Category Archives: Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt on the dangers of conformity


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



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Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: What is the banality of Evil?

Adolf Eichmann during trial, Wikipedia Commons

Adolf Eichmann during trial, Wikipedia Commons

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: What is the banality of Evil?

 By Claudia Moscovici

 The wonderful new movie, Hannah Arendt (2012), directed by Margarethe von Trotta and starring Barbara Sukowa, shows that Arendt’s series of articles on Adolf Eichmann’s trial, covered by The New Yorker in 1961 and subsequently published under the title of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Books, New York, 1963), was a double-edged sword in her career.  On the one hand, it gave Arendt a broader mainstream visibility, in part because of the international controversy it generated. On the other hand, this very controversy cost her several valuable friendships and even jeopardized her reputation in the academia. The controversy hinges upon the manner in which Arendt describes the nature of evil that characterizes the worst genocide in human history: the Holocaust.

Her explanation, captured by the phrase “the banality of evil,” posits that evil deeds are, for the most part, not perpetrated by monsters or sadists. Most often, they are perpetrated by seemingly ordinary people like Adolf Eichmann, who value conformity and narrow self-interest over the welfare of others. The concept of the banality of evil seems intuitive enough. Nontheless, it generated a huge controversy, primarily because critics interpreted it as exonerating Adolf Eichmann and indicting the victims of the Holocaust: particularly the Jewish leaders who were compelled by the Nazis to organize the Jewish people for mass deportations and eventual extermination.

Was Arendt putting the criminals and the victims in the same boat? Or, even worse, does her notion of the banality of evil end up blaming the victims? I don’t think so. In what follows, I’d like to explain why by outlining Arendt’s two explanations of the banality of evil: the first one being people who naturally lack empathy and conscience in any circumstances (like Eichmann) and who thrive in totalitarian regimes; the second understood as evil actions (or callous indifference) that even people who do have a conscience are capable of under extreme circumstances.

1.     Adolf Eichmann and the banality of psychopathy

Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Nazi regime and one of the key figures in the Holocaust. With initiative and enthusiasm, he organized the mass deportations of the Jews first to ghettos and then to extermination camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Once Germany lost the war, he fled to Argentina. Years later, he was captured by the Mossad and extradited to Israel. In a public trial, he was charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was found guilty and executed by hanging.

In her accounts of the trial, Arendt is struck by the contrast between Eichmann’s monstrous deeds and his average appearance and banal, technocratic language. Unlike other Nazi leaders notorious for crimes against humanity, such as Amon Goeth or Josef Mengele, Eichmann didn’t seem to be a disordered sadist. More remarkably given his actions against the Jewish people, unlike Hitler, Eichmann wasn’t even particularly anti-Semitic.

Although six psychiatrists testified during the trial to Eichmann’s apparent “normality,” in her articles Arendt emphasizes the fact that his normalcy is only a mask. In fact, she highlights the aspects of his behavior under questioning that were anything but normal: his self-contradictions, lies, evasiveness, denial of blame about the crimes he did commit and inappropriate boasting about his power and role in the Holocaust for crimes there’s no evidence he committed. Arendt is particularly struck by this man’s absolute lack of empathy and remorse for having sent hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths. To each count he was charged with, Eichmann pleaded “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” (p. 21) This leads Arendt to ask: “In what sense then did he think he was guilty?” (p. 21) His defense attorney claimed that “Eichmann feels guilty before God, not before the law,” but Arendt points out that Eichmann himself never acknowledges any such moral culpability.

If he denies any moral responsibility it’s because, as Arendt is astonished to observe, he doesn’t feel any. Although, surprisingly enough, none of the forensic psychologists see Eichmann as a psychopath, Arendt describes Eichmann in similar terms Hervey Cleckley uses to describe psychopathic behavior in his 1941 groundbreaking book, The Mask of Sanity. First and foremost, Eichmann is a man with abnormally shallow emotions. Because of this, he also lacks a conscience. Even though he understands the concept of law, he has no visceral sense of right and wrong and can’t identify with the pain of others. His extraordinary emotional shallowness impoverishes not only his sense of ethics, but also his vocabulary. Arendt gives as one of many examples Eichmann’s desire to “find peace with his former enemies” (p. 53). Arendt states that “Eichmann’s mind was filled to the brim with such sentences” (p.53). These stock phrases are a manifestation of Eichmann’s empty emotional landscape; his behavior towards the Jews even more so.

It is surprising to me that in a review of Hannah Arendt the movie that also focuses on Eichmann in Jerusalem, Mark Lilla believes that Hannah Arendt was duped by Eichmann’s mask of sanity. He argues that Arendt’s search for a more general explanation of evil blinded her to Eichmann’s particular disorder: “But the other impulse, to find a schema that would render the horror comprehensible and make judgment possible, in the end led her astray. Arendt was not alone in being taken in by Eichmann and his many masks, but she was taken in.” (Mark Lilla, “Arendt and Eichmann: The New Truth,” The New York Review of Books, November 21, 2013). In her description of Adolf Eichmann as a man without conscience and empathy, I didn’t see any evidence that she was duped by him in the same way the psychiatrists testifying at his trial obviously were.

Yet, Arendt emphasizes, even ordinary people capable of empathy and remorse can still cause extraordinary harm in unusual circumstances.  This constitutes the second understanding of the banality of evil she develops: namely, the banality of conformity, which is what I’ll cover next week.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

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Totalitarianism: A Modern Curse

Totalitarianism is a modern phenomenon. It is stronger and more intrusive than dictatorship or autocracy. Totalitarian regimes control not only the state, the military, the judicial system and the press, but also reach into people’s minds, to dictate what they should say, think and feel. Hannah Arendt has argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism that one of the key features of the totalitarian state is its system of indoctrination, propaganda, isolation, intimidation and brainwashing—instigated and supervised by the Secret Police—which transforms classes, or thoughtful individuals able to make relatively sound political decisions, into masses, or people who have been so beaten down that they become apathetic and give their unconditional loyalty to the totalitarian regime. Although scholars such as Hannah Arendt, Robert Conquest and Vladimir Tismaneanu have elegantly explained the rise (and fall) of communist governments in Eastern Europe, it’s the vivid descriptions we find in the fiction and memoirs of the epoch–George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Natalia Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind and Lena Constante’s The Silent Escape—that take readers into the daily horrors, the dramatic Kafkaesque show trials, the physical and psychological torture and the general sense of hopelessness that characterizes life under totalitarian regimes. The writers I have just mentioned tend to focus mostly on the Stalinist period, during which the state governed through arbitrary displays of power and terror, sending millions of people to their deaths in labor and concentration camps. Yet as many who lived under totalitarian rule in Eastern Europe during the post-Stalinist era would claim, the milder, “velvet” form of totalitarianism was depressing and depleting in its own way, killing people’s hope and humanity even though it did not physically claim as many lives.

My own novel, Velvet Totalitarianism,  introduces students and the general public to the post-Stalinist phase of totalitarianism, focusing on Romania under the Ceausescu dictatorship, through the dual optic of scholarship and fiction. First I provide information about the Ceausescu regime: its feared Securitate (or Secret Police); the human rights abuses and outrageous domestic policies which left the Romanian people hungry and demoralized; the dictator’s narcissistic personality cult; the infamous orphanages, which were a direct result of the regime’s inhumane and irrational birth control policies, and the events that led to the Romanian revolution, first in the Timisoara uprising and then in Bucharest, where the dictator and his wife were deposed, put on their own show trial and executed in December, 1989. To do so, I synthesize information presented by other scholarly works, memoirs and textbooks on the subject, including Vladimir Tismaneanu’s Stalinism for all Seasons (2003), Peter Cipokowski’s Revolution in Eastern Europe (1991), Andrei Codrescu’s A Hole in the Flag (1991) and Ion Pacepa’s Red Horizons (1987).

Then I translate these events into fiction, to give readers a more palpable sense of what it felt like to live in Romania under the Ceausescu regime. I also attempt to capture the mixture of cynicism and hope that characterized one of the most bloody anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe. My novel depicts the experiences of a family living under the Ceausescu regime whose son gets entangled in a web set up by the Securitate. The story then traces the family’s difficult process of immigrating to the United States as well as the sometimes comical cultural challenges of adapting to America. The main characters arrive in Eastern Europe on vacation during the period of revolutionary upheavals in both Czechoslovakia and Romania, whose events they witness first-hand.

The parts of the novel that focus specifically on Romania constitute more of a fictionalized autobiography or a memoir in that they’re partly based on my family’s personal experience of communism. I say “fictionalized” since having left Romania at the age of eleven, my memories are undoubtedly skewed by a childlike perspective as well as by the passage of time. The factual information about the Securitate, Ceausescu’s policies and the Romanian revolution I depict here, however, is also based on research rather than just on memories and anecdotal accounts. The fiction inspired by real life helps individuate a mass phenomenon. In a post-Cold War era where totalitarian communism has become just another page in history books, fact and fiction are complimentary rather than opposites. Fiction can make what may now seem like a long-gone, dead epoch, and the anonymous suffering of millions of people, seem vivid, significant and real again.

Yet whichever perspective one chooses, fact or fiction, what is being described here is essentially the same reality: conditions in Romania during the so-called “Epoch of Light” were notoriously miserable. People had to wait in long lines for meager supplies of food, clothing and household goods. There was limited heat and hot water. By the late 1970’s, the Secret Police had installed microphones in virtually every home and apartment. The whole population lived in fear. As a Romanian citizen said to a French journalist following the fall of the Ceausescu regime, “It was a system that didn’t destroy people physically—not many were actually killed; but it was a system that condemned us to a fight for the lowest possible level of physical and spiritual nourishment. Under Ceausescu, some people died violently, but an entire population was dying.”

Although this book focuses mostly on Romania, hundreds of millions of Eastern Europeans led similar lives to the ones I describe, struggling daily against poverty, hunger, state indoctrination, surveillance, censorship and oppression in post-Stalinist communist regimes. In actuality, “velvet” totalitarianism was insidious rather than soft and gentle, killing your spirit even when it spared your life.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

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