Eichmann in Jerusalem - Hannah Arendt on the Nature of Evil

June 01, 2019

By Paul Malvern |

Being a prophet is hard. It’s volunteer work – so the pay is non-existent. You get no respect. And all too often you end up dying an early death – usually at the hands of an unruly mob or brutal tyrants determined to kill the messenger rather than change their wicked ways. Given the many pitfalls attending the prophetic calling, it’s a wonder that anyone ever takes on the role.

Equally puzzling is God’s reasoning behind these prophet-versus-humanity confrontations. For being omniscient, the Almighty obviously knows in advance that no one is going to listen to anything His prophets have to say. So why demand that they risk life and limb by denouncing evil doers for the acts they find so very profitable and pleasurable? And then there is the question of why God picks the most unlikely people for these theological kamikaze missions.

An Unlikely Prophet

One such unlikely prophet was the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, whose books on totalitarianism and the nature of evil have won her a place of honour among the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.

Looking at her background there was little in her early years to suggest that she might one day take up the prophetical calling. Certainly, there was nothing in her family background that seemed to suggest this as a future possibility. For her parents, well-off Jewish merchants who had immigrated to Prussia years before her birth, had never been particularly religious – as seen by their strong support for the Social Democratic Party, which at the time frequently displayed a strong anti-religious bias.

Nor did they ever give much thought to moral issues. For as she notes, “My early intellectual formation occurred in an atmosphere where nobody paid much attention to moral questions … [E]very once in a while we were confronted with moral weakness, with a lack of steadfastness or loyalty, with this curious, almost automatic yielding under pressure …which is so symptomatic of the educated strata of certain societies, but we had no idea how serious such things were and least of all where they could lead.1

As if to underscore this seeming lack of interest in moral questions, her graduate studies in Philosophy skirted such matters, focusing instead on the process of thinking generally – which saw her study under the renowned philosopher, Martin Heidegger, whose ideas were to influence her for the rest of her life. Arendt’s intellectual (and brief romantic) connection to Heidegger was to prove problematic decades later when critics of Eichmann in Jerusalem would use this relationship to smear both Arendt and her book.

Still that was a problem for later on. For in her early years Hannah lived a charmed life, giving little thought to how being Jewish might impact her life. This lack of concern was hardly surprising since she and her family experienced little or no discrimination in the progressive and secular milieu in which they lived. This being the case, she and her family possessed a worldview remarkably similar to that of many well-off Germans. This charmed life continued well into her university years where Arendt enjoyed considerable praise and recognition from her professors who viewed her as something of a Wunderkind.

Then disaster struck with Hitler’s installation as German Chancellor in 1933 – an event which heralded a new and very dangerous era of virulent anti-Semitism.

And that, as they say, changed everything. For as she soon learned, this brutal new regime which Hitler imposed on Germany was to turn her world upside down – a fact which became painfully obvious when she was briefly jailed for anti-Nazi activities (after being informed on by a librarian). After that, her life became a constant struggle to stay ahead of the Nazis whose influence quickly spread across Europe. Fleeing from country to country, she eventually found refuge in the United States, where she settled into the comfortable life of a writer, editor, and academic - teaching and authoring the books that would ultimately earn her a place of honour among the greatest political theorists of the 20th century.

The Origins of Totalitarianism

Having seen at first hand the evil which totalitarianism inevitably brings with it, Arendt was determined to focus public attention on the perils of this growing threat to freedom and human dignity. The result was her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1950, which became an instant success. This book - which cobbles together her thoughts on antisemitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism – is an intellectually demanding book which can be heavy-going at times. These difficulties are compounded by Arendt’s love of long, convoluted sentences – a stylistic feature which owes much to the fact that her mother tongue was German. In spite of these difficulties the book was universally acclaimed – in part because it went a long way toward explaining why the two major ideologies of the time, Nazism and Communism, had proved so attractive to so many.

Eichmann in Jerusalem

This first book – and the fame that its radical critique of totalitarianism earned her – was to have a major impact on the rest of her life, as she was now seen as the ‘go-to’ figure for those interested in the origins and history of the Nazi movement. Indeed, it is generally believed that the success of her book on totalitarianism was largely responsible for her being commissioned by The New Yorker to attend the trial of Nazi war criminal, Adolph Eichmann, and report on the proceedings. The resulting articles would later form the basis for her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem.2

To say that Arendt’s reports were controversial would be an understatement in the extreme. For in no time at all readers formed up into two warring camps.

On the one side were those who loved her work - and embraced her point of view wholeheartedly. For such people Arendt was a brilliant thinker whose writings spoke eloquently not only to the horrors of the Holocaust but also to the human condition generally and the very nature of evil.

On the other side were her detractors – many of whom viewed Arendt as a heretic and betrayer of Judaism. For such readers Arendt was guilty of excusing the crimes of Eichmann and blaming Jews for their own destruction. Some even went so far as to accuse her of being a Nazi sympathizer - as seen by the incendiary headline in Le Nouvel Observateur, which asked, “Hannah Arendt est-elle nazie?”3 (“Is Hannah Arendt a Nazi?”) So widespread and violent did this hatred of Arendt become that she quickly became a persona non grata for many Jewish intellectuals in the United States and Western Europe – a development which took Arendt by surprise since she had heretofore expected little more than a spirited debate of her observations.

While some of the criticism leveled at Arendt had an intellectual cast to it, the highly personal character of much of it suggested that this was no mere literary spat that could be settled over a good glass of claret in the faculty lounge. Rather her writings had affected many readers in a visceral manner, shaking them to their core.

In retrospect, none of this should have been surprising to Arendt who had herself been thrown into a Nazi jail and forced to flee Germany for her life. And Arendt’s inability to foresee such a reaction was all the more remarkable, given that her first article on Eichmann appeared just eighteen years after the end of the Second World War - which meant that for many the emotional scars were still quite raw.

So why did she miss this? My own guess is that, being an intellectual, she made the error of supposing that readers would be willing to set aside their emotions and preconceived notions in hopes of discovering the truth. This – sadly – was not to be the case.

Areas of Contention

So what were the main areas of contention? And why were readers affected so profoundly?

The Role of Jewish Authorities in Occupied Countries

One such area of contention involved her comments on the role played by Jewish authorities in those areas in Europe that had fallen under German occupation.

At the risk of oversimplifying her line of reasoning, her basic argument appears to come down to this – that the Jewish authorities living in those areas under German occupation failed to provide the leadership required and did in fact make a very bad situation significantly worse.

To support her point of view Arendt provided numerous examples of ineptitude, misjudgment and wishful thinking on the part of some Jewish leaders.

One such leader was Chaim Rumkowski, appointed by the Nazis to the position of Judenältester ("Chief Elder of the Jews") in Łodz, Poland. In this position he issued currency and postage stamps which bore his likeness – actions which led to his nickname, “King Chaim”. In addition he set up factories in the Łodz Ghetto, which produced goods for the Wehrmacht – no doubt in hopes of making inhabitants indispensable to the German war effort. Perhaps most horrifying of all was his speech, Give Me Your Children, which started a campaign which resulted in the deportation of 20,000 inhabitants (among them children under the age of 10 and those over the age of 65) to the Chełmno death camp.4 While the opinions of contemporary scholars are somewhat mixed as to the role he played, those living the nightmare were less conflicted. He was murdered in 1944 at Auschwitz in retribution for his crimes – reportedly by inmates from the Łodz Ghetto who had arrived at the camp before him.5

On the other end of the ethical scale was the scholarly Leo Baeck, former chief Rabbi of Berlin, who, while clearly a great and good man, nevertheless made a number of extremely bad decisions that negatively impacted many of his coreligionists. One such decision involved his refusal to tell other Jews of the fate which was to befall them in the concentration camps – his reason being that, “Living in the expectation of death by gassing would be all the harder. And this death was not certain for all…So I came to the grave decision to tell no one.”6 While this decision clearly flowed from a desire to reduce the suffering of others, the ultimate impact was far from positive. For, as witnesses at the Eichmann trial noted, being unaware of the danger which threatened them “people volunteered for deportation from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz and denounced those who tried to tell them the truth as being ‘not sane.’”7

Using such examples as her starting point, Arendt proceeded to launch an attack on the misdeeds and miscalculations of some of the Jewish community leaders in the Nazi occupied territories – thus violating the code of silence that had existed on the topic up to then.

This attack by Arendt was met by an even more violent response – with critics accusing her of betraying both Judaism and the memory of the 6 million Jews who had died in the Nazi death camps. As the campaign against her picked up steam, the accusations against her became increasingly frenzied – with some critics even suggesting that she had somehow become a Nazi sympathizer – the ‘evidence’ being the large numbers of Nazi documents she had consulted as part of her research.

All of which had a somewhat surrealistic quality to it since much of what Arendt reported had already been generally known. And the fact that a tiny minority of Jews had for whatever reasons cooperated or collaborated with the Nazis was far from being a deep dark secret.8 For example, it was well known that the Nazis had encouraged the creation of Jewish Councils and police forces throughout occupied Europe to act as go-betweens between themselves and the Jewish community and to facilitate the deportation of Jews and the creation of ghettos. The problem for Arendt was that the treatment of these Councils had up to that point been largely sympathetic – focusing on the difficult dilemmas facing Jewish community leaders as they sought to make the best of a very bad situation. This being the case, Arendt’s comments (many of them quite caustic) had the effect of shattering this consensus once and for all – a result for which few were likely to thank her.

To make things worse, Arendt took her critique one step further accusing many Jewish leaders of having actually made the situation worse by preparing lists of Jewish inhabitants (which told the Nazis who was to be singled out from the general population), doing inventories of Jewish property (which made it easier to confiscate later on) and assembling large numbers of Jews at predetermined times and places (so they could be quickly and efficiently crammed into box cars and whisked off to killing centers). According to Arendt, the Jews of Europe might well have been better off if they had been disorganized and leaderless. As she put it, “The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between and four and a half and six million people.”9

Hardly the words of someone who was seeking to avoid a fight.

The Banality of Evil

But as contentious as this issue of wartime leadership was, the greatest difficulties for Arendt flowed from a very different area – namely, her observations on the character and motivations of Adolph Eichmann and the nature of evil generally. All of which is nicely summed up in the subtitle of her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which reads, “A Report on the Banality of Evil”.

For it was these few words contained in the subtitle of her book – and the concept they encapsulate - which has earned her the greatest acclaim from her supporters and the greatest contempt from her detractors.

Looking back, I recall the impact Arendt’s reports and book had in the late 1960s on myself and my fellow Political Science students. For like pretty much everyone else we took it for granted that the Nazis had been raving lunatics, frothing at the mouth and seething with hatred. So the idea that Eichmann - who had played such a key role in the Holocaust – might have been a grey bureaucrat, who Arendt claimed bore no particular animus toward Jews and whose sole motivation was simply a desire for career promotion, amounted to an intellectual earthquake.

Even now I am struck by her observations on the nature of evil – particularly as they relate to the totalitarianism that characterised much of the 20th Century and which continues to attract many in our own century. For what if she is right? What if much of the evil seen in our own age flows from the actions of quite ordinary people who are just doing what it takes to get ahead?

Certainly that was Arendt’s view of Adolph Eichmann, the man who managed the transportation infrastructure that sent 6 million Jews to their deaths (plus millions of Poles, Russians, Gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled). For what she saw during the trial was not some raging fanatic frothing at the mouth. Rather the accused appeared to be a rather ordinary man – something of a loser really - who was not all that bright, who could not make it on his own, and who needed to be part of a movement or large bureaucratic organization if he was to have an identity or any sense of worth. (Arendt’s judgment was confirmed by the court ordered psychiatrist who found him to be “a completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him”.)10

According to Arendt, the answer for this seeming paradox was what she called Gedankenlosigkeit, which in English roughly translates as not being able to think things through or consider things properly. In Eichmann’s case, this meant not giving any thought to the reality of what he was doing. Nor did he appear to have considered the consequences of his role in transporting millions of innocent people to their death or the possibility that he might have committed terrible crimes. Rather, as was seen throughout his trial, Eichmann saw himself as an efficient bureaucrat who had simply done the work required of him – and who had done it very well. It was Arendt’s insistence that Eichmann was a rather boring and unimaginative “desk murderer” rather than a wild-eyed Anti-Semite that was to earn her some of the harshest criticism.

For many of Arendt’s critics such a characterization of the man minimized the terrible crimes he had committed. And her use of the term ‘the banality of evil’ seemed to many to suggest that she felt the disaster of the Shoah to be banal – that is, ‘trite’, hackneyed, or a cliché. Such a thing had of course never been her intention – especially given that she herself had barely escaped ending up in one of the extermination camps. Rather this phrase was simply part of her critique of Eichmann, whose beliefs and desires were those of a grey bureaucrat trying to make a career in the madness of Nazi Germany, and her attempt to say something about the nature of evil generally. For it was Arendt’s belief that our ability to think clearly about evil is hampered by the vision of the devil created in the Middle Ages – namely, of some heroic rebel standing alone against the universe and its creator (which was the image Milton painted in his epic poem, Paradise Lost).

For Arendt such a portrayal gives Satan and his minions too much credit. She preferred instead to see many of those people responsible for great evil as dreadful bores who are as exciting as cold porridge. One excellent example of this is the Soviet dictator and mass-murderer, Joseph Stalin, whose death toll far exceeded that of Hitler. Unlike Hitler, Stalin was not a charismatic figure and certainly not a riveting speaker. Rather, apart from his days as a bank robber early on in this revolutionary career, Stalin owed his rise to power almost exclusively to his control over the administrative machinery of the Communist Party and his unique gift for hatching plots behind the scenes. A classic “desk murderer” if there ever was one!

Arendt expanded on this theme – using Eichmann as her prime example of this phenomenon - in her book, The Life of the Mind, where she states, “I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were enormous, but the doer – at least the very effective one on trial – was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.”11 In short Eichmann was very much like the people all of us have met at one time or other in our lives – who, given very different circumstances, might well do similarly evil acts to those of Adolph Eichmann. A chilling thought to be sure!

Eichmann in the 21st Century

While Adolph Eichmann is dead, the spirit that animated him lives on in our modern world – just as it has done throughout human history. For the truth is that Eichmann was not the first person to facilitate the killing of large numbers of innocent human beings. And, sadly, he will not be the last. For, as horrible as it was, the systematic slaughter of millions of Jews during the Second World War was not the first attempt at genocide - and it won’t be the last.

Many of those responsible for these new holocausts will likely be grey bureaucrats not unlike Adolph Eichmann – individuals who in their private lives are good and decent people but who in their professional capacities are prepared to do the most hellish things in order to make their way in the world. And the atrocities they will be responsible for will in all likelihood involve many of the elements contained in previous campaigns of genocide and mass murders.

For example, those targeted for destruction will be dehumanized – as seen by the current pro-abortion rhetoric which refers to unborn babies as ‘clumps of cells’ and more alarmingly as ‘parasites’. Contrary voices will be silenced – and those violating the tenets of officially approved speech will be persecuted. And an efficient machinery of death will be set up to ensure that the killing can be done as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible.

Sadly, the outlines of such a future dystopia can already be discerned – whether it be the huge arsenals of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in the hands of a growing number of nations (some of them quite mad) capable of bringing a sudden end to civilization as we know it, the determination of elites to protect and even extend the slaughter of unborn babies through abortion, or the extension of the culture of death via infanticide and assisted suicide (euphemistically referred to as Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) in Canada) which promise to kill off even more of those seen as too expensive or inconvenient to care for.

Even so, there is still hope. For just as Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR seemed invincible at one time – only to fall later on - the growing darkness we see in the West will also one day come to an end. Such a hope may seem vain in light of the growing evil we see around us every day. But this hope is ultimately more realistic than the lies that make up our daily media diet. For as the anonymous poem scratched on a concentration camp wall states:

“I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in love, even though I don't feel it.
I believe in God, even when he is silent.” 12

Eventually, all evil burns itself out. And one day it will be gone forever and every tear will be wiped away.

Photo Attribution: Bernd Schwabe in Hannover [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

1. Hannah Arendt. “Personal responsibility under dictatorship”. 1964. Retrieved from: https://grattoncourses.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/responsibility-under-a-dictatorship-arendt.pdf

2. Arendt’s original articles which formed the basis of her later book may be found on the Internet. Her initial article on the trial may be found at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1963/02/16/eichmann-in-jerusalem-i

3. “Lettre collective – Hannah Arendt est-elle nazie?” Le Nouvel Observateur. Retrieved from: http://referentiel.nouvelobs.com/archives_pdf/OBS0107_19661130/OBS0107_19661130_037.pdf

4. “Give Me Your Children: Voices from the Lodz Ghetto”. Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved from: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/give-me-your-children-voices-from-the-lodz-ghetto

5. “Chaim Rumkowski “. Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaim_Rumkowski#cite_note-Unger2004-4

6. “Leo Baeck”. My Jewish Learning. Retrieved from: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/leo-baeck/

7. Hannah Arendt. Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the banality of evil. New York: Penguin Books, [c2006]. p. 119.

8. “Collaboration with the Axis Powers”. Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaboration_with_the_Axis_Powers#Jewish_collaboration

9. Amos Elon. “The Excommunication of Hannah”. Introduction to: Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the banality of evil. New York: Penguin Books, [c2006]. p. xvi.

10. Amos Elon. Ibid. p. xv.

11. Hannah Arendt. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt Inc. [ c1978]. p. 4.

12. Matthew Day. “Survivors remember Auschwitz: ‘Every time I come here I feel fearful’”. The Telegraph. Wednesday 22 May 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/poland/11372941/Survivors-remember-Auschwitz-Every-time-I-come-here-I-feel-fearful.html

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