It happened today - January 20, 2016

January 20 marks a grim anniversary. In 1942 senior Nazi officials met in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to plan the administrative details of the Holocaust. As they would.

I say that not just because they were vicious anti-Semites, though of course they were. There’s this weird kind of fringe debate about exactly how much Hitler knew about the “Final Solution” given the lack of paper trail involving him. But obviously in a system as highly personalized as that of Nazi Germany nothing this major could happen without the knowledge and sanction of the Fuhrer.

Especially given the resources involved. Ever since Hannah Arendt we have been very aware of the bureaucratic banality of certain kinds of evil including this one; Adolf Eichmann, who was of course at Wannsee, was a classic case in point. Millions of human beings were deported, starved, gassed, cremated and dumped to the accompaniment of forms in triplicate.

The Holocaust was also bureaucratically massive. Attila may have been able to wreak havoc in a fairly ad hoc manner. But in the 20th century to administer a state, wage a total war, and seek to exterminate an entire people, and many others besides, requires endless planning, committees, technical debates, formulas, protocols and carbon paper.

It also requires, of course, the complicity of vast numbers of people. There’s just no way to do it secretly. And while many may have been only indirectly involved, and afraid to say anything, quit their job or otherwise remove themselves, it’s such a ghastly venture that almost all of them had blood as well as ink on their hands.

Savagery in hot blood is bad enough. But to carry it out in this chilly, detached, systematic way is surely far worse. Yet it was the only way to do it in 1942.

So they did.