The new English translation of Bettina Stangneth’s “Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer,” is the latest in a long line of scholarship that aims to illuminate the inner life of Adolf Eichmann, one of Nazi Germany’s most notorious, and most analyzed, figures. Based on troves of memoir, notes and interviews given by Eichmann in Argentina, where he lived under the pseudonym Ricardo Clement between 1950 and 1960, it is an impressive historical study — one that underscores the fanatical nature of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism.
In ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ and after, it was Kant, not Heidegger, who was foremost on Hannah Arendt’s mind.
Much of the reaction to the book hinges on how these new findings reflect on Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” her 1963 work based on her witnessing of Eichmann’s trial, which famously depicted him as the embodiment of “the banality of evil.” This is not surprising, given the echo in Stangneth’s English title, and the enduring controversy generated by Arendt’s interpretation, which arouses outrage for allegedly diminishing Eichmann’s moral culpability for his role in the Holocaust. While discussion of the original 2011 German edition of Stangneth’s book centered on the circle of neo-Nazi sympathizers in Argentina and their hopes to influence postwar German politics, and on Stangneth’s claim that German governments had resisted bringing Eichmann to trial there, American commentators on the English edition have mainly ignored those issues, choosing instead to turn the trial of Adolf Eichmann into the trial of Hannah Arendt.
The Emory University historian Deborah E. Lipstadt told The Times this month that Stangneth “shatters” Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann. In The Jewish Review of Books, the intellectual historian Richard Wolin writes: “Arendt had her own intellectual agenda, and perhaps out of her misplaced loyalty to her former mentor and lover, Martin Heidegger, insisted on applying the Freiburg philosopher’s concept of ‘thoughtlessness’ (Gedankenlosigkeit) to Eichmann. In doing so, she drastically underestimated the fanatical conviction that infused his actions.”
This sort of dismissal of Arendt’s work — essentially a rejection of the “banality of evil” argument — is by no means new, but it does not hold up when one truly understands the meaning of her phrase. Couldn’t Eichmann have been a fanatical Nazi and banal? What precisely did Arendt mean then when she wrote that Eichmann “was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.”? Arendt certainly did not think that ordinary human beings were all potential Eichmanns; nor did she diminish the crime Eichmann committed against the Jewish people. In fact, she accused him of “crimes against humanity,” and approved his death sentence, with which many, including the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, disagreed.
Stangneth’s book, although far more respectful of Arendt’s work than her detractors are, does not address these questions or throw much light on their philosophical context. She does present new evidence about Eichmann’s persona and thinking, based mainly on the so-called “Argentina Papers,” which took nearly 20 years to emerge completely. In 1957 Willem S. Sassen, a Dutch journalist and Nazi collaborator who had become a German citizen, conducted interviews with Eichmann, who believed that they would be a basis for a book of his own to be called “Others Have Spoken, Now I Will Speak.”The Argentina Papers included over 1,000 typed pages of conversation (whose original tape recordings emerged only in 1998), and 500 pages of handwritten commentary, some by Eichmann and some by Sassen. Some of this material would subsequently appear in Life magazine in a notorious expose of Eichmann by Sassen.
Arendt knew that “Eichmann had made copious notes for the interview, which was tape-recorded and then rewritten by Sassen with considerable embellishments.” She also knew that although some of the notes were admitted to the trial as evidence, “the statement as a whole was not.” Israel’s state prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, had a bad photographic copy of 713 typed and 83 handwritten pages, but Eichmann and his lawyer convinced the court that most of it was inadmissible, supposedly because the recorded statements were uttered under the influence of alcohol and with Sassen’s encouragement to Eichmann to make sensationalist pronouncements which the latter intended to use for publicity purposes.
Would full access to this material have led Arendt to change her assessment that Eichmann was banal and “thoughtless”? Not if one understands and uses German as she did, and not if one understands the philosophical contexts within which she meant precisely what she said.
The Argentine Papers do give us new insights into the intensity of Eichmann’s anti-Semitic worldview, insights that Arendt could not have had access to. Stangneth cites a statement by Eichmann’s former friend and colleague, Dieter Wisliceny in the Nuremberg trials: “[Eichmann] said: He would jump laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would please him extraordinarily.”
Commenting on Eichmann’s claim that he was “neither a murderer nor a mass murderer,” Stangneth writes that his “’inner morality is not an idea of justice, a universal moral category, or even a kind of introspection…. Eichmann was not demanding a common human law, which could also apply to him, because he, too, was human. He was actually demanding recognition for a National Socialist dogma, according to which each people (Volk) has a right to defend itself by any means necessary, the German people most of all.” Stangneth explains that for Eichmann “Conscience was simply the ‘morality of the Fatherland that dwells within’ a person, which Eichmann also termed ‘the voice of the blood.’ ”
This recalls the famous exchange during Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem between Judge Yitzhak Raveh and the defendant about Kant’s moral philosophy, which Arendt cites in “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” She quotes Eichmann saying, “I meant by my remark about Kant that the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws.” But Arendt notes that Eichmann’s meaning perverts Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Whereas “In Kant’s philosophy the source, that source was practical reason, in Eichmann’s household use of him, it was the will of the Führer.”
So when Arendt uses the phrase “the inability to think” to characterize Eichmann’s reduction of conscience to a “voice of blood” and of the categorical imperative to the command of the Führer, she is taking as given the Kantian terminology, in which “to think” means to think for oneself and to think consistently, but also from the standpoint of everyone else. The Categorical Imperative in one of its formulations says, “Act in such a way that the principle of your actions can be a universal law for all.” Eichmann neither thought for himself nor from a universal standpoint in any Kantian sense, and Arendt returned to the relationship between thinking and moral action in several of her essays after “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” It was Kant — not Heidegger, as Wolin alleges — who was foremost on her mind.
In a farewell message to sympathizers in Argentina, Eichmann dropped “all his misgivings” and admitted himself to be a “cautious bureaucrat,” but one who was “attended by a fanatical warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood, which is my birthright.” Eichmann concludes: “And the cautious bureaucrat, which of course I was, this is what I had been, also guided and inspired me: what benefits my people is a sacred order and sacred law for me.”
It is this strange mixture of bravado and cruelty, of patriotic idealism and the shallowness of racialist thinking that Arendt sensed because she was so well attuned to Eichmann’s misuse of the German language and to his idiosyncratic deployment of concepts like the Categorical Imperative. As Stangneth puts it, “Hannah Arendt, whose linguistic and conceptual sensibilities had been honed on classical German literature, wrote that Eichmann’s language was a roller coaster of thoughtless horror, cynicism, whining self-pity, unintentional comedy and incredible human wretchedness.”
Eichmann’s self-immunizing mixture of anti-Semitic clichés, his antiquated idiom of German patriotism and the craving for the warrior’s honor and dignity, led Arendt to conclude that Eichmann could not “think” — not because he was incapable of rational intelligence but because he could not think for himself beyond clichés. He was banal precisely because he was a fanatical anti-Semite, not despite it.
Although Arendt was wrong about the depth of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, she was not wrong about these crucial aspects of his persona and mentality. She saw in him an all-too familiar syndrome of rigid self-righteousness; extreme defensiveness fueled by exaggerated metaphysical and world-historical theories; fervent patriotism based on the “purity” of one’s people; paranoid projections about the power of Jews and envy of them for their achievements in science, literature and philosophy; and contempt for Jews’ supposed deviousness, cowardice and pretensions to be the “chosen people.” This syndrome was banal in that it was widespread among National Socialists.
But by coining the phrase “the banality of evil” and by declining to ascribe Eichmann’s deeds to the demonic or monstrous nature of the doer, Arendt knew that she was going against a tradition of Western thought that sees evil in terms of ultimate sinfulness, depravity and corruption. Emphasizing the fanaticism of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism cannot discredit her challenge to a tradition of philosophical thinking; it only avoids coming honestly to terms with it.
Seyla Benhabib is a professor of political science and philosophy at Yale University. She is the author of several books, including “The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt” and, most recently, “Dignity in Adversity: Human Rights in Troubled Times,” and the editor of “Politics in Dark Times: Encounters with Hannah Arendt.”
Correction: September 21, 2014
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the author of a Life magazine article about Adolf Eichmann. It was Willem S. Sassen, a Dutch-German journalist, not Bettina Stangneth. The article also referred incorrectly to Mr. Sassen. He was a Nazi collaborator, not a neo-Nazi.