Thursday, April 28, 2016

Eichmann In Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

I’ve just finished reading an important, eye-opening, and disturbing book by the famous philosopher Hannah Arendt called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963).  The book began as a series of articles Arendt wrote for The New Yorker, as a reporter covering the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi who was directly involved in implementing the Holocaust.  Though she herself was a Jew who had escaped Hitler’s Germany, Arendt took a lot of criticism for the book, mainly because of the portrait of Eichmann that emerged from her observations.  Rather than portraying him as a vicious, bloodthirsty monster, Arendt portrayed the man as he was—a rather ordinary, not-very-intelligent bureaucrat.  The fact that a man such as this could be involved in the destruction of millions of human beings shatters our neat categories, and forces us to consider profound moral questions like: what are the conditions under which an “ordinary” person can become complicit in atrocities?  The book is haunting in its implications and relevance for our times.  For this post, I’d like to share some quotations of Arendt’s book that I found particularly horrifying, not because they are “graphic” but because they are frighteningly relevant (I have included chapter titles in bold).

The Accused

“As for his (Eichmann’s) conscience, he remembered perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do—to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and with the most meticulous care.”

“Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him (Eichmann) as ‘normal’—‘More normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him,’ one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another found that his whole psychological outlook, his attitude toward his wife and his children, mother and father, brothers, sisters, and friends, was ‘not only normal but most desirable’—and finally the minister who had paid regular visits to him in prison after the Supreme Court had finished hearing his appeal reassured everybody by declaring Eichmann to be ‘a man with very positive ideas.’”

“The judges did not believe him (Eichmann) because they 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 from telling right from wrong.”

“He (Eichmann) had no time and less desire to be properly informed, he did not even know the Party program, he never read Mein Kampf.  Kaltnbrunner had said to him: Why not join the S.S.? And he had replied, Why not?  That was now it had happened, and that was about all there was to it.”

“Thus bored to distraction, he (Eichmann) heard that the Security Service of the Reichsfurer S.S. (Himmler’s Sicherheitsdienst, or S.D., as I shall call it henceforth) had jobs open, and applied immediately.”

An Expert on the Jewish Question

“There were two things he could do well, better than others: he could organize and he could negotiate.”

“A more specific, and also more decisive, flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view.”

“The horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.”

“He apologized, saying ‘Officialese is my only language.’  The point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliche. (Was it these cliches that the psychiatrists thought so ‘normal’ and ‘desirable’?  Are these the ‘positive ideas’ a clergyman hopes for in those to whose souls he ministers?)”

“Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented cliches (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliche).”

“His inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.”

“Now and then, the comedy breaks into the horror itself, and results in stories, presumably true enough, whose macabre humor easily surpasses that of any Surrealist invention.”

“German society of eighty million people had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same means, the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s mentality.”

“The practice of self-deception had become so common, almost a moral prerequisite for survival.”

“The accused had at his disposal a different elating cliche for each period of his life and each of its activities.”

“Everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.”

The First Solution: Expulsion

“Eichmann’s memory functioned only in respect to things that had had a direct bearing upon his career.”

“Prosecution and judges were in agreement that Eichmann underwent a genuine and lasting personality change when he was promoted to a post with executive powers.”

The Second Solution: Concentration

“This ‘objective’ attitude—talking about concentration camps in terms of ‘administration’ and about extermination camps in terms of ‘economy’—was typical of the S.S. mentality, and something Eichmann, at the trial, was still very proud of.”

“Even if we concentrate our attention only upon the police machinery and disregard all the other offices, the picture is absurdly complicated.”

“It was customary at the time of the war-crime trials to put as much blame as possible on those who were absent or believed to be dead.”

“For the first (and almost the last) time in his life in the S.S., he was compelled by circumstances to take the initiative, to see if he could ‘give birth to an idea.’”

“It was as though this story ran along a different tape in his memory, as it was this taped memory that showed itself to be proof against reason and argument and information and insight of any kind.”

“Such famous German firms as I.G. Farben, the Krupp Werke, and Siemens-Schuckert Werke had established plants in Auschwitz as well as near the Lublin death camps.  Cooperation between the S.S. and the businessmen was excellent; Hoss of Auschwitz testified to very cordial social relations with the I.G. Farben representatives.  As for working conditions, the idea was clearly to kill through labor.”

“To evacuate and deport Jews had become routine business; what stuck in his mind was bowling.”

The Final Solution: Killing

“All correspondence referring to the matter was subject to rigid ‘language rules,’ and except in the reports from the Einsatzgruppen, it is rare to find documents in which such bald words as ‘extermination,’ ‘liquidation,’ or ‘killing’ occur.  The prescribed code names for killing were ‘final solution,’ ‘evacuation,’ and ‘special treatment.’”

“Eichmann’s great susceptibility to catch words and stock phrases, combined with his incapacity for ordinary speech, made him, of course, an ideal subject for ‘language rules.’”

“If today I am shown a gaping wound, I can’t possibly look at it.  I am that type of person, so that very often I was told that I couldn’t have become a doctor.”

“Well, it is horrible what is being done around here; I said young people are being made into sadists.  How can one do that?  Simply bang away at women and children?  That is impossible.  Our people will go mad or become insane, our own people.”

“I saw how a column of naked Jews filed into a large hall to be gassed.  They were killed, as I was told, by something called cyanic acid.”

“He never actually attended a mass execution by shooting, he never actually watched the gassing process.”

“Thus, we are in a position to answer Judge Landau’s question—the question uppermost in the minds of nearly everyone who followed the trial—of whether the accused had a conscience: yes, he had a conscience, and his conscience functioned in the expected way for about four weeks, whereupon it began to function the other way around.”

“The member of the Nazi hierarchy most gifted at solving problems of conscience was Himmler.  He coined slogans, like the famous watchword of the S.S., taken from a Hitler speech before the S.S. in 1931, ‘My Honor is my Loyalty’—catch phrases which Eichmann called ‘winged words’ and the judges ‘empty talk’—and issued them, as Eichmann recalled, ‘around the turn of the year,’ presumably along with a Christmas bonus.”

“Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering.  The trick used by Himmler—who apparently was rather strongly afflicted with these instinctive reactions himself—was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around, as it were, in directing them toward the self.  So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!”

The Wannsee Conference, or Pontius Pilate

“The legal experts drew up the necessary legislation for making the victims stateless, which was important on two counts: it made it impossible for any county to inquire into their fate, and it enabled the state in which they were resident to confiscate their property.”

“As Eichmann told it, the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience was the simple fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solution.”

Duties of a Law-Abiding Citizen

"So Eichmnann's opportunities for feeling like Pontius Pilate were many, and as the months and the years went by, he lost the need to feel anything at all.  This was the way things were, this was the new law of the land, based on the Fuhrer's order; whatever he did he did, as far as he could see, as a law-abiding citizen.  He did his duty, as he told the police and the court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law."

"He was quite capable of sending millions of people to their death, but he was not capable of talking about it in the appropriate manner without being given his 'language rule.'"

"Dr. Servatius himself (Eichmann's defense attorney) had declared, even prior to the trial, that his client's personality was that of 'a common mailman.'"

Deportations from the Reich

"What for Eichmann was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world."

"He always thought within the narrow limits of whatever laws and decrees were valid at a given moment."

Deportations from the Balkans

"Eichmann claimed more than once that his organizational gifts, the coordination of evacuations and deportations achieved by his office, had in effect helped his victims; it had made their fate easier."

Judgment, Appeal, and Execution

"Dr. Servatius replied even more briefly than before: the 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."

"His guilt came from his obedience, and obedience is praised as a virtue."

"I am not the monster I am made out to be," Eichmann said, "I am the victim of a fallacy."

"It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us--the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil."


"The saturation bombings of open cities and, above all, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki clearly constituted war crimes in the sense of the Hague Convention...To be sure, the most obvious reason that the violations of the Hague Convention committed by the Allies were never even discussed in legal terms was that the International Military Tribunals were international in name only, that they were in fact the courts of the victors."

"For the truth of the matter was that by the end of the Second World War everybody knew that technical developments in the instruments of violence had made the adoption of 'criminal' warfare inevitable."

"The UN General Assembly had 'twice rejected proposals to consider the establishment of a permanent international criminal court.'"

"The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, 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."

"Would any one of them have suffered from a guilty conscience if they had won?"


"That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man--that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem."

"It is apparent that this sort of killing can be directed against any given group, that is, that the principle of selection is dependent only upon circumstantial factors."

"In its judgment the court naturally concluded that such a crime could be committed only by a giant bureaucracy using the resources of government."

"It is important to the political and social sciences that the essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them."

"When Hitler said that a day would come in Germany when it would be considered a 'disgrace' to be a jurist, he was speaking with utter consistency of his dream of a perfect bureaucracy."

"These crimes took place within a 'legal order.  That, indeed, was their outstanding characteristic."

"The state crimes committed in its name (which are fully criminal in terms of the dominant legal system of the country where they occur) are considered emergency measures, concessions made to the stringencies of Realpolitik, in order to preserve power and thus assure the continuance of the existing legal order as a whole."

"The argument that we cannot judge if we were not present and involved ourselves seems to convince everyone everywhere, although it seems obvious that if it were true, neither the administration of justice nor the writing of history would ever be possible."

"Every generation, by virtue of being born into a historical continuum, is burdened by the sins of the fathers as it is blessed with the deeds of the ancestors."

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