Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem

Hannah Arendt (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Penguin. 312p.

Book review by Renxiang Liu, originally written in Mar 2018.

This report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann at the court of Jerusalem arouses quite a bit of uneasiness, because it not only assesses whether the trial is just, but also calls into question the very basis of modern jurisdiction, i.e., the free will of the independent individual.

Traditionally, criminals could be legally accused because they were taken to be authors of the crimes they committed. The underlying reason is that, had there not been these criminals’ free choice, the crimes would not have happened. Furthermore, “civilized jurisprudence” took into consideration the intention behind the crimes: an unintended perpetrator was not considered a genuine author.

In the trial of Eichmann, however, all these get challenged. Eichmann claims that he was just following the orders and , whenever he could, reducing “unnecessary suffering” of the victims. Under traditional notions, he did not bear the intention to kill (though he was aware of what his acts ultimately led to); nor was he the genuine author of the massacre, since, as he says, were it not him there would certainly be others taking his stead anyway. It seems, then, that we cannot try him within the traditional framework.

Another difficulty comes from the span of jurisdiction. Eichmann insists that he was a “lawful citizen” in the Third Reich. As all the acts for which he is accused were carried out under the reign of the Reich, how could anyone accuse him of violating the law (if so, which law)?

Both difficulties lead Arendt to the conclusion that Eichmann was involved in a state crime. This is a new type of crime, for what was evil did not appear as an anomaly to the juridical system, but as normal. Conversely, what was not evil appeared abnormal. This is why it was possible for Eichmann never to be aware of the evil of his acts: he simply did not have anomaly as an indicator, and so whatever he did not appear to him as trespasses. Instead, they were part of his daily job; they were insignificant means to his career ambitions. Any evil that takes demonic appearance at least presumes the just framework it violates (and demonization comes precisely from this violation, from this discrepancy between the particular and the general), whereas the Eichmann type is inconspicuous, routine, even banal. The most horrible about Nazi Germany was the banality of evil.

Arendt discusses how all these became possible by depicting a “mega-machine” of murder. A few points can be discerned here. First, the regime had insurmountable symbolic power. The utter ruthlessness it represented was quite unfamiliar to the all-too-human Europe at the time. Many Jews simply could not believe that the holocaust was falling upon them, even when they were on the train to Auschwitz. This brute fact, together with the small events of extreme cruelty, gave Europe people the impression that the Nazis were undefeatable. But it was precisely this belief—essentially a false one, as attested by the failure of the deportation of Jews from Denmark—that made the Germans effectively undefeatable. This, of course, suits Rousseau’s account of the origin of power, i.e., the make-believe of otherwise nonexistent facts.

The second point is that, because of this symbolic power, there were all kinds of collaboration with the Nazis. The motivation behind was usually to make oneself an exception to the rules, but in doing this one actually corroborated the rules. Under this Arendt mentions the Zionist elites, who helped the Nazis with deportation in exchange for the survival of a small group of “selected”.

Third, the collaboration shows that the Nazis and its collaborators had two beliefs in common: that massacre was inevitable, and that most of the mass could be reduced to manipulable materials without any consideration about their humanity. This, indeed, was a result of modern mechanization. Not only did reason become instrumental, without questioning the legitimacy of the orders and projects; but the murderers’ relation to their victims also became more and more indirect—the former could now rid themselves of any uneasiness caused by direct, bodily witness of the latter’s suffering they inflicted.

Combined together, these mechanisms constitute a horrible mega-machine of genocide. The term “genocide” here refers not only to organized extermination of a certain people. Arendt suggests the alternative term of “administrative massacre”, indicating that the function of genocide was to keep the administrative machinery running. Specifically, in Nazi Germany, whose ideology championed values of strength and “ruthlessness”, the weak and those who “corrupt the nation” were turned into fuels of the mega-machine: getting rid of them became a common project of the Germans, and, conversely, it was precisely this common project that constituted their (otherwise quite loose) German identity. In claiming a war against its Other, Germany entered an unprecedented stage of integration. To sustain this integration, however, it had to kill continuously.

Arendt characterizes this new type of crime, not to excuse Eichmann, who was a “cog” in the mega-machine, but rather to retort the excuses made from the viewpoint of traditional jurisdiction. She reminds us of the sense of retribution in justice: instead of unduly empathizing culprits who were “out of their own control”, Arendt seeks to judge them, not according to their intentions, but according to the nature of their actual acts. Whatever they actually caused shall be paid back. Interestingly, in this way Arendt does not destroy traditional jurisprudence, but on the contrary revives it by emphasizing that we are always judging human beings as if they had free will. She fights against deterministic theories of human action because they, by trivializing the choice of an act, actually make the personality of the judged person evaporate into general rules, and so they are not able to address the sense of authorship which is pivotal for the notion of juridical and moral responsibility. Arendt wants to underline that jurisdiction is something essentially human, even when the accused participates in a crime that is largely in human—that is, mechanistic. Eichmann has to be tried as a human, because whatever happened with him was, and will remains to be, a possibility inherent to humanity. We should keep in mind this possibility instead of letting it go unnoticed by simply dismissing it as demonic or inhumane. Moreover, trying Eichmann as a human being exhibits the resilience of the human spirit, because the trial is an attempt to restore humanity, neither despite nor according to the genocide (as if it were either incorporated in humanity or excluded from it), but in the face of genocide: encompassing it in the depth of the spirit without giving in to it. In other words, the trial should show that humanity is more tenacious than genocide—so tenacious that it allows genocide to be part of its past, albeit rendered impotent by letting-pass.

Finally, although Arendt admits the violent nature of the struggle against violent crimes (so that it can never be totally lawful), she is careful enough to insist that such violence only be carried out when it ends up restoring the order of lawfulness, which its opponent violence has disturbed in the first place. Justice is based on retribution but more than retribution, for it makes a universal and objective claim. Accordingly, one way to assess state crimes is to hinge on their threat to the lawful order to such an extent that human beings would no longer be able to live together. Offense is not only offense against the victims as individuals or as a group, but more importantly offense against lawfulness, i.e., against the very locus of human transcendence beyond nature.

The academic as well as general value of this report is not compromised by the factual mistakes in it. It remains an occasion for us to question our institutions of justice beyond positive legality, and it constantly reminds us of the easiest way to slip into the utmost evil.

Published by Renxiang Liu

Philosopher, Phenomenologist, Humanist.

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