The Banality of Evil: The Demise of a Legend
by Bettina Stangneth, translated by Ruth Martin
Alfred A. Knopf, 608 pp., $35
There have been few phrases that have proved as controversial as the famous subtitle Hannah Arendt chose to sum up her account of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. From the moment the articles that eventually comprised her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil were published in The New Yorker, the idea that the execution of the Nazis’ diabolical plans for an Endlösung to the “Jewish Question” could be considered “banal” offended many readers. In addition, Arendt took what seemed to be a gratuitous swipe at the conduct of the Jewish councils, which, operating under conditions of extreme duress, were forced to bargain with their Nazi overseers in the desperate hope of buying time, sacrificing some Jewish lives in the hope of saving others. Only with the benefit of hindsight do we realize that their efforts were largely futile. In her rush to judgment, Arendt made it seem as though it was the Jews themselves, rather than their Nazi persecutors, who were responsible for their own destruction. Thus, with a few careless rhetorical flourishes, she established an historical paradigm that managed simultaneously to downplay the executioners’ criminal liability, which she viewed as “banal” and bureaucratic, and to exaggerate the culpability of their Jewish victims.
Arendt’s astonishing conclusion that “Eichmann had no criminal motives,” and the account that underlay it, might have been construed as mere journalistic overstatement, but her status as a distinguished political theorist, together with the furious controversy her account engendered—Gershom Scholem famously accused her of lacking ahavat yisrael (love for her fellow Jews)—helped to create an aura of brave truth-telling that has surrounded Eichmann in Jerusalem ever since. This image of Eichmann in Jerusalem as an act of an intellectual bravado, with Arendt herself cast in the role of an imperiled heroine—a latter-day Joan of Arc, persecuted by an army of inferior male detractors—was canonized in the recent and widely praised German film by Margarethe von Trotta, Hannah Arendt.
It is certainly true that throughout the controversy Arendt comported herself as someone who was above the fray. Often she seemed to regard the Israelis she encountered in Jerusalem with as little esteem as she did Eichmann. She dismissed the chief prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, with breathtaking condescension as a “typical Galician Jew, very unsympathetic, boring, constantly making mistakes. Probably one of those people who don’t know any languages.” While covering the trial she wrote to her former mentor, the philosopher Karl Jaspers:
Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew and looks Arabic. Some downright brutal types among them. They would obey any order. And outside the doors, the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country. In addition, and very visible in Jerusalem, the peies [sidelocks] and caftan Jews, who make life impossible for all reasonable people here.
Even setting aside the egregious racism and anti-Jewish animus, there is something very alarming about this passage. Any reader familiar with Arendt’s classic study The Origins of Totalitarianism knows that she described such mobs as the carriers of the totalitarian bacillus. Nor can there be any mistaking the import of her assertion that the Sephardic or Mizrahi policemen “would obey any order.” With this claim, Arendt insinuated that they were the “authoritarian personalities” and “desk murderers” of the future. Again and again, one sees how readily Arendt blurred the line between victims and executioners.
Arendt’s banality thesis helped to engender the so-called “functionalist” interpretation of the Holocaust, in which the role of obedient desk murderers and mindless functionaries assumed pride of place. Leading German historians such as Hans Mommsen coined nebulous phrases such as “cumulative radicalization” in order to describe a killing process that, like a Betriebsunfall (an industrial accident), seemed to have happened without anyone consciously willing it. But as the historian Ulrich Herbert has pointed out, at the time the functionalist account was also culturally convenient: “For a long time there was a reluctance to name names in research on National Socialism . . . [Consequently,] there was also massive resistance to studies about the perpetrators and their relationship to German society.” The upshot of this approach was that the Holocaust’s character as a crime conceived and masterminded by German anti-Semitic ideologues that was perpetrated against the Jews disappeared in favor of a series of conceptual abstractions—“modernity,” “bureaucracy,” “mass society”—in which the Jewish (or anti-Jewish) specificity of the events in question all but disappears.
Was Eichmann, or the evil he was instrumental in perpetrating, really banal? Remarkably, it seems that Arendt had already arrived at a definitive judgment of Eichmann’s character some four months before the trial even began. In another letter to Jaspers, written on December 2, 1960, she writes that the upcoming trial would offer her the opportunity “to study this walking disaster [i.e., Eichmann] face to face in all his bizarre vacuousness.” But, as Bettina Stangneth shows in her well-researched and path-breaking study Eichmann Before Jerusalem, Eichmann was, in fact, a consummate actor. “Eichmann,” she writes, “reinvented himself at every stage of his life, for each new audience and every new alarm.” He becomes “subordinate, superior officer, perpetrator, fugitive, exile, and defendant.”
The meek and unassuming Argentine rabbit breeder who took the witness stand in Jerusalem and described himself as “a small cog in Adolf Hitler’s extermination machine” bore no resemblance to the man who, as Specialist for Jewish Affairs of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), reported directly to Heinrich Himmler and had avidly sown terror and destruction throughout the lands of Central Europe. Nor did he resemble the man who, under the alias of Ricardo Klement, had been the toast of Argentina’s highly visible neo-Nazi community, the man who unabashedly signed photographs for fellow fugitives: “Adolf Eichmann, SS Obersturmbannführer (retired).” As Stangneth aptly observes, “Eichmann-in-Jerusalem was little more than a mask.” Eichmann gave the performance of his life, and Hannah Arendt was entirely taken in.
In Jerusalem, Eichmann fought to save his life, and, if possible, to clear his name for posterity. But another one of his central motivations was to throw a monkey wrench into the gears of the Israeli judicial apparatus, whose staff he regarded as his Jewish “persecutors.” During his proud years in the SS, combating the pernicious influence of World Jewry had been Eichmann’s raison d’être. With his artful performance on the witness stand in Jerusalem, Eichmann, ever the warrior, was, in effect, making his final stand. True to the SS creed of loyalty above all (“Mein Ehre heisst Treue”), he went down fighting.
It has long been known that the CIA had been privy to Eichmann’s whereabouts after the war. Hence it was with the CIA’s tacit approval that, in 1950, Eichmann, in order to avoid capture, successfully made use of the notorious “rat line” to South America. Only a few years ago, it came to light that the German Intelligence Services had also been well aware of Eichmann’s various activities prior to his flight to South America. German officials also refused to lift a finger, but, for slightly different reasons. Eichmann, it seemed, knew too much about prominent ex-Nazis who had recently been elevated to the status of “notables”—politicians, opinion leaders, and scholars—in the newly conceived Federal Republic. His apprehension, they believed, would have injured the emerging German democracy. As Stangneth remarks laconically, although the trappings of constitutional democracy had been freshly implanted on German soil, the problem was that “there were no new people to administer them.”
One of the main reasons that Arendt’s banality of evil concept struck a nerve was that it played on widespread fears about the dehumanizing effects of “mass society.” When she wrote about Eichmann, the Nazi threat was past, but, in the war’s aftermath, an arguably greater menace had arisen, the threat of nuclear annihilation. This threat had been vividly driven home by the Cuban missile crisis, which took place the year before Arendt’s articles on the Eichmann trial were serialized in The New Yorker. It was tempting and superficially plausible to interpret both events as expressions of the same general phenomenon.
But to state a truism: Mass society can be dehumanizing without its denizens being mass murderers. In his magisterial study Nazi Germany and the Jews Saul Friedländer describes the mentality of “redemptive anti-Semitism” that pervaded Nazi rule from its inception. What is needed to turn bureaucratic specialists into executioners is an ideological world view that underwrites racial supremacy and terror. This is the indispensable component that Nazism furnished and that, during the 1930s, reoriented Germany as a society hell-bent on military aggression, imperial expansion, and racial purification. One of the outstanding merits of Stangneth’s comprehensive account is that she shows that Eichmann was anything but a faceless cog in the machine. He fully subscribed to the ideological goals of the regime, including mass murder.
From the very beginning, Eichmann was a firm believer in the existence of a Jewish world conspiracy and thus fully partook of the murderous ethos so well described by Friedländer. In Eichmann’s view, the elimination of World Jewry, far from being a matter-of-fact, bureaucratic assignment, was a sacred duty. During one of Eichmann’s visits to Auschwitz, commandant Rudolf Höss confided that, upon seeing Jewish children herded into the gas chambers, his knees quivered, whereupon Eichmann rejoined that it was precisely the Jewish children who must be first sent into the gas chambers in order to ensure the wholesale elimination of the Jews as a race.
In a hastily contrived farewell speech to his subordinates at the end of the war, Eichmann declared that he would die happy, knowing that he was responsible for the deaths of millions of European Jews:
I will laugh when I leap into the grave because I have the feeling that I have killed 5,000,000 Jews. That gives me great satisfaction and gratification.
Twelve years later, in the course of the alcohol-infused colloquies with a group of fugitive Nazis in Buenos Aires whose transcripts are one of Stangneth’s key sources, he said: “To be frank with you, had we killed all of them, the thirteen million, I would be happy and say: ‘all right, we have destroyed an enemy.’”
To describe such a person as merely a man of “revolting stupidity” (von empörender Dummheit), as though his lack of intelligence somehow made his status as a genocidal murderer comprehensible, as Hannah Arendt did in the course of a 1964 interview, is perilously myopic. It was as though, by alluding to Eichmann’s purported intellectual failings, Arendt could make all other substantive questions and issues disappear. Perversely, the Jewish Specialist for the Reich Security Main Office ended up having the last laugh, hoodwinking Arendt into believing that he was little more than a bit player on a larger political stage. Yet, in the Jewish émigré press during the late 1930s (which Stangneth believes that Arendt had read), Eichmann had already been known as the “Tsar of the Jews” and was notorious for his brutality. But Arendt had her own intellectual agenda, and perhaps out of her misplaced loyalty to her former mentor and lover, Martin Heidegger, insisted on applying the Freiburg philosopher’s concept of “thoughtlessness” (Gedankenlosigkeit) to Eichmann. In doing so, she drastically underestimated the fanatical conviction that infused his actions.
By underestimating Eichmann’s intellect, Arendt also misjudged the magnitude of his criminality. Yet, as Stangneth demonstrates convincingly, in cities across the continent, Eichmann proved himself to be a persistent and effective negotiator, and when he failed to acquire what he demanded by way of negotiations, he was adept at using threats. Thus with a relatively small staff at his disposal, Eichmann systematically forced Jews out of their residences and into makeshift ghettos. As the Final Solution began, he arranged for their long-distance transport to the far reaches of provincial Poland, where the extermination camps lay in wait. As Raul Hilberg, on whose findings Arendt relied extensively, observed:
[Arendt] did not discern the pathways that Eichmann had found in the thicket of the German administrative machine for his unprecedented actions. She did not grasp the dimensions of his deed. There was no “banality” in this “evil.”
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To amplify what she meant by the banality of evil, Arendt invoked the concept of “administrative murder,” which, in keeping with the robotic portrait she had painted of Eichmann, was another way of establishing the primacy of the functionary or desk murderer. But there had been nothing in the least “administrative” or “banal” about the barbaric mass shootings of the Einsatzgruppen—whose signature was the infamous Genickschuss (shot in the nape of the neck)—as led by the SS’s notorious “Death’s Head” brigades in the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. These deaths occurred prior to the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, in which the logistics of the Final Solution were outlined.
Eichmann’s organizational talents became especially vital and indispensable in the case of the deportation and extermination of 565,000 Hungarian Jews during the waning years of the war. The Hungarian situation was especially tricky. Even though the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising had been successfully and brutally suppressed by the SS, it had exposed a weakness in the Nazi machinery of extermination. In addition, the RSHA had failed in its attempts to deport Denmark’s meager total of less than 8,000 Jews. Following D-Day, it had become clear that, from a German standpoint, the war was unwinnable. Thereafter, numerous individual Nazi potentates sought to scale back the Jewish deportations in the hope of receiving favorable treatment from the soon-to-be-victorious Allies. But as Stangneth shows, Eichmann would have none of it. In fall 1944, he went so far as to defy Himmler’s order to halt the Hungarian deportations. Moreover, he played an especially insidious role in overseeing the “death marches” of the remaining Hungarian Jews (some 400,000 had already been transported to Auschwitz), under conditions that were indescribably brutal.
As Germany’s military situation began to deteriorate, Eichmann showed himself especially adept at ensuring that the gears of the killing machine remained well oiled. To characterize Eichmann as a “desk murderer” in order to downplay his convictions as a devoted SS officer who reported directly to Reinhard Heydrich and Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller is seriously misleading. After all, the duties of office demanded that Eichmann regularly visit various killing sites.
In 1998, an immense transcript of Eichmann’s conversations with Dutch collaborator and Waffen SS officer Willem Sassen from the late 1950s in Argentina was mysteriously deposited in the German Federal Archive in Koblenz. In those conversations, Eichmann told Sassen “When I reached the conclusion that it was necessary to do to the Jews what we did, I worked with the fanaticism a man can expect from himself.” He seems to have had in mind Heinrich Himmler’s statement of the requirements of total ideological commitment within the SS at the very height of the extermination process:
These measures in the Reich cannot be carried out by a police force made up solely of bureaucrats. … A corps that had merely sworn an oath of allegiance would not have the necessary strength. These measures could be borne and executed only by an extreme organization of fanatic and deeply convinced National Socialists. The SS regards itself as such and declares itself as such, and therefore has taken the task upon itself.
How Arendt could believe that someone like Eichmann could thrive in an organization whose raison d’être was mass murder, shorn of the ideological zeal described by Himmler, is difficult to fathom. Yet, time and again, in defiance of all evidence to the contrary, she maintained that Eichmann could best be described as a mere “functionary.” “I don’t believe that ideology played much of a role,” Arendt repeatedly insisted, “to me that appears to be decisive.”
In this respect, Arendt’s findings dovetailed with ageneral trend in accounts of the Holocaust that downplayed the role of individual perpetrators in favor of the impersonal “structures” of modern society. But white-collar workers and “organization men” do not as a matter of course commit mass murder unless they are in the grip of an all-encompassing, exterminatory world view, such as the Nazi credo that SS officers were obligated to internalize. As Walter Laqueur noted during the late 1990s: Arendt’s “concept of the ‘banality of evil’ . . . made it possible to put the blame for the mass murder at the door of all kind of middle level bureaucrats. The evildoer disappears, or becomes so banal as to be hardly worthy of our attention, and is replaced by . . . underlings with a bookkeeper mentality.”
In seeking to downplay the German specificity of the Final Solution by universalizing it, Arendt also strove to safeguard the honor of the highly educated German cultural milieu from which she herself hailed. A similar impetus underlay Arendt’s contention, in her contribution to the Festschrift for Heidegger’s 80th birthday, that Nazism was merely a “gutter-born phenomenon” and had nothing to do with the spiritual (geistige) questions of culture. In light of what we now know about the extent of educated German support for the regime (not to speak of what we know about Heidegger, on which see my earlier essay “National Socialism, World Jewry, and the History of Being: Heidegger’s Black Notebooks” in this magazine) Arendt’s notion that Nazism has nothing to do with the “language of the humanities and the history of ideas” appears naïve.
In retrospect, Arendt’s application of Heidegger’s concept of “thoughtlessness” to Eichmann and his ilk seems to have been intended to absolve the German intellectual traditions. Even Arendt’s otherwise stalwart champion, Mary McCarthy, pointed out the crucial differences between the English word “thoughtlessness,” which suggests a boorish absent-mindedness, and the German Gedankenlosigkeit, which literally indicates an inability to think.
At the height of his danse macabre before the judicial tribunal in Jerusalem, Eichmann went so far as to characterize himself as a “Zionist,” on the basis of his negotiations during the 1930s with Jewish officials over the emigration of Viennese and Czech Jews. For her part, Arendt seemed to buy Eichmann’s self-serving self-description wholesale. Yet, as Stangneth shows, these forced emigrations organized by Eichmann were unfailingly sadistic and brutal. In retrospect, they were, in fact, a trial run for the Europe-wide Jewish deportations that culminated in the Final Solution. Thus under Eichmann’s supervision and under the cover of “emigration,” Jews were divested of their homes, their life savings, their possessions, their livelihood, and their citizenship in exchange for the uncertainties and ignominies of forced exile.
That Eichmann smugly viewed his indispensable role in the Final Solution as a crowning achievement was an opinion he expressed on numerous occasions. British historian David Cesarani aptly describes the RSHA Nazi’s Specialist for Jewish Affairs as acting “in the spirit of a fanatical anti-Semite who is locked in a world of fantasy,” a description that historian Christopher Browning recently seconded, noting that, “Eichmann embraced a worldview that was delusional and ‘phantasmagoric’ in its belief in a world Jewish conspiracy that was the implacable and life-threatening enemy of Germany.” When the regime imploded in May 1945, he became a warrior-without-a-cause.
As Stangneth shows, during his Argentine exile, Eichmann and his Nazi comrades harbored delusions of the Reich’s return. At the time, one of Eichmann’s pet literary projects was the drafting of an “open letter” to Konrad Adenauer that was intended to justify the National Socialist state and its aims. In Eichmann’s view, the Federal Republic should have stopped issuing apologies since it had nothing to be ashamed of. After all, during the war, Germany had been involved in a life-or-death struggle in which it had been necessary to employ all of the means at its disposal. As Eichmann was fond of saying: “Krieg ist Krieg”—war is war.
In Buenos Aires, the Sassen clique published a neo-Nazi journal, one of whose main aims was to burnish the reputation of the Third Reich in the face of “calumnious accusations” on the part of World Jewry. Foremost among those purported “calumnies” was the so-called “Auschwitz lie”: the “myth” that the Third Reich had been responsible for the deaths of six million Jews. It was for this reason that, in 1956, the former Dutch SS officer Willem Sassen conducted a series of interviews with Eichmann. After all, there could be no more convincing witness than Eichmann, who, from his perch at RSHA headquarters in Berlin, had dutifully and conscientiously organized the entire affair.
Yet along the way, Sassen and company encountered a stumbling block. On the one hand, Eichmann being Eichmann, he was more than willing to relive in minute detail his halcyon days in Division IV B of the Reich Security Main Office. The problem was that the destruction of European Jewry had been Eichmann’s proudest achievement.
By the end of the taping sessions, the mismatch between Sassen’s revisionist goals and Eichmann’s compulsive braggadocio reached absurd proportions. The misunderstanding culminated in a raucous 1957 meeting at which Eichmann felt compelled to provide a final statement to all assembled of his mature ideological world view. Here are three salient passages from Eichmann’s final declaration to Sassen and company:
I must throw all caution to the wind and tell you that, before my Volk goes to ruin and bites the dust, the whole world should go to ruin and bite the dust—my Volk, only thereafter!
I say to you honestly as we conclude our sessions, I was the “conscientious bureaucrat,” I was that indeed. But I would hereby like to expand on the idea of the “conscientious bureaucrat,” perhaps to my discredit. Within the soul of this conscientious bureaucrat lay a fanatical warrior for the freedom of the race from which I stem . . . I was manifestly a conscientious bureaucrat, but one who was driven by inspiration: what my Volk requires and my Volk demands is for me a holy commandment and a holy law. Jawohl!
But now let me tell you, since we are almost at the end of this entire outburst [Platzen] . . . : I regret nothing! I will never crawl my way to the cross! . . . That is something I cannot do . . . because my inner self bridles at the thought that we did something wrong. No, I say to you quite honestly, had we killed 10.3 million Jews out of the 10.3 million we had in our sights, I would be quite satisfied, and would say that we annihilated an enemy . . . We would have fulfilled our mission, for our race and our Volk and for the freedom of nations, had we exterminated the cleverest spirit among the spirited peoples alive today. For that is what I told [Julius] Streicher, and what I have always preached: we are fighting against an opponent who, as a result of thousands of years of practice and experience, is cleverer than we are . . .
These are the words not of a “desk murderer” but of a convinced Nazi. They represent a toxic admixture of crude social Darwinism, malicious half-truths, and ideological distortions. The highest reality is that of the volk. Weak peoples perish. The strong survive. All pretensions of international law to the contrary, it is the survival of the fittest that determines the “law of peoples.” Since, as with all of life, the goal of nations is self-preservation, it is permissible to utilize all the means at one’s disposal to attain this end. Any volk that ignores this imperative is doomed to extinction. Universal morality—Biblical injunctions (“Thou shalt not kill,” “Love thy neighbor as thyself”), Kant’s categorical imperative, democratic pretensions to universal equality—must be emphatically rejected insofar as such effete considerations expose a people to anti-völkisch precepts and constraints that threaten to sap its lifeblood, its will to survive. To cite Nietzsche, whose influence Eichmann at various points acknowledged, moral considerations that transcend a volk’s drive to self-preservation are symptomatic of a “slave morality.” If nature has decreed that life is in essence a fight to the death for racial supremacy, what sense does it make to buck this trend?
In Eichmann’s view, one of the reasons why the Jews, those consummate cosmopolitans, are so dangerous is that, as a people without roots, they subsist and persevere entirely at the expense of other peoples. For this reason, they are the sworn racial enemy of the Germans as well as of all peoples. Hence, the National Socialist Vernichtungskrieg (war of annihilation) against the Jews was, on racial grounds, entirely justified.
Insofar as they are impervious to reason and reality, such mythological world views are self-perpetuating. The clan of believers has a vested interest in maintaining the illusion that the world view is entirely coherent and functional, since there is really no fallback position. Nazi ideology was an all-enveloping proposition. It only collapsed when, at the war’s end, the major German cities lay in ruins and Germany had become, following Hitler’s suicide, a führerlose Gesellschaft: a society without a leader. It is therefore difficult to understand how, shortly after the trial, Arendt, speaking of Eichmann’s actions and conduct, could assert, “I don’t think that ideology played any role.” A decade earlier, the chapters on “Ideology” and “Race” had been among Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism’s genuine strong points.
If ever there was a “trial of the 20th century,” the Eichmann trial was it. In Europe and North America, the meaning of the trial, and thus to a great extent the Holocaust itself, was filtered through the lens of Arendt’s popular account and the contentious debate that it spawned. Her provocative subtitle, the “banality of evil,” helped establish the so-called “functionalist” interpretation of the Holocaust, in which the role of obedient desk murderers and mindless functionaries assumed pride of place, producing a Holocaust strangely divested of anti-Semitism. The reductio ad absurdum of this approach may have finally come during the controversy over Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. In the course of this debate, in the 1990s, Hans Mommsen, by then the recognized dean of German Third Reich scholars, said, “I don’t think the perpetrators were really clear in their own minds about what they were doing when they were engaged in killing Jews.” Mommsen’s avowal was widely viewed as an index of how far out of touch professional historians were with the German public’s need for clarity and for an honest accounting of a previous generation’s horrific transgressions. In retrospect, Arendt’s stress on the perpetrators’ lack of animosity toward the Jews harmonized with the post-war German political agenda of parrying questions of historical responsibility. Although Arendt did not necessarily share this agenda, her correspondence reveals how sensitive she was to the tendency to equate “Germans” with “Nazis.”
Although Arendt’s interpretive approach, as well as the functionalist paradigm in general, identified a set of important socio-historical concerns, it also downplayed the uniqueness of the Shoah by inserting it within an overarching narrative that highlighted the dangers of “modernity,” “mass society,” “atomization,” and so on. The Holocaust came to symbolize the risks of the transition from traditional society to the modern administrative state. But in the end this German Sociology 101 “from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft” approach failed to explain the historical uniqueness of the radical evil that was Nazi Germany. Here, one of the unexplained paradoxes and ironies was that in The Origins of Totalitarianism the figure of radical evil occupied pride of place in Arendt’s interpretive scheme. In fact, she concluded the book’s Preface by declaring: “if it is true that in the final stages of totalitarianism an absolute evil appears (absolute because it can no longer be deduced from humanly comprehensible motives), it is also true that without it we might never have known the truly radical nature of Evil.”
As Bettina Stangneth reminds us repeatedly in Eichmann Before Jerusalem, when Hannah Arendt traveled to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann trial, part of the baggage she carried was a fixed set of socio-historical predispositions and prejudgments. Nowhere was this problem more evident than in her attempt to understand Eichmann’s conduct in terms of the misguided figure of the “banality of evil.” What should have been clear then and should certainly be clear now is that if the Holocaust was banal, then it was not evil. And if it was evil—as it indubitably was—then it was not banal.