The Banality of Good

In December 1938, Nicholas Winton canceled his ski vacation and, instead, took a trip to the Sudetenland and rescued 669 Jewish children from certain death in a concentration camp. He bribed officials. He found foster parents. He arranged for travel and paperwork. (His New York Times‘s obituary has all the details.)

And then he didn’t talk about it. He just went about his life without telling anyone. His wife, who he married several years later, only learned of his actions after finding a scrapbook in the attic in the 1980s. She told others, and his story got around. Later, a TV show surprised Winton by surrounding him by the children, now adults, that he saved. (Warning — this is a three tissue video.)

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt described an unusual villain — Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was a seemingly ordinary guy, a bureaucrat who made the trains run on time. Yes, the trains took Jewish to concentration camp and gas chambers, but Eichmann didn’t really think about all that. He was concentrating on efficiency, on making his quotas, on doing his job. He even had a Jewish girlfriend on the side. He wasn’t pounding Jewish people on the back with the barrel of his rifle. He was pushing paperwork.

Because of Eichmann’s ordinary appearance and his bureaucratic job, Arendt said that Eichmann was an example of the “banality of evil.” Of course, she didn’t mean that the evil itself was banal. It was the mode of its delivery – the paper-stamping bureaucrat – that was banal.

But Arent had it wrong. Eichmann wasn’t banal. He was a psychopath, who compartmentalized and rationalized away his evil actions. It takes a seriously damaged brain to be in denial about the destination of those trains. No, the history of the Holocaust really shows us that evil isn’t banal, but good is.

Winton was also ordinary — he didn’t have the pecs of a Marvel superhero or Bill Gates’ bank account. He was just a stockbroker, an average educated, middle class guy. His bravery wasn’t the stuff of an action movie. It wasn’t about strength and power. Winton took the tools and the talents that he honed at his bank job and used them to arrange this transport of children. He made connections, filled out paperwork, schmoozed with German officials, shook down rich friends for money. What if every hedge fund manager in this country turned their talents towards good?

And then Winton did the unimaginable. He kept his good deeds to himself. He didn’t write an essay about it for the New Yorker. He didn’t ask for a prize or a plaque outside his home. He just went back to his job and his ordinary life.

How banal! How amazing!

2 thoughts on “The Banality of Good

    1. Theoretically, we can’t rule out that there aren’t a bunch of people like him in the world except with no family or quieter family members. If true, the implications aren’t exactly positive as it means a whole bunches of quietly self-sacrificing people can’t make a noticeable dent in the problems of the world.

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