Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Banality of Evil

Hannah Arendt wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil, in 1964. I read the 2006 Penguin edition which has an introduction by Amos Elon. Arendt was bitterly criticized for this book. For one thing she exposed the Judenrate, the Jews in Germany who facilitated the collection of Jews and their transportation to such sites as Auschwitz. She was also critical of Ben-Gurion for creating a “show trial.” But the key point for which she was criticized was implied in her subtitle, namely that this evil epitomized by Eichmann was banal rather than demonic. Her opinion didn’t fit the preconceptions and conclusions held and formed by many prominent Jews (especially in America) and Israelis of her day.

Elon wrote his introduction in 2006 and he was able to observe that the opinions critical of Arendt after this book was first published have been sifted and reexamined and Arendt has come out well. Her points were valid. Arendt suffered through a good deal of banal jurisprudence as she set through Eichmann’s trial. She was apparently one of those arrogant people who did not suffer fools gracefully. Also, she uses irony throughout her book and Elon says that was a mistake. It apparently allowed her enemies to ignore the irony, take these statements at face value, and claim that she said and believed things she never meant.

Elon on page xi wrote, “Evil, as she saw it, need not be committed only by demonic monsters but – with disastrous effect – by morons and imbeciles as well, especially if, as we see in our own day, their deeds are sanctioned by religious authority. . . .”

p. xiii: “In Eichmann in Jerusalem, and in the bitter controversies about it that followed, she insisted that only good had any depth. Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet – and this is its horror! -- it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.”

In Arendt’s Chapter Two, on page 21 she writes of Eichmann’s responses to the accusations. To each he pled, “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” Arendt then asks something no one asked during the trial, “In what sense then did he think he was guilty?”

Eichmann’s lawyer, Robert Servatius of Cologne answered that question in a press interview: “Eichmann feels guilty before God, not before the law, . . .”

Arendt goes on to write, “The Defense would apparently have preferred him to plead not guilty on the grounds that under the then existing Nazi legal system he had not done anything wrong, that what he was accused of were not crimes but ‘acts of state,’ over which no other state has jurisdiction (par in parem imperium non habet), that it had been his duty to obey and that, in Servatius’ words, he had committed acts ‘for which you are decorated if you win and go to the gallows if you lose.’”

COMMENT: Servatius has a good argument. The same thing could be said of those tried at Nuremburg. I personally would not want them freed because of this argument. I think we should be a bit more honest when we execute such people and call it something else, e.g., “you, Eichmann, have offended us to the extent that we believe you are deserving of death. You may not have offended Germany’s laws, but you have offended our laws and since you have declared yourself by your actions against us. We declare ourselves against you.”

This is consistent with what Arendt quotes Goebbels as saying (on page 22) “We will go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all times or as their greatest criminals.” Goebbels wasn’t wrong but we still avoid the implications of what he says, for almost immediately some Pavlovian canine will observe, “Wait a minute. Are you saying that ‘might makes right’?” The conversation will then veer off into that irresistible tangent; because “might” dare not “make right.” But I think we should set that old controversy aside and focus on our laws. We have arrested you for crimes against our state and you will be tried accordingly. Yes, it is true that if you had won the war you would be sending us off to Auschwitz, but as you have had time to observe, you didn’t.

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