Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
12Jul/132

Excerpts from the Sassen Papers

ArendtWeekendReading

In response to the my essay on “Misreading ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem,” I have been asked repeatedly how to access the Sassen papers, the more than 1,300 pages of memoir and interview transcripts that Eichmann produced while he was in Argentina. The first answer is simple: Read the two issues of Life magazine from November 28 and December 5, 1960 in which a large chunk of these interviews are excerpted.

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To actually read these excerpts is to be struck by how long they are, how detailed, and how chilling. And also it is to become aware of how important they were for Arendt’s own attempts to understand Eichmann.

Historians who now are digging through the Sassen papers are somewhat dismissive of the excerpts. Bettina Stangneth, the very best and most responsible of these historians, writes that excerpts in a popular magazine are not meaningful sources for serious scholars. And in one important sense, she is correct.

The excerpts are of course mere excerpts. Further, they were prepared by Willem Sassen, a Dutch-German Nazi and war criminal who along with others interviewed Eichmann over many months in 1957 in Argentina. Sassen was a journalist and gifted writer, and the original plan seems to have been for him and Eichmann together to publish a memoir or biography and split the profits, along with Eberhard Fritsch.  Beyond pecuniary considerations, Sassen and Fritsch hoped that Eichmann would assist them in their aim of denying the Holocaust. Eichmann did not do so and, on the contrary, he confirmed it and boasted of his role in it. The three did not see eye to eye and publication plans were abandoned. After Eichmann was kidnapped and brought to Israel for trial, Sassen assembled the excerpts from the interviews and sold it to Life Magazine. Clearly, such tainted documents need to be taken with some care.

That said, the excerpts published in Life are remarkable documents and as they are widely available on Ebay and in libraries in the U.S., they are easily the most accessible way for English speakers to read Eichmann’s self-justification and self-presentation in Argentina, years before he was brought before Jewish judges in a courtroom in Jerusalem.

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In what follows, for your Weekend Read, I offer some excerpts from these excerpts. Here, for example, is Eichmann describing his first encounter with the physical destruction of Jews:

When I rode out the next morning they had already started, so I could see only the finish. Although I was wearing a leather coat which reached almost to my ankles, it was very cold. I watched the last group of Jews undress, down to their shirts. They walked the last 100 tor 200 yards—they were not driven—then they jumped into the pit. It was impressive to see them all jumping into the pit without offering any resistance whatsoever. Then the men of the squad banged away into the pit with their rifles and machine pistols.

Why did that scene linger so long in my memory? Perhaps because I had children myself. And there were children in that pit. I saw a woman hold a child of a year or two into the air, pleading. At that moment all I wanted to say was, “Don’t shoot, hand over the child….” Then the child was hit.

I was so close that later I found bits of brains splattered on my long leather coat. My driver helped me remove them. Then we returned to Berlin. …

Having seen what I had in Minsk, I said this when I reported back to [Heinrich] Müller: “The solution. Gruppenführer, was supposed to have been a political one. But now that the Führer has ordered a physical solution, obviously a physical solution it must be. But we cannot go on conducting executions as they were done in Minsk and, I believe, other places. Of necessity our men will be educated to become sadists. We cannot solve the Jewish problem by putting a bullet through the brain of a defenseless woman who is holding her child up to us.”

Müller did not answer. He just looked at me in a fatherly, benevolent fashion. I never could figure him out.

In another excerpt, Eichmann describes his first experience viewing mobile gassing centers.

A doctor who was there suggested that I look at the people inside one bus through a peephole in the driver’s seat. I refused. I couldn’t look. This was the first time that I had seen and heard such a thing and my knees were buckling under me. I had been told that the whole process took only three minutes, but the buses rode along for about a quarter of an hour. …

When I reported back to Müller in Berlin, he chided me for not having timed the procedure with a stop watch. I said to him, “This sort of thing can’t go on. Things shouldn’t be done this way.” I admitted I had not been able to look through the peephole. This time too, Müller behaved like a sphinx. He forgave me, so to speak, for not having looked. Perhaps “forgive” sounds like an odd expression here.

The executions at Litzmannstadt and Minsk were a deep shock to me. Certainly I too had been aiming at a solution of the Jewish problem, but not like this. Of course, at that time, I had not yet seen burned Germans, Germans shrunken like mummies in death. I had yet to see the heavy, imploring eyes of the old couple in a Berlin air raid shelter who lay crushed beneath a beam, begging me to shoot them. I couldn’t bear to shoot them, but I told my sergeant to do so, if he could. If I had known then the horrors that would later happen to Germans, it would have been easier for me to watch the Jewish executions. At heart I am a very sensitive man. I simply can’t look at any suffering without trembling myself.

Later, in the second Life Magazine excerpt, Eichmann describes his famous final speech to his men in Berlin, perhaps the most quoted line from the Sassen interviews. He says:

I made my last report to Himmler less than a month before the final surrender of Germany. The Reichsführer had been for some time negotiating with Count Bernadotte about the Jews. He wanted to make sure that at least 100 of the most prominent Jews we could lay our hands on would be held in a safe place. Thus he hoped to strengthen our hand, for almost to the end Himmler was optimistic about making separate peace terms. “We’ll get a treaty,” he said to me, slapping his thigh. “We’ll lose a few feathers, but it will be a good one.” It was then mid-April 1945….

During those last days I called my men into my Berlin office in the Kurfürsten Strasse and formally took leave of them. “If it has to be,” I told them, “I will gladly jump into my grave in the knowledge that five million enemies of the Reich have already died like animals.” (“Enemies of the Reich,” I said, not “Jews.”) I spoke these words harshly and with emphasis. In fact, it gave me an extraordinary sense of elation to think that I was exiting from the stage this way.

The Life Magazine excerpts ends with a transcription and translation of Eichmann’s final outburst when, fed up with Sassen’s attempt to deny the Holocaust or to diminish it, he bursts out in a fit of self-justification:

But to sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing.  Adolf Hitler may have been wrong all down the line, but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up from lance corporal in the German army to Führer of a people of almost 80 million. I never met him personally, but his success alone proves to me that I should subordinate myself to this man. He was somehow so supremely capable that the people recognized him. And so with that justification I recognized him joyfully, and I still defend him. 

I will not humble myself or repent in any way. I could do it too cheaply in today’s climate of opinion. It would be too easy to pretend that I had turned suddenly from a Saul to a Paul. No, I must say truthfully that if we had killed all the 10 million Jews that Himmler’s statisticians originally listed in 1933, I would say, “Good, we have destroyed an enemy.” But here I do not mean wiping them out entirely. That would not be proper—and we carried on a proper war.

Now, however, when through the malice of fate a large part of these Jews whom we fought against are alive, I must concede that fate must have wanted it so. I always claimed that we were fighting against a foe who through thousands of years of learning and development had become superior to us. 

I no longer remember exactly when, but it was even before Rome itself had been founded that the Jews could already write. It is very depressing for me to think of that people writing laws over 6,000 years of written history. But it tells me that they must be a people of the first magnitude, for law-givers have always been great.

To read these excerpts is chilling and also illuminating, both about Eichmann and also about Arendt’s report on his trial.

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Arendt wrote her articles and her book not simply at the mercy of the trial in Jerusalem and Eichmann’s self-presentation before Israeli judges. She had access to the excerpts in Life and many of her most controversial conclusions are clearly traceable to these pages. It is undoubtedly true that scholars should approach the original documents and not rely on excerpts translated in a popular magazine. But no one who has looked at the originals has made the case that anything published in Life is wrong or misleading.

For those who want more, the best source for learning about the Sassen papers is Bettina Stangneth’s book Eichmann vor Jerusalem. In good news, it will be published later this year or early next year in English.  Stangneth’s book is often mentioned in the same breadth with much-less-responsible books by David Cesarani and Deborah Lipstadt, as collective examples of books that use new information from the Sassen reports to prove Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. But this is not exactly right.

Stangneth does write that Arendt “fell into a trap because Eichmann in Jerusalem was wearing a mask;” Stangneth also claims that “Eichmann manipulated Arendt, and the result was that she saw her own expectations confirmed.” Like Cesarani and Lipstadt, Stangneth wants to claim space from Arendt, to say that the new documents allow the modern scholar a wider perspective.

And yet, Stangneth also insists that Arendt “was very aware of the fact that she was not getting the whole picture.” Stangneth writes of  her own book that,

Eichmann before Jerusalem is a dialogue with Hannah Arendt. This is not merely due to the fact that my own interest in the topic was aroused many years ago by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. Our understanding of history is dependent on understanding the era and the circumstances in which events occurred, and so a perspective like Arendt's is indispensible. She showed courage in her ability to reach a clear judgment of the situation while aware of the risk, despite her meticulous research, of not knowing enough.

To read Stangneth’s book in its entirety is to see her in continued dialogue with Arendt as she makes her way through the Sassen papers and is to be impressed with her scholarship as well as by her honesty. If you read German, Eichmann Vor Jerusalem is your best way to learn more about the Sassen interviews. It is your Weekend Read if you don’t to wait for the English translation coming soon.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
11Jul/131

Ideological Blindness

FromtheArendtCenter

It would be too much to hope that my plea to end the ideological warfare over Hannah Arendt would win over either those who insist she is a Nazi-lover or those who thinks she walks on water. That said, I have been pleasantly surprised that most people saw my essay for what it was: a call for an end to the ideological warfare that leads both Arendt’s supporters and critics to interpret every fact and every statement as evidence for their side. Similarly, I ended my essay with a claim about the relevance of Arendt’s work in today’s overly heated ideological environment.

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I expressed the hope that thinking deeply about Arendt’s characterization of Adolf Eichmann as a joiner might help defuse the petrified ideological positions of contemporary politics. I wrote:

At a time when confidence in American institutions is at an all-time low, Arendt’s insistence that we see Eichmann as a terrifyingly normal “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family” who was radicalized by an idealistic anti-state movement should resonate even more urgently today. That is ever more reason to free Arendt’s book, once again, from the tyranny of the conventional wisdom. 

Good luck. In a post responding to my essay in the Magazine Commentary, Jonathan Tobin has this to say:

While he doesn’t say so bluntly, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Berkowitz is making a not terribly subtle reference to those middle-class Americans who want smaller government and a less intrusive federal oversight of their lives as being somehow the moral equivalent of Eichmann. I’ve read more than my share of attempts to justify Arendt’s banality of evil thesis, but this is the first that attempts to enlist her in the fight against the Tea Party.

The sheer chutzpah as well as the colossal inappropriateness of Berkowitz’s insinuation is, by itself, enough to disqualify him as a rational voice about the subject.

Let’s note a few facts. First, as Tobin admits, I nowhere mention the Tea Party. Second, he somehow insists that my worry about middle-class, anti-state, movements is a “not terribly subtle” left-wing swipe at the Tea Party. Third, Tobin decides to ignore what I write, inserts his own interpretation, and concludes that I  am disqualified as a rational voice on the subject.  Talk about chutzpah!

If Mr. Tobin had simply bothered to do a modicum of homework, he could have found past articles in which I ascribed anti-state tendencies to both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Here is one example from 2011: “Occupy Wall Street is, like the Tea Party, driven by an apparent disdain of government, elites, and traditional institutions.”  My argument is clearly a critique of tendencies on both the left and the right.

What is more, in the version of the essay that I originally wrote and handed in to the Times, I mentioned four groups in the final paragraph as examples of what I meant as “idealistic anti-state movements.” Yes, I included the Tea Party. But I also mentioned Occupy Wall Street, the radical environmental movement, and the anti-tax crusade. Hardly a one-sided and partisan group.

What unites these diverse movements is that they are all anti-state in important ways. The Tea Party and the anti-Tax movement seek to limit or immobilize government. At the same time, Occupy Wall Street and radical environmental movements are decidedly internationalist movements that either reject national politics in the favor of international solidarity or seek to subordinate national democratic will to international bureaucratic regulations. What all of them share, as movements, is a drive to create adherents and victories rather than a desire to actually govern.

Granted these examples are not in the final version run by the Times, but with or without my examples, there is absolutely nothing in my essay to suggest a liberal or a conservative agenda. This does not stop Tobin from branding me a “liberal ideologue” who seeks to tar “contemporary conservatives as somehow would-be Eichmanns.” Honestly, how he gets from my essay to such a ridiculous conclusion beggars belief. Tobin’s perverted fantasy of what he thinks I may have written is simply a prime example of the rabid ideological fervor that grips so many in this country, on both sides of the ideological divide.

Tobin displays an extraordinary ignorance beyond his ideological blindness. He writes:

Contrary to [Berkowitz’s] assertion, Nazism was not an “anti-state movement” whether one wishes to call it “idealistic” or monstrous. It was, in fact, a classic example of a movement that worshiped the state and sought to sacrifice individual rights on the altar of the collective. In the case of Germany, it was the glorification of the German state and its leader while in Russia it was the socialist ideal and a different evil monster. Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand the Nazis, Eichmann or the Holocaust he helped perpetrate.

Excuse me, but Nazism was not a movement that worshipped the state, and to say that it was is simply false. Nazism was an imperialist and internationalist movement. Like Bolshevism, it sought a world-wide community based on a tribal identity (Aryanism or Bolshevism). What Hitler desired was an international “Third Reich” that stretched beyond the German state. In Mein Kampf, he wrote, that in Vienna he “laid the foundations for a world concept in general and a way of political thinking in particular.” Hitler spoke of a German people (Volk) that stretched beyond state borders, saying, “Wherever we may have been born, we are all the sons of the German people.” Ernst Hasse, founder of the anti-Semitic Pan-German League, wrote that the German people (and not the German state) “had the same right to expand as other great peoples and that if [they were] not granted this possibility overseas, [they would] be forced to do it in Europe.” As Arendt concludes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Hostility to the state as an institution runs through the theories of all pan-movements…. The Pan-Germans, who were more articulate politically, always insisted on the priority of national over state interest, and usually argued (citing the founder of modern anti-Semitism Georg Ritter von Schoenerer) ‘world politics transcends the framework of the state,’ that the only permanent factor in the course of history was the people and not states; and that therefore (citing Ernst Hasse again) national needs, changing with circumstances, should determine, at all times, the political acts of the state.”

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In the pursuit of world domination, Nazism elevated party membership and blood purity above state identity. It set the party and national Volk above the institutions of the state.  It was an imperialist and global movement, one that saw traditional state boundaries and institutions as bourgeois limitations that interfered with its global ambitions.  That Tobin condemns me for saying so and simply asserting that Nazism “worshipped the state” is simply to parade his ignorance.

Tobin’s screed is filled with similar unsupported assertions, as when he writes “most serious thinkers understood [Arendt’s] misleading characterization of Adolf Eichmann was bad history.” The most esteemed historical biographer of Adolf Eichmann, Bettina Stangneth, largely embraces Arendt’s account, but not as a fawning admirer, just as someone who looks objectively at the facts. She takes issue with a few particular conclusions Arendt arrives at, but largely confirms Arendt’s understanding of Eichmann. And even the much more partisan and anti-Arendt-book by David Cesarani concedes that Arendt was generally right, and that Eichmann was no monster. But admitting these clear facts is something Mr. Tobin is clearly incapable or unwilling to do.

Shouting the same tired slogans over and over plays to the converted. But I ask you to judge whose arguments should be disqualified from rational discourse. You can read Tobin’s rant here, if you want. Compare it to my essay in the New York Times.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
31May/131

Yes and No: The Split the Difference Approach to the Banality of Evil

ArendtWeekendReading

“Hannah Arendt” the movie by acclaimed Director Margarethe von Trotta, opened in the United States this week at Film Forum in New York. It will begin its national release on June 6th.  Around the world the movie has garnered rave reviews and played to excited audiences. Reviews in the U.S. are appearing, including a rave by A.O. Scott in the New York Times.

In reading the many reviews and comments on the film, one trend stands out. This trend is epitomized by Fred Kaplan’s essay in the New York Times last weekend. Kaplan plays umpire and seeks to adjudicate whether Arendt was right or wrong in her controversial judgment of Adolf Eichmann. And like so many others in recent years, Kaplan tries to have it both ways. He writes that Arendt was in general right about the fact that “ordinary people become brutal killers,” but she was wrong about Eichmann. In short, Kaplan claims that Arendt’s thesis about the banality of evil is right, but Eichmann himself was not banal, he was a monster.

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This Yes and No reading of Arendt’s judgment is now a commonplace. One sees it pop up in reviews of the new film in Europe and here in the U.S. Take, for example, Elke Schmitter, reviewing the film in the German Weekly Der Spiegel. Schmitter likes the film, and writes that von Trotta has “made an extremely vivid cinematic essay, thrilling in its every minute, deeply moving in its seriousness and suitably unsettling.” Yet Schmitter’s review prefigures Kaplan’s in its Janus faced analysis. She points to the interview with Eichmann by Willem Sassen as evidence that Arendt was deceived by Eichmann:

The [Sassen] tapes clearly show that Eichmann was an ardent anti-Semite, incapable of the direct use of force, and yet determined to exterminate the Jewish people. His performance in Jerusalem was a successful deception.

For both Kaplan and Schmitter, the larger truth of Arendt’s thesis that evil emerges from thoughtlessness must not obscure the apparent fact that Eichmann put on an act at trial and deceived Arendt. This view of Eichmann the actor who pulled the wool over Arendt’s eyes has become now the dominant reading of Arendt’s analysis. My colleague and fellow political thinker David Owen agrees with this basic Yes/No thesis.  Writing on the Hannah Arendt Center Blog, Owen argues:

And it must be noted that while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann. As David Cesarani and, more recently, Bettina Stangneth have compellingly argued, Arendt was — like almost everyone else — taken in by Eichmann’s strategy of self-presentation in the trial as a nobody, a mere functionary, a bureaucratic machine. Yet the evidence of Eichmann’s commitment to Nazism and, contra Arendt, his commitment to anti-Semitism that has emerged in more recent years, especially well-documented by Stangneth’s study Eichmann vor Jerusalem, suggests that Jonas was right — Eichmann was a monster who hated Jews.

The Yes and No analysis of Arendt’s argument relies largely on what are now known as the Sassen tapes, based on an interview with Eichmann done by Willem Sassen, a fellow member of the SS who also fled to Buenos Ares. Partial transcripts of the tapes were published in Life Magazine before the Eichmann trial and were read by Arendt, but the tapes and the entire transcript only became available much later. Scholars like David Cesarani, Bettina Stangneth, and Deborah Lipstadt argue that the tapes show Arendt was—through no fault of her own, they usually emphasize to display their magnanimity—wrong in her judgment of Eichmann. It is simply a matter of the emergence of new facts.

This “factual claim” has gotten a free pass. What exactly do the Sassen tapes show? Above all, the tapes show that Adolf Eichmann was an anti-Semite. Here is one quotation that is nearly always referred to and that Kaplan brings forth. Eichmann says: “I worked relentlessly to kindle the fire. I was not just a recipient of orders. Had I been that, I would have been an imbecile. I was an idealist.”

Kaplan actually leaves out an extra sentence between the last two quoted sentences, in which Eichmann adds: “Instead, I was part of the thought process. I was an idealist." Leaving out that line is hardly innocent as it establishes the context of Eichmann’s remarks, his claim to general participation in the Nazi thought process.

Critics point to the tapes to show that Eichmann was an anti-Semite. This is nothing new. Everyone knew Eichmann was an anti-Semite. And of course Arendt knew it. There are a few who argue that she denies this and some who go so far to argue that she thought Eichmann was a Zionist, but these are crazed and irresponsible Jeremiads. Arendt scoffed at Eichmann’s self-professed Zionism. She said that he said he was a Zionist and that he claimed he had no animus towards Jews. She did not credit these claims.

The revelation in the tapes is not that Eichmann was anti-Semitic. The claim is that if she had heard the tapes or seen the transcript, she would have been compelled to admit the ferocity of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism and thus the fact that his anti-Semitism contributed to his actions to a far greater extent than she believed.

Now this is an important point. Recall that the essence of Arendt’s rarely understood argument about the banality of evil is that evil motivations—that which really drives modern bureaucratic evil—is superficial, not deep. There is, of course, evil that is rooted deeply in hatred, as for example when I out of rage at a colleague who insults me I intentionally stick a dagger into his breast or when a suicide bomber blows himself and civilians up in a café from out of hatred and infinite hope that his actions will change the world. But such crimes, as horrible as they are, are not the true face of evil in the modern world. That face is recognizable in the mass administrative exterminations of innocent people for no justifiable reason other than their race or religion or creed. There are of course reasons for such evil acts, but those reasons have more to do with the internal logic of movements than personal animus. Such evil, she argues, may be initiated by psychopaths, but it is carried out by thoughtless nobodies. Eichmann, as a mid-level bureaucrat in charge of Bureau IV-B-4, the Gestapo division in charge of Jewish Affairs, was such a mid-level bureaucrat.

Now, if Arendt’s critics are correct, we must not only question her analysis of Eichmann, but her more general claims as well. Two scholars who recognize this are S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher. These two psychologists have written an intriguing paper taking on both Arendt and Stanley Milgram. As is well known, Milgram was led by the Eichmann trial to conduct experiments where residents of New Haven were asked to assist researchers in teaching students by administering what they thought were painful—and potentially lethal—electric shocks to students who gave wrong answers. The assistants largely did as they were instructed. Milgram concluded that most people will obey authority even when commands violate their deepest convictions; obedience, he argued, does not entail support. For many, Milgram’s experiment is confirmation of Arendt’s banality of evil thesis.

Arendt did not share this view; she insisted that obedience involves responsibility. She was shocked that her critics assumed that thoughtful people would act as Eichmann had. She worried experiments like Milgram’s would normalize moral weakness. Indeed, she saw the angry reaction to her book—her critics’ insistence on seeing Eichmann as a monster—as proof that they feared that they too lacked the moral independence and the ability to think that would allow them to resist authority.

The importance of Haslam and Reicher’s essay is to take the criticism that Eichmann was actually motivated by anti-Semitism to its logical conclusion. Haslam and Reicher say that Arendt’s portrayal was partial, and like Deborah Lipstadt, they fault Arendt for not staying to the end of the trial. But Arendt poured over the transcripts, and did view much of the trial. It is not at all clear what more viewing of Eichmann would have done to change her mind of his clownishness, an opinion shared by many who did watch the whole trial. But let’s assume that someone who watched the whole trial and heard the tapes came to a different conclusion. Namely, (Haslam and Reicher’s summation of the historical research):

Eichmann was a man who identified strongly with anti-semitism and Nazi ideology; a man who did not simply follow orders but who pioneered creative new policies; a man who was well aware of what he was doing and was proud of his ‘achievements’…. In short, the true horror of Eichmann and his like is not that their actions were blind. On the contrary, it is that they saw clearly what they did, and believed it to be the right thing to do. 

Haslam and Reicher argue that if one looks closely at Milgram’s and other related studies, one sees that people do not blindly and mindlessly obey. Some do and others do not. So from these obedience studies, they write,

It is not valid to conclude that people mindlessly and helplessly succumb to brutality. Rather both studies (and also historical evidence) suggest that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology. This leads them to advance that ideology knowingly, creatively and even proudly…. People do great wrong, not because they are unaware of what they are doing but because they consider it to be right.

For Haslam and Reicher, the question is not: why are people thoughtless cogs in bureaucratic machines, but rather, why do people identify with hateful ideologies that allow them to participate in mass excursions of evil? Their point is that if indeed Eichmann committed his crimes because of his virulent anti-Semitism, that suggests that the bureaucrats who participate in great schemes of administrative evil are not simply unthinking nobodies and that Arendt’s overarching thesis about the banality of evil is wrong as well.

Haslam and Reicher have done a great service with their essay insofar as they at least pierce the halo that surrounds Milgram’s conclusions. What they show, and here they agree with Arendt against Milgram, is that human beings are not simply slaves to their situations. Character and thoughtfulness (or thoughtlessness) matter. Human action is not simply behavior. Or, as Arendt writes, in political and moral matters, obedience and support are the same.

At the same time, however, Haslam and Reicher are altogether too sure of their ability to know why Adolf Eichmann acted. Like David Cesarani, Deborah Lipstadt, Bettina Stangneth, and others, they believe that somehow listening to the Eichmann tapes gives them more insight into Eichmann’s true character than Hannah Arendt’s viewing of him on the witness stand for three weeks.  There is, it seems, an uncritical acceptance of the idea that Eichmann’s boasts about his importance and his refusal to express regrets in his conversations amongst former Nazis is better evidence of his character than his testimony in Jerusalem.  

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But why privilege the interviews over the trial? In both the trial and the interviews, Eichmann refused to express regret for what he did. In both, he admitted wanting to carry out his job to the fullest of his abilities. In both he denied murdering or killing anyone. The real difference is that at trial in Jerusalem Eichmann claimed to have wanted to help the Jews and in Argentina he claimed to share the Nazi anti-Semitism and hatred of the Jews. Of course, no one in Jerusalem believed his claims of philo-Semitism, least of all Arendt. What she saw and what she argued is that his anti-Semitism alone was not of the type that would lead someone to do what he had done.

To evaluate the factual claim made by Kaplan and his fellow critics, we must also consider the context of the Sassen interviews themselves. Amongst the community of former Nazis in Buenos Aires, Eichmann was different. Many of these Nazis repudiated the final solution, claiming it was Allied propaganda. Eichmann, who had been mentioned frequently in Nuremburg, could confirm or reject that claim. It was thus that Sassen, who was working as a journalist, sought Eichmann out through Eberhard Fritsch, another Nazi who published a German-language journal in Buenos Ares and argued for a new ascent of National Socialism. Fritsch, Sassen, and Eichmann met for a series of conversations that Sassen taped and used for articles he wrote that appeared in Life Magazine. 

Eichmann himself had much to gain from these interviews. The Adolf Eichmann who agreed to be interviewed by Sassen was living as a poor man struggling to support his family. It was a far cry from his position of power and relative wealth in Germany during the War. And if there is one quality of Eichmann that Arendt and her critics can agree upon it is his vanity. Eichmann was, as Arendt noted, quite boastful. He desperately desired to be important and meaningful. Bettina Stangneth saw the same quality in Eichmann: “Eichmann hated being anonymous. He missed power. He wanted to matter again. On some level I think he even enjoyed his trial.” It is far from clear that Eichmann bared his true soul to Willem Sassen.

How to know whether the Eichmann speaking to former Nazis and seeking friends and importance is the truer Eichmann than the Eichmann brought before posterity at the trial in Jerusalem? One can, of course, argue that neither is the true Eichmann, that he would say whatever he thought would endear him to the crowd he was in, but that would simply go to support and confirm Arendt’s thesis that Eichmann was a nobody, a joiner. If Eichmann thought that lying about his anti-Semitism would convince anybody, and if he thought that saying he was just obeying orders would help him whereas it hadn’t his predecessors at Nuremburg, he was as thoughtless as Arendt said he was. In any case, there is nothing in the Sassen transcripts that shows Arendt’s factual analysis of the trial to be wrong. 

Arendt thought that it was a fact that Eichmann was thoughtless. Listening to his clichés and his boasts and hearing how he worshipped bureaucratic hierarchy, she determined that he had insulated himself from thinking. Her critics, in response, say he was creative and intelligent in carrying out his tasks. He was. He was not stupid, Arendt writes. He was thoughtless. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t anti-Semitic. What she means by thoughtlessness, contrary to much commentary, is not simple.

Arendt’s argument about thoughtlessness is complex and subtle.  First, Arendt says that what drove Eichmann to join the SS was not virulent hatred of Jews, but the need of a job and the desire to find meaning in his life. On this point, she and her critics largely agree. As a Nazi officer, Eichmann became a virulent anti-Semite. He adopted the rhetoric and language of those around him, even as he took pride in his ability to work with Jewish leaders. Even such an anti-Semite, however, insisted he did not kill Jews himself. That was important to him. He knew such killing was wrong. While he may indeed have wanted Germany to be free of Jews, and while he may have spoken in favor the killing itself, he knew that gassing Jews was wrong. He was not the kind of psychopath that breathes blood and relishes pulling the trigger. Eichmann describes how he was initially bothered and unsettled by the decision to gas the Jews, but that, over the course of about four weeks, he came to see the transport of Jews not as wrong, but as his legal obligation, one that he took pride in carrying out. In the space of one month, his moral universe around the question of genocide was upended. This is the famous inversion of Eichmann’s conscience that is at the core of Arendt’s argument.

It is this transition from anti-Semite who knows killing innocents is wrong to bloodless bureaucratic executioner who imagines it his conscientious and moral duty to follow the laws and orders by implementing the Final Solution that, Arendt argues, has its source neither in anti-Semitism nor a lack of goodness, but in moral weakness and thoughtlessness. In this sense, thoughtlessness is a willingness to abandon one’s common sense of right and wrong in order to fit in, be part of a movement, and attain success in the world. What thoughtlessness means is a lack of self-reliance, in an Emersonian vein, or, as Arendt puts it, the inability to think for oneself.

At the source of modern thoughtlessness is what Arendt calls the break in tradition that occurs in the modern era. Throughout history people have done wrongs, even great wrongs. But they eventually came to understand the wrongness of those wrongs as against religious, traditional, and customary rules. The rules persisted as rules, even in their breach. The distinction of the modern era and totalitarianism is that the old rules no longer held good. Eichmann and thousands like him in Germany and Soviet Russia were able to see bureaucratic genocide as lawful and right. They could only do so by abandoning their moral sense to the conventional wisdom of those around them. This is what Arendt means by thoughtlessness. The core of Arendt’s argument is that while anti-Semitism can explain hatred of the Jews and even pogroms and murdering of Jews, it cannot explain the motivation behind generally normal people putting aside their moral revulsion to murder and genocide and acting conscientiously to wipe out a race of human beings.

It is very possible that Arendt is wrong or that her argument is overstated. It may be as Haslam and Reicher argue that such action is motivated out of hatred and ideology. But all who think that should read Arendt’s book and see Margarethe von Trotta’s movie and look at the simplicity and clownishness and pettiness of Adolf Eichmann—and decide for themselves.

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The question we who confront her text should ask is not, “is she right or wrong.” Rather, we should seek with her to understand how it is possible for Eichmann and people like him to have done what he did. If Arendt is wrong about Eichmann, than her thesis that thoughtlessness is the motivation for modern evil is questionable as well.

We must be honest: the hypothesis that "she was right in general, but wrong about Eichmann" is contradictory. If she was right and mechanized evil is only possible with bureaucratic thoughtlessness, then how can Eichmann not be bureaucratically thoughtless? Why do we insist on making him a monster? The answer is that we still don't fully accept her argument that Eichmann transformed from a normal anti-Semite with a moral sense into someone for whom morality meant following the law requiring him to destroy Jews. In denying Eichmann’s normality we still need to make him into a monster and thus refuse to confront—and also to resist— the dangerous truth Arendt is seeking to make visible. 

As you prepare to see Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt,” do some reading. For one, read my review of the movie in The Paris Review and A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times. Also read Fred Kaplan’s essay in the New York Times. I suggest as well David Cesarani’s Becoming Eichmann. And then read S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher’s “Questioning the Banality of Evil.” Finally, check out the Arendt Center’s collection of Reviews of the film here. Best of all, of course, re-read Eichmann in Jerusalem itself. There is a lot to get through here, but take your tablet to the beach. You have a lot to get through for your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
18Apr/139

Banality, Banality, Banality

FromtheArendtCenter

When Gershom Scholem once wrote to Arendt that her phrase the “banality of evil” was a cliché, her response was swift: As far as she had known, nobody had ever used it before. The banality of evil was no common formulation worn meaningless by overuse. When she coined the phrase, it was a searing and dangerous provocation to thought, a warning to all those who in the face of horrific crimes carried out by bureaucrats would seek to transform those bureaucrats into monsters. To make people like Eichmann into radically evil monsters is, Arendt argued, to mistake an even greater and more insidious fact about evil: that in the modern context of bureaucratic governance, evil depends upon banal people who allow themselves to participate in evil because they are thoughtless and lack the clarity of mind or the courage of conviction to stand up to the mechanized and bureaucratized doing of evil.

One can disagree with Arendt’s thesis, but it was hardly a cliché. Unfortunately, too often today it is used as the cliché Scholem feared it had already become. A case in point is an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by James Taranto.

Taranto is discussing a current case in which Dr. Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murdering seven viable fetuses.

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Three associates have pled guilty to third-degree murder and five others have pled guilty to other crimes. Gosnell faces the death penalty. According to the New York Times, whose account Taranto refers to,

Reporters heard testimony from the Philadelphia medical examiner about unsanitary, even filthy conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, from which the remains of 47 fetuses were removed, some in a water jug, a juice carton and a pet-food container.

In earlier testimony, according to several news reports, an unlicensed doctor said that Dr. Gosnell, 72, showed him how to cut the necks of babies born alive to make sure they died, and a young woman who worked at the clinic as a teenager said she assisted in abortions in which she saw at least five babies moving and breathing.

The details are grisly. The main thrust of Taranto’s article is that the liberal media is ignoring the case because it upsets their narrative that abortions are clean and easy. According to experts cited in the Times article, it seems that conservative media outlets have ignored the case as well, and that the Times actually had given it more coverage than more conservative papers, but I will leave that argument to others.

What interests me more is Taranto’s sudden invocation of Hannah Arendt and her thesis of the banality of evil. The context is the guilty pleas of the eight employees of Gosnell’s clinic. They included an unlicensed doctor and untrained aids who worked under difficult and unsanitary conditions where they were trained how to break the neck of living fetuses. An Associated Press wire story described the fate of these workers and concluded: “But for most, it was the best job they could find.”  This is what leads Taranto (through the route of a reader’s comment and a 1999 essay in the New York Observer) to compare the AP’s account of eight medical technicians with Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann.

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It is not at all clear whether Taranto has ever set eyes upon Arendt’s book, for he cites only an essay on the book. It is, of course, the height of cliché to speak about books and ideas from second or third hand sources. But that is what Taranto does. He repeats the following claims from the 1999 article, all false: first, that Arendt believed that Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic (she reports his claim, but dismisses it as unbelievable, a fact all-too-often forgotten); that she offered the banality of evil as an “overarching theory”; that she “took him at his word” that he was just following orders; that she was a philosopher; and that she was the “world’s worst court reporter”—as if that is what she were.

But what is truly mind-boggling is that after dismissing Arendt’s thesis based on second-hand accounts, Taranto then comes to agree with her. He writes:

And while Rosenbaum [the author of the 1999 article] seems correct in rejecting "the banality of evil" as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power. "Faceless little men following evil orders" surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell's clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.

It's also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell's employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they were born, rather than to "snip" them after they "precipitated" to "ensure fetal demise."

All too often we see this approach to Arendt’s book and thesis. She is excoriated for getting Eichmann wrong and for having the temerity to suggest he wasn’t a monster. And then we are told that actually, she was largely right, and that there is something fundamentally true about the idea that evil is done and made possible as much by thoughtlessness as by fanaticism. In other words, she was right in general but not about Eichmann.

Such an argument has become popular in the wake of David Cesarani’s book on Eichmann, which simultaneously says that Arendt under emphasized Eichmann's anti-Semitism and then accepted her argument about the banality of evil. There is a legitimate debate about how Arendt perceived Eichmann. It is wrong to say that she accepted his claims of being a friend of Jews and it is simply inaccurate to think she thought he was not an anti-Semite. That said, there is evidence of his later anti-Semitism expressed in Argentina that Arendt had not seen. Does that evidence impact her thesis? I don't believe so, but if she had had access to it and included it, such remarks would have given a fuller appraisal of Eichmann. In any case,  few who repeat Cesarani's argument have  read him or for that matter Arendt herself.

To reject and embrace the banality of evil in the same essay is too simple. It is easy to repeat Arendt’s insight but then protect oneself from the unsettling implications the weight of her thought must bear. To do so, sadly, is to treat the banality of evil as a cliché. She and her work deserve better.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
15Jan/136

Hannah Arendt – a film by Margarethe von Trotta.

The new Hannah Arendt bio picture by Margarethe von Trotta has been released in Europe. It will hit theatres in the US in May, although it is making the rounds of festivals now. The good news: “Hannah Arendt” the film is really wonderful. I’ll have more to say about the film at some point soon, but until then we’ll be passing along the most interesting reviews. To get us started, here is a write up by David Owen, who teaches political theory at the University of Southampton. If you see the film and have some thoughts, pass them our way and we’ll post them on the blog. 

The opening scene of the film shows the organised abduction of an ordinary-looking older man on a country road before cutting to a woman, obviously European in her movements, listening to classical music in a room whose decor is clearly American. These people are, of course, Adolf Eichmann and Hannah Arendt – and thus the film signals its central focus, namely, Arendt’s relationship to the event of Eichmann’s Trial in Jerusalem and the questions that Arendt’s report and the reactions to it raise concerning the relations of the private and the public, the personal and the political, and, more specifically, the conditions (and wisdom) of a philosopher speaking philosophically about politics in public.

The film’s portrayal of Arendt is unfolded through her relationships, most notably with her husband Heinrich Blücher, her friend Mary McCarthy, her once class-mate and now friend and colleague Hans Jonas, her old political mentor and friend the Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld, the editor of the New Yorker William Shawn, and her former teacher and lover Martin Heidegger. All except the last of these are played out within a linear dramatic narrative that tracks Arendt’s circle from the capture of Eichmann through the trail in Jerusalem to the composition and publication of, and reaction to, Arendt’s New Yorker articles. The relationship to Heidegger is interspersed into the narrative through flashback’s that are Arendt’s memories of her relationship with Heidegger and his disastrous foray into public political speech in the Rectoral Address of May 27th 1933, a public act which he later spoke of privately as ‘die größte Dummheit seines Lebens’ but which he never publically renounced. This figuring of her relationship to Heidegger within the dramatic structure of the film is unfortunate in a number of ways, not least the portrayal of Heidegger as a clownish naïf, but primarily because through the use and positioning of these flashbacks within the film, von Trotta offers an open-ended analogy between Heidegger’s and Arendt’s acts of public speech. Even if von Trotta means only to raise the suggestion, since these flashbacks are Arendt’s, that Arendt reflects on her Report on the Eichmann Trial through the prism of her personal relationship to Heidegger and his own abrogated stress on the necessity of thinking, it gets in the way of the rest of the film which is a beautifully shot and compelling piece of narrative drama with a strong ensemble cast, not least in the sensitive use of documentary footage in the reconstruction of the Eichmann trial.

In different respects, Blücher and McCarthy are presented as Arendt’s supports. Blücher’s wandering eye and philandering (which Arendt is portrayed as accepting as a fact about which it would be hopeless to rail) are offset by his role as loving companion and sounding board for her thoughts. McCarthy is the female confidant, a blousy American whose insecurity in her personal life and work contrasts with and highlights Arendt’s European roots and location in an older tradition.

By contrast, the relationships with Hans Jonas and Kurt Blumenfeld are offered as both deep but also, finally broken, by Arendt’s writing on Eichmann. This is given early expression in, first, an argument between Jonas and Blücher about Eichmann’s  abduction to be placed on trial in Israel which foreshadows the more dramatic rupture between Jonas and Arendt – and, second, Arendt’s visit to Blumenfeld’s family in Jerusalem (on her way to cover the Eichmann trial) in awkwardness and already emerging disagreement are covered over by the depth of their friendship. Later, after the report is published, Arendt will dash to Jerusalem to visit a seriously ill Blumenfeld in his sickbed only for him to turn his back to her. The issue von Trotta raises here concerns not so much whether Arendt’s arguments are right or wrong but rather how much one can reasonably ask one’s friends to bear in respect of one’s own commitment to intellectual integrity. For Blumenfeld, Arendt’s remarks on the role of the Jewish leaders in co-operating with the Nazi organization run by Eichmann and hence facilitating the Shoah are a betrayal of the Jewish people. Arendt’s response — that she does not think of herself as having such an obligation — adds only insult to injury. For Jonas, Arendt’s fault is arrogance — and certainly the portrayal of her relationship to William Shawn, an editor overwhelmed by awe at Arendt which she shows no compunction in exploiting, is given as testimony to this side of her character. This issue is raised for us acutely by the climax of the film to which I’ll come shortly but there are two other features that deserve comment first.

The first is the presentation of the charge made against Arendt by her public critics that she is cold, without feeling, and McCarthy’s defense of her as simply having a courage that her critics lack, in the context of a portrayal of Arendt among students and friends as a caring and humorous person who, at one point, privately breaks down in the face of the reaction to her report. The second is the portrayal of the process of composing her writing of Eichmann which combines two elements: the engagement with a vast mass of empirical material, piles of folders of paper (court transcripts, etc.) are arranged around the study and apartment, and the difficulty of writing: Arendt sits reading and is haunted by voices from the trial, she spends a lot of time lying down on a divan smoking endless cigarettes, she types in a controlled frenzy. Here it seems to me that the film is linking these features in a way that is insightful and important, namely, that Arendt had to steel herself to write her report at all, that she had to set aside her own feelings and relationships to others in order to be able to try to serve truth, that intellectual conscience (redlichkeit) makes demands that are hard to bear. In this sense, the film suggests that the critics (who remind me of Martha Nussbaum on tragedy) are right to see her writing as cold and without feeling but quite wrong in their judgment of the significance of this fact and the courage that the writing required of her. At the same time, her response to William Shawn that her writing about the Jewish leaders was purely factual raises for the viewer the question of whether she has lost the ability to discriminate between her judgment and facts in this process. In making this point, the film does not attempt to adjudicate the question of whether Arendt was right or wrong to write the report that she composed, rather it tries, I think compellingly, to make intelligible how she could come to speak in the way that she did (it may also explain why she was entirely unconcerned that Eichmann was hanged).

Let me now turn to the climax. As the drama following the publication of her report unfolds, Arendt is presented as treating from public space and, against McCarthy’s advice, refusing to engage publically with the criticisms directed at her work by critics for whom she has no intellectual respect (echoes of Heidegger’s postwar silence are raised here). When she returns to The New School, at that time almost entirely a Jewish institution, her colleagues shun her and she is asked to resign from teaching her classes which she refuses to do — but she does acknowledge an obligation to the students, who have supported her (and whom the film portrays her as feeling responsible to, for example, in the scene where McCarthy arrives at her class to tell her that Blücher has had a heart attack and is in hospital, and her first shocked reaction is to return to finish her class). When she has offered her explanation to a lecture hall packed with students and the three staff before whom she was hauled for dressing down and discipline, she rebuts – albeit not wholly convincingly — the charge by a staff member that she is blaming the victims for their own victimhood and is given rapturous applause by the students. As they leave, she sees that Hans Jonas is also in the audience. His face, in a bravura piece of acting by Ulrich Noethen, gives us no clue as to what is to come next but seems to express a process of internal struggle. Arendt goes to him, hopeful that her explanation will have healed the rupture of their friendship, but far from it — Jonas rejects her account, she has gone too far, and, in a bitter expression of the end of their friendship, refers to her as “Heidegger’s little darling”.

The question raised by this film is that of ‘thoughtlessness’. Arendt presents Eichmann as a creature who cannot think, for has abdicated the realm of thinking, and at the same time she sees Heidegger as a philosopher whose movement into the public realm is marked by a shift to thoughtlessness (a view that allows her to continue to engage Heidegger’s philosophical work after 1933 in contrast to Jonas). Is Arendt similarly ‘thoughtless’ is her reflections on the Jewish leaders? The film asks us to consider this question but not, I think, quite in Arendt’s sense of thoughtlessness but in the broader sense that underlies it. Her commitment to understanding, to making intelligible, to truthfulness is given clear expression as too are the demands this makes on her — but what about the demands that this makes on her friends, is there not a kind of thoughtlessness here? Is there not a kind of thoughtlessness in her failure to anticipate the entirely predictable response to her moralized interpretation of the role of the Jewish leaders, whose cooperation with the Nazis, she writes, should strike Jews as the darkest episode of a dark chapter of human action?

I don’t think that the film ultimately takes a stance on this issue – rather it raises for us the question of the relationship of Arendt’s sense of thoughtlessness to our ordinary sense of that word. And it must be noted that while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann. As David Cesarani and, more recently, Bettina Stangneth have compellingly argued, Arendt was — like almost everyone else — taken in by Eichmann’s strategy of self-presentation in the trial as a nobody, a mere functionary, a bureaucratic machine. Yet the evidence of Eichmann’s commitment to Nazism and, contra Arendt, his commitment to anti-Semitism that has emerged in more recent years, especially well-documented by Stangneth’s study Eichmann vor Jerusalem, suggests that Jonas was right — Eichmann was a monster who hated Jews. The film is composed in a context in which we, and von Trotta, know this — and I think the film’s refusal to resolve the issues that it raises is precisely an acknowledgement of this context. In this respect, Thomas Assheuer’s review in Die Zeit which suggests that Arendt’s reading of Eichmann was directed against that of the Israeli Prime Minster David Ben Gurion who represented him as a monster of evil for ideological purposes may have some force but not against the film. Rather the film leaves us with questions concerning the relationship between friendship and the service of truth, of emotional life and the conditions of writing truthfully, and of the conditions and costs of public speech.

—David Owen

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.