Is it possible for one genocidal evil to be worse than another? The question might sound esoteric at best and absurd at worst. But you would be surprised how relevant such an abstract question can become to politics and policy, and it has played on my mind in the past week.

On November 9th, an extract of a column written by Douglas Murray for the Jewish Chronicle went viral. Having viewed what he stated was unedited footage of Hamas terrorists committing atrocities on October 7th, Mr Murray wrote that “this is one occasion when saying that some people are worse than the Nazis is not hyperbole”.

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His argument hinges on characterising “average members of the SS” as “rarely proud of their average days’ work”. He notes that many were tormented souls driven to alcoholism by “shooting Jews in the back of the head all day and kicking their bodies into pits”.

Conversely, watching footage of Hamas terrorists on October 7th, he writes that “these terrorists were not just pleased with what they were doing. They were elated.”

In other words, Hamas are worse than the Nazis because average death squad soldiers under Nazism weren’t as malevolently enthusiastic as their Hamas peers.

The instinctive reaction of many of Mr Murray’s critics was revulsion and an outright rejection of Mr Murray’s characterisations. The Nazis, they argued, were evil antisemites (among other things), and to minimise that, as Novara Media’s Rivkah Brown put it, amounts to “Holocaust revisionism”.

I think that this response was wrongheaded. Firstly, because Mr Murray was factually correct about many SS soldiers (which I’ll come to in a moment), and secondly, because they failed to engage with the more troubling, unspoken aspect of Mr Murray’s conclusion: that atrocities motivated by individuals’ malevolent desires are more evil than atrocities committed by the cogs of a totalitarian regime.

For Mr Murray’s critics, the Nazis were individually evil people who did what they did out of malevolent intent. While I’m sure Mr Murray would consider a great many Nazis to be evil in the same sense, many more of their foot soldiers were not, and so for him, the evil of the Nazis overall is lesser, and Hamas as a whole is “worse”.

We might consider this a traditionalist view of evil, rooted in the Abrahamic religious and philosophical traditions on which Western civilisation is built, wherein evil is a consequence of free will and ascribable to personal responsibility. But this is a view that became, I believe, hopelessly outdated over the course of the 20th century.

Between them, Mr Murray and his critics cast aside one of the most important lessons of the totalitarian and genocidal regimes that millions of those we commemorate on Remembrance Sunday died to destroy: that the evil of the totalitarian state’s dull, disinterested, paper-pushing bureaucrat can exceed that even of the revelling terrorist.

Mr Murray, like I said, is right about many of the Nazis who formed death squads across Europe, worked in concentration camps and administered the Holocaust from behind desks. That’s simply a historical fact.

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But beyond that, his argument errs badly. It is a bastardisation of the great insight of the German Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt that under totalitarianism, evil is not as straightforward as we would typically be comfortable with.

Hannah Arendt came of age in Weimar Germany, and lived through the rise of the Nazis. While conducting illegal research into antisemitism, she was imprisoned by the Gestapo before fleeing Germany and settling in Paris, where the French authorities detained her as Germany invaded. Upon her escape, she made her way to the United States.

Her work became foundational to our understanding of totalitarianism. Her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, is a seminal study of the emergence of Nazism and Stalinism and the tools such ideologies use to control their populations: terror, disinformation, and the eradication of private life.

The totalitarian state engages in total domination, seeking to control every aspect of human life down to who should live and who should die. Under totalitarianism, there is no personal identity, only the group identity – defined against the reviled Other – and, ultimately, the state.

In 1963, Ms Arendt was despatched by The New Yorker to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a former Nazi and senior SS officer who had managed the logistics of deportations of Jews from across Europe, first to ghettos and later to concentration and extermination camps.

Ms Arendt observed that Eichmann was not driven by malevolent motivations but by a commitment to his job and a desire for career advancement within the state. She used Eichmann, the energetic and effective bureaucrat, as an exemplar of how ordinary, ambitious people pressured to conform under totalitarian states can be brought to commit the most horrific atrocities. She coined this the “banality of evil”.

Ms Arendt encountered similar criticisms to Mr Murray. Her long-time friend Gershom Scholem felt that she had downplayed the antisemitism that motivated the Holocaust and had indirectly absolved Eichmann of his immense guilt.

But unlike Mr Murray, Ms Arendt never conceded that the often-banal quality of the evil perpetrated by the Nazis rendered that evil lesser. Neither would I.

Indeed, the banal quality that evil can take on under totalitarianism creates the potential for that evil to be imposed on much greater scales across larger geographies and over longer periods of time, claiming orders of magnitude more victims than would otherwise be possible.

Mr Murray was wrong to say that Hamas are worse than the Nazis. Might an individual Hamas terrorist be worse, more evil, than an individual Nazi? It depends on the individuals. But the evil of the Nazis was perpetrated on an unimaginably horrifying scale, enabled by the very fact that Mr Murray’s “average member of the SS” could be brought to commit such acts.

Can one genocidal evil be worse than another? Banal or malevolent, evil acts are evil acts, those who perpetrate them are evil people, and the systems that enable them to occur are evil systems. I cannot see the value of a hierarchy of evil when it comes to expressly genocidal systems and their members.

One need not be a brutally violent ideologue revelling in the mass murder of civilians to be incomprehensibly, irredeemably evil. The totalitarianism of Nazi Germany taught us that, a lesson we learned repeatedly throughout the 20th century and one we must not forget or diminish.