The Department of Immigration and the Third Reich

Michael Pezzullo, the secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, released a press statement on 8 March. It gave us a glimpse into the political psychology of mandatory detention.

The presser was a response to Sydney psychiatrist Michael Dudley, who recently published an article comparing Australian and Nazi policies. Specifically, Dudley noted that isolating refugees in remote or offshore detention centres cultivates “public numbing and indifference” towards their plight and that this amounts to “reckless indifference and calculated cruelty”.

Pezzullo’s indignation was palpable. He claimed the comparison was “deeply repugnant and historically false”. Much has been made of Pezzullo’s unfortunate sentence construction, which can be interpreted as saying that the Holocaust is only “alleged” to have occurred. But this is beside the point. The substance of Pezzullo’s argument is both deeply flawed and revealing. For example, he wrote:

Pezzullo’s release brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s famous work Eichmann in Jerusalem, the source of the often quoted but rarely understood idea of the “banality of evil”.

“To allege that the Nazi regime promoted indifference towards its abuses is bad history … The Nazi regime promoted racial hatred. Far from seeking to numb an indifferent public, it sought to vilify and persecute Jews and others, before engaging in the systematic and evil genocide of the Holocaust.”

Although this may superficially describe Nazi policy, the idea that ordinary Germans were enthusiastic supporters of anti-Semitism is a banal cliché that has been discredited by the world’s leading historians of the Third Reich.

The respected British historian Tim Mason argued that Hitler’s totalitarian rule was founded on the destruction of all independent organisations, including political parties and trade unions. In the 1920s, millions of German workers were trade unionists, communists or socialists. Hitler never won a democratic election; he was handed power in 1933 by president Hindenburg, who had been elected on an “anyone but Hitler” platform. To rule, Hitler did not convince most Germans, but terrorised them into submission.

Similarly, Marxist historian Donny Gluckstein notes that anti-Semitism was one of the least popular aspects of the Nazi Party’s program. It primarily served to cohere the hard core of the party’s supporters behind a racial, at times mystical, conspiracy-theory world view.

This is why the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, in which thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues were burnt by Nazi party paramilitaries, was overwhelmingly rejected by ordinary Germans. As Sarah Anne Gordon points out in her book, Hitler, Germans and the Jewish question, a significant number of Nazi party members actually opposed the pogrom, and were repelled by excessive anti-Semitism.These facts do not exonerate the German people. But they do show that Hitler’s policy was calculated to promote indifference towards Jews. This is what enabled the state to organise their genocide. The majority of Germans were not involved in the Holocaust. Yet, heroic exceptions aside, atomisation, terrorisation and a desire to avoid persecution rendered them powerless to prevent it.

Pezzullo’s release is more than historically incorrect. It also brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s famous work Eichmann in Jerusalem, the source of the often quoted but rarely understood idea of the “banality of evil”. Arendt noted that Adolf Eichmann, a high-level SS bureaucrat responsible for organising the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, was not the monster that liberal common sense would imagine him to be. Rather, he was painfully average. Being of generally low intelligence and education, he lacked a capacity to think outside of the clichés of Nazi ideology, and prided himself on his sensitivity, patriotism and above all his respect for the law.

Likewise, Pezzullo’s press release emphasises his department’s conformity with the law and government policy at least 14 times. His repetition of the phrase, “consistent with the law of the land” is almost obsessive, as though this is sufficient to prove that refugees aren’t subject to physical and psychological torture. He is blinkered by Liberal cliché to the obvious holes in his argument. For instance, he claims that refugees on Nauru are not in detention or danger. Pezzullo even claims to share the same moral objective as refugee advocates.

None of this is to say that Pezzullo is a Nazi or that the Australian government is fascist. That type of hyperbole cheapens criticism. For one, neither Pezzullo nor the government are motivated by a world-historic vision like Nazism. Their motivations are much narrower, more pragmatic and less ambitious, as is the scope of their cruelty. And yet, as Pezzullo tries to justify the unjustifiable, he shares in their banal, juridical evil.