Facing evil

A friend of mine, Felicity Baker,1 recently asked me what happened since Trump took office. I mentioned the 200,000 Salvadoreans who lost their right to stay in the United States and now face exile or deportation.2 I mentioned the free rein given to other dictators, such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, who can now keep his campaign of murders going (12,000 kills and counting3). But these events, tragic as they may be, still fall far short of the expected mayhem.

We have been told to expect a repeat of the Holocaust, were the far-right to reach power once again.4 The far-right has taken power in many countries, starting with the United States, but the gas chambers are still idle. We are left to wonder: Is Trump really evil? Have our fears not been overblown?

The world is not going to end with Trump, just like it did not end with Hitler. After all, many Germans emerged from the Nazi period unscathed, some of them much wealthier. To face evil now, we need to look back at what evil means.

The Nazi embodiment of evil

After World War 2, Nazi crimes were treated as acts of war which, as regrettable as they might have been, fell under what was to be expected in war. It took decades before Nazi crimes came to be associated so closely with evil. Starting with the Eichmann trial, sixteen years after the war was over, the Holocaust began to be seen as a distinct abomination. After years of tireless campaigning from prominent figures such as Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust was officially memorialized with “remembrance days”, starting in 1979 in the United States, 1996 in Germany and 2006 at the United Nations. Museums followed, with the United States Holocaust Memorial opening in 1993, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin in 2003, the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris in 2005 and hundreds of others.

The unexpected side effect of this rise in Holocaust remembrance is the mechanical belittlement of other abominations which, because they were not the Holocaust, de facto ranked lower on the scale of evilness.5 (“Unexpected” because Holocaust survivors who fought the silence around Nazi crimes rarely advocated for an exclusivist approach to remembrance.)

Starting in the 1990s, the renewed interest in the Holocaust turned it into an inverted mirror for western liberal democracies. Instead of trying to understand how the Holocaust became possible, remembrance focused on gruesome depictions of atrocities. Instead of researching the mechanisms that lead to the deaths of millions, we were told that Nazis were evil in essence. As historians moved on from the debate on intentionalism (“Hitler had a master plan since 1922 to kill all Jews”) versus functionalism (“the Holocaust happened because it was practical to kill Jews from 1941”) in the late 1980s, the media and schools went full-speed towards intentionalism - by far the easiest narrative of the two.

We are now at a time when all those younger than 35 in Europe and the United States grew up learning that evil was Nazism, period. This is why a press officer can state, in defense of Trump’s policies, that “this isn’t Hitler or Mussolini here” without the need for more arguments.6 If Trump is not Hitler, can he really be evil?

Nazis weren’t the exception

For a state to be evil means to deliberately inflict suffering to human beings. It ranges from instilling fear to ruining lives (the East-German Stasi called it Zersetzung - corrosion) to torture and state-sanctioned murder.

By this definition, evil is not limited to Nazi Germany. Even in the 1930s, the government of France, for instance, largely out-eviled Nazi Germany, at least until 1939. During this decade, the Nazis were killing a few hundreds dissidents and Jews a year. At the same time, the French were killing thousands of forced laborers in infrastructure projects in Senegal and in Congo7 and hundreds more in agriculture and rubber farming.

Nazi behavior towards Jews and Slavs was explicitly and very consciously based on the behavior of Europeans in their colonies. The Brits and the French had much of Africa, the Germans would have Eastern Europe - and they would do in their colonies what others were doing in theirs.8 In this light, Nazi evilness is simply heir to the policies of other political regimes, some of which are still standing today.

This explains why many governments refuse to recognize other sorts of evil beyond Nazi crimes. To do so would force them to admit that they, too, contributed to Nazi atrocities (by showing the way) and that they are capable of evil, too. The best example of this distinction between Nazi and homemade evils comes from France. There, the Parliament passed a law forbidding the denial of Nazi crimes in 1990 and, fifteen years later, passed another law that forced high school teachers to insist on the benefits of colonization for colonized people (the law was later partially repealed).9 Actions similar in nature (mass murders justified by a racist world view) were cast as evil in one case and as a legitimate policy tool in another.10

Even Germany, the country which did most to confront its past, staunchly refuses to admit that its non-Nazi history has evil components. No German government has yet apologized for the mass murders of Namas and Hereros in 1904, in what is today Namibia, for instance. Progress was made on the issue in 2016 but talks stalled in 2017 (Germany now insists on calling the murders “atrocities” instead of “genocide”).11 And the idea of a memorial or museum dedicated to the memory of the Namas and Hereros in Berlin is as far fetched as ever.

The continuum of evil

The more Nazi Germany became associated with evil, the less possible it became for other countries to face their own evilness. We could probably measure evil, by giving points to different types of atrocities, the way statisticians measure road dangerousness (1 point for an injury, 10 points for a fatal crash). This would give us a ranking of the most evil governments through time. And liberal democracies would probably fare little better than others.

Western intellectuals fell in the trap they created when they refused to acknowledge the equal value of non-white human lives. Because they refused to recognize that much of the Nazi ideology was inspired from the colonialism, they created a special category of evil for Nazis. Instead of seeing evil as a continuum, along which all governments could be ranked, evil has been transformed into a boolean, which takes only two values, Nazi (evil) and non-Nazi (not evil).

Without an intellectual framework to think evilness, one can argue that democracies will never be evil (they’re not Nazis!). One can also compare two acts of evilness, one from a democracy and one from an authoritarian regime, and argue that democratic regimes are as bad as authoritarian ones. Trump declared for instance that the United States was no better than Russia because the governments of both committed evil deeds.12

But democracies are not as bad as authoritarian regimes, far from it. Even if democracies have a history of disenfranchising (e.g. Blacks during most of the history of the United States) or murdering (e.g. colonized populations) those under their administration, institutional balances and the rule of law provide stability for the segment of the population for which they apply. This, in turn, allows people to plan their own lives and feel in control of their destiny.

The far right or, as American historian Timothy Snyder calls them, the sadopopulists,13 need to crush the rule law in order to govern. Sadopopulism is the application of harm to portions of the population, followed by the encouragement of those being harmed to direct their anger at groups selected by the government (think of the way the Trump administration increases taxes on the poor while telling them to blame immigrants). This system can only function if the targets of the legitimate anger have no recourse against the decisions of the government, hence the need for arbitrariness and the impossibility to have both sadopopulism and the rule of law. Because sadopopulists tend to come from or cozy up to violent groups, they are more prone to being evil than democrat leaders.

Evil and you

In Turkey, from the 2000s to the early 2010s, many intellectuals defended Erdoğan against his critics, arguing that he was a democrat. Many of them now sit in prison or have lost their jobs because the same Erdoğan branded them as traitors.14 They either did not acknowledge the fact that Erdoğan could be evil or did not have a plan in place for when the time came to face the government’s evilness.

The increased political instability sadopopulism creates (partly because it needs it to function, partly because of the incompetence of its cadres) opens the door to evil against different segments of the population. Obvious targets are foreigners, people who do not share the government’s religion, journalists, the disabled, intellectuals, dissenters… But the list does not stop there. Sadopopulists obtain compliance in large part through fear and need to remain unpredictable to continue ruling.

As an individual, the only thing you can do is to read or re-read the Rules for Survival Masha Gessen, a Russian-American author, wrote on the day that followed Trump’s election. She reminds us to take the rulers seriously, refuse to accept the new normality and not lose hope. On a practical level, as soon as the instability reaches the point where you might be the target of legitimate anger (meaning, concretely, that the government can seize your assets or put you under house arrest or in jail), you need to have a contingency plan ready.

What happened since Trump took power? For the vast majority of Americans, not much. For the Salvadoreans in the United States who lost the ability to plan their future, quite a lot. The “Dreamers”, a group of about 800,000 who arrived to the U.S. without documentation as children and who are now threatened with deportation, also face dramatic changes in how they envision life.15 So do, too, the few hundreds who were subjected to invasive searches at the border.16 They now have to reckon with the evilness of their government. It’s not just the United States. In France, the thousands of Muslim families who had their dwelling ransacked by arbitrary house searches in 2015 under the French state of emergency also had to rethink their relationship to the government. Everywhere, when the rule of law is set aside to allow for sadopopulistic measures, evil increases.

Some people loved to live in East Germany and never felt fear. Others lived miserable lives because their government decided to “corrode” them. There are many brands of evil beyond Nazism and there are many people who will not be affected by its new forms. To know what is evil, you need to define, for yourself, what good means. If you don’t do this, you will always find the current government - whatever it is - to be the middle ground between different brands of extremism and you might convince yourself that your government is not evil but merely doing what’s right to keep a balance. Just remember that once you are personally affected, it’s too late.

Cover illustration: Heinrich Maria Davringhausen. Der Schieber, 1920-21.


1. Not her real name.

2. How will El Salvador cope with deportees from America?., The Economist, 11 January 2018.

3. Philippines, Events of 2017, Human Rights Watch, January 2018.

4. In March 2018, German Member of Bundestag Johann Saathoff held a beautiful speech in which he said ‘Who lives in fear curls up in nationalism, and we all know where that leads,’ for instance.

5. Some follow this line of thought to argue that Holocaust studies have become a self-serving ‘industry’, such as Finklestein, Norman. The Holocaust Industry. (2000). Finklestein’s work is much too close to Holocaust deniers to be of any interest.

6. Silicon Valley Warms to Trump After a Chilly Start, New York Times, 30 March 2018.

7. For an example in Congo: La ligne Congo-Océan : une traverse, un mort, Geo.fr, 16 May 2016.

8. For the colonial thinking of the NSDAP, read Snyder, Timothy. Black earth: the Holocaust as history and warning. Tim Duggan Books, 2016.

9. The law in question is called Loi n° 2005-158 du 23 février 2005 portant reconnaissance de la Nation et contribution nationale en faveur des Français rapatriés.

10. Assuming that there were positive aspects to colonization, lawmakers implied that the colonialist system, of which forced labor was an inherent part, must have had legitimate goals.

11. Genozid in Namibia: Bewegt sich Deutschland?. Deutsche Welle, 14 November 2017.

12. According to Trump, the U.S. is no better than Russia, LA Times, 6 February 2017.

13. Watch Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 4: Sadopopulism for Snyder’s introduction of the concept.

14. For a comprehensive update on the recent history of Turkey: Rogg, Inga. Türkei, die unfertige Nation: Erdogans Traum vom Osmanischen Reich, Orell Füssli (2017).

15. For some context on Dreamers: What Is DACA? Who Are the Dreamers? Here Are Some Answers, New York Times, 23 January 2018.

16. Read, for instance, this story of a man blocked at the border in early 2017: US Customs block Canadian man after reading his Scruff profile, Xtra, 20 February 2017.