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Hannah Arendt on the dangers of conformity

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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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