Though a central category of the critique of Modernity, the phrase “the banality of evil” is, owing to its origin, mostly associated with the Second World War and Hitler’s circle of power. John Quiggin takes the opportunity of Armistice Day to point out the relevance of the concept for the First World War (“Armistice Day,” 11 November 2009):
The cataclysm of the Great War brought forth monsters like Hitler and Stalin, who killed millions. But the War itself, with the millions and tens of millions of lives it took, directly and indirectly, was loosed on the world by political leaders more notable for mediocrity than for monstrous greatness.
The names of Asquith, Bethmann-Hollweg, Berchtold and Poincare are barely remembered, yet on any reasonable accounting they belong among the great criminals of history. Not only did they create the conditions for war, and rush (eagerly in most cases) into it, they carried on even as the death toll mounted into the hundreds of thousands and beyond. Even as the original grounds for war became utterly irrelevant, they continued to intrigue for trivial postwar benefits, carving up imagined conquests among themselves.
The First World War no longer seems like the nadir of civilization after the horrors of the Twentieth Century that were to follow — the collectivization and the famine, the purges, the Holocaust, Barbarossa, Stalingrad, Bataan, the area raids, the atomic bomb, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But the First World War set the conditions. In this regard, mediocrity often prepares the ground for monsters.
Civilization is fickle and an inopportune mediocrity in governance is a great danger. Unhappily, this is probably the realm where ken pales and Fortuna runs amuck.