Children are taught to follow their conscience. According to the popular image, a devil sits on one shoulder and an angel on the other. The devil’s is the voice of evil and the angel speaks on behalf of good, even of God. A good conscience guides us towards actions and words that are beneficial. A bad conscience is the price we pay when we behave in ways that are harmful or sinful. In this way, feeling guilt is an internal regulator that steers the individual towards the path of righteousness. A person who commits terrible crimes or harmful acts is said to have no conscience, or a distorted or suppressed conscience (Arendt, 1958).

Eugene de Kock is a white South African who directed the most brutal and murderous unit of South Africa’s military in the 1980s and 1990s. His job was to fight the opponents of Apartheid using tactics that included mass murder, torture, assassination, kidnapping, and rape. Men under his command conducted relentless attacks against black South Africans. Many of those killed were activists in the African National Congress (ANC), South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), and other anti-Apartheid groups, but many were civilians, including women and children, with the bad fortune to fall under the tracks of his efficient killing machinery.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a black South African psychologist, a member of the county’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was established by the new government after the dissolution of the Apartheid state. She conducted a series of interviews with de Kock following his testimony before the Commission and subsequent imprisonment. In her book about these experiences, A Human Being Died That Night (2004), she confronts the question of de Kock’s conscience.
Where was his conscience when he returned again and again to murder those the Apartheid government identified as its enemies? How does conscience get suppressed to the point where people can allow themselves to commit systematic acts of murder against others? (p. 50).

Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), asks similar questions about one of the most murderous members of Hitler’s inner circle in Nazi Germany. Adolf Eichmann commanded the Nazi military apparatus that systematically murdered as many as 10 million Jews, Poles, Germans, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others considered undesirable by the state (Berenbaum, 1990, pp. v-vi). Arendt asks whether his capacity to direct such an operation meant that he was without conscience, a psychopathic sadist free from the ordinary constraints that inhibit such acts.

Arendt and Gobodo-Madikizela concluded that these men did possess consciences. Arendt used the term “banality of evil” to describe Eichmann’s apparent detachment from the suffering he caused. De Kock professed that the killings he perpetrated anguished him, but these feelings never dissuaded him from his bloody job.

In both Germany and South Africa, the soldiers, police, guards, administrators, and functionaries who comprised the apparatus of state-sponsored genocide went about their daily duties with a clear conscience. Hellinger asserts, “A clear or guilty conscience has little to do with good and evil; the worst atrocities and injustices are committed with a clear conscience” (Hellinger, Weber, & Beaumont, 1998, p. 3).

The evidence accumulated from the phenomenological, systemic lens is that the inner voice of conscience guides people to be loyal, to be bonded with their families and groups that are essential for survival. Tucker (2005) writes, “A good conscience means we are acting in line with our group.... It depends on choosing one over another, discriminating between those who belong and those who do not” (p. 14). If there is an enemy from outside, threatening the group, conscience becomes more persistent to mobilize the energy to fight.

The Nazis viewed Jews as Auslanderen, outsiders who were infiltrating and diluting the Germanic race. The genetic “purity” of the German people, their very survival, was felt to be threatened by intermarriage and integration of darker-skinned, non-Christian, Semitic people. The Nazis justified exterminating the threat, using the analogy that Judaism was a cancer within the body of Germany (Lifton, 1986).

Peter Malkin (Malkin & Stein, 1990), who captured Eichmann on the streets of Buenos Aries, wrote about testing whether he had a conscience. Malkin told Eichmann about his beloved nephew who was captured and murdered at Auschwitz. Malkin expected this heartbreaking story would cause Eichmann’s conscience, if he had one, to generate feelings of guilt and remorse. Instead, Eichmann, looking genuinely perplexed, responded, “But he was Jewish, wasn’t he?” (p. 214).

It is not that Eichmann had no internal inhibitors towards evil behavior, but that his tightly wound circle of belonging excluded Jews. The exterminator does not bond with the termites nor does the surgeon feel compassionate towards the tumour.
De Kock felt justified fighting for South Africa. He reflected:

All indications were that South Africa would go the way of the rest of Africa if the ANC took over.... The hue and cry was ‘Fight, resist, sacrifice, or you will be wiped out by the black man.’ Rule by the black man was a sure means of destruction of the country (Gobodo-Madikizela, 2003, p. 73).

De Kock was Christian, but his conscience remained clear when the fight was to defend his people against their enemies. It was only when the boundaries of his circle of belonging became blurred that his conscience troubled him.

De Kock tells of a field operation in Namibia in 1981. His unit prayed each morning. That day’s prayers came from the Book of Psalms: “He is the God who avenges me, who subdues nations under me, who saves me from my enemies” (Psalm 18). Later that day, the unit came across four enemy fighters. After a brief exchange, three of the guerillas were killed and the fourth captured. In searching their possessions, de Kock was surprised to find a bible, its pages worn from frequent reading. De Kock said, “A SWAPO man is supposed to be a communist, who is supposed to be the enemy, the personification of the Antichrist.”
De Kock can kill the Antichrist without guilt. The discovery of the well-worn Bible shatters that perception. The two are now fellow Christians, members of the same group, so the killing invokes a guilty conscience. De Kock’s conviction in his righteousness wavers, “They may have read the same Scripture lesson that said the enemy will be given into your hands. Whose side is God on now” (Gobodo-Madikizela, 2003, pp. 70-71)?


Written by Dan Booth Cohen
Tanja Meyburgh contributed to the ideas presented here.