Humanizing the Enemy

Many humans like evil clearly defined. Black and white. To point at someone else and say, without hesitation, “That person is/was evil.” Shades of gray can make people uncomfortable. And you can never, ever humanize the enemy, because then you might start seeing them as… human beings. Like yourself. With dreams. Ambitions. Love for their families. And maybe deep down, they’re actually a “nice” person. You know, despite their evil actions, or the worldview they support, or what they do to protect their family.

Soldiers cannot think, in the heat of battle, of their enemy as a human being, because they could never pull the trigger otherwise, without being a psychopath. That man fighting on the other side is also doing this for his country, a greater cause, a religious belief. He has family. Friends. Possibly pets. People who love him, who rely on him. But no, he’s the enemy. He represents a great evil. He must die. And so, dehumanize him. He’s just a number. A helmet. A thing with a gun. Don’t think about the rest of it. Because if you do, what makes you any different from him, except being on the opposite side?

I’m a big fan of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. It’s an alternate universe reality where the Nazis and Japanese won WWII, conquering America and dividing the United States between them. There’s Resistance on both sides, and characters from every faction. On one side, you have the Japanese… who are “higher” than the Americans, but don’t have “strict enough racial laws” so they actually let “defective people” live (oh, the horror and inhumanity!). And on the other, you have a German State, with routine eradication of “Defectives” (those with health problems), while trying to attain a Master Race. The show asks a lot of hard questions, about terrorism (when are you a terrorist or resistance fighter or are they one and the same?), about sacrificing people for “the greater good,” about racial equality, about bigotry (in one episode, in casual conversation, German ladies discuss how you can “know” a man isn’t completely white, because… well, you can just “sense it”).


But most of all, it humanizes the Nazi characters. And I’m glad. Because much as we like to look back on history and think of them as a bunch of bigoted, murderous, scheming, evil bastards… they all had families too, personal views, individual beliefs, things they would and would not do, and sometimes they had to do bad things to protect the people they cared about, because society left them no choice (you defy the Reich, you all die… and everyone you know dies). In short, they were humans who were acting on beliefs they thought were right; beliefs I may fundamentally disagree with on every possible level, but… they were still human… just like me.

Thus, despite my love for the pure-hearted, gentle heroine, Juliana, over time John Smith became my “favorite” character on the show – yes, in the words of a Resistance fighter, “a murderous, scheming, evil Nazi bastard.” The great irony of it was in season one, while he scared me out of my ever-loving mind (put any man in a Nazi uniform, and my entire body tenses up – there’s so much “historicity” in that uniform, as one character puts things with Great Meaning Behind Them), I thought, “I bet he’d do anything to protect his family.” And guess what: I was right. You know a show (and a performance) is good when this character stands for everything you denounce, and nothing you can stand behind or defend (other than intelligence)… and you’re sitting there hoping nothing bad happens to him, that he won’t get caught trying to save his “Defective” son, because part of you really feels for the murderous, scheming, evil Nazi bastard.

Some people might call Smith a villain; he may very well be, but he shows us a deeper, uncomfortable truth: that anyone can become a villain at any time, and for any reason. That’s not something society likes to think about… that under the right circumstances, with the wrong worldview, I might be willing to kill someone for my beliefs.


In most people, problematic beliefs are not a threat to society. So, your uncle makes bigoted jokes at dinner, and it makes you uncomfortable but he’s powerless to do anything about it and wouldn’t anyway, because he’s not a mean or violent person. Or would he do something, if a larger group shared those views? If he was encouraged to act on his bigotry? How does someone become a Nazi? Or a White Supremacist? How does a soldier who is a decent family man when he’s at home go in and massacre a bunch of … kids? People? How could people eradicate entire civilizations? Native Americans? Africans? Koreans? How the hell did Columbus’ soldiers dismember natives for fun and sell ten year old girls as rape fodder? How does a mob, made up of probably semi-decent individuals, string up someone from a tree, or beat them half to death, or set a city on fire? How does evil like that sprout in a heart? With a secret thought in the soul, a hidden bit of bigotry, that becomes an action?

The beliefs we choose reinforce who we become; they give us license to act. Smith’s beliefs enable him to kill people, to participate in mass “exterminations” for “the greater good of the Reich.” We might look at him and think, “He’s HORRIBLE, those beliefs are so wrong!” … and then go to lunch with our friends and make nasty comments about people from the opposing political party, as if they are our literal enemies and evil inhumane scum. Is that truly what we think and feel? Would we act on those statements, if we got the chance? Are they actually our enemy, or just the mouthpiece for a belief system we hate? You can’t attack a belief system; you can only attack other people, so… humans do. They punch, kick, bite, shoot, knife, and blow up people, when they’re really fighting against an ideology that fills them with intense hatred and disbelief that anyone could believe or support something like that. They give Evil a human face and call it the enemy, which justifies them in attacking it.

Juliana’s beliefs are in the inherent goodness of humanity, and the right to make something of life, regardless of who you are; she refuses to take actions that result in innocent people being hurt. She sometimes makes mistakes because of her compassion and idealism, but she doesn’t barter with people’s lives, or judge them as not being equal, she values them even above her own safety at times. Her core belief is in the right place: other people are not the enemy, but human beings.

Perhaps the greatest question The Man in the High Castle asks is, what do your beliefs say about you… and what do they permit you to do, under the wrong circumstances?

5 thoughts on “Humanizing the Enemy

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  1. OK this is about the FIFTH time I try leaving a comment. Let’s see if it works this time.

    Fantastic article–but then you already knew that 😉

    Wars have begun for many reasons, over resources, personal disagreement between leaders, culture clash etc;

    But what KEEPS most wars going is because we humans can’t–or won’t see those on the other side as being not so different from us. That any group consists of individuals with wants, needs and people they love. It is far easier—dangerously easier—to reduce people to their nationality, religion, or ethnic group.

    You see it all the time, both in daily life and the internet. It’s white privilege that’s the problem, Islam that’s a plague, or the isolationist policies of say, Australians (or insert any major nation here) that will be their undoing.

    What’s more, many seem incapable of adopting a more nuanced viewpoint. Yes, according to financial reports, most wealthy people are white, but many also struggle with poverty, or have problems that even wealth can’t solve. That if they were born into a Muslim family and raised that way, they might never question it. Or that every country has policies that can look disturbing—from the outside.

    Nor do most people want to bother with moderate criticisms. “People ought to be more concerned about racism or classism, not just when they’re on the wrong side of it.” “As a Christian I don’t agree with Islam, but recognize that evil can take root in people of all religions, it just so happens many of the ones posing a bigger problem right now are Muslim.” “Criticizing bad foreign policy ought to start with my own government.”

    But people often want simple solutions, as though the difference between good and evil were like flicking a switch. What’s tragic too, is that…we might seek to humanize the enemy, we might succeed, but then the enemy doesn’t humanize us.

    It struck me as I watched Man in the High Castle, Juliana might come to see the Smith family as a group of individuals, but if either Frank or Ed had entered Reich territory to rescue Juliana, as they discussed, John Smith probably wouldn’t hesitate to condemn them. (And I’m curious what he will do in the 3rd season, if he feels she’s outlived her usefulness) That he cares most for his own family is understandable, but that he feels other humans are expendable is not.

    This is why people lash out, because sometimes, even when one tries reach out, extend the hand or olive branch, the enemy just keeps shooting, leaving their opponent with no choice but to surrender or retaliate.

    Joe Blake is another interesting examples, during his travels, he began to see the people in the Neutral Zone and Pacific region as humans, and he meant what he said to sailors on the boat, later casually dismissed as “negro criminals” by his father’s colleagues in Berlin. But at the same time, he began to enjoy the benefits of being part of an upper class whose existence and “superiority” are inherently dependent on dehumanizing nearly everyone else. As seen in the (SPOILER) finale, even the loss of “fellow” racially pure Aryans is minimized because they are “Americans” rather than citizens of Germany. Because once you begin dehumanizing others in your mind—it might never end.

  2. I love this post.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately, too–how DO we justify making these snap judgments about “everybody in Nazi Germany was evil”? Or even “Every Nazi ever was completely and utterly irredeemable”? And, more importantly, where do we get this idea that we ourselves could never be like that? That’s the most dangerous fallacy of all, because it leads us, in our arrogance, to ignore our OWN bigotry and hatred just because “it’s not as bad as the Nazis.”

    1. The problem is lumping people into a group instead of seeing them as individuals — which, ironically, is exactly what the Nazis did (all Jews are bad!); this is a major problem in our society today, with the “us vs them” mentality (Christians vs atheists, Catholics vs Protestants, heterosexuals vs homosexuals, Republicans vs Democrats, etc). Humans on the whole keep blaming an abstract concept (the “enemy” and giving it a name) instead of addressing the true nature of evil and how it permeates society, how anyone is capable of evil deeds under the right/wrong circumstances, and that humans are somehow immune from the problems of the past, or reliving them — people, by in large, do not change; society merely shifts a little bit to make some things unacceptable or seen as “wrong” and the majority goes along with it, after about 20 years of resistance. 😉

      1. It’s that old mysterium iniquitatis again–the mystery of iniquity. WHY do we do evil things? And why do we keep pretending that we don’t/won’t?

        1. Why do we do evil things?

          Because evil floats around seeking a host and many are willing participants.

          Why do we keep pretending we don’t/wont?

          Because humans like their sense of moral superiority, and enjoy having someone to point to as ‘worse’ than them — it feeds into ego.

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