“German Jewry, like Western European Jewry in general, never understood that the simple person is the true center of politics in all democratically governed countries.
And this is also the reason why German Jews often do not understand the just national aspirations of the Jewish people [folk]. Most do not know at all what a people [folk] really is and what it wants. The most beautiful Hebrew in the world will not teach them that. Let the German Jews learn to respect simple person [poshete mentshn], in general, and the simple Jew [yiddishe folks-mentsh], in particular – and then you will be able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”
These are the closing words of an op-ed written by Hannah Arendt in November 1942 for the New York Yiddish daily Morgen Zshurnal. The short piece is a response to an account of recent conflicts between German and Hebrew speakers in the Jewish settlement in Palestine (the Yishuv) written by Aaron Zeitlin, a Yiddish author and regular contributor to the newspaper.
It is, by all evidence, Arendt’s only Yiddish-language publication. (A year earlier, in December 1941, the News Bulletin of the “Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs” published a Yiddish translation of Arendt’s first Aufbau op-ed, “The Jewish Army – The Beginning of Jewish Politics?” But the Morgen Zshurnal piece seems to be the only one that Arendt published exclusively in Yiddish.) Arendt’s Yiddish voice is both familiar and surprising, and, as I shall sketch very briefly here, her exchange with Zeitlin fascinatingly prefigures significant moments in Arendt’s thinking and her dialogue with others later in life, for example her exchange with Gershom Scholem about Eichmann in Jerusalem.
In the fall of 1942, tensions between immigrants from Nazi Germany and the veteran Zionist community of the Yishuv had reached a violent peak with the bombing of a press in Jerusalem, which had been printing a German-language newspaper. Zeitlin bases his account of the event, and of the political atmosphere that led up to it, on a report by Menachem Ben Eliezer, which appeared in October in the Hebrew newspaper Hadoar, published in New York by the Hebrew Federation of America. The Hebrew reporter and the Yiddish commentator both blame the German Jews, known as “Yekkes,” for failing to assimilate into the society of the Yishuv and, especially, for obstinately refusing to learn Hebrew. In Zeitlin’s words, the German Jews are not patriotic because they lack a love of Israel (“ahavat Israel” or, in Yiddish, “ahaves Yisroel”).
Arendt, described in the byline as “a well-known German-Jewish writer and Zionist activist” who, “in 1935, visited the Land of Israel, where she spent three months and had the opportunity to get to know the Yishuv and the new immigration (Aliyah),” responds to the accusations ambivalently. Outraged by the violent act of the Hebrew purists of the Yishuv, she nevertheless concedes that the failure of German Jews to understand the simple Jews of Eastern Europe and their justified national aspirations is a problem.
The brief op-ed piece thus reveals a fascinating moment in the development of Arendt’s identity and her political affinities. Having recently arrived as a refugee from Europe, Arendt was writing for the German-language Aufbau and would soon start publishing in English-language publications such as Partisan Review and Nation. But her attention was evidently also devoted to publications such as Morgen Zshurnal and their Yiddish-speaking readership. As Thomas Wild has recently argued on this website, Arendt’s career would continue to move productively between German and English, for example when she substantially revised the English The Human Condition to produce the German Vita Activa.
And even after this brief stint, the Yiddish language did not disappear from her writing entirely, as I briefly mention below. She would also find opportunities to reflect publicly on issues of language choice, for example in her 1948 dedication of the German book Sechs Essays to her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers, where she explains the difficulty and the necessity of writing and publishing in her native language. But this Yiddish op-ed – written in a language that she had studied as an adult and that was rapidly moving aside to make space for English, not only in her mind but also in the American-Jewish public sphere – is probably the only statement that Arendt made about Jewish language politics.
Interestingly, at this juncture in her own linguistic affiliations, Arendt insists that the battle over languages is a political red herring. “Unlike Herr Zeitlin,” she writes, “I am of the opinion that the entire education and psychology of the world could not successfully separate people from their mother tongue […]. It is a process of a generation or two, and in America we have the best proof of that.” Instead of focusing on the struggle between the languages, Arendt points her readers in two different directions. The piece opens, in a familiarly sarcastic tone, with an expression of Arendt’s interest in Jewish militancy as a form of political response to the current crisis (an interest that was expressed in her contemporary writing for Aufbau): “I am of the opinion that it would be better for the Yishuv to boycott German merchandise rather than the German language, and that the hotheads would do better to save the bombs for Rommel’s soldiers rather than to use them against the Jews for their German language.” But it ends on a different note, with a vision of a post-Babelian politics that grows out of solidarity with the simple people. If the German Jews only understood what a true Jewish “folks-mentsh” is, the conversation could transcend linguistic divisions and one would be “able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”
As Elizabeth Young-Bruehl describes in her biography and as evidenced also in the early correspondence with Heinrich Blücher, Arendt had studied Yiddish with her friend Chanan Klenbort in Paris. But in the absence of further information about the composition process – was the piece written in German and translated into Yiddish? Or did a native speaker aid Arendt, in the way that friends such as Randall Jarrell and Alfred Kazin later helped her with her English? – one can only speculate about the significance of the highly Germanic style of the Yiddish in which the piece is written or of word choices such as “folks-mentsh” and “posheter mentsh.” Reading Arendt in Yiddish can feel like a glimpse through a door to an alternative history. What would have been the circumstances – in Arendt’s own intellectual development, in the history of the Jews – that would have compelled her to keep writing in Yiddish? Would the Yiddish version of The Human Condition have placed the “posheter mentsh” at the center of politics? In other words, the Yiddish op-ed focuses our view on Arendt’s preoccupations and her transformation during her early years in the United States. It also sharpens questions that have already been raised in relation to her writing for Aufbau: Does the writing of this period prepare the ground for her later philosophical and political work? And if it does, how should we describe this ground? Or does the shift of her positions on Zionism rather constitute a break in her thinking?
It is easy to see the continuity between the criticism Arendt expresses here and her sharp critique of German Jewry in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. But there are other, far more uncanny, linguistic continuities, not only in Arendt’s own writing but also in her dialogues and polemics with others. In his famous response to the Eichmann book, Gershom Scholem echoes Zeitlin – most probably unwittingly – when he laments Arendt’s lack of “Ahabath Israel” (as Scholem rather Germanically transcribes the Hebrew expression). Arendt seems to hear that echo when she inserts in her reply to Scholem’s letter a parenthetical inquiry about the history of the term: “I would, by the way, be very thankful if you could tell me since when this concept plays a role in the Hebrew language and scripture, when it first appears, etc.” Indeed, the echo seems to conjure up in Arendt elements of her original response to Zeitlin, and so she returns to the same simple person she had once hoped that German Jewry could listen to, in Yiddish or in “all the languages of the world.” Thus, when she attempts to defend her (to many readers indefensible) position on Jewish collaboration with the Nazis, she explains to Scholem: “There was no possibility of resistance, but there was a possibility of doing nothing. And in order to do nothing, one need not have been a saint, but rather one needed simply to say: I am a simple Jew (ein poscheter Jude) and I do not want to be more than that.”
The Yiddish was excised from the German version that was published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in October 1963 (where it was replaced by “einfacher Jude”) and from the English translation published in Encounter in December 1964 (which refers to “a Simple Jew”). The act of self-censorship is probably as revealing as Arendt’s use of the term itself.
Arendt’s brief foray into Yiddish journalism also has a fascinating postscript on the pages of the Morgen Zshurnal (or rather its continuation Der Tog Morgen Zshurnal). As Richard I. Cohen has described, in 1965 the newspaper carried Aaron Zeitlin’s raging response to Arendt’s Eichmann book, a response in which he described her as the agent of the devil. Zeitlin does not explicitly mention his previous disagreement with Arendt, indeed, he conspicuously avoids mentioning her by name. But, in its emphasis on Arendt’s misnaming of Eichmann when she describes him as a “grey, simple (posheter) average person,” his vitriolic attack can be read as a response to Arendt’s polemic twenty-three years earlier
Based on research and translation conducted in collaboration with Sunny Yudkoff. Many thanks to Barbara Hahn and Thomas Wild, who uncovered the Yiddish piece in the Hannah Arendt archive.
NOTE: This Saturday, February 23, 2013 marks the launch of the Hananh Arendt Center three part series, "Music in the Holocaust: Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism". The series is made possible through the generosity of grant from the Bertha Effron Fund of the Community Foundation of the Hudson Valley. Learn more here.
COERCION, COLLUSION & CREATIVITY - Music of the Terezin Ghetto & the Central European Experience
NATIONALISM, CONTINUITY & SYNTHESIS - Music of Warsaw, Lodz, & other Eastern ghettos
KURT WEILL & THE MODERNIST MIGRATION - Music of Weill & Other Émigrés
During a conference organized in her honor in Toronto, Hannah Arendt was asked by Hans Morgenthau, to categorize herself as such: “What are you? Are you a conservative? Are you a liberal? Where is your position in the contemporary possibilities?”
Arendt replied: “I don’t know and I’ve never known. And I suppose I never had any such position. You know the left think that I am conservative, and the conservatives think that I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn’t care less. I don’t think that the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing.”
It is precisely in this spirit that one should read Jens Hanssen’s recent paper “Reading Hannah Arendt in the Middle East: Preliminary Observations on Totalitarianism, Revolution and Dissent”.
Hanssen offers in his paper a rather detailed survey of how Arendt has been read – and misread – by the Middle East, beginning with Kanan Makiya’s World Policy Journal article (2006) “An Iraqi Discovers Arendt”, all the way to Israeli revisionist (and evidently critical of Israel) scholars such as Idith Zertal and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin.
The particular examples he brings up are paradigmatic of this already established tradition of appropriations of Hannah Arendt that though emerging from her political thought, have much to do with politics and little with thinking.
For example, the case of Kanan Makiya is interesting if only because of his controversial – and rather maverick – position in the landscape of Iraqi politics. This Marxist engineer-turned-neo-conservative political advisor (in Hanssen's telling) is apparently credited with being the first Arab author to apply Arendt’s phenomenology of totalitarianism to Baathist Iraq.
Makiya makes a case for Iraq as a totalitarian regime in Arendt’s terms, drawing a straight line from anti-Semitism and intellectual support for Saddam Hussein to comparisons with Nazi Germany. Though his book The Republic of Fear stands for many Iraqis as the greatest testimony to the sad state of affairs under Hussein, the analysis is at best a misappropriation in many respects and seems to fall within the line of warmongering that Arendt so vehemently criticized as McCarthyism: To use totalitarian means to fight – real or imagined – totalitarian enemies.
The most interesting reading he brings up however is Vince Dolan’s course at the American University in Beirut, “Contemporary Philosophical Reflections on the Use of Political Violence”, in the spring of 1983. Dolan tailored the course to polemicize Arendt’s distinction between power and violence – perhaps the most difficult in all of her thought – by first exposing students to Habermas’ evaluation of Arendt’s project and then bringing her into conversation with Popper, Adorno and Horkheimer.
While this practice is common among liberal academics, the integration of Arendt into the corpus of critical theory has been time and again debunked by serious Arendt scholars, of which I might bring only two salient examples:
First, Dana Villa (Arendt and Heidegger, 1996, p. 3-4) argues that although Habermas called Arendt’s theory of political action “the systematic renewal of the Aristotelian concept of praxis”, there is no one that would argue more vehemently against Aristotle (and the whole project of critical theory) than Arendt.
According to Villa, critical theory has immensely profited from Arendt’s renewal of Aristotelian praxis as opposed to the instrumentalization of action in order to highlight the intersubjective nature of political action, when in fact this renewal is a radical reconceptualization whose renewal is nothing but a renewal in order to overcome rather than to restore the tradition of political thought of and since Aristotle.
Second, Fina Birulés insisted in an interview from 2001 that there is a wide gap between Arendt’s radical theory of democracy and Habermas. According to Birulés, though Habermas is deeply indebted to Arendt, his theory of communicative action is hardly political at all and he reduces the concept of plurality to some sort of ideal community of dialogue.
Doubtless Hanssen is correct in pointing out that Arendt did not provide a concise definition of totalitarianism. Definition is a privilege of theory that Arendt’s story-telling didn’t embrace and she “merely” listed phenomenological elements. However he also indicates how Arendt insisted that only two forms of totalitarianism existed: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This distinction is crucial to understand the rest of his paper.
Nowadays totalitarianism – as much as the banality of evil – is a slogan in newspapers and politics, often lacking in meaning and intention and this brings to mind the whole post 9-11 discourse in philosophy and politics in which Islam and Islamism – among other things – take the place of the “old” totalitarian movements.
While it is true that in phenomenological and structural terms nothing since the collapse of the Soviet Union can be called strictly totalitarian, there is no doubt that there are totalitarian elements in many movements and policies not only in the Middle East today, but also in the democratic West.
Among other – far less influential readings of Arendt – Hanssen lists the translations into Arabic and Persian, providing crucial information about how and why Arendt informed certain – mostly – Arab authors.
Lastly there is an elaborate discussion on the use – and again, abuse – of Arendt by Israeli scholars since her “rehabilitation” in Israel that coincided with the rise to prominence of certain revisionist scholars.
Though Hannah Arendt wasn’t exclusively concerned with Zionism or the Jewish question, it is undeniable that her entire work was informed by her status and experience as a Jew in the Europe of the early 20th century.
There are many Hannah Arendts and to this effect Jerome Kohn writes in the introduction to her “Jewish Writings”: “In 1975, the year she died, she spoke of a voice that comes from behind the masks she wears to suit the occasions and the various roles that world offers her. That voice is identical to none of the masks, but she hopes it is identifiable, sounding through all of them”.
Something that is identifiable in her entire work – but not identical anywhere, is her concern with the young State of Israel in spite of the controversies into which she became trapped later on.
While it is true that Arendt was very critical of the Zionist establishment and of the course that Israel had taken, it is also important to remember that her writings (“The Crisis of Zionism” and “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East”) were anchored in an intense anxiety over the Jewish people regaining control of their own destinies and entering the realm of politics.
Julia Kristeva expressed this best in her speech upon receiving the Hannah Arendt Prize in 2006, making it clear how for Arendt the survival of Israel and the refoundation of politics in the West was part of one and the same task:
Thirty years after her death, added to the danger she tries to confront through a refoundation of political authority and which, as they get worse, make this refoundation increasingly improbable, is the new threat that weighs on Israel and the world. Arendt had a premonition about it as she warned against underestimating the Arab world and, while giving the State of Israel her unconditional support as the only remedy to the acosmism of the Jewish people, and as a way to return to the “world” and “politics” of which history has deprived, she also voiced criticism.
But Jerome Kohn writes also in the introduction to the Jewish Writings, “Already in 1948 Arendt foresaw what now perhaps has come to pass, that Israel would become a militaristic state behind closed but threatened borders, a “semi-sovereign” state from which Jewish culture would gradually vanish” (paraphrased from her “To Save the Jewish homeland”).
In her piece “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East,” Arendt laid out what is in my opinion a foundation for what could be the ideal of Arab-Jewish cooperation in the Middle East – including even a surprisingly rare background on Arab personalities that had lent support to the possibility of a Jewish settlement from Lebanon and Egypt – but the element of religious fundamentalism and anti-Semitism that have crystallized now in the Middle East couldn’t be foreseen by Arendt, or at least not to the extent that they were articulated by Kristeva:
Although many of her analyses and advances seem to us more prophetic than ever, Arendt could not foresee the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, nor the havoc it is wreaking in a world faced with the powerlessness of politics to respond, and the apolitia, the indifference created by the omnipresent society of the spectacle.
Hanssen concludes from reading Arendt on totalitarianism, revolution and dissent in the Middle East that “one of the most powerful (in Arendt’s sense of power as consent-based), non-violent movements coming out of the Arab World today is the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestments campaign that Palestinian civil society groups have called for in 2005 and has now become a global counter-hegemonic phenomenon” and raises the question whether Hannah Arendt would have supported Palestinian BDS movement to bring about the end of Israeli occupation.
On the one hand he argues that “the intellectual merit of BDS campaign from an Arendtian standpoint is that it is not based on old and invalid hyperbolic equation of Israel with Nazi Germany.” On the other hand, he also says:
There is certainly ample room for this kind of non-violent action in her writings. For one, she supported the economic boycott of German businesses in the 1930’s and was furious when Zionist Organization in Palestine broke it.
Leaving the associations with Nazi Germany asides, it is vital to recall that it was Arendt who said that not even in the moon is one safe from anti-Semitism and that the State of Israel alone wouldn’t come to solve the Jewish question.
It is clear by now that BDS campaign has blended elements no doubt altruistic of non-violent struggle with elements from the old anti-Semitism, in which there’s little distinction made between Israelis and Jews.
BDS has come to include not only boycott to the settlements (as has been articulated with great intelligence by Peter Beinart and his book “The Crisis of Zionism”) but also academic and cultural boycott. In extreme cases, there have been boycotts of products not for being Israeli or produced in the settlements, but merely out of being kosher products produced in Britain and the United States.
While it is more than clear that Arendt saw and foresaw the risks and dangers to which Israel polity was exposed by its leaders, she also articulated with clarity that it wasn’t the Jews alone who were responsible for this sad state of affairs and whether or not Hannah Arendt’s ideal of a binational state is at all realizable at this point – bearing in mind the complexities of Arab Spring – what is clear is that an ideology fed on old anti-Semitism and prejudice as much as on uncritical views of Arab and Palestinian history is very unlikely to produce the Arab-Jewish councils (at the heart of her theorizing on revolutions) upon the basis of which a secular and democratic state might be founded.
In 2010, Peter Beinart made waves with an essay in The New York Review of Books that laid bare the conflict between the Zionism of the American Jewish establishment and the liberalism of many young American Jews. The key faultline of his essay is this:
Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
On Thursday, April 26th, The Arendt Center, along with JStreet U at Bard, is co-sponsoring a lecture by Peter Beinart on his recently published book, The Crisis of Zionism. The lecture will be held at Bard in Olin 102 at 6:30 PM.
Deborah Lipstadt made waves this year with The Eichmann Trial, her re-evaluation of the trial of Adolf Eichmann that Hannah Arendt wrote about in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Part of Lipstadt's project is to free the Eichmann trial from Arendt's interpretation of it, an account that has dominated all subsequent consideration of the trial.
Lipstadt also made waves by her accusations that Arendt hadn't attended the trial in its entirety, that she underestimated Eichmann's antisemitism, and that she may have sought to mitigate Eichmann's crimes because she was "subliminally writing for her teacher and former lover, the revered philosopher Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933."
There is much in Lipstadt's book on Eichmann that is important. She has meaningful differences with Hannah Arendt on questions of Zionism and the use of trials in politics. Lipstadt believes deeply in the importance of the Eichmann trial as a way of doing justice to the survivors of the Holocaust, an important perspective that is at odds with Arendt's. But her accusations that Arendt subliminally forgave Eichmann partly to excuse Heidegger or that she whitewashed Eichmann's crimes, have rightly generated much pushback.
The Arendt Center has published numerous reviews and commentaries about Lipstadt's book on our blog. You can read them here.
The Center in conjunction with the North Jersey Public Policy Network and the Human Rights Project at Bard College, has invited Deborah Lipstadt to present her views and engage in a frank discussion about Eichmann, the trial, and Arendt's coverage of it. We are thrilled she will be joining us as the first guest of the new Hannah Arendt Center New York City Lecture Series. Please join us for what promises to be an exciting and illuminating discussion.
March 14, 2012 at 6:00 PM
36 West 44th St., Suite 1011, NYC
A Wine and Cheese Reception will be followed by Dr. Lipstadt's lecture.
Seating is limited. Please R.S.V.P to email@example.com.
We look forward to seeing you there.
Our guest blogger is Kristin Lane, a Professor of Psychology at Bard College. She looks at the capricious nature of our intentions. Will we blindly follow orders, no matter the consequence?
2011 marks the 50th anniversary of two crucial turning points in the understanding of human behavior. Adolf Eichmann’s trial for crimes committed during the Holocaust – and Hannah Arendt’s account of it in The New Yorker that later formed the basis of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil – gave rise to a new explanation for why people do terrible things. Rather than the intuitive (and comforting) notion that only awful people do awful things, the Eichmann trial offered the possibility that ordinary people, placed in or facing the right conditions, may do extraordinarily terrible things.
Inspired by his reading about the Eichmann trial, social psychologist Stanley Milgram asked, “Could it be that Eichmann and his accomplices had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?” Could he demonstrate in the lab, he wondered, that normal people, when asked to obey an authority figure, would act in ways that would horrify most of us (and, indeed, themselves)? This pattern is exactly what he found – residents of New Haven, Connecticut who believed that they were serving as a teacher in an experiment on word learning, inflicted painful – or even lethal – shocks to learners in the presence of an authority figure. Together, these events helped shift explanations for atrocities from something inherent in the individual (who may be amoral, psychologically ill, or sadistic) to the broader situation, in which someone without animus or intent could behave in deplorable ways.
With half a century elapsed since the Eichmann trial, historian Deborah Lipstadt revisits it in The Eichmann Trial. Lipstadt offers a vividly written account, especially when she describes the process of locating and capturing Eichmann. The details – a teenage romance that provided one of the first clues to his identity, an undercover operation in which Eichmann was blinded by headlights of an oncoming car, and a drugged Eichmann, wearing an El Al uniform and brought back to Israel under the guise of a drunk airline crew member – are the ingredients of a good spy novel, and Lipstadt’s writing does them justice. Her scope is expansive, and she engages with several large themes as she recounts the chronology of the trial. By making the voices of Jewish survivors and the experiences of Jewish survivors and victims so central to Eichmann’s crimes, she argues, the trial recentered Holocaust narratives around victims’ experiences rather than perpetrators’ acts. The trial is a painted as a turning point for Zionism, and Lipstadt attends to the ways in which Israel’s development informed the trial, and the reciprocal ways in which the trial itself transformed Israel. As she sets the stage for the trial by describing the anticipation leading up to it, she notes that among the central questions on trial observers’ minds was, “Would Eichmann’s defense strategy of obedience to orders hold sway?” Revisiting the plausibility of obedience as an explanation and/or excuse takes a central role in Lipstadt’s analysis. So, too, does the question of whether Eichmann’s actions were necessarily rooted in animus toward Jewish people.
One thematic issue that is not integrated into Lipstadt’s scholarship but rather merits its own chapter is Lipstadt’s treatment of Arendt’s analysis of the Eichmann trial, which comprises the final chapter before the conclusion. To be sure, Arendt is far from absent from the book’s early pages (there she is, after all, pictured on the book’s cover).
Lipstadt challenges Arendt’s analysis of the Eichmann trial in many areas. As a social psychologist interested in the ways in which behavior can operate without intention and as a function of our social situations, the issue that most interests me is Lipstadt’s discussion of the notion the Eichmann was “just following orders.”
Lipstadt suggests that Arendt “saw [in Eichmann] an automaton who was just passing on information and who failed to understand that what he had done was wrong.” The terror of Eichmann’s crimes was not that he was so atypical, but rather that he was exactly so typical. Arendt characterizes the import of Eichmann’s final words: “The lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought defying banality of evil.” If Eichmann was not afflicted by psychopathology, was not driven by “fanatical anti-Semitism,” was not burdened with “insane hatred,” was not, in other words, characterized by some trait that sets him apart from “normal” folks, then there is the “fearsome” possibility that anyone around us, or even, most chillingly, ourselves, could be susceptible to similar influences. In her epilogue, Arendt expands on the notion of the banality of evil: “Eichmann was not Iago and not MacBeth …Except for an extraordinary diligence in personal advancement, he had no motives at all…. He merely, to put it colloquially, never realized what he was doing….”
For Lipstadt, Eichmann’s defenses that he was “just a ‘little cog’” and “exclusively a carrier out of orders” were feeble variations on a theme: "I was just passing along requests.” She remains unconvinced. “The more he repeated it, the less persuasive it sounded, and the less he looked like a low-level bureaucrat.” Over the course of the trial “[a] portrait emerged of a man who was proactive, energetic, and a creative master of deception...someone who was far more than just a transportation specialist.” While she recognizes that “the transformation of seemingly normal people into killers … rightfully intrigued [Arendt],” she does not accept the premise that Eichmann was a normal person. She offers evidence throughout the book – from the trial and in documents released more recently (most notably Eichmann’s memoir, released in the late 1990s) that Eichmann was no mere passive actor, but an intentional agent, motivated not just by ordinary desires for professional advancement, but by deep-seated anti-Semitism.
My goal in the rest of this piece is not to adjudicate (again) the specifics of Eichmann’s trial. Rather, it is to explore what the social psychological perspective on mind and behavior can add to the discussion of the question: Is it possible that an ordinary person, with no conscious intention, malice, or group-based animus, could behave in ways similar to Eichmann? Two classic social psychological studies hint at the answer. In the first, the Milgram studies discussed above, ordinary people administered dangerously high – even lethal – shock levels to an ostensible partner. Before the experiments began, Milgram asked fellow psychologists to predict what percent of people would administer the highest possible voltage. Polled psychologists predicted that only one in one thousand people - the most deranged, sadistic, and evil among us – would use the maximum voltage of 450 volts. In actuality, over 60% of participants obeyed the experimenter despite the obvious distress of their partner and administered the maximum voltage. Sadism is a poor explanation for these findings – participants protested and exhibited distress, but in the end, the power of the situation overwhelmed their desire to stop administering shocks. Indeed, left to their own devices without the authority figure instructing them to continue, a miniscule proportion of people administered the maximum shock.
A decade after the Milgram experiments, Phil Zimbardo and his colleagues asked a similar question: “What happens when you put good people in an evil place?” They created a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford University Psychology Department, and randomly physically and psychologically healthy young men to be either “guards” or “prisoners.”
Although the guards were given no explicit instructions, they quickly adapted to their new roles to an eerie extent, implementing procedures that degraded and punished the prisoners, such as requiring push-ups and waking them up in the middle of the night. Following attempts by the prisoners to “rebel,” the guards forced some prisoners to strip naked, placed others in solitary confinement, and invoked ever-stricter rules. The prison became so realistic – and damaging to the prisoners who were becoming distressed and depressed – that the planned two-week experiment was halted on its sixth day.
Why are people so susceptible to the power of the situation? Perhaps, as Arendt suggested, because of sheer thoughtlessness. Again, a classic social psychological study demonstrates this tendency. Ellen Langer and her colleagues had experimenters approach people who were working at a copy machine and ask to jump ahead. When faced with the simple request Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?, approximately 60% allowed the person to use the machine. When faced with a request asked in conjunction with a reason for it - Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I'm in a rush? – the percent of people who let the experimenter go ahead increased to 94%. The surprising finding is that a request with a statement that sounded like, but was not actually, a reason had almost the same effect. When people asked Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies? (a completely tautological statement), 93% of them were permitted to move ahead. Participants seemed to rely on a mental script (“If someone tacks a statement onto their request it is probably a valid explanation”) and fail to evaluate the merits of the statement itself. In other words, behavior became automatic and people failed to exert the kind of controlled conscious thinking that Arendt encouraged.
Indeed, a large body of research shows that rather than being deliberative, intentional, conscious, our behavior is often– even more often than not – a function of mental processes that operate outside of conscious awareness. Many mental operations have both automatic (less conscious) and controlled (more conscious) components. Often, we are all the automatons that Arendt suggested Eichmann was, getting by on the efficiency of our automatic systems. When people were exposed to the stereotype of the elderly, for example, they walked more slowly down the hallway. Similarly, people were more likely to interrupt an experimenter after being presented with the concept of “rudeness.” In both cases, people failed to recognize exposure to the original concept, and denied that it could have possibly influenced their behavior.
It is a large leap, to be sure, to go from walking down a hallway to orchestrating the Holocaust.
The commonality among these experiments, though, is their demonstration not only of the power of the situation but also the ways in which people can fail to recognize the ways in which environments shape responses. People who do terrible things are not necessarily dispositionally terrible – in this sense, the psychological evidence comes down on Arendt’s side rather than Lipstadt’s.
But how then, do we allocate responsibility if individual will can be subordinated to larger situational forces? Arendt worried about a march toward determinism:
We have become very much accustomed by modern psychology and sociology, not to speak of modern bureaucracy, to explaining away the responsibility of the doer for his deed in terms of this or that kind of determinism. Whether such seemingly deeper explanations of human actions are right or wrong is debatable. But what is not debatable is that no judicial procedure would be possible on the basis of them, and that the administration of justice, measured by such theories, is an extremely unmodern, not to say outmoded, institution.
Situational explanations for human actions need not be excuses – not everyone obeyed orders during the Holocaust, nearly 40% of Milgram’s subjects did not go to the highest voltage, and not everyone exposed to the words “bingo, grey, and Florida” walked more slowly down the hall. The ability of some individuals to overcome (or simply ignore) the situational forces is one of social psychology’s very real, phenomena. Indeed, although people can have attitudes and stereotypes that exist outside of conscious awareness that influence behavior, the influence of those biases on behavior can be attenuated by individual and situational differences in motivation to be non-biased, working memory capacity, and executive control over cognitive functions.
In other words, although she said it in less psychological terms, Arendt accurately foresaw that when we do the hard work of bringing our controlled, conscious thoughts to bear on our behavior and situations, our automatic systems need not be our destiny. Here, Arendt (as summarized by Lipstadt) and the contemporary research – and, I believe, Lipstadt herself – are in concordance: “because ‘all the cogs in the machinery, no matter how insignificant,’ were necessary for it to operate. Eichmann’s assertion that his only alternative to following orders was to commit suicide was, according to her, a 'lie' unsupported by the evidence.”