The recent publication of an English translation of Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer has yielded a handful of reviews and essays, like this one, framing the book as a devastating critique of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
The critics seem to assume that Arendt’s thesis amounted to a denial or diminishment of Eichmann’s wickedness. Arendt’s famous formulation, “the banality of evil,” is taken to mean that Eichmann was simply a thoughtless bureaucrat thoughtlessly following orders. Based on Stangneth’s exhaustive work, they conclude that Eichmann was anything but thoughtless in his orchestration of the death of millions of Jews. Ergo, Arendt was wrong about Eichmann.
But this casual dismissal of Arendt’s argument is built on a misunderstanding of her claims. Arendt certainly believed that Eichmann’s deeds were intentional and genuinely evil. She believed he deserved to die for his crimes. She was not taken in by his performance on the witness stand in Jerusalem. She did consider him thoughtless, but thoughtlessness as she intended the word was a more complex concept than what the critics have assumed.
At least two rejoinders have been published in an attempt to clarify and defend Arendt’s position. Both agree that Stangneth herself was not nearly as dismissive of Arendt as the second-hand critics, and both argue that Stangneth’s work does not undermine Arendt’s thesis, properly understood.
The first of these pieces, “Did Eichmann Think?” by Roger Berkowitz, appeared at The American Interest, and the second, “Who’s On Trial, Eichmann or Arendt?” by Seyla Benhabib, appeared at the NY Times’ philosophy blog, The Stone. Berkowitz’s piece is especially instructive. Here is the conclusion:
“In other words, evil originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.”
Do read the rest.