Saturday, August 07, 2010

“The Banality of Evil”

Adolf Eichmann
In 1963 Hannah Arendt wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,1 a book from which the term “The Banality of Evil” entered into popular consciousness. Like a lot of such influential works it seemed to have been far more discussed than actually read. I have discussed Hannah Arendt’s works before, in that case it was her Origins of Totalitarianism.2 Here her focus is how one single individual reacted to the stress of being caught up in a totalitarian institutional structure and in this case contact with that institution led to a disastrous erosion of his personal integrity and morality.

Hannah Arendt was struck by the contrast between the pathetic and small man that she saw and heard in the trial in Jerusalem and the monstrousness of the deeds he organized and presided over.

Eichmann was and remained in her eyes a paltry, insignificant, man. A boring small minded bureaucrat, whose imagination was limited and whose obliviousness was positively awesome. Eichmann did not impress her as some sort of paragon of evil. He was simply pathetic.

Arendt for example quotes Eichmann has saying regarding his guilt:
With the killing of Jews I had nothing to do. I never killed a Jew, or a non-Jew, for that matter –I never killed any human being. I never gave an order to kill either a Jew or a non Jew; I just did not do it.3
This helps in Arendt’s eyes set up the image of a small minded petty man whose lack of imagination is and was breathtaking. Of course it is also self-serving nonsense. It ignores basic law in which if for example you give a gun to someone knowing that the person you give it too will kill with it and who they will kill, you are guilty. Certainly in this case helping to round up people so that they can be murdered is murder. The fact that you didn’t pull the trigger is irrelevant to the question of guilt. Eichmann is being a moral retard here.

Eichmann was born in 1906 in a small German town in the Rhineland. To be blunt there is absolutely nothing about his life that sticks out until 1932 when he joined the Nazi party. Before his trial, while he was being questioned Eichmann mentioned that he had several Jewish relatives and friends and on one occasion helped one relative, who was half Jewish according to the Nuremberg laws immigrate to Switzerland and he later helped a Jewish couple emigrate at the request of another relative. Eichmann used those examples to show that he didn’t hate Jews. Of course other Nazi’s could have made the same claim on the same basis. It can be dismissed as self serving and if not that self deceptive.4 it is also ironic that after Eichmann joined the Nazi party he briefly had a Jewish mistress.5

In 1934, in the hope of securing good employment Eichmann joined the S.D., or Security service for the S.S. He swiftly became the S.D. expert of “Jewish Affairs”.6

A detailed outline of his career which was to involve him in one of the greatest crimes in history has he with ruthless efficiency organized the hunting out, deportation to their deaths of millions of men women and children need not be given here.7

A few highlights should be remembered which are pertinent to Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann. According to Eichmann on July 31 1941 Eichmann had a meeting with Reinhard Heydrich head of the Reich Security Office and a SS General. According to Eichmann Heydrich told him that “The Fuhrer [Hitler] has ordered the physical extermination of the Jews”.8 Later Eichmann was at the infamous Wannsee meeting that helped plan the full implementation of the “Final Solution”.9

Perhaps the incident that most characterized Eichmann’s whole personality is the process by which in 1944 he negotiated and organized the deportation of the Hungarian Jewish community and the zeal with which he carried it out in the teeth of a rapidly deteriorating military situation.10

During the closing period of the war Eichmann despite Heinrich Himmler’s express order to stop the killings, Eichmann continued to zealously carry out his task.11

Perhaps the most telling indication of Eichmann’s actual state of mind regarding the acts he was involved with is the following quote attributed to him:
I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews [or "enemies of the Reich," as he [Eichmann] always claimed to have said] on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.12
How Eichmann’s claim, repeated at trial, makes much of difference to the horror of the quote is a mystery. For in the Nazi ethos and world view Jews by definition were enemies of Germany. (Of course given that Eichmann was involved in rounding up Jews for killing during the war those were the only “enemies of the Reich”, he could possibly be referring to.

After the war Eichmann managed to hide and with the aid of various individuals and organizations he was able to escape to Argentina were he was kidnapped by Mossad agents (Israeli Secret Service), taken to Israel, tried in 1961 and executed in 1962.13

Hannah Arendt covered the trial for The New Yorker magazine and she was fascinated by the extraordinary mediocrity of the man.

Hannah Arendt viewed Eichmann has a bureaucrat and in her opinion:
He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.14
Further Hannah Arendt says:
Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.” Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.15
In Arendt’s opinion Eichmann was the boring faceless mass man who had no real ideas of his own, who could immerse himself into a task and quite forget the consequences and nature of what he was doing. Eichmann raised all sorts of issues for Hannah Arendt because:
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.16
Hannah Arendt’s view of Eichmann has been criticized for being unconvincing at least in part. It is further thought that in some sense she was fooled by Eichmann into thinking he was just a faceless bureaucrat. It is interesting that Hannah Arendt’s own work provides some of the evidence that Eichmann was anything but a faceless bureaucrat.

For example Hannah Arendt does quote Eichmann’s infamous line about jumping into his grave happy. She however introduces the line with:
Bragging was the vice that was Eichmann’s undoing. It was sheer rodomontade when he told his men during the last days of the war: [then the quote]17
Quite unconvincing. But then Hannah Arendt seems to accept Eichmann’s portrayal of himself as not “really” hating Jews. So of course this comment which if anything indicates hatred must be whisked away with an airy dismissal. Similarly Eichmann’s zeal in continuing his job after Himmler had ordered it stopped is similarly dismissed as indicating a lack of imagination and an eagerness to please the man Eichmann thought has his true leader Adolf Hitler.18

Eichmann during his trial repeatedly stated ad-nauseum that he had no personal hatred of Jews. Not surprisingly given Eichmann’s own behavior the court in Jerusalem didn’t believe him. What is surprising is Hannah Arendt’s willingness to credit this. It is and remains unbelievable. What also is clear is that Hannah Arendt deliberately downplayed / ignored evidence that indicated that Eichmann did in fact hate his victims. For example that quote from Eichmann in which he talked about the “satisfaction” it gave him knowing he had helped to murder five million human beings, indicates not a mindless bureaucratic attitude towards his task but as a fanatic who carried out his task with zeal. Eichmann’s “explanation” that he referred to “enemies of the Reich”, is simply an admission that the quote was accurate, in reflecting his fanaticism, for by definition in the Nazi world view Jews by definition were “enemies of the Reich”, including helpless men, women and children. So Eichmann’s clarification is nothing more than a coded evasion that he probably hoped his Judges would not notice.19

Further the evidence indicated that Eichmann performed his task with zeal and energy. The evidence indicates that Eichmann could not rest until his task was performed.20

As for Eichmann’s defence that he was merely obeying orders it can be dismissed as self serving tripe, so is his absurd declaration that this absolves from feeling any guilt. In his interviews before the trial and during the trial itself Eichmann portrayed himself as a mere conveyor of orders and that as such his mere obedience to orders made him guiltless of any crime. In this carefully constructed mythos Eichmann argued that only those who gave the orders to him were guilty of anything and that he was guilty of nothing. Further there was no question of him even for a moment questioning these orders. In fact Eichmann argued that to do such a thing was simply unthinkable. The implication being that to disobey an order was in his eyes so mortally threatening that it constituted something in his eyes morally unthinkable. Eichmann further took upon himself the attitude that he was the victim of his superiors taking advantage of him. Whining self centeredness seems to have characterized Eichmann during the trial.21

In Eichmann’s presentation of himself he also argued that he was so constricted by his orders that he had little room for maneuver and of course refusing to carry out his orders was of course unthinkable and quitting unthinkable. That would be dereliction of duty, abandoning ones post.22

It was more than anything Eichmann’s continual repetition of this that helped to convince Hannah Arendt that Eichmann was a mindless indeed thoughtless bureaucrat who simply didn’t know what he was doing. It is also a self serving lie. It is absolutely clear that Eichmann knew what he was doing and further that he had an enormous amount of discretion which he exercised with great ruthlessness in the service of violent anti-Semitic notions he had since early on.23

All of this was part of Eichmann’s campaign to show that because he was not motivated by hatred, did not intend to “really” harm his victims, that he was innocent. In other words because his inner state of mind was pure his actual deeds were irrelevant. That this is contemptible is of course obvious. Eichmann was arguing that because he didn’t “really” hate his victims and “really” didn’t intend them harm he was innocent. Rather like a murderer saying since I bore no malice against the person I stabbed knowing full well they would die; I am innocent!

Eichmann’s statement above that he never killed anyone is of course an evasion and a deliberate self serving lie. He organized the rounding up of people so they could be murdered and he full well knew it. Just like someone who arranges for someone to be a spot X so they can be killed is a murderer, so is Eichmann. The fact that he didn’t personally kill someone is irrelevant to the issue of his guilt. As for all this showing Eichmann’s lack of imagination. I don’t think so. It shows instead Eichmann’s cunning, his desperate attempt to avoid taking responsibility in a court of law. This is the tactic of a petty murderer trying to avoid taking responsibility for his acts. In Eichmann’s case this also involved arguing that his inner “purity” of motive that was abused by his superiors made him innocent regardless of his deeds. It was and remains pathetic.

As for the superior orders defence considering how he disobeyed Himmler’s orders to stop in the fall of 1944 that can be dismissed as a self serving lie also. The fact that he carried out his task with zeal and a lot of discretion, to say nothing of gratuitous cruelty indicates he wanted and desired to carry out his orders. His claim that it was simply unthinkable not to carry out his orders is again a self serving attempt to hide the fact he approved of what was done and carried it out to the best of his ability. Also his pose as a victim was also just that at pose and a lie and an excuse for him to feel sorry for himself. If he had been truly opposed to these orders, as he claimed he would have found a thousand bureaucratic ways to sabotage them not carry them out with zeal. It was not lack of imagination that stopped him from doing so but simple desire to carry out his orders. The experience of numerous European countries during World War II in which their bureaucratic machines slowed down and sabotaged the Final Solution indicates what he could have done if he had “really” opposed it. Finally he could have quit at anytime. He choose not to do so not because it was unthinkable but because he wanted to continue his task.24

It appears that the pathetic gyrations and rationalizations of Eichmann convinced Hannah Arendt that Eichmann was indeed a thoughtless, unimaginative bureaucrat who bore no ill will against his victims. Thus it seems that Eichmann did indeed “fool” Hannah Arendt into thinking that he was “banal” and “ordinary”. In Eichmann Hannah Arendt saw not an ogre of horror but an unthinking everyman for whom her contempt was unbounded.

But if Eichmann “fooled” Hannah Arendt he outsmarted himself. For she concluded that the death sentence was just.

Why? Let me quote Hannah Arendt who is here delivering what she suggests as a verdict for the court:
“We are concerned here only with what you did, and not with the possible non criminal nature of your inner life and of your motives or with the criminal potentialities of those around you. You told your story in terms of a hard-luck story, and, knowing the circumstances, we are, up to a point, willing to grant you that under more favorable circumstances it is highly unlikely that you would ever have come before us or before any other criminal court. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and Support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations - as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world - we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang."25
Hannah Arendt argues that Eichmann’s (alleged) lack of base motives, his lack of hatred for his victims, his very ordinariness make him if anything more guilty and responsible and hence the death penalty even more appropriate.

Further Hannah Arendt argues that death is appropriate not because Eichmann deserves death - after all considering the scope and scale of his crime his personal death is ludicrously insignificant as a punishment – but because his presence among us is so defiling and polluting that he must be removed by death from among us.

If in Eichmann’s case the evil he personified is less banal than Hannah Arendt thought there still remains on earth far too many individuals who are in spirit and deed like Adolf Eichmann.

Hannah Arendt
1. Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, rev’d edition, Penguin Books, London, 1965.

2. Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1973.

3. Arendt, 1965, p. 22.

4. IBID, pp. 27-32.

5. IBID, p. 30.

6. IBID, pp. 36-39.

7. See Wikipedia, Adolf Eichmann Here, and Arendt, 1965, pp. 151-219.

8. Arendt, 1965, p. 83.

9. IBID, pp. 112-124.

10. Adolf Eichmann and Arendt, 1965, pp. 194-202.

11. IBID, Arendt, 1965, pp. 145-147.

12, IBID, pp. 46, a slightly different version is available from Adolf Eichmann. It goes:
I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.
13. Arendt, 1965, pp. 234-243, Adolf Eichmann.

14. Arendt, 1965, p. 287.

15. IBID.

16. IBID, p.276.

17. IBID, p. 46.

18. IBID, pp. 194-204.

19. For the Nazi world view regarding Jews see Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Vintage Books, New York, 1997, pp. 80-128, Jackel, Eberhard, Hitler’s World View, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS, 1972, pp. 47-66, Herf, Jeffrey, The Jewish Enemy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS, 2006, pp. 50-91, Dawidowicz, Lucy S., The War Against the Jews, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1975, pp. 3-22, Weiss, John, Ideology of Death, Elephant Paperbacks, Chicago, 1996, pp. 271-287, 325-341.

20. See Adolf Eichmann, Lozowick, Yaacov, Malicious Clerks, in Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem, Ed. Aschheim, Steve E., University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 2001, pp. 214-225, Cohen, Richard I, A Generation’s Response to Eichmann in Jerusalem, in Aschheim, pp. 253-277, at 266.

21. Arendt, 1965, pp. 135-150.

22. IBID.

23. Footnote 20, see also Arendt, 1965, pp. 195-205. Regarding Eichmann’s anti-Semitism he had been a member of an anti-Semitic fraternity in 1930 and further in the mid 1930’s had authored viciously anti-Semitic reports as part of his job full of standard Nazi propaganda. See Lozowick.

24. Footnote 20, Arendt, 1965, pp. 162-180.

25. Arendt, 1965, pp. 278-279.

Pierre Cloutier

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