This year is the 22nd anniversary of the publication of my book, ORDINARY PEOPLE AND EXTRAORDINARY EVIL. It was my first response to the Holocaust — as both a child survivor and professional sociologist — who is not satisfied with how historians address the Holocaust, and genocides generally. Here is what produced my mission:
An investigator of the 1990’s genocide in Rwanda wrote: “… The killers, by and large, were ordinary people — not jackbooted representatives of the state. Neighbors did it — to neighbors. Pastors did it — to parishioners. Doctors did it — to patients. Schoolteachers did it — to pupils. In-laws did it — to in-laws. Workers did it — to fellow workers at the … local tire factory. (*)
My response is that it is not enough to report such horrors. We need explanation! How is it that ORDINARY people would engage in such horrendous acts? This is the challenge I try to meet in that and subsequent books. My work is in the tradition of Hannah Arendt’s banality-of-evil thesis, but goes far beyond it, showing how our “ordinary” makeup — of how we cope in Social Space — can be used to taking part in horrific actions, even as this same makeup can be used for our most humane and decent actions.
(*) From Paul Henrickson, “Witness to the Unimaginable,” Washington Post,15 November 1998. This is a review of Philip Gourewich’s book, WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES. (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.)