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).
“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.’”
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
An Expert on the Jewish Question
two things he could do well, better than others: he could organize and he could
“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
“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
“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.”
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
The First Solution: Expulsion
functioned only in respect to things that had had a direct bearing upon his
“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:
“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
“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
“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:
“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.’”
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
“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
“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
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."