Friday, March 7, 2008

Eichmann in Jerusalem (excerpts)

I recently read Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem, her report on the 1961 Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann, the so-called "architect of the Holocaust." The book is disturbing, not so much because it describes the crimes perpetrated on the Jewish people by the Nazis, but because it so clearly states that the people who committed these crimes, especially Eichmann himself, were not monstrous or psychotic but ordinary and "banal" people, people who for whatever reason abnegated their ability to think and discriminate and simply handed themselves over what they all could see was a murderous agenda. I chose these passages because they focus not only on the massive moral failings of the Nazis themselves but also on the personal and intimate failings of all the people the Nazis influences, which are in many ways more frightening because of these peoples' ordinariness.

"And just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody 'Thou shalt not kill,' even though man's natural desires and inclinations may at times be murderous, so the law of Hitler's land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: 'Thou shalt kill,' although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people. Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it - the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation."


"'We knew this. We did nothing. Anyone who had seriously protested or done anything against the killing unit would have been arrested within twenty-four hours and would have disappeared. It belongs among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don't permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr's death for their convictions. A good many of us might have accepted a death. The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity. It is certain that anyone who had dared to suffer death rather than silently tolerate the crime would have sacrificed his life in vain. This is not to say that such a sacrifice would have been morally meaningless. It would only have been practically useless. None of us had a conviction so deeply rooted that we could have taken upon ourselves a practically useless sacrifice for the sake of a higher moral meaning.' Needless to say, the writer remains unaware of the emptiness of his much emphasized 'decency' in the absence of what he calls a 'higher moral meaning.'

But the hollowness of respectability - for decency under such circumstances is no more than respectability - was not what become apparent in the example afforded by Sergeant Anton Schmidt. Rather it was the fatal flaw in the argument itself, which at first sounds so hopelessly plausible. It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis' feverish attempts, from June, 1942, on, to erase all traces of the massacres - through cremation,, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing machinery - were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents 'disappear in silent anonymity' were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be 'practically useless,' at least, not in the long run. It would be of great practical usefulness for German today, not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition, if there were more such stories to be told. For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody's grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that 'it could happen' in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation."

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin, 2006. 150, 232-33.