Hannah Arendt on the dangers of conformity
by Claudia Moscovici
The controversy surrounding Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the banality of evil centers upon the perception that the author blamed the Jewish leaders for being coerced to play an active role in the Holocaust. Arendt states: “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter in the whole dark story” (117). She goes on to argue: “The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and fearless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people” (125). In my opinion, this statement constitutes a factual observation rather than a moral indictment. It was common knowledge, way before Arendt pointed it out, that the Nazis used the local Jewish leaders to create Jewish Councils in countries under Nazi control. It was equally well known that the role of the Jewish Councils was to round up the Jews in the ghettos, govern them temporarily and write up the lists of the misfortunate people that were supposed to be deported to concentration camps. Yet Arendt doesn’t cast moral blame upon the Jewish leaders. She makes it very clear that they were largely motivated by a mixture of fear, incomplete knowledge (of Nazi plans) and wishful thinking. They hoped that by cooperating with the Nazis they could appease the enemy and save at least part of the local Jewish population from harm. That proved to be a false hope.
Yet Arendt suggests that those who have never been placed in such an impossible situation shouldn’t throw stones at those who were. Some even asked the victims: “Why did you not protest?” (11) She points out the insensitivity of this question, which rests upon the implicit value judgment that the victims could and should have protested. Yet, in that horrific context, almost nobody did. “But the sad truth of the matter,” Arendt observes, “is that the point was ill taken, for no non-Jewish group or people had behaved differently” (11). This is an important point, since non-Jews were not only much greater in numbers than Jews—hence their protests would have carried more force—but also they were not as oppressed, so they would have had more opportunities to protest.
I believe that Arendt doesn’t specifically indict the Jewish leaders for their (coerced) complicity in the Holocaust, as some claim, but rather offers a general warning about the dangers of conformity to evil plans. One of the most striking examples she offers of the evil of conformity is the Nazi conference aimed to organize the implementation of the Final Solution. The Nazi leaders discussed the logistics of killing millions of innocent people as if deciding genocide were just another day at the office. None of them voiced any moral objections or even mentioned humanitarian considerations. They focused instead on the practical difficulties of deporting and exterminating millions of people. This meeting decided the fate of millions. Yet the Nazi leaders treated it as a routine administrative matter and networking opportunity: as she puts it, “’a cozy little social gathering’ designed to strengthen personal contacts” (113).
Arendt also offers an important counterexample, of the Danish people, who refused on principle to adopt immoral measures against the Jews. “What happened then,” Arendt observes, “was truly amazing; compared with what took place in other European countries, everything went topsy-turvy” (172). Not only did the Danish military commanders reject the Nazi discriminatory measures against the Jews on humanitarian grounds but also, surprisingly, even Dr. Werner Best, the SS military commander sent over by Hitler to Denmark to oversee such measures, refused to implement them.
Still discussing the principled position of the Danes, Arendt returns to the question of the role of the Jewish leaders. She illustrates that Jews who had the support of the local non-Jewish population—and thus some genuine hope of saving their people through resistance—could, indeed, behave courageously. The Dutch Jewish leaders refused to round up fellow Jews for deportation. They even forewarned people in synagogues about when the SS would go door to door to seize Jews and deport them. More strikingly, when faced with widespread opposition, even the local SS leaders lost their “toughness” on the Jewish question.
The exceptional case of Denmark in the history of the Holocaust shows, according to Arendt, “That the ideal of ‘toughness,’ except, perhaps, for a few half-demented brutes, was nothing but a myth of self-deception, concealing a ruthless desire for conformity at any price…” (175). Evil actions often stem from the indifference or cooperation of a large number of ordinary individuals with inhumane orders designed by very few–yet powerful–evil leaders. Because it doesn’t take much initiative to conform—sometimes the failure to protest is enough–the “banality of evil” continues to pose a real danger for any country in any era. Conformity by the majority with the wrong principles and laws makes it possible for a few disordered human beings to inflict immeasurable harm upon humanity. This is the root of the banality of evil.
Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon