In Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt gives an account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and provides analysis of the case, focusing on the question of Eichmann’s conscience. Arendt believes that the judges missed the “greatest moral and even legal challenge of the whole case”: Eichmann’s inability to tell right from wrong. Her argument that Eichmann’s conscience was “quieted” due to the influence of his social environment, peers, and superiors is convincing, and as I read Eichmann in Jerusalem I became convinced that our ability to tell right from wrong is dependent on our faculty of thought.
Eichmann, due to his involvement in the Jewish Final Solution, is viewed as a wicked man by the jurors. However, he pleads “not guilty in the sense of the indictment”, claiming that he had not performed his duties for the Nazis out of “base motives”. The prosecution’s case was based on the assumption that Eichmann, while performing his duties in arranging the transportation of Jews to death camps, must have been aware that his actions were criminal in nature.
Throughout Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt challenges this assumption. Arendt suggests that participation in political evil doesn’t require a person to be evil in nature or have “base motives”, and that such evil only requires a kind of thoughtlessness or detachment from reality. This proposal led her to coin the phrase “the banality of evil”, by which she means the ordinariness of the criminal.
Arendt explains the meaning of the phrase in Thinking and Moral Considerations in which she writes, “…I spoke of the ‘banality of evil’ and meant with this not theory or doctrine but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doe, whose only personal distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness”. The psychiatrists who examined Eichmann also came to the conclusion that he was “normal”, not a sadist or fanatic. This reasoning isn’t a factor in the judge’s decision, however.
Admittedly, when I first began reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, I was skeptical of Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann’s conscience and found it hard to believe that a man could be a part of such atrocities without awareness of the criminality of his actions. However, Arendt’s writing began to persuade me as I read her account of Eichmann’s social context. Adolf Eichmann wasn’t a unique or special man. The account of his upbringing presents him as unsuccessful until, by chance and circumstance, he begins working for the Information Department of the SS. Eventually, Eichmann becomes in charge of the transportation of the Jews to concentration camps.
Early on in his responsibilities for carrying out this duty, Eichmann makes a purposeful error that shows us that he indeed has a conscience. In his first mass deportation of Jews and gypsies, he decides to send them to a ghetto in Poland rather than follow orders and send them to one of the Russian territories where they would have been killed immediately. This decision to save the Jews and gypsies from death, at least temporarily, proves the existence of Eichmann’s conscience and ability for empathy. From this event, we can determine that Eichmann is not a natural sadist or evil man.
Yet, soon after this act of conscience, Eichmann begins fulfilling his duties and sending tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths on a regular basis. Arendt writes that his change in behavior was triggered by a meeting that Eichmann and many heads of civil service bureaucracies attended. At this meeting, plans for the Final Solution were discussed. When nobody, including Eichmann’s superior and many other highly respected German individuals, objected to a plan of the complete extermination of the Jewish population, it had a profound effect on Eichmann’s conscience.
Not only did these men not object to the plan, they were enthusiastic about the Final Solution. In this social context, Eichmann’s feelings of moral objection began to change. One’s ability to be convinced by Arendt’s argument depends on their views on conscience and morality. Personally, I believe we are all born with a faint and basic innate sense of morality, but it can be nurtured, twisted, or manipulated by social conventions. We see how morality can vastly differ between cultures in the way women are treated under theocratic governance in some Middle Eastern countries.
As discussed in the notes, things like the events at Abu Ghraib show how conscience can be quieted and otherwise normal people can have the capacity to do monstrous things under the influence of their superiors. As J. S. Mill asserts in On Liberty, “The moral sense of most people tends to be merely a function of their time and place, of their class and social position”. Following this logic, it is comprehensible that Eichmann conscience and morality could have been silenced by the influence of his superiors, and that he truly became unable to recognize the criminal nature of his actions.
This ignorance, however, would not last forever. After Eichmann’s capture in Argentina, he was surprisingly cooperative with authorities and willing to stand trial. He gave two reasons for this behavior. The first reason was that he became tired of his anonymity. The second reason was that he wanted to lift “the burden of guilt from German youth”. He went on to explain, “the fact of this guilt complex was for me as much of a landmark as…landing on the moon. It became an essential point of my inner life, around which many thoughts crystallized.
This was why I did not escape…when I knew the search commando was closing in on me”. Eichmann’s separation from influence of the SS made it possible for him to recognize the criminality of his actions. Despite his circumstances, it was evident that Eichmann was guilty of his crimes. As Arendt writes, “His guilt came from his obedience, and obedience is praised as a virtue. His virtue had been abused by the Nazi leaders”. Arendt’s analysis on the question of conscience and its relation to political evil is compelling.
Her conclusion that radical evil can be committed by ordinary individuals under the influence of their social context is convincing and quite disturbing. This idea suggests that any one of us is capable of terrible things under the right circumstances. This is what Arendt means when speaking of the “banality of evil”, the idea that “radical evil can be the work of normal individuals who are not motivated by intense hatred or selfishness”. This troubling thought makes Eichmann in Jerusalem an important book and still relevant today.