The Face of Ordinary Evil: Thoughts on Bela Zsolt’s Nine Suitcases

There are certain faces that we think of as representing great, powerful evil: Hitler, Stalin, and bin Laden to name a famous few. But the big names, the ones in the famous photos, have their ugly little brothers, too. (And sisters, I should add.) These lesser ones represent the ordinary evil that gives the big players their success and power. In his Holocaust memoir Nine Suitcases, Béla Zsolt describes some of these run-of-the-mill brawlers who were given license to do more stealing and drinking than usual. Here is what Zsolt observed about members of the Arrow Cross (Hungarian fascists) who carried out raids on Jews in eastern Hungary during World War II:
“Here the gendarmerie NCOs in civilian clothes had opted for the rank of ‘Secretary,’ although their whole exterior made it glaringly obvious that they were upstart peasant lads, gone mad with the intoxication of unlimited power and unlimited opportunities for robbery, trying to seem like gentlemen. They all had unwholesome-looking faces, not necessarily from birth, but probably because they hadn’t gone to bed before morning ever since the start of this carnival of cannibals. They were drinking themselves to death with booze obtained for nothing or paid for with unrecorded money stolen from the ‘national property’ (the term given to property confiscated from Jews). They certainly also womanized for all they were worth, and may in addition have been worn out by the pleasures of the cruelties they committed in the torture rooms. There was no spark of humanity left in their eyes . . . One could tell that their looted civilian clothes hadn’t been tailored for them; their ties were garish, they had thick stolen rings on their fingers and plundered watches on their wrists, and some wore white gloves.”
I once heard a quote that went something like this: We think of evil as interesting and goodness as dull material; but real goodness is truly fascinating, and real evil is not only repelling but hopelessly banal. The face of evil is joyless drunkenness, vanity, cruelty and greed. I am guessing that for some of these “upstart peasant lads” the evil took a little practice; humane hesitations, which they may have had at first, wore off with time, booze, and the horrid example of others who had already killed their own consciences. I have heard and read that some of these practiced barbarians, with the change in regime after the war, became the government-appointed officials who beat up resisters of communism. Once a thug, always a thug. Did they ever feel qualms? I hope so.
But after enough hardening, maybe not. I am reminded of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll, who thought he was just dabbling with sin, having a little fun—then he realized to his horror that no, he had changed forever. He had become the repugnantly evil Mr. Hyde.

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