Monstrous Mediocrities

April 07, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- The Paul Touvier trial in Paris was supposed to be another ''trial of the century,'' but has proved to be nothing of the kind. The people put on trial for the genocidal crimes disfiguring the 20th century have repeatedly proved to be moral mediocrities. None of them -- Mr. Touvier, Klaus Barbie, Adolf Eichmann, among others -- has demonstrated a stature appropriate to the evil of the events in which each figured.

Mr. Touvier, officer of the wartime Vichy French political police, is charged with a ''crime against humanity'' for his part in the execution of seven Jewish hostages in 1944, in reprisal for the French Resistance's killing of the Vichy government's information minister.

He turns out to have been an unimportant mid-level officer in the para-military ''Milice,'' an anti-Semitic functionary of limited responsibilities and modest intelligence. His lawyer has claimed that he was actually ''a Schindler'' who saved Jewish lives by reducing the number of hostages actually killed from the 30 allegedly demanded by the German authorities to a ''mere'' seven. This presumptuous line of defense collapsed when Mr. Touvier's notebooks from the 1980s were produced in court, rife with hatred and anti-Semitic comments on current events.

The only interest connected with this insignificant figure is how he managed to find sympathy over the years among well-meaning French Catholic clergy and why President Georges Pompidou could have been convinced to lift the sole legal constraint weighing upon him in 1971, an interdiction on residing in the area of his family home.

The statute of limitations by 1971 prevented his retrial on the charges for which he was twice sentenced to death in absentia immediately after the war. However, presidential clemency actually attracted attention to his case and eventually resulted in the present trial on a new charge of crime against humanity, for which, in France, jeopardy is unlimited.

At the time of the Eichmann trial in Israel in 1960, Hannah Arendt provoked much controversy, which persists even today, by characterizing the evidence of Eichmann's crimes as demonstration of the ''banality'' of evil. People insisted that nothing connected with Hitler's genocide could be called ''banal.''

But that is exactly the horror of it: Monstrous crimes are committed or abetted by mediocrities like Eichmann and Touvier, merely following standard procedures. Even those like the German officer Barbie, sentenced to life imprisonment for atrocities committed as SS chief in Lyon, who demonstrated personal enthusiasm in torturing his victims, seem more sadists than Satans.

These trials have turned up no Mephistopheles, and this is why they frustrate the public. People want to believe that enormous evils, like the Shoah, require exceptional executants. If the people who commit these crimes are banal and ordinary, why are they different from the rest of us? And if they are not in fact so different, what does that suggest about ourselves?

They pose the possibility that in given circumstances the rest of us might find ourselves committing crimes against humanity. For Americans, one of the lessons of the Vietnam war was that well-intentioned young men can in extreme conditions commit atrocities, as was the case for the American platoon that massacred 347 unarmed civilians at My Lai in 1968, and whose members were never punished in a manner appropriate to their actual crimes.

Great crimes do not demand great criminals. This is an unpalatable fact, but to resist it is to resist not only the evidence of history but responsibility for what could lie in the future. Those who believe that great evils are only committed by exceptional people will be at a loss when they find themselves in circumstances where the easy course, the persuasive course, the all but irresistible course, will be to do what is asked and not think about the consequences.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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