Eichmann Before Jerusalem: A Review

Eichmann: Before, In, and After Jerusalem

“One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Whether or not Stalin actually ever said this is irrelevant to the point that it makes, for it tells us in a most condensed form the totalitarian view of human beings, as exemplified not only by the Stalinist era in Russia but especially by the short but deadly reign of National Socialism in Germany. Unlike the socialism found in contemporary European societies such as Sweden and France, in which the individual human being is recognized as a person regardless of his or her circumstances, and thus equally worthy of education, medical care, and hope, the “socialism” of the Nazis stripped the individual of personhood by subsuming him in a collective identity, so that this body was interchangeable with that body, as not only representative of the collective he was assigned to (born as) but was in fact that collective, with no more independent existence from that collective than a cell exists independently of its body. Individuals thus were considered and treated not as symbols of the collective (Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Poles, intellectuals, etc., as well as “Germans” or “Aryans”) but as the collective itself. The purpose of the individual was to sustain the collective, just as the purpose of a cell is to sustain the body. No one is interested in the dignity and autonomy of a cell.

The flip side was also true. The individual did not (could not, better not) think of him- or herself as a person. He must think of himself as the collective and be ready to sacrifice his body in fulfillment of the historic and epic goals of the collective. Thus the inordinate interest in military ranks and uniforms, the phalanxes of look-alike soldiers goose-stepping down crowded streets (whether in Berlin, Moscow, or Pyongyang), and the at least appearance of scientific precision and meticulous record keeping that we associate not only with Nazism but with the collective paradigm in general.

Nazism was as interested in the forces of history as was communism and as uninterested in the person, though it formulated that interest not in terms of class struggle but in terms of the survival of the fittest, a radical biologism of blood and soil, as Bettina Stangneth puts it, “the no-holds-barred struggle for existence that nature demanded”. Its practitioners saw genocide as a legitimate expression of the “struggle” against world Jewry and its associated “internationalism” (which the pre-WWI European intellectuals called cosmopolitanism), and the “struggle” was literally to the death.

This reminder of the collectivism of the Nazis is a necessary prelude to a discussion of Stangneth’s book Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (Knopf, 2014), the title of which deliberately recalls Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Viking, 1963). Stangneth’s book focuses on Eichmann’s post-defeat years in Argentina, up to and including his abduction and trial; Arendt’s focuses on the trial itself, which she attended. But Stangneth is not concerned merely with filling in the details of a hitherto little-examined period of Eichmann’s life. As her title suggests, she is also engaged in a critique of and debate with Arendt’s thesis that, as she and most people understand that thesis, Eichmann was an unthinking cog in a death machine, a mere bureaucrat shuffling reports and obeying orders without reflection. So although Stangneth’s direct references to Arendt amount to no more than twenty or so, and tend to be quite short, Eichmann Before Jerusalem can be read as a refutation of Eichmann in Jerusalem.

These two authors’ subtitles are also worth examining. Arendt’s “A Report on the Banality of Evil” has caused difficulties because readers cannot imagine that anything as atrocious and unspeakable as the Holocaust could be thought of as “banal,” but as I will demonstrate later in this essay, “banal” as Arendt used it has deep moral implications that go well beyond mere drab and everyday bureaucratic automatism. Stangneth’s subtitle, “The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer,” has at least two meanings. One is that despite ample documentation, in particular the tapes and transcripts of discussion sessions at the home of a fellow Nazi named Willem Sassens, Eichmann’s life in Argentina has not previously been fully examined by historians. The other is that he was not a cog in a machine but an active and enthusiastic participant in and shaper of the extermination of millions of Jews; after all, a murderer is someone who is culpable, both morally and legally, and, importantly, by the act of murder his has separated himself from normal humanity. A murderer on the scale of millions is not banal. He is also not us.

As mentioned already, Stangneth focuses on the transcripts and remaining tapes compiled by Willem Sassens, a Dutch Nazi who had also escaped from Europe to Argentina and who suggested to Eichmann that they gather together a group of German exiles, some of whom had held important positions in the Third Reich, at Sassens’ home to discuss, seminar style, the truths of Nazism and Nazi actions and policies, with the idea, at least as Eichmann understood it, of publishing a book that would justify National Socialism and perhaps even lead to a revival of the movement’s mission. That goal was never to be reached, not only because of Eichmann’s abduction and Sassens’ disappointment in Eichmann himself, but frankly because very few people outside the bubble of the Argentine exiles had any interest in such a revival—time had left Nazism behind.

Yet based on her exhaustive research into and reading of the transcripts and other writings by Eichmann, Stangneth concludes that, far from being an unthinking or stupid man, “Eichmann’s words in Argentina, like those of the other participants, weren’t thoughtless drivel but consistent speech based on a complete system of thought” (268). Eichmann was an idealist (p. 125) for whom “National Socialism was a mission that had not yet ended” (p. 134) and for whom “Nazi ideology provided . . . the support, the categories, and above all, the vocabulary” (p. 172) to construct a worldview—it was, in other words, a kind of philosophy, and as such in his own mind justified his acts and exempted him from guilt. To call it a pseudo-philosophy or to deny that it is a philosophy at all is to “run the risk of underestimating” (p. 221) the power of that worldview.

It was this mistake that Stangneth sees Arendt as having made—understandably, given that Arendt had far fewer documents available to her than researchers can access now and given that her impressions were formed by Eichmann’s performance in the courtroom. Eichmann presented himself as a little man, a cipher, caught up in the bureaucratic machine of the Holocaust, a clerk who merely forwarded reports and kept records on index cards. His prevaricating shuffle was meant to keep him from the gallows, and in this game Stangneth attributes to him a keen intelligence and understanding of his opponents, though it is worth mentioning that, apparently, no one bought his stories. He did, after all, end up on the gallows, suggesting that what passed for intelligence and thought was mere cunning. As Arendt wrote, the judges “finally told the accused that all he had said was empty talk” (EIJ, p. 49). She, and they, recognized that self-justification is not self-knowledge. She did not attribute to him that central principle of Western philosophy, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” or more concisely, “Know thyself.”

However, I believe there is a deeper error in Stangneth’s assessment of Arendt’s book, an error that derives from a misunderstanding of the world “banal” as Arendt used it. In the vernacular, “banal” designates something that is trite or trivial but essentially harmless. For Arendt, however, the banal is a deep failure of the moral imagination, an avoidance of what she called in The Origins of Totalitarianism “the dignity of human thought,” a moral emptiness. When she writes in Eichmann in Jerusalem that Eichmann “never realized what he was doing” (p. 287), she did not mean that he did not know that he had murdered millions of Jews—he knew full well that he had (and Stangneth’s research underscores just how well he knew that). What he lacked was not intelligence (in the conventional sense of IQ), nor knowledge, nor the ability to plan, connive, deceive, and rationalize. What he lacked was “imagination,” which for Arendt meant the ability “to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else” (EIJ, p. 49). Note that she does not say to think about the standpoint of someone else, as for example the con man does when he is assessing the weaknesses of his victim, but “from the standpoint of someone else.” It takes imagination, of the kind for example exercised by novelists who imagine themselves into the viewpoints of characters who are not projections of themselves, or great moral thinkers who can see from the standpoint of persons with whom they share little or nothing in common. There is admittedly an aesthetic quality to moral imagination, and it is therefore not surprising that the Nazis not only feared culture (art and books) but also wished to appropriate it to their own ends, nor is it surprising that Nazi art is pornographic kitsch (Stangneth, p. 172), i.e., banality incarnate.

In addition to the ability to think from the standpoint of someone else,
Arendt wrote in The Life of the Mind that thinking is “reflexivity, an acting back upon itself,” and in Responsibility and Judgment, she said that thinking is “a dialogue of myself with myself,” “an activity that has certain moral results, namely that he who thinks constitutes himself into . . . a person.” (Stephan Kampowski, in Arendt, Augustine, and the New Beginning, calls this “dialectical and critical” thought.) For Arendt, Eichmann’s banality came from his inability, or refusal, to think about his own thinking—for him thinking was a matter of causal logic, that A leads to B leads to C—and that therefore he was never a “person.” His inability to think, in Arendt’s sense of that word, allowed him to act on his belief that the collective was the reality and the individual person, personhood itself, was the fiction. In that sense, then, and only in that sense, was he a cog in the machine of National Socialism.

At this point it is worth pondering why Arendt’s thesis on the banality of evil has been so misunderstood and controversial. Something she wrote late in Eichmann in Jerusalem may provide the clue to answering this question: “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” (p. 276). We do not want the Nazis and the Holocaust to be normal, that is human; we want them to be subhuman, inhuman, exceptional and unrepeatable. Perhaps if Arendt’s sentence had remained in the past tense, that illusion could be preserved and we would not find it necessary to wash our own hands. We could comfort ourselves (our sense of ourselves as human and humane) that Nazism was a one-off in history, explainable perhaps by recourse to specifically German history and culture, or to the aftermath of WWI and the Depression, or some such other historical explanation. If we are religious, we might even say that it was a phenomenon of mass demonic possession, thus casting WWII as a cosmic-level war of good vs. evil. But when Arendt shifts to the present tense, “and still are,” we might find ourselves among the accused. If Eichmann is not “Bluebeard in the dock” but a normal person, and therefore as Arendt further argues morally and legally culpable for exactly that reason (for if he had been insane, he could not be held responsible and hanged but rather committed to a psychiatric facility), then we too might be capable of similar crimes.

Let us set aside the usual litany of like-minded totalitarian killers such as Napoleon, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, even the leaders of ISIS, and consider the glorious past. Certain events are now sufficiently removed from us by the passage of time that we can either ignore them or fold them into a narrative of progress. Such as, for example, the hideousness of the slave trade and slavery, the horrors of which have been most recently been detailed by Walter Johnson (River of Dark Dreams, 2013) and Edward E. Baptist (The Half Has Never Been Told, 2014)—both authors show that slavery was not founded in sadism but in economics, and in fact was a major factor in the early development of capitalism. There is also the example of the deliberate and official attempt (nearly successful) to exterminate the American Indians who occupied the western regions of the continent; today we lament the near demise of the bison, but we usually neglect to mention that slaughtering these animals was a deliberate strategy to break the foundations of Indian life and culture and clear the way for civilization. One could multiply examples of normal Americans committing terrible crimes against humanity and nature (see, for example, the series of books by Chalmers Johnson), and if we were to expand our sampler to all of civilized history, we would face a never-ending task—not least because we would also have to upend a great many mythic narratives. Civilizations have always tried to “civilize” (conquer) what we have called the barbarians, but the barbarians might well wonder what to call us.

While the effort to understand as well as to condemn National Socialism and its horrific consequences is a good and necessary task, it should not mislead us into thinking we (and by “we” I mean virtually all of mankind) can cordon off that period and place as fundamentally morally different and abnormal. Homo sapiens has always been a vicious species. At the same time, we should not despair of our ability to rise above our instincts, to think as Arendt would have us think. The NeoDarwinist/New Atheists would have us believe that we neither think nor have free will; but in fact the existence of ethics suggests the contrary—we do think, we can be better than our chthonic selves. To do so is the supreme creative act of human persons, and to continue doing so despite all that resists thought is our greatest hope.

[Quotations from Eichmann in Jerusalem (EIJ) are taken from the Penguin Books paperback edition of 1977.]


  • Georges Kassabgi  On October 15, 2014 at 6:56 AM

    “Homo sapiens has always been a vicious species.” To my knowledge, Homo erectus was in a continuum with the primates; so what made Homo sapiens become vicious? As far as I am concerned, both animals and humans can be violent but only humans are violent for greed and revenge. In other words, more study/findings about the emerging “violence for greed and revenge” could help clarify the issue (whether limited to the Harendt/Eichmann case or expanded to include many others). As it happens, I wrote a philosophical essay on these underlying causes of, inter alia, human violence. If interested, go to http://www.ugik.com... Part I of the essay is available “What Gave You That Idea? — Rediscovering the development of our worldviews” along with an article titled “War and Peace” as well as a companion YouTube with same title as the essay (intro and three videos of about 10 minutes each… there is also a Discussion segment in the YouTube channel).

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