Thursday, June 07, 2007

Eichmann in Jerusalem: Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem is considered a classic work of reportage and political analysis and now having just read it I feel all the praise is entirely deserved. I had earlier read some articles about the book and formed at an entirely incorrect idea of what was there in it. Contrary to my perception, and also as the widespread usage of the famous phrase "Banality of Evil" would indicate, she doesn't trivialize or minimize the responsibility of those who committed the crimes. The feeling that we all must in some mysterious way share the guilt of the Nazis, just because they were human beings like the rest of us, is a sentimentality she explicitly deplores. In fact she is very critical of all those, both on the defence and on the prosecution side, with the tendency to "paint general pictures" (actual words of a judge which she approves of) in stead of concentrating on the nuts and bolts, the concrete matters of the case ("The purpose of the trial is to render justice, and nothing else; even the noblest of ulterior purposes[...]can only detract from the law's main business: to weigh the charges brought against the accused, to render judgment, and to mete out due punishment."). She is also very frank on the "I was a small fry" defence:

"We heard the protestations of the defense that Eichmann was after all only a 'tiny cog' in the machinery of the Final Solution, and of the prosecution, which believed it had discovered in Eichmann the actual motor. I myself attributed no more importance to both theories than did the Jerusalem court, since the 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. In its judgment the court naturally conceded that such a crime could be committed only by a giant bureaucracy using the resources of government. But in so far as it remains a crime—and that, of course, is the premise for a trial—all the cogs in the machinery, no matter how insignificant, are in court transformed back into perpetrators, that is to say, into human beings."

In fact most of her book attempts to prove how crucial Eichmann's role was in the whole nitty-gritties of logistics required for the murder of such an industrial scale. Eichmann was no raving lunatic, but he was also an extremely focused, energetic and enthusiastic bureaucrat. Reading any account of the the Holocaust the first thing that strikes the reader is that how overwhelmingly complex the whole operation was and yet how streamlined and how efficient. Most of the book is about how Eichmann with his rather small team ran these transportation and logistics business. The book is divided into different chapters detailing the role Eichmann played in each part of Europe. It mostly reads like a straight-forward basic narrative, densely packed with facts and only occasionally laced with Eichmann's own statements in the court which sometime corroborate the historical facts she presents but most often they do not. She discusses why the deportation was successful in some places and why it failed (comparatively) in other parts -- specially in Scandinavian countries and most notably in Denmark and Bulgaria (the only "hopeful" part of the whole unimaginably grim narrative.) Reading the role he played in France and specially Hungary, where he managed to send more than fifty thousand Jews to Auschwitz in a little over a period of a month during the last stages of the war, leaves one in no doubt about his culpability.

Arendt also shows that Eichmann's own understanding of the ethical issues involved was remarkably perceptive. In one of the hearing sessions he startled everybody by quoting from Kant's Critique of Practical Reason. He said, "I meant by my remark about Kant that the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws." He later added that soon he understood that it was not possible to live according to this rule and he had to distort it to mean that the "general laws" in Kant's dictum become Fuhrer's whims and fancies. The Categorical Imperative of Hitler--a law binding for all his subjects! He also says that citizens of legal states are lucky and that he was not a lucky person in that regard. This is also the essence of totalitarianism. The state as the arbiter of good and evil...the snuffing of human individuality and spirit.

Incidentally the phrase with which the book is most associated with occurs only once. Throughout the hearing Arendt notes Eichmann's fondness for cliches, or "winged words" to use Eichmann's exact words, some kind of a meta-cliche. Even in the court he boasted himself with outlandish phrases and expressions. Describing his last words Arendt says:

"After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men." It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lessons that this long course in human wickedness had taught us -- the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.

This banality, that comes out in his use of empty words and phrases, was just a symptom. It was a lack of personality, an inner self, that snuffed the "moral law within" that Kant talks of. (In fact her usage of Eichmann's quotes are frequent sources of black humour in the book. In one of the episodes he talks about the "forest of difficulties" that he had to face!) Eichmann was a true product of a totalitarian state. Abuse of language and denial of any introspective and rational thought is one of the main tools of totalitarian state as anyone who has read Orwell would know. The Germans went way further in the direction, because German language in particular is very amenable to lofty abstractions and phrases. Many critics and thinkers like George Steiner and Theodor Adorno have commented on this aspect of how language was turned into an instrument of evil and a tool of dehumanisation by the Nazis and that after the Holocaust we can never use the language in the same way we did before, specially the German language. She doesn't dwell on this topic all that much. Rather disappointing because this is what her "banality of evil" thesis is about.

Apart from the "Banality of Evil" the other most controversial part of the book is her discussion of the role of Jewish leadership in the whole affair. She bitterly criticises the way they kept negotiating with the Nazi authorities, even doing most of the difficult work for them by identifying and numbering all the Jews under their jurisdiction. She doesn't accuse Jews of having a ghetto mentality or being weak of character or believing in hope against hope and going to the gas chambers "like a sheep." She actually criticises the prosecution lawyer who according to her dared to put forward such "heartless" questions to the witness, in a bid to promote the image of the "fighting jew" as opposed to the "victim jew." All in all, her indictment of the Jewish leaders is extremely damning. It is also now a widely held opinion among the scholars of the subject. Had there been anarchy among the Jews in the beginning itself, the scale of devastation would have been much less.

In the end she raises lots of small quibbles about the International law, about how legal it was try Eichmann in Jerusalem, about whether the charges should have been crimes against humanity or crimes against Jewish people. She also doubts the intentions of the Israeli government in the whole affair, she disapproves of the "pedagogic" turn the trial took over time, in general the way it was being "politicised" by various interested parties. In this way she is also remarkably prescient, specially now that it has become such a politically charged subject in international politics. It was in that trial that it first started. But after all the reservations about the manner in which the trial was conducted and the political aims the Israeli government wanted to achieve, she is remarkably clear about the final outcome. She ends the book with the following words of the judge:

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.


abcd said...


I know that this post is old but I guess I will be pardoned for the reason that this book raises time defying questions. I have read another post as well, where the distinguished "anonymous" explains what Ms.Hanna meant by the term "banality of evil", and concludes "there can be an Eichmann in all of us". But I am still stuck on the idea, perhaps the idea is too complicated for me to grasp. My question is does she intend to suggest that we all are capable of evil given the right circumstance? In the case of Eichmann he was not directly involved in the killing of the Jews,and hence was immune from the horrors of taking lives, but what about those who held much more proximity, for instance Rudolf Höss? The gist of my question is, is the possibility that man can commit evil- for instance killing fellow human being- when he is ordered to do so,or for another similar flimsy pretext a real one? Eichmann conveniently made the point that he was just an element in the beaurocratic machinery and he was on orders, a line of argument if pursued further would lead to the essential conclusion that men are ready to throw away their ethical concerns and become evil on any banal reason.
Of course that position would be a painful one to assimilate but one I would choose than dwelling on false hopes.
Am I drawing wrong conclusion?

Alok said...

Hi, thanks for reading and commenting...

I think glib statements like "there's an Eichmann in all of us" don't mean much. These are thorny and very difficult questions and we all have to find our own answers and not in such glib phrases.

The main these of Hannah Arendt's book is the existential one - that is, we are all responsible for our own actions whether they be good or bad. If one derives rational justification of one's action from some authority, it is same as denial of one's own humanity and that is all that it takes to do "evil" acts, even when there is nothing intrinsically evil in his personality or nature. The problem was that Eichmann had no personality at all, there was nothing inside him neither good or bad.

The problem of dehumanization is part of what life is in the modern world when institutions have become more powerful and important than human beings. Eichmann's case was different, but only in scale. Now living itself means struggling with this process of dehumanization sometimes giving in and other times holding up because we want to keep our conscience alive. and that's one reason for hope.

abcd said...


Thanks for the explanation. Perhaps the idea is too subtle, and to a point ineffable that when we embark on an exegesis, whole horde of assumed meanings and cliches tend to creep in. In any case, the theses is disturbingly thought provoking.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

That last quote (from the judge) is not the end of the book. The last sentence is actually quite pertinent to what she was getting at. It is the only time she says the word banal.
Not to nit-pick.

Anonymous said...

I do not think there is anything glib about saying that there is an Eichmann in all of us. There is a clear reason for such a comment. It is in the title of the book the "banality of evil." We all have the potential of creating evil acts. Thoughtlessness happens in life, imagine a day without a thoughless moment. If we let the thoughtlessness control us and do not reject authority that orders us to do horible things, we do evil.