so there’s this story that my grandmother loves telling (well, in recent years. for the first seventy years of her life she did not talk about her childhood at all.)
the story is that a family friend of theirs was Austria’s finance minister*, and Jewish, and after the anschluss he realized he was in trouble, but like many of Austria’s Jews he seriously underestimated how much trouble. by the time he realized it was too late to get out safely. He was also old and in failing health, so dramatics weren’t ideal.
so he asked a family member to drive him to the mountains on the Italian-Austrian border, and he’d cross there. It was easy enough to avoid the Austrian authorities going out, but you didn’t have a chance of avoiding the Italian ones, and they stopped him.
“Oh,” he said to them, “Benito knows me. Tell him I’m here and he’ll call me a car.” And indeed, they called Mussolini and he called him a car.
My reaction the first time I heard this story – and the reaction of everyone I’ve told it to – has been “so Mussolini opposed the Holocaust? He was helping smuggle Jews out of Austria?” And, no, he didn’t and wasn’t. But he knew this guy, they were old friends, the guy was in town, so Benito called him a car. Which is more characteristic of humans than the version where Mussolini was secretly a decent person, really. A million is a statistic, but this guy? I know this guy. He’s a great guy.
There’s the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, and I think it applies, but the word that’s always come to my mind is the myopia of evil, the tendency to treat People well but just not look out at the world and see billions of People, not believe that the principles you apply to the ones you know apply to all of them everywhere.
This is something I think about a lot.