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.”