In finding Hitler's transport administrator guilty, the court recognised him as a free, morally responsible human being.
In 1961 the philosopher Hannah Arendt travelled to Jerusalem to attend the trial of Adolf Eichmann. The accused had been Hitler's transport administrator from 1942 until the end of the war, and his job involved taking people from all over Europe to death camps in Poland. Arendt – a German Jew who had fled from the Nazi regime in the 1930s – wrote about Eichmann's trial in a series of articles for the New Yorker, and in 1963 she published a book-length account entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. This week and next week, we will focus on the case of Eichmann, which has a peculiarly philosophical significance – and not only because of Arendt's controversial analysis of it.
Not surprisingly, many people seized on Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil", assuming that it meant to downplay Eichmann's crimes. For Arendt, however, this phrase simply recorded a fact that "stared one in the face at the trial". Like the psychologists who examined Eichmann, the philosopher was struck by his ordinariness. Indeed, he appeared to be a caring husband, father, brother, son and friend. But Arendt found this very normality "terrifying'", and she remarked that the banality of Eichmann's evil was itself "fearsome".
"Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement," writes Arendt, "he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing." She concludes that, although Eichmann was no puppet, he was immensely – and catastrophically – thoughtless. According to Arendt, this particularly extreme case reveals something about evil in general: "that such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together".
In what sense was Eichmann thoughtless? The transcript of his trial suggests that he was neither unintelligent nor unreflective. In fact, he told the judge that, after being transferred to Berlin ("against my will and against my wishes") to take up the post of transport administrator, he read Kant's Critique of Practical Reason. He was, he explained, already familiar with the central tenet of Kant's moral philosophy: to act only according to a principle that one would choose to be a universal law. But while he was figuring out the logistics of deporting thousands of Jews to Poland, he studied Kantian morality more closely. "When I travel, it is my habit not to speak a lot, but to reflect," Eichmann told the judge.
The Kantian "categorical imperative" expresses a moral principle that is entirely free of personal, self-centred inclinations. In respecting only rules that should be valid for everyone, the moral person refuses to put her own interests before anyone else's, or to value her own freedom more highly than another's. Her morality is guided by respect for humanity itself – for human dignity, which is based on human freedom. Indeed, Kant argued that only this kind of moral action is genuinely free, because our desires, emotions and inclinations are part of the causal order of nature, and therefore subject to physical laws. Human beings can realise their freedom only by choosing their own laws – and the moral law is the only one that can be freely chosen, as this choice is uninfluenced by physical, empirical forces.
Although Eichmann's comments about his understanding of Kant were a little confused, he demonstrated a good enough grasp of the categorical imperative. So what went wrong? Until 1942, said Eichmann, he had tried to live his life according to this Kantian moral principle. (This presumably includes his active involvement, from the early 1930s, with the Nazi party and the SS.) When he was given the task of deporting the Jews, however, he found that he could no longer follow this ethical ideal. He suggested that his freedom was taken away, so that he could not – in Kantian terms – be a moral agent at all: "Now I was trying to come to terms with myself, and I saw that I was unable to change anything and unable to do anything. I said to myself: 'I cannot for the present live entirely according to [the Kantian requirement], although I would like to do so.'"
At his trial Eichmann talked about finding himself in a "new" and "unprecedented" political situation. On his account, this brought about a fundamental moral disorientation: "There is no possibility of comparisons, and no one can have any idea of how it was. There was the war. I had to do just one thing." These words are chilling, but they are also tragic. "Just one thing" describes totalitarianism on a personal scale, the reduction of a single life to one horrifying purpose that excludes all other considerations – including morality, and humanity itself.
When he was brought to trial, Eichmann was made accountable for his actions. In finding him guilty the court recognised him as a free, morally responsible human being. Of course, this means that it rejected Eichmann's claim that he was "unable to do anything". In Kantian terms, the court confirmed his human dignity by finding him capable of evil. In the postscript to her report on the banality of evil, Arendt wrote: "In its judgment the court naturally conceded that such a crime could be committed only by a giant bureaucracy using the resources of government. But in so far as it remains a crime – and that, of course, is the premise for a trial – all the cogs in the machinery are transformed back into perpetrators, that is to say into human beings."