After attending the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt claimed what was terrifying about this man was not his moral monstrosity. It was his sheer normality. She subtitled her 1963 book on the subject, Eichmann in Jerusalem, “a report on the banality of evil”.
Arendt’s phrase made its way into our broader culture. It is widely considered a salutary warning against the idea that enormous atrocities, such as the Holocaust, could never be conceived of, and carried out, again.
For Arendt, Eichmann, the principal organiser of the trains that took millions of Jewish men, women and children to concentration camps was above all an efficient, bland bureaucrat. We may find many of his kind in the modern world, her argument implied, working away efficiently in their offices, interested in building careers and not rocking the boat.
In Arendt’s version of Eichmann he was neither a convinced Nazi, nor a fanatical anti-Semite. He showed no sign of “indoctrination of any kind”, she wrote, as he testified to an Israeli court in Jerusalem. But he was unable to see the world, and what he was doing, from the perspective of others, including the victims of the actions of which he was a part.
Whenever wider reality threatened to impose itself, Arendt wrote, Eichmann would retreat behind a wall of administrative jargon and mind-numbing “cliches”. And it was this “thoughtlessness”, she claimed, that enabled him to work so well, sending millions of innocent people to their deaths in precisely scheduled trains of cattle cars to places like Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
But the publication since Eichmann’s trial of the full transcripts of audio recordings and manuscripts he produced in the 1950s – when still at large in Argentina – show he was anything but a banal bureaucrat.
A ghastly confession
Eichmann in Jerusalem, published 60 years ago, has continued to generate enormous controversies. As the prosecution successfully established during his 1961 trial, Eichmann had not always mindlessly followed orders. He even defied the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler in the last days of 1944, ordering death marches of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. (With the Third Reich collapsing, Himmler had ordered a stop to the deportations in October 1944.)
Indeed, by the time of the trial, Life magazine had published a “confession” Eichmann made to Nazi comrades in Argentina. It was drawn from the 70 so-called “Sassen tapes”, recorded in 1957, and amounting to around 1000 pages of transcript.
Even in this abridged version, the Eichmann who emerged was far from the bumbling, balding clerk who presented himself at Jerusalem. We learn that, when all was lost in the final days of the war, Eichmann told his SS coworkers that no matter what would now happen, he would “gladly jump into his grave” knowing he had been involved in the deaths of so many “enemies of the Reich”.
Concluding his ghastly confession, Eichmann went farther, underlining he regretted only that the Allies’ victory had prevented the “extermination” of all of those slated for this fate by the Nazi elites at the January 1942 Wannssea conference.
Eichmann was sentenced to death by the court in Jerusalem and executed on 31 May, 1962.
In the decades since the Eichmann trial, the full transcripts of the Sassen tapes have become available for historical assessment. We also now have a 107-page political testament written by Eichmann in 1956, entitled “The Others Have Spoken, now I want to Speak!”
These documents establish that Eichmann remained a Nazi true believer throughout his life. As the retired SS Obersturmbannführer (“Senior Storm Leader”) told his comrades in Argentina, he had never been only a pen-pusher, just doing his job:
“This cautious bureaucrat was attended by a […] fanatical warrior fighting for the freedom of my blood, which is my birthright […] what benefits my people is a sacred order and a sacred duty for me. Yes indeed.”
Eichmann was still convinced, more than a decade after Hitler’s fall, there was a Jewish “world conspiracy” and the Holocaust was a justified act of war. He was, in short, a deeply indoctrinated individual, never walking back from his ideological training near Dachau and elsewhere in the 1930s. He would lament only having been too “weak” not to have done more to effect the total annihilation of Germany’s “racial enemy”.
When in 1960-61, he was captured by the arch enemy of “his blood” and taken to their Holy City to face justice, Eichmann and his defence did everything they could to keep his Argentinian musings hidden and have the Sassen tapes disallowed as evidence. The “fanatical warrior” also morphed into the ungainly clerk next door, the man behind the glass, giving his halting testimony.
Eichmann would even try to persuade the court he was a moral universalist, a pacifist and a lover of nature who had been compelled to do bad things by a criminal government in which he never had believed.
The deception of banality
What then can we learn from Eichmann’s performance of banality at Jerusalem and the way he was able to deceive a philosopher as insightful as Hannah Arendt and, in her wake, many others?
For Nazis, as Eichmann’s writing whilst at large in Argentina attests, “the drive towards self-preservation is stronger than any so-called moral requirement”. Given “the duty to our blood” which supposedly bound everyone to their own race, universal moral rules, like “always treat others as you would yourself be treated”, were no more than deceptive tools used by weaker people(s) to subdue the superior:
“There can be no possible agreement with systems of thought of an international nature, because at bottom these are not true and not honest, but based on a monstrous lie, namely the lie of the equality of all human beings.”
In Jerusalem, Eichmann continued the ideological struggle in the best way he could. He monstrously lied, deftly playing a role he thought might appease his captors. As historian Bettina Stangneth puts it in her 2004 book, Eichmann before Jerusalem:
“As part of this masquerade, Eichmann [in 1961] described himself in terms that would previously have sent him into a screaming rage. He was now ‘small-minded’, a ‘pencil-pusher’, and a ‘pedant’, someone who ‘did not overstep his responsibilities’ – and the last of these lies may even have amused him a little.”
By presenting himself as a banal non-entity, Eichmann must also have savoured how this would deprive survivors even of a worthy object for their anger and outrage. How could anyone rightfully blame such a mediocre, inoffensive figure, without showing themselves – not the Nazis – to be vengeful, aggressive and unjust?
In his final statement, Eichmann would go so far as to suggest that, far from condemning him, the court should recognise he was a victim too.
Arendt was not fooled Eichmann was innocent. She supported the death penalty handed down by the court. Yet he deserved death, she argued, despite “the possible noncriminal nature of your [Eichmann’s] inner life and your motives […]”.
About this inner life and these noncriminal motives, she was mistaken.
To do is to deny
Eichmann remains an enduring illustration of how evil agents can use the masquerade of banality as one way to muddy the waters, deflect those who would hold them accountable and continue to deny their victims even the thin consolation of the moral high ground.
There are of course many other strategies bad actors use to try to “get away with murder”. Several of them, Eichmann had already used in Argentina, when he needed to justify his crimes only to himself, not his victims and their descendants.
These strategies include firstly, blame-shifting onto the victims. In Eichmann’s case – but he was far from alone – blame for the second world war, even for the Holocaust itself, in which Jews were murdered in millions. They “had it coming”, they “gave us no choice”, they “had every chance to avoid it”, “what else could we do?”
Second, there is creating false equivalence between what perpetrators enact and what the victims were supposedly “already up to”. The enduring ideological function of conspiracy theories, like the anti-Semitic myth of the world conspiracy at the heart of Eichmann’s Nazism, comes from creating this imaginary moral equivalence.
Such accusations of nefarious evildoing license political and other violence against enemies, repackaging it as self-defense, even when the opponent is defenceless. “Anyone who can make you believe in absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”, as the enlightenment philosopher Voltaire is reputed to have said.
Intertwined with these two rationalisations of evil is the dehumanisation of the foe. We see this in Eichmann, outside of Jerusalem, who repeatedly described the Nazi’s victims as “animals”. Sadly, we see this dehumanisation of the enemy playing out still, around the world today.
Last but not least, there is the cynicism which claims the whole world, nature itself, is a grim struggle for survival and domination, for oneself and for one’s “people”, “race”, or “nation”. This sophistical pseudo-philosophy at the heart of the SS worldview, with roots in social Darwinism, has also reemerged in corners of the internet in our times.
Presenting itself as “the hard truth”, it contends that what “goody goodies”, “social justice warriors”, “liberals” and “humanitarians” call “evil” is just the way of the world. No one can be blamed for doing whatever they think is necessary. As Eichmann philosophised in Argentina:
“the more I listened to the natural world, whether microcosm or macrocosm, the less injustice I found […] Everyone was in the right, when seen from his own standpoint.”
This thinking is why the Nazis derisively placed the slogan “To each their own” above the gates at Buchenwald concentration camp.
Evil, denial and deceit
The philosophical challenge posed by Arendt’s book, given what we now know, is not that of getting our heads around the banality of evil. It is that of reconsidering the connection, always at the heart of Biblical understandings, between evil and the kind of deceptions Eichmann continued to practice until the end.
Philosopher Claudia Card has defined evil as involving intolerable harms against others, culpably carried out by people who know exactly what they are doing. What the Eichmann case highlights is how, for social creatures like human beings, such actions can usually only succeed – unless and until, a total asymmetry of power is created – through concealment and deception.
There is first, the luring, bating and deceiving of the victims. Eichmann’s SS comrades and their associates told the Jewish deportees they were being “resettled”, they needed to be showered on arrival, they would receive food and coffee afterwards, that there was nothing to fear.
Secondly, there is the self-deception involved in justifying the evil to the perpetrators themselves: recasting it as necessary, truly unavoidable, a difficult, heroic task, as Himmler infamously argued to the SS in his October 1943 Posen speeches. It is here that ideological indoctrination is especially important, despite Arendt’s claims in Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Thirdly, there is the deception involved in hiding the actions, so outsiders do not discover the crimes and hold the perpetrators to account. This is why Himmler ordered that all the bodies from the Nazis’ mass slaughters were, as far as possible, to be exhumed and incinerated after 1942, so as to leave no trace. The killing facilities themselves were then mostly destroyed before the Soviets arrived.
There is surely nothing banal about any of this. Many lines need to be crossed to get ordinary human beings to believe that committing atrocities against others, then concealing and belittling them, is defensible or even admirable.
It may be true that all humans, all societies, are capable of becoming so corrupted as to come to see destroying others’ lives, outside of open combat, as a needed or heroic thing. But societies cannot typically survive undamaged, let alone flourish, if a culture of systematic lying is fostered and allowed to grow.
Ordinary democratic citizenship, civility and public life depend on not allowing the mendacity of evil, of which Adolf Eichmann provides one extraordinary example, to become the norm. This is why better understanding his case remains so vital today.
This article is adapted from this year’s Simone Weil Lecture at the Australian Catholic University.