The banality of evil

Tucked down a forbidding side street in the unloved Eastern suburb of Lichtenburg, Berlin, is this almost unmarked building whose address is simply House 1:

Its anonymous facade conceals some of Germany’s most sinister history, for House 1 is the former HQ of the Stasi, the East German secret police. Familiar now from The Lives of Others, the Stasi employed over 90,000 people, who ran a network of up to half a million informants, scrutinising every aspect of their friends’, families’ and neighbours’ lives: perhaps the most embedded secret police in history. 

Now House 1 is the Stasimuseum, and one of the most genuinely creepy places that I’ve ever visited. Over three floors of the building a series of exhibits dramatise the work of the Stasi, including some of the technology — cameras hidden in buttons, microphones in pens and so on — familiar from Cold War books and films. But if the Cold War ever seemed romantic, House 1 is a brutal, cold corrective: this is a building soaked in evil, and it leaves no nostalgic glow.

It was Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, who first wrote about “the banality of evil”. When she covered Adolf Eichmann’s trial she was shocked, not so much by his brutality but by his lack of imagination or perspective. He was, he claimed, just doing his job, motivated not by hatred but preferment: he just wanted to get on. Looking around House 1 gives you some of the same feeling that Arendt describes: what’s shocking about it is not how sinister it feels, but how ordinary. House 1 doesn’t feel like the headquarters of a brutal secret police, but of a prosperous insurance company, or a much loved regional bank. The walls are paneled wood, the furniture sleek and polished, the lighting well designed:


And this is what stays with you: the sense that evil flourishes when it’s made normal, when it’s contextualised by the everyday. It reminded me of Conspiracy, which is the best film I have seen about the Holocaust, not because it shows what happened but because it shows how it was done: by men sitting in conference rooms, minuting discussions about the price of gas.


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