Earlier this month, Sebastian visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. This is the first of two articles prompted by this visit.
The room is bathed in red light. It is quite the experience, walking in, from the otherwise well-lit areas of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois . The difference in lighting is the first, striking thing about this room. It announces that something here is different. Bad. Evil, even. A living nightmare.
Then there are the mannequins. Three of them representing African-American slaves, three representing white slavers. What is shown in this room is a slave auction, where, dramatically lit, a black mother and father are torn away from each other and their child. Drawn away by grotesque figures. The slaves are clearly and strongly humanized, their expressions display anguish and despair. The slavers however are like creatures from a horror film. This is mostly due to the way the room is lit – the slave auctioneer mannequin is lit from below, like a purveyor of scary stories around a campfire, in a slightly different shade of red, adding to his utterly ghoulish appearance. The slavers’ inhuman acts are represented as the acts of people who have forgone their humanity, who are no longer among the human family, if they ever were to begin with.
And that is a problem. However, this is not an argument against the dehumanization of those guilty of inhuman acts, lest one was to become inhuman oneself in the process of doing so. Instead, I argue for a harsh lesson of history, which is that people are complicated and capable of seemingly inhuman thoughts and actions. But portraying people guilty of these things as outside of humanity obscures just this. Evil deeds are not committed by monsters. They are committed by people. And like the black slaves, the white slavers, the so called “slave masters”, were just that. People. Human beings. By portraying them as inhuman, the inhumanity of their acts and thoughts and deeds is more obscured than it is revealed.
I grew up in West Germany. The countrymen and -women of my generation all shared lessons and lectures throughout our years of education that people are capable of horrible things. My grandparents’ generation was guilty, is guilty, of some of the worst crimes humans can be guilty of towards other humans. But this does not make them monsters. Because that would be too easy. The Nazis, the members of the National Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, were not monsters. They were small, oftentimes boringly ordinary men and women, who allowed their own seduction by a powerful and dangerous ideology. And then they allowed this ideology to seduce them further into the committing, helping with or tacit agreement to inhuman acts. But, the important lesson here is none of this made them less human.
Again, I am not arguing for the humanity of monsters. I am arguing for an understanding of the monstrous capacity in every single one of us. The Nazis were just as human as their victims. The same thing goes for the slavers and theirs. It is too easy to let these people, in the past and in the present, off the hook by denying them their humanity. Because if we do that, we allow to buy into several, dangerous arguments. First, if they were intrinsically monstrous, then committing monstrous acts would be perfectly in their nature. One might even argue that they couldn’t have acted any other way. What’s a monster to do? Not act like one? It is in the scorpion’s nature to sting. The other implicit argument that is inherent in this specific kind of othering is more insidious.
If the perpetrators of crimes against humanity are denied their own, it makes those left behind blind to the dangers that are inherent in humanity itself while watching out for the proverbial wolves at the door. The call is coming from inside the human family. The most important lesson about the Nazis, about the Khmer Rouge, the American slavers, the Ku Klux Klan, is that all those people were that: people. Not monsters. Not some creatures that stand outside of humanity. They were of us. Are of us. Why is this important?
Because by denying them humanity, by making them more than human (or less than human), we deny responsibility. If only monsters are capable of monstrosities, then all of us are safe for as long as we cannot see any actual monsters around. But, and this is the lesson thirteen years of primary and secondary education in West-Germany have given me, this is an illusion. It was not inhuman monsters that appeared from somewhere beyond who murdered six million Jews in corpse factories in Eastern Europe. It was not inhuman creatures from hell who enslaved thirteen million Africans in the quest for profit. It was people. Human beings. Ancestors, relatives, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sons, daughters.
By accepting this, by embracing this ugly and harsh truth, we can make the world safer. Because by embracing this, by accepting that evil is indeed, and here is the inevitable Hannah Arendt reference any piece like this requires, banal, we can guard against it. We, you, me, everyone around us, can under certain circumstances allow ourselves being seduced by dangerous and powerful ideologies, which could make us act out inhuman deeds towards our fellow men and women. The monsters are people. The wolves at the door are not animals, but human. My grandparent’s generation was guilty of the mass murder of Europe’s Jewry. This country’s forefathers are guilty of the enslavement of untold numbers of Africans and the murder of equally untold numbers of Native Americans. They were not monsters, they were not outside of humanity, but part of it.
And that is what the slave auction display obscures. The slavers, here, are monsters. Inhuman. Outside of humanity, not a part of it. They are nobody’s relatives or ancestors, they are just a thing that happened, a faceless monstrosity that crawled out the depths of the abyss of history to impose their inhumanity on people of African descent in America.
And they are of the past, the monsters were beaten and everyone is safe now. Any superficial perusal of the news in the recent months and years should teach us different. And much like many bad, contemporary portrayals of Nazis have them appear as inhuman monsters, often lacking the mental capacities to comprehend the vileness of their actions. This, too, obscures. It obscures that indeed many ordinary people of above average intelligence ascribed to the Nazi creed. It was indeed not only dumb brutes who joined the ranks of the Nazi Party, but human beings from all parts of society.
As historians it is our duty to prevent such obscurities. We must not ever shy away from the harsh and ugly truths, from the skeletons hidden in our closets or dangling from our family trees. We must not allow these obscurities to happen, we must not corral the ones guilty of monstrous crimes against our own off outside the human family, even if we have good reasons to do so. Maybe to spare current generations the shame and guilt and pain of such gruesome pasts. Maybe because we ourselves are afraid of what facing these realities might mean to our own sense of what it means to be human. Whatever the reasons for embracing such an obscuring, with it we do all of humanity a disservice. We blind ourselves from the dangerous realities we, us, human beings, are capable of conjuring up through thoughts and deeds. If we allow people to believe that monstrous acts will only ever be committed by monsters, and that these monsters were defeated in the past, never to return, then those among us capable of atrocities will walk unnoticed. Because they are people, because they are human, because they are someone’s relative, someone’s friend. Human beings. If we cannot see that among the multitudes we contain there are also some that are bad, some that are evil even, then we are blind and in danger of allowing more atrocities like those of the past to happen again and again. The truth is harsh, and not always pleasant. But it inoculates. And it teaches what it means to be human, and that being human can indeed sometimes be a bad thing. Man was, is, and can in the future be a wolf upon man.