Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

Eichmann in Jerusalem was first published in 1963. At first, it angered Holocaust opponents in the US because of its proposition that Eichmann, Germany and the Nazis, behaved in ways that were commonplace and consistent within a moral and social framework. Yes, they were murderers, but they were not abnormal. Her analysis, while still controversial, has gained a much wider acceptance worldwide.

Throughout her analysis of the Holocaust, Arendt remains thoughtfully murky. People seeking black and white answers will find themselves unhappy with the grey of the real world which Dr Arendt described.  As stated above, Nazis are generally seen as normal human beings. Eichmann in particular is characterized as a man of “rather modest mental gifts” (Arendt, p. 170), with a poor memory, who was a joiner and a follower. His chief skills were in the area of logistics. This served him well in his job, which was primarily the transport of “undesirables” within the Reich. In short, he wasn‘t a genius mastermind of the Final Solution; he was a bureaucrat, a shipping clerk, who did what he was told. Concerning his moral and psychological picture, “half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as ‘normal,’” possessing no “insane hatred of Jews.” Indeed, psychiatrists went further to claim that Eichmann’s “whole psychological outlook, his attitude toward his wife and children…was ‘not only normal but most desirable’” (Arendt, pp. 22-3). In spite of his alleged normalcy, and the mundane nature of his job, Arendt is never confused around Eichmann’s guilt. “He shipped people to their death in full awareness of what he was doing” (Arendt, p. 193). The chilling conclusion is that any individual of moderate intellectual ability, with a capacity to organize efficiently and follow orders, could have done Eichmann’s job.

This perspective of the bureaucratization of murder is carried forth throughout the book. Eichmann is shown discussing with Rudolf Hoss (Commandant of Auschwitz) “the killing capacity of the camp” and “how many shipments per week it could absorb” (Arendt, p. 81). It’s a mundane discussion between two functionaries examining the shipment and disassembly of material units. The only difference between their world and the world of government or business elsewhere is that the units breathe and bleed. During the Wannasee Conference of 1942, where the term “Final Solution” was first written, Arendt portrays a meeting of undersecretaries (those working directly beneath ministers in the Civil Service). These problem solvers are enthusiastically untangling the details of a plan for human destruction, in the same way they might coordinate a national roads project. It should be noted that Eichmann was the lowest ranking participant at this conference, further demonstrating his obscurity (Arendt, pp.99-100).

If Arendt had stopped right there, she would undoubtedly have secured enough post-war infamy to insure an Allied mob at her door. Fortunately, for those who prefer a whole story, the author found a way to expand the audience of critics politely requesting she go off and die in a ditch. Arendt pursues a subject which causes her fellow Jews to reach for the pitchforks and torches. She intrepidly ventures into a dark area of the Holocaust where even today we only hesitatingly shine a light: that of Jewish collaboration. Unflinchingly, Arendt documents Jewish community involvement in its own genocide: Jewish elders and leaders who obeyed Nazi orders and delivered quotas of Jews to the cattle carts, Jewish Police forces in the ghettos that rounded-up the victims, “Jewish commandos” who did “the actual work of killing in the extermination centers” (Arendt, p. 109). The author strenuously emphasizes that this is a muddled moral picture which involves people acting under coercion. Some collaborators desired to mitigate the brutality of tasks that would be worsened if taken over by Nazis. Others were threatened with their own deaths or those of loved ones. Nonetheless, she states that “without Jewish help in administrative and police work” tasks as immense as the final rounding-up of Jews in Berlin “would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower” (Arendt, p. 104). She follows with the example of “Adam Czernaikow, chairman of the Warsaw Jewish Council” an unbeliever who chose to commit suicide rather than serve-up his fellow human beings (Arendt, p. 105).

As if the subject of collaboration alone were not enough to insure the declaration of a Jewish Fatwa, Arendt goes a step further: she questions the validity of the Israeli Court proceedings against Eichmann. Was Eichmann innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of Israel? Of course not. Israel would not have gone through the trouble of kidnapping him from Argentina if he were presumed innocent. In addition, “Eichmann’s illegal arrest could be justified…only by the fact that the outcome of the trial could be safely anticipated” (Arendt, p. 192). Other irregularities include the inability of the defense to call eyewitnesses or cross-examine witnesses who wrote affidavits for the prosecution. Most of these were former Nazis who were afraid to enter Israel where the Attorney General announced that they would be arrested and tried (Arendt, p. 200). This is not to say that Eichmann was innocent. Even Eichmann does not say that. It is a question of whether impartial justice was done.

Throughout her study of Eichmann and Evil, Hannah Arendt refrains from portraying Nazis as different from the rest of the human family. Quite the opposite. She expends a great deal of effort in depicting both Eichmann and Early 20th Century German Society as all too human. Words like “monster,” “insane” or “abnormal,” serve only to distance ourselves from Eichmann and Germans of the 1940s. It’s our way of saying that we or the rest of humanity could never do such abominable things. But if other humans were incapable of doing such things, genocide would not ever have happened previously or since. We honestly cannot know how we, our neighbors or our society, would act in similar circumstances during a similar historical moment. Arendt effectively shows that almost anyone with Eichmann’s organizational gifts could have been inserted into his position.

The tendency to separate ourselves from the acts of cruelty committed by others is a denial that permits us to dismiss people or societies, and helps us avoid understanding such acts. I agree with Dr Arendt and would go a step further: the concept of Evil is also a device we use to separate ourselves from the appalling actions and motivations of others. Calling a person or an act Evil is employing a particularly Judeo-Christian stance that adds a religious layer to the attempt to distance. It divides the world into Good and Evil, and places us on the side of Good. This makes it even more difficult to analyze and understand the actions of those on the other side of this artificial barrier. Yes, artificial: Good and Evil are human-created concepts, not physical realities. If we must characterize the acts of savagery committed by Nazis against Jews, White 1870s US citizens against Native Americans, or 1990s Hutu against Tutsi, it may be best to use words like “harmful” or “destructive;” adjectives that could describe any humans to some degree.

Eichmann in Jerusalem reveals to us the face of humanity in all its complexity and all its ability for harm or compassion. It’s a view of our humanity which most of us would rather not see.

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1963.

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