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Saturday, June 24th, 2006
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Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)

by Hannah Arendt

A Little Grey Man in a Little Grey Suit

A review by Doug Brown

I passed over this title for many years, assuming more recent scholarship would better help me understand the holocaust. Since 1963 when Eichmann in Jerusalem was first published, vastly more evidence has come to light, Russian archives have become available, and a larger corpus of research has amassed, giving recent studies a better data set to work from. There are new understandings of how the Nazi hierarchy worked, and a firmer grasp of the contingent evolution of the final solution. And yet, it's all there in Arendt's classic.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Adolph Eichmann was an SS functionary who served under Reinhardt Heydrich, one of the chief architects of the holocaust. Eichmann was the person who took notes at the infamous Wannsee Conference, where the final solution was laid out. Heydrich was assassinated during the war, and Heinrich Himmler killed himself at the end of the war, leaving Eichmann as one of the higher ranking perpetrators who hadn't been brought to justice. In late 1959, Israeli intelligence learned he was living in Argentina under an assumed name. In spring of 1960, the Israelis kidnapped Eichmann (illegally) and took him to Jerusalem to be put on trial. A couple weeks ago it was revealed that the US had known where Eichmann was for a couple of years, but kept quiet because of what he might say about former Nazis in the West German government (who were then our friends against the communists). Ain't we great.

One problem with the trial was determining exactly what Eichmann had jurisdiction over. The Nazi hierarchy was built on a social Darwinist scaffold; Hitler would often give the same task to two or three different departments (without telling the others), and see who finished the task first. The holocaust was overseen by a variety of departments, and Eichmann was upper middle management in just one of those departments. Arendt notes that the prosecution overstated Eichmann's role in architecting the holocaust, and Israel partly convicted Eichmann for the work of his superiors.

Particularly interesting is Arendt's analysis of bias in the trial itself. Much of the evidence presented was just about the holocaust in general, with no direct connection made to Eichmann. To their credit, the judges disregarded many survivor testimonies involving areas where Eichmann had no jurisdiction. However, as Arendt correctly points out, governments don't go kidnapping people on other continents to put them on trial unless the governments in question already think the persons are guilty. The outcome of the trial was predetermined; the only question was which charges Eichmann would be sentenced to death for. Israel claimed it should try Eichmann (instead of an international tribunal) because they had the best archives and access to survivor testimony. However, the majority of these testimonies were not directly relevant to the case, and Yad Vashem's archives were new and very incomplete at the time. What did separate Israel from other countries was only in Israel was the defense not allowed to call witnesses (only depositions could be submitted), and the defense was not allowed to cross-examine certain prosecution witnesses.

Despite all this, no one is claiming Eichmann was an innocent who was railroaded by a vindictive government. He had numerous opportunities to lessen suffering, and he passed almost all of them up. Near the end of the war when Himmler ordered the deportations to stop (because he thought showing clemency at the end might help his case with the Allies), Eichmann overrode him and sent more Jews east. Eichmann allowed his morality to be defined by the state; if the final solution was legal in Germany, then it was ergo moral. This pathology is the core of Arendt's now famous phrase "the banality of evil." Eichmann wasn't a raving madman or a psychotic individual, nor did he lack in empathy for other people. He just didn't seem to be capable of developing a personal morality, and allowed his superiors and the laws of the land to define what was moral. He felt that if his betters wanted something done, then it was therefore not just ethically allowable, it was ethically required. The reason he overrode Himmler's order to stop the deportations was not out of cruelty, but because he felt Himmler's order was illegal. Hitler hadn't ordered a stop to the transports, so they must continue. He was the archetypical "good worker"; one who carries out tasks with thoroughness and without question.

Arendt's insightful observations on humanity and bureaucracy make Eichmann in Jerusalem a must-read. The book forms a perfect object lesson on why it is vitally important for each and every one of us to question our authority figures, and question ourselves, on the true moral rectitude of our actions. Are we easing suffering, or creating it? How defensible is it for us to carry out tasks that make us uncomfortable because we are told to by our superiors? Eichmann in Jerusalem is also a good overview of the history of the holocaust, from its resettlement origins to the final solution. It is most rightly famous as a portrait of a little man at his desk, concerning himself with bureaucratic details to avoid considering what his actions resulted in. Like the protagonist in Terry Gilliam's dystopian film Brazil, Eichmann was a man in a grey suit, pushing papers around that happened to have people's names on them. And while he never killed anybody himself, his actions helped grease the machinery that did kill a great many people. The banality of evil, indeed.

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