I made a promise that I’d treat myself to reading some more Arendt before next semester began, so I read Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
What I found most refreshing about the book was that Arendt posits evil as something nuanced and far from clear cut. The bad guy is not pure, saturated bad: he is a man who does his job faithfully, whom no one ever reproaches. On the contrary, he only ever receives collaboration on all sides, even by Jewish organizations (!). Evil can be passive, not an active choice. It falls on the alleged bystanders as much as the actors.
[H]is was obviously also no case of insane hatred of Jews, of fanatical anti-Semitism or indoctrination of any kind … [U]nder the conditions of the Third Reich only “exceptions” could be expected to react “normally.” This simple truth of the matter created a dilemma for the judges which they could neither resolve nor escape (26-27).
“[W]hat for Eichmann was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world” (153). I wonder in what ways this is true–to a drastically milder degree, needless to say–for our society today. Our participation in globalized capitalism is surely one way we perpetuate iniquities through our normal habits.
Knowing some Jews of Romanian descent (including an old boyfriend), I was totally shocked to find out about some of the history of Jews in that country. As it turns out, the Romanians grossly outdid the Germans in their own anti-Semitic game.
Deportation Rumanian style consisted in herding five thousand people into freight cars and letting them die there of suffocation while the train traveled through the countryside without plan or aim for days on end; a favorite follow-up to these killing operations was to expose the corpses in Jewish butcher shops (191).
On the “devastating shortage” of heroic acts during the genocide, a driver of one of the mobile gas vans:
“We did nothing. Anyone who had seriously protested or done anything against the killing unit would have been arrested within twenty-four hours and would have disappeared. It belongs among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don’t permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr’s death for their convictions. A good many of us might have accepted such a death. The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity. It is certain that anyone who had dared to suffer death rather than silently tolerate the crime would have been morally meaningless. It would have been practically useless. None of us had a conviction so deeply rooted that we could have taken upon ourselves a practically useless sacrifice for the sake of a higher moral meaning.” Needless to add, the writer remains unaware of the emptiness of his much emphasized “decency” in the absence of what he calls a “higher moral meaning.” But the hollowness of respectability–for decency under such circumstances is no more than respectability–[is] not what becomes apparent … Rather it was the fatal flaw in the argument itself, which at first sounds so hopelessly plausible. It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June, 1942, on, to erase all traces of the massacres were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents “disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be “practically useless,” at least, not in the long run. It would be of great practical usefulness for Germany today, not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition, if there were more such stories to be told. For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation (232-233).
Arendt’s staunch optimism in regeneration and in possibility is incredible. It is something I’d like to train myself to see.
Eichmann’s defense’s claims are haunting in how logical and sound they appear to our ears:
[T]he accused had carried out “acts of state,” what had happened to him might happen in the future to anyone, the whole civilized world faced this problem, Eichmann was “a scapegoat” whom the present German government had abandoned to the court in Jerusalem in order to clear itself of responsibility (247).
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied … that this new type of criminal commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong (276).
“Foremost among the larger issues at stake in the Eichmann trial was the assumption current in all modern legal systems that intent to do wrong is necessary for the commission of a crime” (277). This paradox–of the most extreme crimes of humans thus far being committed by individuals who didn’t really will these–is one of the most astounding features of the Holocaust and of this trial. As Arendt says in The Origins of Totalitarianism, it reveals frightening truths about how our world is structured and how we participate in it.
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that is 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 (279).
There is of course no doubt that the defendant and the nature of his acts as well as the trial itself raise problems of a general nature which go far beyond the matters considered in Jerusalem … [Eichmann] merely never realized what he was doing … In principle he knew quite well what it was all about … He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness–something by no means identical with stupidity–that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period … That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc that all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man–that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem (287-288).
We heard the protestations of the defense that Eichmann was after all only a ‘tiny cog’ in the machinery of the Final Solution … [T]he whole cog theory is legally pointless and therefore it does not matter at all what order of magnitude is assigned to the ‘cog’ named Eichmann … [A]ll the cogs in the machinery, no matter how insignificant, are in court forthwith transformed back into perpetrators, that is to say, into human beings. If the defendant excuses himself on the ground that he acted not as a man but as a mere functionary whose functions could just as easily have been carried out by anyone else, it is as if a criminal pointed to the statistics on crime–which set forth that so-and-so many crimes per day are committed in such-and-such a place–and declared that he only did what was statistically expected, that it was mere accident that he did it and not somebody else, since after all somebody had to do it (289).
I have trouble with this part because this exactly is the basis of sociology–that it is not that poor minority groups are to blame for being more involved with certain types of visible crime, but that it is the social forces around them that create this situation. I’ve not yet made up my mind regarding how much I think should be attributed to structure or agency–not an original debate, but still an important one.
Since the whole of respectable society has in one way or another succumbed to Hitler, the moral maxims which determine social behavior and the religious commandments–“Thou shalt not kill!”–which guide conscience had virtually vanished. Those few who were still able to tell right from wrong went really only by their own judgments, and they did so freely; there were no rules to be abided by, under which the particular cases with which they were confronted could be subsumed. They had to decide each instance as it arose, because no rules existed for the unprecedented.
How troubled men of our time are by this question of judgment … What has come to light is a quite extraordinary confusion over elementary questions of morality–as if an instinct is such matters were truly the last thing to be taken for granted in our time (295).
This argument doesn’t satisfy my question of how one is to judge for oneself in matters less obvious. I wonder if Arendt would indeed agree with Freitag’s proposal of “mondialization” as an antidote to the evils of today’s totalitarian order, globalization.
In sum, I loved this book. I enjoyed learning about the history of Jews’ status different countries of Europe and look forward to continuing to do so.
As my Facebook photo can attest, I’m intrigued by Arendt herself. I’m still trying to make sense of the allegations of her Jewish self-hatred (for her critique of the State of Israel, involvement with Nazi Heidegger, condemnation of the complicity of Jews in their own massacre, and for defanging evil by claiming it to be banal). The one thing I suspect from a cursory reading of this book is that she might be too legalistic in her approach, too oriented on political concepts regardless of whether they hold or not. In as far as this contradicts my own sociological leanings, I find it narrow and misguided on her part.
Article on Arendt from Tikkun that I found at a party some weeks ago.