmler ended the day at a banquet. He was its honored guest.
What kinds of things did he talk about over dinner? One topic was the nobility of mass murder. We know this because his diaries record portions of a dinner speech in Poznan, a city in Nazi occupied Poland. Speaking in a tone that can only be imagined, he congratulated his swatika clad comrades for their hard work in genocidal efforts to kill the world's Jews.
"Altogether we can say: We have carried out this most difficult task for the love of our people. And we have suffered no defect within us, in our soul, or in our character."
It is the mind-boggling juxtaposition of Himmler's humanity, self-righteousness and monstrous conduct that mystifies, fascinates and repulses. This is what evil looks like? What it sounds like? Portraying its actions as noble and good?
In his book, People of the Lie, psychotherapist M. Scott Peck argued that most of the world's evil people are not in prison. Yes, he admitted, there are prisoners who have done terrible things. But in the spectrum of evil, most of them are on the dim side and from a very narrow bandwidth.
Most evil people, he contended, "appear to be most ordinary. They live down the street...on any street. They may be rich or poor, educated or uneducated. There is little that is dramatic about them. They are not designated criminals. More often than not they will be 'solid citizens' - Sunday school teachers, policemen, or bankers, and active in the PTA." In short, he argued, evil people thrive in places where they appear credible. They especially love religious positions, civil leadership roles and politics. Their MO is respectability.
Are the institutions of religion and politics to which they are especially drawn evil? Not categorically. Sometimes however, just like individuals, entire cultures, even religions, can become infected.
And the essence of evil?
"The central defect of evil" people, Peck argued, "is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it." They are characterized by "absolute refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness."
Accordingly, "they hate the light - the light of goodness that shows them up, the light of scrutiny that exposes them, the light of truth that penetrates their deception. Rather than blissfully lacking a sense of morality, like the sociopath, they are continually engaged in sweeping the evidence of their evil under the rug of their own consciousness."
The jolting reality of evil people, Peck contented, is their "utter dedication" to preserve an image - and self-image - of perfection. And the function of facades they build? They are a shelter behind which, or in the name of which, they aggressively pursue sick and sickening conduct. Why? Not because they really believe it is good; that's the lie they sell. The real reason is because they like it; they want to do it - whatever "it" is.
Virtually impossible to detect, evil people are charming, powerful, credible. They are also cunning, cruel, and ruthless. In their very essence, they are "people of the lie."
Because they sell their lies so well, some, like Himmler, achieve a level of cultural acceptance that allows them to openly declare and pursue murderous agendas.
For example, in 2005, when Iran's former President Ahmadinejad declared his country's intent to "wipe (Israel) off the map." Tellingly, in the face of global protest at the sentiment, apologists for Iran and Islam scrambled to damp down what is, and remains, the explicit intent of the Islamic Republic along with the likes of its "Supreme Leader" Ali Khamenei, Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas's Khaled Mashal, and more, many more like them. They are in Muslim pulpits around the world and in the likes of ISIS. They are on Facebook and Twitter, in congresses and parliaments, in media and schools, and would-be global governments, including those in New York and Rome, Belgium and Moscow, Ankara and Tehran.
The spirit of Himmler revealed in his diaries is a lesson and a warning to the world today. It is imperative that individuals and institutions shake off the shock of evil's charm and beauty. Otherwise, and soon, they risk becoming its victims. Or its perpetrators.