The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought

Evil: The Crime against Humanity
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University

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Caption Below

From Eichmann in Jerusalem "Epilogue". The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

Arendt saw Eichmann, on trial for his life, as a "buffoon" whose

inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such . . . [It was] proof against reason and argument and information and insight of any kind (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapters 3 and 5).

Having encountered such a man, Arendt saw that the banality of evil is potentially far greater in extent--indeed limitless--than the growth of evil from a "root." A root can be uprooted, which is what she meant to do when she spoke of "destroying" totalitarianism, but the evil perpetrated by an Eichmann can spread over the face of the earth like a "fungus" precisely because it has no root. Furthermore, the case of Eichmann led Arendt to see that at least one evildoer was not "corruptible." Having overcome or in his case forgotten any inclination he may have had to halt or hinder the organization and transportation of millions of innocent Jews to their deaths, Eichmann boasted that he had done his duty to the end! Unlike Himmler, his ultimate superior in the chain of command and a chief architect of the "final solution," Eichmann never attempted to "negotiate" with the enemy when it became clear that the Nazi cause was lost. He declared, on the contrary, "that he had lived his whole life . . . according to a Kantian definition of duty," (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 8) and Arendt noted that "to the surprise of everybody, Eichmann came up with an approximately correct definition of [Kant's] categorical imperative," though he had "distorted" it in practice. She admitted, moreover, "that Eichmann's distortion agrees with what he himself called the version of Kant 'for the household use of the little man,'" the identification of one's will with "the source" of law, which for Eichmann was the will of the Führer.

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Eichmann in Jerusalem is its study of human conscience. The court's refusal to consider seriously the question of Eichmann's conscience resulted in its failure to confront what Arendt called "the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century." The Israeli judges understood conscience traditionally as the voice of God or lumen naturale, speaking or shining in every human soul, telling or illuminating the difference between right and wrong, and this simply did not apply in the case of Eichmann. Eichmann had a conscience, and it seems to have "functioned in the expected way" for a few weeks after he became engaged in the transport of Jews, and then, when he heard no voice saying Thou shalt not kill but on the contrary every voice saying Thou shalt kill, "it began to function the other way around." (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 6) And this was by no means true only for Eichmann. Arendt was convinced by testimony presented at the trial that a general "moral collapse" had been experienced throughout Europe, from which even respected members of the Jewish leadership were not exempt.5 (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 7)

And so the controversy raged. Arendt may have exaggerated the extent to which the attacks against her were prompted by a "conspiracy" of the Jewish establishment and leveled against a book that was "never written." (see "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship") Certainly not everyone who disagreed with her, sometimes vehemently, was malevolent or ill-informed (see letter from Hans Jonas to H.A. marked "etwa Januar 1964"). Much that was said was indeed preposterous, for example, that she attempted to exonerate Eichmann when she had done exactly the opposite; or that she was morally insensitive in asking why Jews had not fought back, a question raised by the prosecutor but never by Arendt, who understood that the processes of dehumanization precluded rebellion. Yet many were deeply disturbed by her depiction of an Eichmann who was not an ideological anti-Semite nor even criminally motivated--he wanted to rise in rank not by murdering anyone but by "conscientiously" doing his job. "Intent to do wrong" was not, in Arendt's opinion, proved against him. He was not "morally insane" for in his own "muddled" way he distinguished between right and wrong, and the results of psychological tests showed that he was not a "monster" but frighteningly normal.

Eichmann was not stupid; he knew but did not think what he was doing, not in the past and not in Jerusalem. He contradicted himself constantly, but he did not lie; his conscience did not bother him; and he did not suffer from remorse: "He knew that what he had once called his duty was now called a crime, and he accepted this new code of judgment as if it were nothing but another language rule" (see "Thinking and Moral Considerations"). Therefore it was important to Arendt that the justice of the death sentence delivered by the court be seen by all, and for that reason she offered her own judgment, addressing Eichmann in the following terms:

Just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations--as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world--we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to share the world with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, "Epilogue" -- part one and part two").

The "Epilogue" to Eichmann in Jerusalem deals with the legality of the Jerusalem trial, which for the most part Arendt defended, but she thought it necessary to clarify what the Israeli court's judgment left obscure. Eichmann was guilty of "an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the 'human status' without which the very words 'mankind' or 'humanity' would be devoid of meaning." Arendt recognized in Eichmann, who struck her as "not even strange" (nicht einmal unheimlich) (see letter from H.A. to Heinrich Bluecher, April 15, 1961), the exemplary criminal capable of committing "the new crime, the crime against humanity." He "supported and carried out" the physical destruction of European Jewry and would have done the same for any group or anyone at all whom a power higher than himself had decreed unfit to live.

5. A year later (1964), writing about Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy, Arendt found that the wartime Roman Catholic pope, Pius XII, was not exempt either.

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The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought