The Unexpected Evil of Thoughtlessness

Adolf Eichmann; travelling oil salesman, Nazi lieutenant colonel, architect of the Holocaust and international fugitive for more than 15 years had been hanged by the neck, his ashes scattered in the Mediterranean by an Israeli patrol boat.

And so you might have been excused for thinking, in June 1962, that Eichmann’s life was consigned to history – never to be forgotten, but never to hold the world’s attention in the same way again. You would have been wrong. February 1963 saw the Eichmann trial and the nature of his role in the Holocaust argued more fiercely than ever, debate which remains as relevant and as divisive today.

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Eichmann imprisoned at Ramla in 1961. Picture by Amirki

The cause of this was Hannah Arendt, a political theorist and philosopher who, as a German-born Jew, had left Germany in 1933 and eventually settled in New York. She became the first female lecturer at Princeton University and was a visiting scholar at a variety of other Ivy League institutions. When Eichmann was brought to trial in Jerusalem, having been illegally smuggled out of Argentina by Mossad, Arendt travelled to cover the event for The New Yorker. The first of these reports was published on February 16, 1963.

Arendt’s reports would eventually be collectively published as Eichmann in Jerusalem, a seminal text straddling genres including political theory, psychology and philosophy (though Arendt herself objected to the last of these). Arendt’s reflections were not focused solely on the Holocaust either, her thoughts ranging from the metaphysics of morals to the politics of Zionism, revealing much about the author’s own prejudices in the process.

Eichmann in Jerusalem introduced a theory encompassed in the phrase ‘The Banality of Evil’. This has often been misinterpreted as the belief that Eichmann’s crimes were acceptable, that the cruelty of the Holocaust was not gratuitous, or that the events of Eichmann’s life and the decisions he made could have been made by anyone. Instead, the theme at the centre of Arendt’s argument, to which she would frequently return, was thoughtlessness. Though he was undoubtedly a committed anti-semite who was psychologically responsible for his actions, Arendt considered this secondary to the absence of thought or reflection exhibited by Eichmann, something which also led her to conclude that he was more than a little stupid.

Nevertheless, Eichmann in Jerusalem prompted a storm of controversy and continues to recieve criticism for a variety of reasons. Arendt’s acceptance of Eichmann’s testimony that he did not have evil intent to commit the atrocities of the Holocaust earned her scorn, as did her opposition to the prosecution’s depiction of Eichmann as a sadistic monster. More contemporary scholars have noted that Arendt relied heavily on recorded material from the trials, and was not actually in attendance when the more forceful aspects of Eichmann’s character were brought forth.

The trial also exposed many of Arendt’s own prejudices in her criticism of the state of Israel and its role in politicising the trial. In a letter to Karl Jaspers, Arendt exhibited racial prejudices common in German Jewish communities of her time, displaying a snobbish disregard for Jews from Eastern Europe. Her attitude towards the Israelis was even more severe; an “Oriental mob” that Arendt claimed “gives me the creeps”. Arendt also alleged that the trial was a show managed by the Israeli government in an attempt to highlight not the crimes Eichmann had committed, but the scale of suffering Jews had endured.

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The judges at the Eichmann trial; Benjamin Halevy, Moshe Landau and Yitzhak Raveh

Despite this, Arendt’s work still commands a great amount of support and respect, whilst her critics tend to fade with time. One of the most recent criticisms, David Cesarani’s Becoming Eichmann, was deemed by the New York Review to be motivated by a bitterness of standing “in the shadow of one of the great books of the last half-century”.

Eichmann in Jerusalem earns this reputation. This is due in part to the uniqueness of the trial and its subject; that Eichmann faced the charges long after the Nuremburg Trials had been concluded, that six government psychologists found in him no trace of mental illness and that, in Arendt’s words, “bragging … was Eichmann’s undoing”. She even claims that he might have preferred to have been executed as a war criminal than lived out his life as a nobody. The trial also came at an important period in the formation of the young state of Israel, and retains an iconic place in the nation’s national conscience.

Lastly, and most importantly of all, ‘The Banality of Evil’ is a timeless concept. Less ubiquitous than the oft-quoted (though perhaps equally misunderstood) saying that ‘The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing’, it provides us with a similar warning for the current age. Not that in each of us dwells a mass-murderer in danger of being brought forth, but that thoughtlessness, comfort and a failure to reflect on the consequences of our actions provides ample opportunity for the creation and operation of apparatus through which all manner of evil can be performed.

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Eichmann in Jerusalem remains in print today through Penguin Classics and obviously communicates much more than can be encapsulated in a single article.

Penguin have also published an abridged version as part of their Great Ideas series entitled Eichmann and the Holocaust, or you can read Arendt’s original articles for The New Yorker on their website.

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