When we categorize an individual as "evil," we want to consider him as purely evil, without caveat or qualification. We want him to be evidently evil in all parts of his life so he can be readily identifiable and uniformly condemned. However, the recently discovered personal letters of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and the individual behind the extermination of millions of Jews during the Holocaust, reveal the mundane details of his home life as a husband and father.
It is being reported that an Israeli collector who had acquired the letters from an American soldier, who himself obtained them directly from Himmler's home, sold them, and excerpts were published this week in the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
There are unsurprisingly numerous anti-Semitic references sprinkled throughout the trove of more than 700 letters between Himmler and his wife, Margarete. The roll call of battles and key events of World War II are evident, as are Himmler's travels to and from the various concentration camps established to effect the efficient slaughter of their Jewish inhabitants.
But perhaps more uncomfortably for the modern reader, the letters repeatedly focus on the intimate day-to-day family life of the Himmlers. In addition to attempting to exterminate an entire race, Himmler was apparently a man who was very much interested in his children and who had a close and sentimental relationship with his wife, who was a committed Nazi in her own right.
It is useful to recall that Himmler's SS officers were more than simply soldiers who stood at the center of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime. Himmler infused them with a series of occult beliefs, in an attempt to create a pagan system that ultimately would replace Christianity. In the place of Christmas was the celebration of the winter solstice. In the place of Jesus dying on the cross was the Black Sun, with 12 swastika-style spokes.
In addition to this pastiche of neo-pagan symbols and philosophy cobbled together to provide a religious underpinning to the Nazi regime, Himmler also had some less impressive ideas. For example, to ensure a steady supply of wool socks for members of the German military, Angora rabbits were bred in many of the concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau. Their cages were heated, and they were given fresh food regularly, benefits that were not conveyed to the other inhabitants of the camps. Prisoners who did not treat these cute little animals with sufficient respect were executed.
Himmler actually prided himself on his enlightened view, which many Germans shared, of how to properly care for animals. And of course, it is well-known that Hitler was both a vegetarian and an ardent opponent of vivisection.
The more difficult realization when observing those who commit horrific acts, on either a small scale or a grand one, is that in addition to that particular atrocity, the perpetrator will often have perfectly normal traits, feelings and ambitions, some of which may actually be quite admirable. Of course, this is in no way a justification — or even a mitigation — of those horrific acts. Instead, it is simply a recognition that the motivations and fears that eventually drive people toward things we label as evil coexist alongside aspects of their personalities and their lives that bear surprisingly easy comparisons with the rest of us.
When Himmler asks about his daughter or apologizes for forgetting a wedding anniversary or when his wife reminds him that there is still a nice bit of caviar waiting for him, we realize that there can exist in people engaged in the most egregious behaviors a sense of normalcy. Some may call this a split personality or an attempt at compartmentalization that enables the "evil person" to find brief refuge in an idealized version of his life. The more uncomfortable conclusion, however, would be that just as no "good person" is uniformly good all the time in such a way and to such an extent that his saintlike generosity and empathy completely crowd out all selfish, envious and destructive behaviors, the person who does evil may often also do good.
Whether it be allegations of war crimes by senior leaders or reports of bloody atrocities committed by individuals, the most difficult thing to reconcile is that these men are also husbands and fathers and sons who may believe ardently in several admirable and forward-thinking causes or that these women are also wives and mothers and daughters who may be passionately committed to the improvement of their communities.
Himmler's letters force us to confront not only the existence of the ordinary and mundane in his life but also at least the potential for the horrific and brutal to originate in the life of anyone around us, including our own.
Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between Los Angeles and London. His radio show, "The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler," airs every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to midnight Pacific time on KRLA AM 870. To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.