Most kids had cartoon villains to frame their early understandings of right and wrong, good and evil. I had Hitler.
My relationship with the former chancellor of Germany started with a Grade 6 social studies project. The teacher had our class make alphabet books illustrating the Second World War, with a vocabulary word representing each letter: A for Adolf, B for blitzkrieg, C for concentration camps, and so on, each with its own accompanying drawing. While my classmates struggled to find a word for the letter “X,” I smugly scribbled down the newest word in my 10-year-old lexicon: xenophobia. I drew Hitler in black marker with a round cartoon face and a tiny square mustache, his mouth in a dramatic upside-down “U” shape, frowning at other cartoon faces.
It wasn’t until university that a history class demystified the man. In the 300-level class, taught by UAlberta prof Dennis Sweeney, we examined Germany’s social, cultural and political history from the pre-war years of 1890s to the end of the Third Reich in 1945. I learned that in the 1930s, most Germans didn’t feel like they were living in a police state but perceived their lives as quite normal. We challenged the idea that the Nazis “seized” power in 1933 and explored how they were, in many ways, widely supported and legally elected into power. I learned that the people living at the same time as Hitler weren’t all that different from me: interested in politics but sometimes too busy with life to get involved.
The history class made it all deeply and devastatingly real: Hitler was a politician, not a stick figure with a funny moustache. Even more hauntingly, it illuminated for me that he was human — which meant evil like his could manifest again.
“If people realize that anyone can be Hitler, it is, on one hand, terrifying. But on the other hand, it is empowering,” says Cathryn van Kessel, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education. “If Hitler started off normal, there are all of these things that could’ve been done before he got to the point where he was almost untouchable.”
Van Kessel’s research on youth conceptualizations of evil and citizenship education found that casting historical figures or events as evil made young people see them as unstoppable. Through a tendency toward “villain-ification,” she argues, we give a regular person limitless power — and paint ourselves as helpless and blameless.
As New Yorker contributor Rollo Romig writes, the word evil “says more about the helplessness of the accuser than it does the transgressor.” It hurts our humanity to believe that a “normal” person could do terrible things to other people.
The Holocaust, of course, was perpetrated by thousands of people who weren’t Hitler. They weren’t villains but everyday people with jobs and families and bills to pay. As philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt said, they were banal, or “terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
Blaming an event on one person makes it hard to see how people just like us could have played a role in the mass suffering; it’s even harder to see how they could have stopped it.
But we already understand more complex forms of evil without even realizing. Think of pop-culture antiheroes like Walter White from Breaking Bad or villains like Darth Vader. Whether they toe the line between good and evil or are the definitive “bad guy,” these characters are multifaceted. Most of the time, it’s their humanity that makes them beatable.
We can pathologize Hitler and other historical evildoers by questioning whether they were driven to malevolence by disease or brain deformities. But realizing that awful events happened through terrifyingly normal circumstances can show us that we all have a role to play in history. And using the past to reflect on our own present helps us, as theorist Walter Benjamin said, “blast open the continuum of history.” That is, history shows what we’re capable of, and knowing that can prevent us from repeating it.
Van Kessel says we gain political awareness by understanding the ordinary processes that helped historical villains gain power. She argues that learning to think in this way is a much more meaningful form of political literacy than just learning how to vote or learning about different political parties. “If we find out how to prevent cancer,” she says, “it’s a heck of a lot better than trying to figure out how to manage it.”
Accepting that the most wicked people in history came to power through regular ways is unnerving. In a way, though, it returns a degree of power back to regular people to take control over our own roles in society. Seeing people as, well, human might be a good place to start.