Thoughtless Evil: Hannah Arendt's critique of Adolf Eichmann and the Nazis
There are two parts to Hannah Arendt's identity that made inevitable her interest in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, so inevitable she convinced the New Yorker to send her to Jerusalem to cover the event. Firstly, as a philosopher and political thinker, Arendt was perplexed by the moral collapse the Nazi regime had triggered across Europe. She considered the Nazi brand of totalitarianism unprecedented in its governance through invasion of private thought . Secondly, as a Jewish German forced to flee the Nazi regime, she was intrigued by the opportunity to see the magnitude of her Persecutor’s evil exposed by Justice. On this count, her reportage went entirely unsatisfied. She instead bore witness to a paradox of evil, which birthed an entire epistemology in The Life of the Mind.
Arendt expected to confirm that Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi administrator responsible for transporting Jews to the concentration camps, possessed the same demonic evil that drove Hitler. Arendt's surprise at Eichmann being a relatively normal 'careerist' forced her to consider the perhaps more frightening paradox that such an evil act could be committed by the everyday bureaucrat rather than a special category of 'evil person'. For Arendt, one's peace of mind could no longer rely on the fact that behind a monstrous act must always be a monster . In this sense, Arendt was perplexed by what was missing in Eichmann rather than what was there. Even more unsatisfying was the prosecution’s inability to show any positive explanation as to why Eichmann had committed these horrors against the Jewish people. As the trial progressed, the void between Eichmann’s reasons for pursuing his duties and the machinations of an evil mind only grew clearer.
Of the many ways Eichmann failed to meet Society’s concept of evil, most striking was Eichmann’s lack of fanaticism as Arendt noted ‘his was obviously also no case of insane hatred of Jews’ . Arendt contrasts the anti-Semitism inherent in Eichmann’s Judenrein project with his admiration for Jewish scholarship, highlighted by his appreciation of Der Judenstaat and the History of Zionism . Eichmann’s affinity for Zionist literature and closeness to the Jewish community leaves Arendt unable to confirm the prosecution’s assertion that Eichmann’s was an urge to harm the Jewish people. Also missing were the psychological indications of an evil pathology, Arendt espoused Eichmann’s ‘was obviously no case of moral let alone legal insanity’ after numerous psychiatrists had attested to his utter normality . Therefore, when the disappointingly normal Eichmann disputed his guilt ‘in the sense of the indictment’ , Arendt saw the necessity in bridging the gap between Society’s conception of evil and Eichmann’s failure to register the moral wrongs arising from his obedience to the ‘force of law’ in Hitler’s orders. Thus, Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem framed her conception of banal evil.
The Epistemology of Thoughtlessness
Arendt’s concept of evil unpacks around EIJ’s central proposition that Eichmann arrived at his evil actions, not with monstrous intent, but rather sheer thoughtlessness presenting as an inability to think through the horrific consequences of the Final Solution . More specifically, Eichmann did not believe his actions to be wrong but rather a virtuous fulfilling of his duties as a law-abiding citizen , following orders in a manner such that ‘Eichmann had at all times done his best to make the Final Solution final’ . In fact, Eichmann’s adherence to orders was so virtuous ‘he left no doubt that he would have killed his own father if he had received an order to that effect’ . On this basis, Arendt asserts Eichmann’s belief was not a case of acting despite knowing he was committing evil, but because ‘given a job to do, quotas to meet, senior mangers to please and mission statements to effect’ Eichmann’s conscience was never engaged because he was thoughtless. This differed entirely from Arendt’s concept of an ‘evil person’ as one who acts against their own conscience .
Arendt observed Eichmann’s thoughtlessness, ‘by no means identical with stupidity’ , was specific in its manifestation only towards the Jewish question. With no visible German opposition to the Final Solution , Eichmann’s conscience was absent in a manner that confounded morality in its adherence to the bureaucratic Nazi killing machine. For example, in September 1941, his conscience selectively rebelled against the idea of German Jews being murdered for the fact of their German-ness whilst not even pausing for thought with respect to the killing of Jews native to the East . Here, the thinking person would see a moral double standard in his opposition to murder in the one case but not the other. Instead, his conscience was guided by Nazi preservation of German-ness thereby explaining away the possibility of it adopting a double standard and instead pointing to its absence on the Jewish question where entirely present on the German question. Far from his conscience falling short of a threshold, the fact that Eichmann recognized and cherished in his family all that he was destroying for each Jewish victim clarifies his capacity for conscience was in no way diminished, leaving Arendt sure of the entirety of its absence towards the Jewish question.
In accounting for Eichmann’s paradoxical ability to at once selectively disengage his conscience towards the Final Solution and yet have no evil intent towards the Jewish people, Arendt discovered his mind’s arena to be an echo chamber of Nazi propaganda that had silenced the mind’s introspective voice with bureaucratese . Such was the power of Nazi totalitarianism that Eichmann could only articulate his conduct with language ‘self-absorbed, managerial, [and] stripped of any vestige of humanity’. The Nazi’s strict imposition of language rules had entirely normalised genocide to Eichmann’s mind with every communication reinforcing the killing of Jews as the ‘final solution’, ‘evacuation’ or ‘special treatment’. Ranging from every day language rules to Nazi laws declaring any form of opposition to be high treason , Eichmann’s mind had been invaded leaving space for neither self-expression nor spontaneity of private thought and consequently Eichmann’s private realm became nothing ‘but an executive organ which enforced’ Nazi ideology in both the private and public spheres. This existential invasion distorted Eichmann’s most basic experience-based pre-determinates , his understanding through experience-based rules, leaving him unable to come to an understanding of his world independently of the Nazi ideology. Consequently, Arendt saw Eichmann’s thoughtlessness as induced by the Nazi regime’s capacity to replace the experience-based pre-determinates of his private mind with Nazi pre-determinates.
Arendt concluded that Eichmann’s thoughtlessly bureaucratic resting pulse left him short of the ability to ‘examine situations from a variety of standpoints’ and realise their moral consequences. In short, his was a thoughtlessness that claimed his humanity.
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