Thoughtlessness Revisited: A Response to Seyla Benhabib
by Bettina Stangneth, translated by Ruth Martin
Alfred A. Knopf, 608 pp., $35
Seyla Benhabib’s New York Times opinion piece, “Who’s On Trial: Eichmann or Arendt?” (“The Stone,” September 21, 2014) is a ringing reaffirmation of Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil,” in response to renewed criticism by me and others in light of Bettina Stangneth’s newly translated book Eichmann Before Jerusalem. Since Arendt’s thesis has proved to be one of the most influential frameworks for understanding both the Holocaust and subsequent genocides, the interpretive stakes could not be higher.
Benhabib’s argument, unfortunately, contains a number of factual and analytical shortfalls. Among the most egregious of these are an unwillingness to acknowledge the centrality of Heidegger’s notion of “thoughtlessness” (Gedankenlosigkeit) as the inspiration underlying Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis; an implausible insistence that the Nazi world view, which underwrote the enslavement and extermination of millions of innocents, may be adequately described as “banal”; and a refusal to address Arendt’s own well-documented conceptual confusions on the question of Nazism’s alleged “banality.” After all, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt herself had confidently characterized the Nazis’ misdeeds as a species of “absolute” or “radical evil.”
It must also be said that the overheated rhetoric of Benhabib’s title seems to suggest that those who dissent from Arendtian orthodoxy (I am explicitly named along with fellow historian Deborah E. Lipstadt) are treating Arendt like a Nazi while letting Eichmann, the real génocidaire, off the hook. Benhabib’s concluding sentence, which contends that Arendt’s critics have “[avoided] coming honestly to terms” with the challenging nature of her position, has an analogous disqualifying effect. In this way, Benhabib perpetuates the myth—a myth that is prominently on display in Margarethe von Trotta’s recent film—of Arendt as an embattled apostle of truth, desperately striving to parry the ignominious sniping of an army of intellectual inferiors.
For the sake of brevity, I will only address the main lines of Benhabib’s defense. However, in reassessing this important debate, I think that it is useful to keep in mind two historical facts that fail to appear in Benhabib’s brief. First, in a letter written to Karl Jaspers on December 2, 1960, four months before the trial, Arendt mentions that she is looking forward to the proceedings insofar as they will allow her “to go and look at this walking disaster [i.e., Eichmann] face to face in all his bizarre vacuousness.” This frank avowal demonstrates that Arendt’s estimation of Eichmann’s fundamental “banality” was a preconception that she had already developed well in advance of the trial. Second, a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence indicates that so great was her impatience with the proceedings that she never saw Eichmann testify. Arendt endured chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s lengthy opening statement and, following an absence of several weeks, returned to Jerusalem to witness the final verdict. But, remarkably, she never saw Eichmann himself take the stand. (Here, one suspects that Arendt’s rather brazen disregard for the value of testimony, not to speak of the norms of journalism, is an instance of Germanic philosophical arrogance. As J. G. Fichte said, if the facts fail to accord with the sublimity of the idea, so much the worse for the facts!) With these points in mind let us turn to Benhabib’s vindication of Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis.
As I see it, the success or failure of Benhabib’s defense hinges on two main claims: her contention that Arendt’s main philosophical debt here was to Kant rather than Heidegger and Benhabib’s provocative contention that Eichmann’s anti-Semitism—and, by extension, that of the Nazis themselves—was itself banal. “He was banal,” she writes, “precisely because he was a fanatical anti-Semite, not despite it,” an assertion that, astonishingly, overshoots even Arendt’s own arguments and claims.
Arendt’s niece, Edna Brocke, aptly spoke of her aunt’s “fateful” dependency on Heidegger, and the philosophical inspiration underlying Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann as a dispassionate desk murderer clearly derives from Heidegger’s philosophical doctrines. It is on the basis of Heidegger’s fatalistic critique of modern technology as an unalterable condition of modern life that Arendt derives her view of Eichmann as a human automaton, or, following Eichmann’s own self-description during his trial, as a mere “cog” in the Nazi machinery of extermination. For evidence of Heidegger’s increasingly powerful influence on Arendt’s thinking, one need only consult the portentous opening passages of The Human Condition (1958), where she meditates on the existential significance of Sputnik (launched by the Soviets the previous year), employing the concepts of “earth” and “world” in their distinctive late-Heideggerian senses.
But the most telling evidence concerning the pedigree of Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis may be found in the Postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem’s second edition. Confronted with a burgeoning barrage of criticism, Arendt explicitly invokes Heidegger’s notion of “thoughtlessness” (Gedankenlosigkeit) in order to explain Eichmann’s status as an obedient functionary who, as it so happens, also excels at the tasks of mass annihilation. This perspective allowed Arendt to advance the shockingly myopic claim that, despite his status as the logistical mastermind of the Final Solution, Eichmann was bereft of “[criminal] motives.” Instead, in her view, what impelled his exterminatory vision of a Europe free of Jews was brazen careerism: a stereotypically bourgeois desire to ascend the bureaucratic ladder of Heinrich Himmler’s Reich Security Main Office (RSHA). As Arendt explains: “Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, [Eichmann] had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal . . . He . . . never realized what he was doing [. . .] It was sheer thoughtlessness . . . that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period”—an attitude that she goes on to describe as “banal,” “even funny.”
The recent books on Eichmann by David Cesarani, Deborah Lipstadt, and, now, most comprehensively, Bettina Stangneth demonstrate how erroneous and misguided was Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann as a simple-minded careerist or desk murderer; but also, how credulous Arendt was vis-à-vis Eichmann’s “performance” at the trial. As Stangneth observes appositely: “Eichmann-in-Jerusalem was little more than a mask.”
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Benhabib’s claim that Kant’s moral philosophy plays a systematic role in Eichmann in Jerusalem is similarly unsustainable. Arendt’s reliance on Kant’s theory of judgment—the idea that we broaden our mental horizons by virtue of our ability to reason from the standpoint of other persons—is limited to one meager passage (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 48). Moreover, in the passage in question, Kant’s name is not even mentioned. Casual allusions along these lines hardly qualify as systematic or serious employment. As most Arendt scholars are aware, Arendt only developed these Kantian precepts in earnest circa 1970, in the course of her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy and in the complementary essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations.”
Moreover, as Stangneth shows well in Eichmann Before Jerusalem, what Benhabib, following Arendt, interprets as Eichmann’s “inability to think”—his habit of responding to his interrogators with clichés and stock phrases—was essentially a ruse that Eichmann employed to provide his Israeli captors with as little substantive information as possible. As such, it had nothing to do with Eichmann’s incapacity to heed lofty Kantian precepts about “think[ing] from another’s point of view,” as Arendt contended. In fact, as the trial transcripts show, the Israeli judges immediately recognized Eichmann’s mendacious posturing and publicly reprimanded him for it (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 49). Eichmann’s attempt to invoke Kant’s categorical imperative as a cover for his murderous conduct was itself merely another attempt to provoke and deceive.
Benhabib’s allegations concerning the purported banality of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism are peculiar, since they are fundamentally at variance with Arendt’s central arguments and claims. In fact, in Eichmann in Jerusalem Arendt repeatedly insisted that Eichmann acted not out of ideological conviction, as one might expect of a fanatical anti-Semite, but as a “functionary,” an exponent of what she terms “administrative mass murder.” Thus as she declared in a 1964 interview: “I don’t believe that ideology played much of a role. To me that appears to be decisive.” These observations led Arendt to the (to my mind, quite astonishing and unacceptable) conclusion that “[Eichmann] had no criminal motives.”
Thus, it is not really the case, as Benhabib suggests, that Arendt “underestimated Eichmann’s anti-Semitism,” since, as we have seen, Arendt discounted ideological motives entirely. Consequently, Arendt’s interpretive framework leads to the implausible conclusion that someone who proudly claimed responsibility for the murder of six million Jews—and who, on more than one occasion, openly regretted that he had not killed more—remained unaffected by the reigning ideology of the regime he served: anti-Semitism.
More importantly, it is disingenuous to suggest that Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, crude though it may have been, was “banal,” since it was part of an ideological template that underwrote the extermination of European Jewry. As the historian Raul Hilberg observed: “[Arendt] did not . . . grasp the dimensions of [Eichmann’s] deed. There was no ‘banality' in this ‘evil.'”
One can debate the question of Eichmann’s alleged banality. But it was not his “banality” per se—a character trait that he presumably shared with hundreds of millions of others—that made him into one of the greatest mass murderers in history. It is at this point that ideological zealotry enters the picture. And in Eichmann’s case, we have ample evidence of his genocidal attitudes and convictions.
As evidence of Eichmann’s alleged banality, Benhabib cites the SS Obersturmbahnführer’s self-characterization from the tapes made by Nazi collaborator Willem S. Sassen of himself as a “cautious bureaucrat.” But, ironically, here, Eichmann’s self-description means exactly the opposite of what Benhabib intends it to mean. Eichmann invokes this common misapprehension only in order to deny it and to reaffirm that his leading role in the Final Solution was a matter of ideological commitment rather than simple obedience.
It is at this point that the ultimate stakes of the debate over Eichmann’s “banality” emerge most clearly. For if Eichmann was “banal,” then the Holocaust itself was banal. There is no avoiding the fact that these two claims are inextricably intertwined. But can it plausibly be said that the mass graves at Babi Yar, the manacles of Theresienstadt, the ovens of Dachau, and the torture implements at Buchenwald were, in the main, a product of “thoughtlessness”? Arendt’s defenders would have us believe, counter-intuitively, that it was the mentalité of dutiful “functionaries,” rather than impassioned anti-Semites, that produced the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, and Auschwitz. But the vast preponderance of available historical evidence tells a very different story.