26 January 2016

Hans Backen

Hans is not Eichmann


     Hans Backen is the retired warden of Hohenschonhausen Prison, a Stasi prison of East Germany.  Adam Johnson's short story "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine" answers Hannah Arendt's question posed by Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  How could Eichmann be so exact, so meticulous, so responsible in ensuring the trains loaded with Jews ran on time to the camps?  Eichmann was a bureaucrat with a bureaucratic job with a boss who had a boss who all had jobs in the organization with the duty to see the trains ran on time.  Eichmann knew what those trains contained; he would know, if he thought of it, the unimaginable suffering experienced not only at the camps, but on the trains by the people who were in the cars packed together so they could not sit without food or water or bathroom.

     Eichmann had a wife and kids. Presumably he loved his wife and kids; they would have been a typical middle class German family attending church on Sundays, visiting relatives on holidays, seeing their kids' programs at school.  So it was with Hans.  Hans with wife and daughter lived their middle class existence  below the prison walls where Hans was a diligent, conscientious, and very able prison warden.  He enjoyed his job and he did it well.  Hans didn't torture anyone; he didn't see anyone being tortured.  He can say now, eighteen years later,  "No one was tortured in my prison." when the fact was that torture can only be the term to describe the stay of those who happened to be chosen.

     True, Hans' prisoners often survived, many didn't, so his prison was not the equivalent of Eichmann's trains, but banality does describe Hans.  To know Hans is not to know evil--he is not the person who tortured, he did not cause the suffering, the unimaginable mental anguish of those incarcerated.  Hans had a good job, a job he did not want to lose, and he did it well.  Did he participate; well, yes he did.  Did he rationalize his position and the job he did; yes he did.  His wife and daughter didn't fare so well; they could not deny as well as Hans.

     "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine" is a hard piece to get your mind around.  It is easy and difficult; it allows you to understand that the trains and the East German prison will return and they will be operated by people like Eichmann and Hans.  There will always be such people.  The trains and the prisons are inevitable.