Arendt, Banality, and Benhabib: A Final Rejoinder

Before I turn to the specific claims that Seyla Benhabib has raised in her New York Times column criticizing my original review of Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem, “The Banality of Evil: The Death of a Legend,” and in her response to my subsequent rebuttal in these pages, one essential point must be clarified. The issue at hand is the viability of Arendt’s controversial “banality of evil” thesis as an interpretation of Eichmann’s motivations and status as a mass murderer. Benhabib’s attempts to shift the terrain of debate to a general discussion of the intricacies and merits of Arendt’s political philosophy are a distraction and largely beside the point. Consequently, Benhabib frequently scratches where there is no itch.

As I pointed out, Arendt had clearly arrived at her view of Eichmann’s “banality” well in advance of the trial. As evidence, I cited a letter that Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers on December 2, 1960 in which she writes of Eichmann that she wants “to view this walking disaster face to face in all of his bizarre vacuousness.” Benhabib writes that I “neglect to emphasize that far from avoiding seeing Eichmann on the stand, Arendt made sure to see and listen to the man.” On the contrary, what this sentence clearly shows is that four months before the trial had begun Arendt already knew what she would witness: “bizarre vacuousness,” or, as she would later put it, “thoughtlessness,” or most famously, “banality.”

As for the disputed (and now much-blogged) issue of how much of Eichmann’s actual trial testimony Arendt may have witnessed is concerned, the verdict is still out. In his Politics of Memory, historian Raul Hilberg wrote that Judging from [Arendt’s] subsequently published correspondence with Jaspers, she left Jerusalem after a stay of ten weeks, just three days before Adolf Eichmann’s own extensive testimony began.In what has become the standard biography of Eichmann, the eminent British historian David Cesarani writes that Arendt’s understanding of Eichmann’s character was distorted by “the fact that she was only in Jerusalem for a fraction of the trial and could only have seen him testify for a few hours.”

The dates in question are June 20 to June 23, 1961, the first few days of Eichmann’s defense testimony. Arendt had written Karl Jaspers that she planned to be in Jerusalem on those days (as far as I can tell, there is no independent source of verification that she followed through with these plans and was in the courtroom). But even assuming, for the sake of argument, that Arendt did actually view Eichmann take the stand, the trial record indicates that the proceedings she would have witnessed were largely concerned with formalities, such as the admission of documents and testimony into evidence. In those initial days Eichmann was, as Cesarani says, only on the stand for a few hours. More importantly: Arendt certainly never saw Eichmann as Eichmann, insofar as she missed the testy to and fro of prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s lengthy and intense cross-examination in its entirety. As Cesarani observes:

So, at most [Arendt] only saw Eichmann in action for four days. During this spell he was answering friendly questions and was at his most bureaucratic, drily explaining for the benefit of the court the course of his career and how his office operated . . . She never saw Hausner in action during the cross-examination and she never experienced Eichmann’s trenchant defense. Her insight into his character came from watching him sitting mutely in his box, hearing a few taped extracts from his interrogation, and, mainly, poring over the transcripts of his interrogation and the trial record that her friend Kurt Blumenfeld sent to her in New York.

As Cesarani remarks appositely in conclusion: “It was on this relatively slender thread that one of the most influential books about the Nazi mass murder of the Jews and genocide in the twentieth century was left hanging.” Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem further documents just how slender and misleading a thread it was.

Benhabib’s allegation that this criticism was driven exclusively by a concern with Heidegger (her cherchez Heidegger line), along with the undignified assertion that, “for Wolin, Arendt is always a foolish woman in love,” are also misleading. Here, readers may check for themselves. In my original JRB article, Heidegger plays a minor role: In a 4,800-word essay, his name appears merely five times. By the same token, is it really so far-fetched to suggest that, following Arendt’s reconciliation with Heidegger in 1950, her views on the merits of his philosophy underwent a positive transformation?


Nonetheless, I find myself in agreement with many of the constructive arguments that Benhabib has made here and elsewhere concerning Arendt’s virtues as a political thinker—especially her account of the ways in which Arendt strove to remedy the conceptual shortfalls of Heidegger’s “fundamental ontology.” As Benhabib indicates, in elaborating concepts such as “plurality” and “love of the world,” Arendt sought to counteract the neo-Gnostic, tendential misanthropy of Heidegger’s philosophy of existence, in which notions such as “Falling,” “Angst,” and “Being-Toward-Death” predominate.

In Eichmann in Jerusalem Arendt sought to promote the analytical value of “thoughtlessness” as a corollary to her “banality of evil” thesis and as an explanation for Eichmann’s actions as the SS official in charge of the logistical arrangements for the Final Solution. In order to justify this conclusion, Arendt asserts that, aside from an interest in advancing his career, Eichmann “had no motives at all.” Instead, she continues, “he never realized what he was doing. . . It was sheer thoughtlessness . . . that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.” It is simply false to suggest that, at the time of the trial, the evidence of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism was lacking. Here, I urge Benhabib to consult the extremely fair-minded verdict that was reached by the Israeli judges, not to mention those portions of the Sassen tapes that were already available.

Because “thoughtlessness,” as an explanation for Eichmann’s conduct, is so manifestly flawed (it is a trait, presumably, shared by tens of millions), I thought it important to reflect on the biographical circumstances, aside from its manifest indebtedness to Heidegger’s concept of Gedanklosigkeit,that may have led Arendt to suggest it. It was at this point that I raised the legitimate question of Arendt’s desire to immunize German intellectual and cultural traditions, with which she so profoundly identified, from their share of responsibility for the European catastrophe. It was this orientation that led Arendt to declare, against all countervailing evidence (e.g., Max Weinreich’s by then venerable 1946 study, Hitler’s Professors), that Nazism was a “gutter-born phenomenon” that “had nothing to do with the language of the humanities or the history of ideas.” Analogous considerations induced me to reflect on the topicality of the critique of “mass society” circa the early 1960s – a frequent topic of discussion among the Partisan Review crowd with whom Arendt was close—and a conjuncture that added a measure of topical plausibility to Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann as a mere “functionary” who was, as she put it, devoid of “criminal motives.”

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The Origins of Totalitarianism remains, as Benhabib’s suggests, “a rich exploration of many elements and configurations in modern societies.” But it is also, at points, seriously flawed in ways that directly bear on Arendt’s understanding of Jewish themes in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Origins’ most controversial shortcoming concerns Arendt’s discussion of anti-Semitism. As many historians have pointed out, Arendt too readily reproduced the stereotypes and clichés of the anti-Semitic literature of the period, thereby confusing “representation” with “reality.” (At one point, she goes so far as to positively cite the anti-Semitic Nazi historian Walter Frank.) As David Nirenberg observes in his recent book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, “Arendt’s attitudes to Jewish questions” were profoundly shaped by “concepts themselves produced by a history of criticizing Judaism, and hampered by that history when it came to producing a critique of the anti-Jewish critique.”

Nevertheless, in my view, Arendt was on the right track in Origins when she described Nazism as an instance of “absolute” or “radical” evil. Anyone who is seriously concerned with recovering what is of value in Arendt’s political thought must account for the discrepancy between this approach and the more problematic one she later took in describing Adolf Eichmann as banal.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt viewed Nazism as a manifestation of “radical evil,” insofar as, as she explains in her preface, its crimes could “no longer be deduced from humanly comprehensible motives.” Summarizing her thesis, she goes on to assert: “if it is true that in the final stages of totalitarianism an absolute evil appears . . . it is also true that without it we might never have known the truly radical nature of Evil.” Arendt returned to this idea in an oddly titled companion essay, “The Eggs Speak Up,” where she asserted that, “Totalitarianism . . . constitutes the central political issue of our time . . . all other evils of the century show a tendency eventually to crystallize into that one supreme and radical evil we call totalitarian government.”

Here it is worth noting that Arendt derived her notion of “radical evil” from Kant’s treatise, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. This Kantian derivation is significant, since it shows that, for Arendt, “radical evil” is devoid of theological implications. For Kant, radical evil occurs when men or women violate the moral law, not as a result of inattention or moral frailty, but intentionally: out of self-love and in willful defiance of what the moral law commands. To her credit, Arendt’s employment of this idea represents a fruitful and conceptually rigorous application of Kant’s moral philosophy in an era of well-nigh unprecedented historical crisis.


Finally, and to cut through what has become a very thick smokescreen: There is no historian left on the planet willing to defend the view that Arendt’s phrase, the “banality of evil,” represents an accurate description of Eichmann’s motivations. Everything else—including the fine points of Arendt’s Kant-interpretation—is beside the point. The fact that Arendt discusses Kant’s theory of judgment in “The Crisis of Culture” is edifying, but it doesn’t change the fact that Kant’s doctrine surfaces only once in Eichmann in Jerusalem, and, in the passage in question, Kant himself is not even named.

Benhabib insists that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil has retained its analytical value. As she puts it in her response: “the quality of a deed in politics and morality can very well transcend the person and motives of the doer.” But what do these words actually mean? And what historical phenomena or events do they help us to understand? Was the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis in less than three full months at the hands of machete-wielding Hutus an act of “thoughtlessness”? What about the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who between 1975 and 1979 were either tortured or starved to death in the notorious Killing Fields? In situations like these, does the notion of the banality of evil contribute anything of genuine value? After all, we might conceivably describe the great mass of humanity as “banal” or “thoughtless”—as Heidegger did when he spoke of “das Man,” and as Arendt implied in The Origins of Totalitarianism in her discussion of the “mob”—but does that really make them génocidaires in statu nascendi? To propose such an interpretive scheme would serve only to trivialize and avoid the momentous historical issues at stake. As Jeffrey Herf has remarked:

The problem with Eichmann in Jerusalem—and perhaps one reason for its global popularity—was not only that it offered a Final Solution . . . without anti-Semitism . . . [but also] a Holocaust without Germans. It became an event that could have happened anywhere but for unexplained reasons just happened to take place in German speaking Europe. It is interesting that [Arendt’s] flight into abstractions had as much influence as it had on historians, whose craft lies . . . in interpretation of particularities of time and place.

Following Arendt, Benhabib is comfortable with such abstractions. But what we really need in all of the aforementioned cases are explanations that dig deeper and are more contextually focused. Benhabib also writes that “as an intellectual historian and as a Jew, Wolin may take comfort in thinking that anti-Semitism is demonic, perpetrated only by sado-masochistic perverts and blood thirsty liars,” whereas she, following Arendt, takes a more sophisticated view. What is at issue is, or at any rate ought to be, our arguments, not our identities. Were I a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Protestant, or a woman, my arguments would possess the same cogency—or lack of cogency. Nor have I ever claimed that Eichmann was “demonic,” “perverted,” or diabolical. This is a willful misattribution and, more importantly, an attempt to avoid dealing with what Eichmann in fact was: a believer in genocidal anti-Semitism.

Thoughtlessness comes in a variety of guises. One of them is academic hero-worship: reverence for an intellectual icon in the face of a burgeoning mass of evidence indicating that she may have grievously erred. Perhaps Kant said it best in his famous essay “What is Enlightenment?” when he observed that, “Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another . . . Dogmas and formulas . . . are the ball and chain of his permanent immaturity.”

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About the Author

Richard Wolin is Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of many books, including Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse (Princeton University Press).


docjmilleriii on October 16, 2014 at 1:56 pm
It is especially bizarre that anyone would continue to defend the idea that "thoughtlessness" could explain Nazi behavior, given that Arendt's philosophical idol, Heidegger, could hardly be accused of thoughtlessness, and yet he was nevertheless an ardent Nazi. Arendt's preoccupation with thoughtlessness in her later works is a philosophical and political dead end, as I argued in a review essay some years ago:

James Miller, New School for Social Research
apologues on October 18, 2014 at 4:18 pm
When a writer is as wrong as Richard Wolin, it is easy to bog down answering every half-sentence. I'm going to restrict myself to one half-sentence, which is, astoundingly, true: his assertion, near the end, that Eichmann was "a believer in genocidal anti-Semitism."

His problem, which he has in common with all the other commentators who have so catastrophically misunderstood Arendt – Norman Podhoretz, Lionel Abel, and Saul Bellow during Round 1, and a bevy of film reviewers during Round 2 – is his inability to reconcile this simple statement of fact with a second statement of fact: that Eichmann evinced banality in his essential thoughtlessness.

Presumably this is because he cannot conceive of calling genocidal bigotry "banal," when its consequences are so horrific. So whether he cops to it or not, his argument is that a deed so evil must originate in thoughts correspondingly evil. Put another way, a deed so murderously physical and specific and concrete can only emanate from thoughts that are equally maleficent and concrete.

Yet who does not know how carelessly humans think in extravagantly gigantic abstractions? Throughout the 19th century, millions of Europeans, Richard Wagner among the most obsessive of them, talked blandly about solving the "Jewish problem." They pictured a continent that would be ethnically cleansed, but few if any of them pictured achieving this by means of 11 million acts of murder that would have to be carried out one at a time by cadres of executioners armed with machine guns and poison gas. In my own lifetime, people spoke casually of wiping the Soviet Union off the map.

The value of Arendt's book was to bring us news that is even worse than we thought: a genocide, which could be said to be by definition an eruption of malevolence and murder, does not find its concomitant in a corresponding amount of internalized hatred and homicidality in the tens of thousands of actual perpetrators. It turns out – and the post by Saksin reminding us about Stanley Milgram's experiments calls our attention to this unhappy fact – that the perpetrators may be psychologically normal people who simply go along to get along. This is why Christopher Browning titled his study of a killing unit "Ordinary Men." (Yes, he too claims that Arendt was duped – that she had the right theory but the wrong exemplar of it. Wolin is swimming with the tide, unfortunately.)

Arendt never portrayed Eichmann the way Wolin pretends she did: as a mere paper-pusher, an automaton following orders, an ineffectual nebbish. He was not the "logistical mastermind" of the Final Solution, which absurdly over-estimates his importance; but he did his job assiduously, thoroughly, and all too well, and that is what brought him to Jerusalem. He believed in duty in the abstract, but he also believed in this particular duty: the Jews having been identified by the Fuhrer as enemies of the Reich, and their physical extermination having been decreed, he was completely on board with the mission. All this is in Arendt's book, which ends with her defense of his execution.

The question that interested Arendt was psychological: What is the phenomenology of a man who organizes the transport of millions of individuals to extermination camps? What motivates him? What does he think he is doing?

She concluded that Eichmann did not realize that what he was doing was wrong. When his task changed abruptly, from helping Jews emigrate to Palestine to sending them to death camps, he experienced a moment of disequilibrium, which she attributed to the normal workings of a human conscience. With the kind of sarcasm that offended many readers, she asked rhetorically how long the conscience of an Eichmann might remain normal in the conditions of the Third Reich, and answered "about four weeks." Soon after he received the order for the Final Solution, he diverted a trainload of Jews from a death camp to a work camp on his own initiative; but after this single gesture indicating an initial discomfort with his task, he got with the program and for the next four years worked with tremendous diligence to meet and exceed all expectations.

Hitler was a fanatical anti-Semite, consumed by a paranoid world-view; and Hitler was Eichmann's idol. So Eichmann signed on to Hitler's ideology. Perhaps Arendt should not have described Eichmann as devoid of ideological fervor; but there is a difference between someone who deeply inhabits a Judeophobic pathology and someone who jumps on the bandwagon. Eichmann did not live and breathe anti-Semitic vitriol. He was merely, like millions of his countrymen, a committed Nazi.

Stangneth says that Eichmann "was capable of powerful arguments." Which arguments would she be referring to? That Jews could not meet the "blood and soil" requirement for nationhood because they lacked a soil, so were destined to be parasitic on other nations? That they sucked the life out of the healthy people to whom they attached themselves? That they imported all manner of pornography and decadence into Germany, including abstract art and twelve-tone music, in order to weaken the Aryan host? That their elders had met in a secret conclave and created protocols for taking over the world? That they were the virus infecting both Bolshevism and Wall Street? That Social Darwinism was scientifically correct in decreeing that only the fittest race will survive? All this sounds like intellectual trash to me, and I'm not going to upgrade it because millions believed it then and millions still do.

Hitler believed it in his very bones. His last official act was to command defeated Germany to maintain, under Allied occupation, the racial laws. Eichmann believed it only because Hitler believed it. If Hitler had suddenly ordered all the Jews to be resettled on the Italian Riviera, Eichmann would have made those trains run on time also. There is a difference between someone who believes the Anti-Semitic Theory of Everything and who seeks power in order to put this ideology into lethal effect – someone who thinks morning, noon, and night about the Jewish Peril – and someone who joins the SS in 1932 and sets his sights on someday receiving the insignia of full colonel.

I don't know how other people define banality, but here's one way I would define it. As a human being, I take it that my highest priority should be understanding what conduces to spiritual health and moral rectitude and ordering my life accordingly. I want my life to matter in the right way. If I think that what matters is how high I climb a career ladder, I'm already one degree of banal. If, in picking out the ladder to climb, I turn my moral conscience over to a paranoid hate-filled rabble-rouser with a penchant for murder, I call that a further degree of banal – and this doesn't change if he is subsequently named chancellor of the nation. If the ideology of this leader is as empirically threadbare and deranged as the Anti-Semitic Theory of Everything, I've now gone to pretty nearly the last degree of banality. If I then say to myself, and subsequently testify in open court, that I'm actually a Kantian, that I believe a man must fulfill his moral duty in the teeth of his inclination, and my moral duty is to obey my Fuhrer and murder 11 million people on his orders even though my inclination might be to save at least a few of the Jews I have met and liked, am I acquitted of banality, or am I convicted once and for all? If I do all this WITH A CLEAR CONSCIENCE, not because, like Hitler, I am so mentally aberrant that I believe in the historic greatness of my deed and that Europeans in the future will recognize it and celebrate it, but because, like Eichmann, I think that Hitler was the right person to turn my conscience over to, am I not a moral imbecile?

But this raises the question of how we are to think about toxic anti-Semitism. I understand that for Jews, this is not merely academic. But in trying to understand genocidal evil, how far does it take us to keep insisting that the perpetrators were, as Podhoretz said, "vicious anti-Semites"? The critics of Arendt all want to substitute for the banality of thoughtlessness a diabolical criminal intent. But the historical record is clear, not only about the Holocaust, but about every other mass slaughter: the perpetrators believe in the goodness and morality of their act. ISIS wishes to establish the kingdom of God on earth; it exterminates only those humans so bereft of elementary decency that they oppose God's will. Its members believe, not that they are the diabolical criminals, but that they are ELIMINATING the diabolical criminals.

The other error that Wolin makes throughout is his assumption that Arendt renounced her view of the Nazis as agents of "radical evil" and substituted the formula "the banality of evil." Not a bit of it. She changed her wording but still spoke of the Nazi phenomenon as an evil without parallel in human history, and a new type of criminal regime. But what is the individual building block of a genocidal edifice? In the words of Jari Kauppinen, "if radical evil is a theory then the banality of evil is the practice."

The Holocaust is the ne plus ultra of evil. Those who perpetrated it achieved the uttermost of evil. Not everyone knows that, apparently, but Arendt certainly knew it. The question is how it happened. The question is how we are to understand the perpetrators. All the criticism of Arendt boils down to a childish demur: she hasn't made Eichmann enough of a monster. But she thought that wasn't a job for a grown-up. He was already monstrous enough: he cheerfully scheduled the trains to Auschwitz. If Wolin, and Deborah Lipstadt, and Daniel Goldhagen, can refashion him as Sauron or Darth Satan, where will that take us? There may be a primitive satisfaction in putting horns on him, but it won't help us much when, say, our own nation becomes a torture regime, and its memo-writing lawyers ape the functionaries of the Third Reich and legalize the moral atrocities retrospectively, and the perpetrators sleep as comfortably in their beds at home as Eichmann slept.

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