Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

[I have been posting my lectures on Arendt. Further links to discussions of Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition can be found here]

Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (selections)

30 March 2016


After living some ten years under the assumed name of Ricardo Klement, Adolf Eichmann, a former high official in the German army, was aducted by the Israeli Mossad, which transported him in May 1960 to Israel to face charges of crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The next year, after an international controversy set off by the abduction that rekindled the memories of atrocities in Europe some believed best forgotten, Eichmann faced a prosecution depicting him as the anti-Semitic mastermind of the final solution. Four months of testimony, hundreds of witnesses, and thousands of pages of documentary evidence, including transcripts of Eichmann’s interrogations by Israeli officials, provided the world with stark details about Eichmann and his role in the Final Solution. Eichmann’s defense was meager—Eichmann would claim that he was simply following orders, a defense that had been tried and had failed at Nuremburg—and the result of the trial seemed pre-determined from the moment of his abduction. Eichmann would hang for his responsibility in the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews.

Hannah Arendt’s well-known Eichmann in Jerusalem offers a philosophically cogent account of judgment and ethical decision-making that we would do well to heed. Eichmann in Jerusalem, originally a series of press accounts for New Yorker magazine, deserves consideration alongside the Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, and other classic ethics texts. Nevertheless, Arendt’s work is not uncontroversial: there are serious questions to be raised about both her depiction of Eichmann and her conclusions about “the banality of evil.” Nevertheless, her account of ethics, which, with its depiction of ethical duties and its case study of Eichmann’s character does not fit squarely within either a virtue or deontological ethics, is a warning to readers who would conflate morality with state laws and their duties with the needs of superiors.

Arendt’s work is not, though, a traditional work of ethics. Eichmann in Jerusalem is a long study in character—the character of a man Arendt fears is exceptional in his display of symptoms common to “modern bureaucratic man.” Conformist to his core, this “modern bureaucratic man” is unable to see beyond the needs and dictates of his career and is ineluctably unimaginative in his consideration of life’s deep ethical and political questions. As Michael Marrus puts it, “Eichmann was the quintessential example of the totalitarian bureaucrat—unable to speak except in officialese [Amtssprache], unable to think outside the framework of his bureaucratic function, unable to contemplate wider issues of right and wrong or a transcendant morality.” In short, he was ignorant “of everything that was not directly, technically, and bureaucratically connected with his job (EJ, 54).

Arendt argues that in modernity, human beings are exceptionally a-political, viewing their role in the life of their nation and communities as mere cogs in a power structure for which they bear not even the slightest responsibility. Within this structure, the task of thought—defined by Arendt as the ability to see from the vantage point of the other—is displaced onto a system, or worse, a leader-figure that unburdens each man of his individual responsibility. Arendt is scornful of Eichmann’s claim that he was simply following orders for which he had no choice, on threat of violence, to obey. Nevertheless, she recognizes in his defense a larger truth about the nature of responsibility in modernity: judgment and decision-making are always the responsibility of others, and thus, no one.

What is particularly dispiriting in Arendt’s account is how short a time she believes it takes for one’s conscience to be co-opted by a corrupt social system. “It was of great political relevance,” she writes about the outcome of the Eichmann trial, “to know how long it takes an average person to overcome his innate repugnance toward crime” (EJ, 93). Eichmann accomplished this by elevating the laws of Hitler to the status of a perverse Kantian categorical imperative. For Kant, the categorical imperative, from which it follows that one’s maxims for action are such that they can be made into a self-consistent and universal law of nature, is the self-legislated duty of each free being using its practical reason. One’s maxims for action were to be aligned with this internal law, even if, as if often enough the case, it called for an action opposed to one’s inclinations. Arendt does not, in strict Kantian fashion, argue that Eichmann, because of his inclinations, elevated his hypothetical imperatives relating to his job security over the duties of the categorical imperative. Rather Eichmann, Arendt writes, viewed his moral responsibility to be that he should act in such a way that the Führer, if he knew of his actions, would approve of them (136).

What is often missed in Arendt’s analysis is the way in which Eichmann still retains a measure of Kantian freedom to self-legislate. “In his household use [of Kant’s categorial imperative], all that is left of Kant’s spirit is the demand that a man do more than obey the law, that he go beyond the mere call of obedience and identify his own will with the principle behind the law … [here] the will of the Führer” (136-7). That Eichmann did not allow, as he admitted, any exceptions to this law, that he acted freely against his “inclination,” is proof, Eichmann argued, that he was merely doing what he took to be his duty.

But, whatever the perversity of his modes of thinking, Eichmann never lost the capacity to judge, to say what was and was not in accord with duty (even if his notion of the latter was tragically skewed). It is this point that needs to be underscored. Critics of Arendt too often highlight her strong account of the rampant conformism of modern society and the crushing oblivion of Nazi totalitarianism to suggest that she believed that Eichmann beared no responsibility for his crimes, that the usurpation of his practical reason by Hitler’s edicts was inevitable given the time and place in which he lived.[7]

  Arendt is certainly interested in Eichmann’s “mechanism” and notes that relatively few “still knew right from wrong” under the Nazi regime, or were prepared at least to act upon the innate pity that humans feel in the face of suffering (EJ, 104, 106). Eichmann, she writes, considered himself to be a mere civil servant, and in many ways he was, as he said, “a law abiding citizen” (24). He was not stupid, but he was thoughtless. He could speak in nothing but clichés, in the officialese and euphemistic language the Nazi apparatus used in the commission of its horrors. What for the Jews, Arendt notes, was “quite literally the end of the world,” was for Eichmann “a job with daily routine and its ups and downs” (153). There was a “remarkable monotony” to Eichmann’s job, given what was at stake, but this monotony—the job security and occasional promotions—provided Eichmann with his self-described Arbeitsfreude, a certain contentment and satisfaction with his work. And it is notable, as Arendt points out, that Eichmann’s faulty memory, even at the trial in 1961, could recall only those events during the Nazi period that directly affected his career: promotions and changes in responsibilities. The evil of Eichmann, Arendt argues, was his extreme careerism, which kept him focused on the monstrous and “routine” business of the Holocaust that rendered the lives of millions subservient to the utility of his prospects in the Nazi hierarchy (82). Eichmann’s evil, according to Arendt, lies not in some Augustinian stain upon his soul, but rather in his so-called normality, his exceptional attention to being nothing other than normal within even the most extreme circumstances. The judges in the case, Arendt writes, “were too good, and perhaps also too conscious of the very foundations of their profession, to admit that an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble minded nor indoctrinated, nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong… Eichmann was indeed normal insofar as he was ‘no exception within the Nazi regime’” (26).

Eichmann in Jerusalem, whatever its faults as history or character study, offers an essential rethinking of morality and evil in the contemporary age. Arendt was struck at the trial, she said, “by a manifest shallowness in the doer [Eichmann] that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer … was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.”[8] Arendt, who had written her doctoral dissertation on Augustine, knew that this formulation ran against an entire current of Western considerations of evil. Though she doesn’t find Eichmann to be monstrous, her depiction of his character is just as chilling:

[W]hen I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been father 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. (287)

In other words, Eichmann’s evil manifested itself in very particular ways, one that does mesh with the thorough-going ruthlessness and pathology of a Iago or Macbeth. Arendt notes, for example, that Eichmann’s wish for personal advancement would not be exercised in any “criminal” way: “he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing” (287). This is the great ethical problem of modernity, Arendt claims: “That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in men—that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem” (288). And it is this very banality that needs to be thought, given the genocidaires of Rwanda and elsewhere in the past forty years, who have treated their gruesome task as but another nine-to-five job.[9] The evil witnessed in the past century has not always manifested itself through social pathology, as Arendt recognizes in Eichmann in Jerusalem, but through its opposite: men and women conforming rigidly to social and political codes even as those codes are turned into the tools of genocide. Like Eichmann, the genocidaires of modernity are all too often law abiding citizens.

Arendt claims Eichmann is a symptom of a wider problem in modernity that needs to be thought, the way in which one’s normal aversion to pity can be occluded through the mediation of new technologies and bureaucratic language rules. Arendt worries that past is prologue in the Eichmann case, that “it is quite conceivable that in the automated economy of a not-too-distant future, men may be tempted to exterminate all those whose intelligence quotient is below a certain level” (289); what worries Arendt, then, is the continued privileging of the technical reasoning of the bureaucrat over the thinking and judging of practical reason.  

But despite the very banality of Eichmann, Arendt does not claim that he was without responsibility. “The moment you come to the individual person,” Arendt later argued, “the question to be raised is no longer, how did this system function, but why did the defendant become a functionary in this organization?” To explain Eichmann’s behavior is not to excuse him ethically or judicially. Let me quote from Arendt at length on this point:

We heard the protestations of the defense [at the trial] that Eichmann was after all only a “tiny cog” in the machinery of the Third Reich. … 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. … [We have grown used] to explaining away the responsibility of the doer for his deed in terms of this or that kind of determinism. … No judicial procedure would be possible on the basis of them. (289-90)

Thus, if it is true that “those few who were still able to tell right from wrong went really only by their own judgments, and … did so freely,” the reverse is also true: Eichmann, even against a backdrop where the law and general consensus of his society was murderous, was left to his “own judgment,” the kind of judgment that needs to valorized even in an era Arendt sees has reacted coldly to the traditional idea of judging others (295-6). This kind of “free judgment,” a refusal to conflate one’s ethics with the laws of state, is especially necessary in the contemporary era in which modern capitalist enterprises operate.

Why does this book provide for such controversy? Corey Robin, in a recent assessment, notes:

The charges against Arendt were many: She blamed the victims; she ignored the trap the Jews were in; “she saw symmetry,” in the words of [one scholar], “between the Nazis and their victims where there was none.” According to [another], “Arendt made it seem as though it was the Jews themselves, rather than their Nazi persecutors, who were responsible for their own destruction.” None of this is true, but neither is Arendt’s account of Jewish cooperation beyond reproach. She did fail to confront the fact that, with or without the cooperation of the Jewish Councils, the Jews were slaughtered—often, as historian Yehuda Bauer observed in Rethinking the Holocaust (2000), with greater dispatch when there was no cooperation or leadership. In the wake of the Nazis’ invasion of the Soviet Union, for example, the Einsatzgruppen, German police battalions, and local death squads killed Jews without assistance from Jewish leaders.

This brings us back to where we began with Arendt, notably a certain tone that infuriates many of her readers, fueling their firey wrath. Here Robin discusses the reaction against Arendt:

In her effort to restore some room for maneuver, some sense of responsibility, to the Nazi edifice, Arendt ranged widely—sometimes clumsily, sometimes cruelly—into the darkest spaces of its cornered victims. But if she overstated her case regarding Jewish cooperation—“these people had still a certain, limited freedom of decision and action,” as she wrote in a famous letter to Gershom Scholem, which was true of some leaders, not others, in some places, but not all—it’s important to remember that her most informed critics have also insisted that Jewish leaders did not react like automatons; they acted in a variety of ways, depending on context and circumstance, and those differences sometimes made a difference. While Arendt may have misconstrued the empirics of collaboration and resistance, what she was calling attention to was not the failure of all Jews to resist, but the failure of Jewish leaders to refuse the role that had been thrust upon them. And her judgment of that failure—from top to bottom, the micro-politics of refusal and collaboration—remains salient.

But what may get lost in all of this is that Arendt was seeking to identify the unprecedented that Eichmann the man (and his legend) represented: the atomized mass man who speaks wholly in cliches provides the army of bureaucrats unflinchingly creating the worst of evils; that this evil was unprecedented because it was targeted not at this or that community, but at humanity–that is, its specific mark as a plurality, since it is men, not a man, who inhabit the earth, as she repeatedly writes; and that, with the loss of authority in the modern age, we are forced to think without banisters, without the traditional guideposts that had aided human beings so often in the past. Arendt’s attunement to the unprecedented lines the book:

[E]very act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past . . . that the unprecedented, once it has appeared, may become a precedent for the future, that all trials touching upon ‘crimes against humanity’ must be judged according to a standard that is today still an ‘ideal.’ (273)

For Arendt, politics and action provide the ability for the new to appear but we must be responsible for standing against those who would take certain unprecedented events, such as Nazism, as a precedent for the future. Arendt argued, again, that a new crime–against humanity–appeared, all while “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” (276). They were the accountants who aid dictators, bankers who hide their millions, oil company functionaries going along with an industry choking our planet: normal taxpayers evading responsibility and judgement precisely because of their supposed normality: violence comes in more than just the shape of a knife or a gun. Let’s follow Arendt where she describes the crimes against humanity:

Legalized discrimination had been practiced by all Balkan countries, and expulsion on a mass scale had occurred after many revolutions. It was when the Nazi regime declared that the German people not only were unwilling to have any Jews in Germany but wished to make the entire Jewish people disappear from the face of the earth that the new crime, the crime against humanity— in the sense of a crime “against the human status,” or against the very nature of mankind— appeared. Expulsion and genocide, though both are international offenses, must remain distinct; the former is an offense against fellow-nations, whereas the latter is an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the “human status” without which the very words “mankind” or “humanity” would be devoid of meaning. Had the court in Jerusalem understood that there were distinctions between discrimination, expulsion, and genocide, it would immediately have become clear that the supreme crime it was confronted with, the physical extermination of the Jewish people, was a crime against humanity, perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people, and that only the choice of victims, not the nature of the crime, could be derived from the long history of Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism. (268-9)

This brings us to the last lines of her Epilogue, where she takes up Eichmann’s part in this whole tale and where she comes out in support of his death penalty, while speaking as if in the words of the trial’s judges [this is long, but I will pause to comment on notable moments here]:

“You admitted that the crime committed against the Jewish people during the war was the greatest crime in recorded history, and you admitted your role in it. But you said you had never acted from base motives, that you had never had any inclination to kill anybody, that you had never hated Jews, and still that you
could not have acted otherwise and that you did not feel guilty. We find this difficult, though not altogether impossible, to believe; there is some, though not very much, evidence against you in this matter of motivation and conscience that could be proved beyond reasonable doubt. You also said that your role in the Final Solution was an accident and that almost anybody could have taken your place, so that potentially almost all Germans are equally guilty. What you meant to say was that where all, or almost all, are guilty, nobody is. …[N]o matter through what accidents of exterior or interior circumstances you were pushed onto the road of becoming a criminal, there is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done. We are concerned here only
with what you did, and not with the possible noncriminal 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.”

We have spoken frequently about Arendtian notions of agency, responsibility, and ultimately judgment. We can see the verdict in search of something other than a vague set of principles (you don’t want to share the earth with us; we then don’t with you) to defend the imposition of the penalty of death. This view of the political, as giving the state a monopoly over death, should have one criticized by a thinker so critical of sovereignty and political violence elsewhere. Nevertheless she remains incisive in trying to think evil not from the side of barely secularized theodicy, but by trying to think what we ought to do in light of the judgments history has put upon us. In many political philosophy courses, the task is to tease out the regimes and ideas of the past, but here we will end with Arendt’s reminder that to think the political is to think the unprecedented and new–and the absolute frailty of all that appears. In this way, her work is continual witnesses of the event and the possible event of the new that another future beyond the banal, bureaucratized spaces of today may arrive. Such will take, on her account, a certain thinking of solidarity, of being-together, and giving oneself over to the unpredictability of action itself, which is the only condition of possibility for another future worthy of the name. Evil, in her terminology, is the attempt to render the human and the world around her entirely predictable or to remove any unpredictable difference from the earth entirely. Quite predictably, even when she’s writing about the unprecedented, this is the invariable core of her thought.