The Arendt Wars Continue: Seyla Benhabib v. Richard Wolin

by Corey Robin on October 3, 2014

Since I blogged about Arendt and Eichmann on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I figured I’d do the same on Erev Yom Kippur.

Actually, there’s a reason I’ve been thinking about the Arendt/Eichmann controversy of late: it’s heating up again. This time, prompted by the publication in English of Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem. I’ve been reading the book, which offers a full-scale reconsideration not only of Eichmann but of how Eichmann presented himself at court in Jerusalem. In the background, inevitably, is Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Stagneth’s is an uneven book, which starts out with great promise (its opening set piece is almost worthy of Arendt), but performs the nearly magical feat of being both tendentious, maniacally repeating its argument over and over again, and wayward; it’s both polemical and dilatory.

One potentially fascinating angle of the book, which I haven’t seen Stangneth develop, at least not yet, is why Arendt wasn’t more interested in Eichmann’s performance at Jerusalem as a performance. Arendt, after all, had an especially theatrical conception of politics, understanding all that we do in the public sphere as a kind of performance, a mask we wear, a role we inhabit. And no one reading those opening pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem could fail to see just how theatrical is her sense of the “show trial” in Jerusalem. And yet Arendt refuses to apply those insights to Eichmann himself. Rather than see him as performing a part (Stangneth does a good job of showing that that is exactly what Eichmann was doing at Jerusalem), Arendt sees Eichmann as being subsumed by, or subsuming himself in, his role. That is, in part, his blankness, his banality, for Arendt. It’s understandable that Arendt would resist seeing Eichmann in Jerusalem as a performance: that is, after all, the point of her book. Even so, it’s a fascinating wrinkle in the story, one that I hope Stangneth will pursue at some point in the book.

Back to the Arendt/Eichmann wars. They seem to flare up every decade or so. What’s truly astonishing is that the wars continue today, more than a half-century after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. With the exception of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, what book has managed, 50 years later, to stir up so much wrath and rage? With books like the Bible or Capital, it’s more understandable: they, after all, are immediately linked to a political or religious movement. But Eichmann in Jerusalem is not.

Or perhaps it is…

In the beginning, when the battle first broke out after the publication of Eichmann, the main issue of contention was Arendt’s treatment of the Jewish Councils. But now that most of that generation of survivors is gone, that issue has died down.

Now the main fault line of the battle is Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism: whether she minimized it or not. And that issue, it seems to me, is very much tied up with the fate of Israel.

After all, if the claim could be made, however vulgarly (for this was not in fact Arendt’s point at all), that Ground Zero of modern anti-Semitism was not in fact anti-Semitic, what does that tell us about the presence and persistence of anti-Semitism in the contemporary world? Again, that was not in fact Arendt’s argument, but it’s been taken that way, and I can’t help but think that one of the reasons why the focus on Eichmann’s anti-Semitism plays the role now that it does (as opposed to when the book was originally published) has something to do with the legitimation crisis that Israel is currently undergoing.

But this is for a longer discussion at a later point, one that I plan to explore in more depth in a piece on the Arendt wars that I’ll be writing for a magazine.

Right now, I’m more interested in the battle between Seyla Benhabib and Richard Wolin that has broken out over the last few weeks in the pages of the New York Times and the Jewish Review of Books. Again, prompted by Stangneth’s book.

I’ve been hesitant to weigh into this battle on this blog for a few reasons. First, I personally know both Seyla and Richard, who’s a colleague of mine at the CUNY Graduate Center. Though I tend to side with Seyla on the question of Arendt, I have a great deal of respect for Richard and his work. I like both of them, and don’t like getting into the middle of it. Second, as I said, I’ll be writing more on the Arendt wars in the future, and want to give myself some time and space to think about what they mean before I weigh in in public. And last, I don’t know that I have the stomach for the inevitable round of Seinsplaining I anticipate on the comment thread of this blog. Talk about Arendt, everyone thinks Heidegger, and lo and behold we have one after another thousand-word comment from Learned Men about matters that have little to do with the original post.

But there are two smaller issues that have come up in the exchange between Wolin and Benhabib that I did want to explore, in part because they are so small.

The first has to do with the presence of Kant in Eichmann in Jerusalem.

In his critique of Benhabib’s Times piece, Wolin writes:

Benhabib’s claim that Kant’s moral philosophy plays a systematic role in Eichmann in Jerusalem is similarly unsustainable. Arendt’s reliance on Kant’s theory of judgment—the idea that we broaden our mental horizons by virtue of our ability to reason from the standpoint of other persons—is limited to one meager passage (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 48).  Moreover, in the passage in question, Kant’s name is not even mentioned. Casual allusions along these lines hardly qualify as systematic or serious employment. As most Arendt scholars are aware, Arendt only developed these Kantian precepts in earnest circa 1970, in the course of her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy and in the complementary essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations.”


The question of Kant’s presence in Eichmann has a lot to do with how we understand Arendt’s treatment of what she calls Eichmann’s thoughtlessness. When Arendt accuses Eichmann of thoughtlessness, she means, for those who favor a Kantian reading (at least an Arendtian reading of a Kantian reading of Arendt: are you still with me?), that Eichmann was simply unable to think about what he was doing from the standpoint of other men and women, how his actions might be perceived by someone who was not in his shoes.

Stangneth, in fact, tells a story about Eichmann that offers a perfect illustration of this reading of thoughtlessness (though Stangneth interprets the story completely differently): In 1950, Eichmann, along with 15 others, managed to flee Europe and set sail for Argentina from Genoa on the Giovanna C. Years later, in a text titled “Meine Flucht,” he reminisced about the relief he felt, finally to have escaped his would-be tormentors. Drawing a parallel only he could have drawn, he marveled, “Once it was the Jews, now it was–Eichmann.” This is the sort of thing Arendt had in mind when she talked about Eichmann’s thoughtlessness.

Back to Wolin. That last claim of his, which I’ve bolded above—”As most Arendt scholars are aware, Arendt only developed these Kantian precepts in earnest circa 1970, in the course of her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy and in the complementary essay ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’”—is simply not true.

In a brilliant article—”Arendt, Aesthetics, and ‘The Crisis in Culture‘”—that totally changed how I see some of Arendt’s work, University of Chicago political theorist Patchen Markell shows that the Kantian presence in Arendt’s thought, particularly regarding these issues of judgment and enlarged mentality, well predates her 1970 writings, extending as far back as the 1950s. In other words, while it’s no surprise that Arendt had read Kant and was obsessed with him throughout her writing (what German émigré  scholar of her generation wouldn’t have been?), the particular question of Kant’s influence on her theory of judgment, and how judgment relates to questions of aesthetic taste, which was a major topic in her writings in the 1970s, can be shown to be present throughout her writings in the 1950s. And in fact, as Patchen shows, most serious Arendt scholars know that.

If memory serves (I only read this essay in draft more than a year ago), Patchen looks at Arendt’s essay “The Crisis in Culture,” which was being written and formulated in the late 1950s and which finally appears in Between Past and Future in 1961 (the year Eichmann went on trial). He shows, among a great many other things, that Arendt and Jaspers were corresponding about Kant’s Critique of Judgment in the late 1950s (so the text was on her mind), and that the Critique of Judgment very much informs her essay on culture, and how to think about questions of taste and judgment and their relationship to politics. In other words, whether or not Kant is present in what Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem (and I think Seyla’s got the better of that argument), Kant, and his writing about judgment, were clearly present in Arendt’s thinking on the eve of her travels to Jerusalem.

As Patchen further commented to me on my blog:

Although the Jaspers correspondence does contain a letter from 1957, when she was busy re-reading the Critique of Judgment, that makes it pretty clear how seriously engaged she was with that text, the place to go to really see this is her Denktagebuch or notebooks, published in 2002, which contain 15 pages (in the published version) of handwritten notes from the third Critique, including notes and comments on the idea of an “enlarged mentality,” the importance of the presence of others for the validity of judgments, etc. The editors of the Denktagebuch themselves observed how significant it was that this material came prior to, not after, the Eichmann trial. The Anglophone scholar who reconstructs this stuff best, and really focuses in a way I do not on the continuities between the Kant reading of 1957 and the lectures of 1970, is David Marshall, who published a very detailed piece on this history of Arendt’s readings of Kant in Political Theory (2010): http://ptx.sagepub.com/content/38/3/367.


Inspired by Wolin’s piece (and Patchen’s corrective, avant la lettre), I read Arendt’s other essay from that period, “Culture and Politics.” This was a talk she gave in Germany in 1958, which was published in German in 1959, and was then incorporated into the final version of the “The Crisis in Culture” essay that was published in Between Past and Future. It’s recently been translated into English.

In that essay, Arendt claims Kant’s Critique of Judgment as an explicit inspiration for her thinking about judgment and politics: the Critique, she says, “ contains what is in my opinion the greatest and most original aspect of Kant’s political philosophy.” That was just two years before Arendt would head to Jerusalem to report on the Eichmann trial.

As she goes on to develop the political implications of Kant’s theory of taste and judgment, Arendt writes:

It is as though taste decided not only what the world should look like, but also who belongs together in the world….The belonging-together-of-persons—this is what gets decided in judgments about a common world. And what the individual manifests in its judgments is a singular “being-thus-and-not-otherwise”….


As soon as I read that “who belongs together in the world,” I stopped. The passage has an eerie resonance.

In the epilogue to her report on the Eichmann trial, Arendt delivers what she thinks should have been the Israeli court’s judgment against Eichmann. Her very last two sentences read:

And just as you [Eichmann] 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…we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.


Though I have no idea if Arendt intended these last sentences of Eichmann to be read as such, it’s hard for me not to read them as an indication of how, for Arendt, Eichmann’s crimes are a terrible and ironic perversion of the Kantian themes she was developing in her 1959 essay.

Just as a person reveals herself in her tastes (and what she reveals in part is “who belongs together in the world”), so does Eichmann reveal himself in his tastes (or lack thereof), and what he reveals is who belongs together, in his mind, in the world: Aryans as opposed to Jews. So does he also reveal, inadvertently, who actually belongs together in the world: Eichmann and all the other Nazis who refused to share the earth, as opposed to the peoples of the earth.

It is because of that terrible and ironic perversion of Kant’s theory of taste, which is connected to judgment, that Arendt insists so strongly on the court restoring the proper meaning of Kant’s theory of taste/judgment in its verdict on Eichmann: through its verdict, Arendt claims, through its revealing who or what it is, the court must decide who does indeed belong together in the world—namely, the peoples of the earth, in all their plurality—and who does not: those individuals, like Eichmann, who do not wish to share the earth with others.

Okay, so that’s the first small item in the Arendt Wars that I want to talk about.

The second one has to do this with this claim of Wolin’s:

Second, a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence indicates that so great was her impatience with the proceedings that she never saw Eichmann testify. Arendt endured chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s lengthy opening statement and, following an absence of several weeks, returned to Jerusalem to witness the final verdict. But, remarkably, she never saw Eichmann himself take the stand. (Here, one suspects that Arendt’s rather brazen disregard for the value of testimony, not to speak of the norms of journalism, is an instance of Germanic philosophical arrogance. As J. G. Fichte said, if the facts fail to accord with the sublimity of the idea, so much the worse for the facts!)


Two nights ago, I spent the better part of the evening re-reading Arendt’s letters to her three main correspondents during the Eichmann trial—the philosopher Karl Jaspers, her husband Heinrich Blücher, and her friend Mary McCarthy. The following morning, I did my best to work through some of the secondary literature on the trial and the Arendt controversy.

Based on this research, I think I can safely say that Wolin is incorrect. Not only was Arendt present for Eichmann’s testimony, but she also took his testimony incredibly seriously. What’s more, the very correspondence Wolin cites as the basis for his conclusions demonstrates the exact opposite of those conclusions.

It helps first to remember three key dates from the Eichmann trial:

April 11, 1961: first day of the Eichmann trial


June 20, 1961: Eichmann takes the stand


July 24, 1961: Eichmann’s last day on the stand


December 11, 1961: the Israeli court issues its verdict


Right off the bat, it’s clear that Wolin’s chronology is off: Arendt could not have been in Jerusalem for the prosecutor’s opening statement only, left for a few weeks, and then returned for the verdict. Roughly eight months separate the first day of the trial from the announcement of the verdict.

And indeed, when the verdict was issued in December, Arendt was either in New York, nursing Blücher back to health (he had suffered from a ruptured aneurism), or in Middletown, Connecticut, where she would have been wrapping up a seminar on Machiavelli she had been teaching at Wesleyan that fall. The one place she would not have been was in Jerusalem, as is clear from a letter she wrote to Jaspers on December 30, 1961, and from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography.

But Wolin has got more than the dates of the trial and Arendt’s attendance wrong. He also gets wrong what Arendt saw and heard at the trial and her attitude to the trial and its testimony more generally. Most important, the centrally damning claim he makes—that Arendt never saw or heard Eichmann testify—is also wrong.

Arendt arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday April 9, 1961, two days before the trial began, and headed straight for Jerusalem. At the trial, she listened intently not only to Hausner’s opening statement, but also to lengthy recordings of Eichmann’s depositions. As she wrote to Blücher on April 20:

Here everything is going as expected…with the ghost in the glass cage listening to his voice sounding from the magnetic tape.


Arendt also heard testimony from a great variety of witnesses for the prosecution, including one of the leaders of the Warsaw Uprising; the father of Herschel Grynszpan, whose assassination of Ernst vom Rath had provided the pretext for Kristallnacht, and whose testimony she discusses in Eichmann; and Salo Baron, the eminent Jewish historian.

In fact, as the days went on, Arendt grew increasingly frustrated by this testimony, as so little of it had to do with Eichmann himself. As she wrote to Blücher on May 6:

The basic mistake—if one can say such a thing—is not only that Eichmann has been completely forgotten, his name often not mentioned for days on end (really typical, e.g.,: After the prosecution put 29 volumes [!] concerning Hans Frank on the table, Servatius [me: Eichmann’s attorney] rose and asked: “Does the name Eichmann appear in any of these volumes!” The answer: “No”)…


Far from being uninterested in what Eichmann had to say, Arendt was profoundly interested in him and his testimony. She watched him closely throughout the trial: “Eichmann is no eagle; rather, a ghost who has a cold on top of that,” as she wrote to Jaspers on April 13. And throughout her stay in Jerusalem and in the time after that, she kept recurring to the six volumes of testimony (more than 3000 pages) Eichmann had given in his depositions. Not to mention the lengthy trial transcript she pored over for months as she prepared her articles for The New Yorker.

Then, on May 6, she writes to Blücher that she is leaving Jerusalem the next morning for Switzerland, where she will visit Jaspers. As she’s about to leave, she wonders:

The question is: Should I come back here again for the defense? I imagine I should, but I’m not sure….Of course it also depends on my appointments. Zurich on June 24th—etched in stone!


That date, the 24th of June, was a reference to a long-planned reunion between her and Blücher, who would be meeting Jaspers and his wife, both of whom had played such an important role in Arendt’s life, for the very first time.

As the weeks go by, first in Switzerland with Jaspers, and then in Germany, Arendt decides she must return to Jerusalem. The only question is when. “If I only knew when I have to go back to Jerusalem,” she writes McCarthy on May 31.

Why was Arendt so eager to return to Jerusalem? Simply and solely to see and hear Eichmann testify. And what was the referent for “if I only knew when”? It seems from the context of her letters that she needed to know the date that Eichmann was to assume the witness stand in order to properly plan the timing of her return.

Contrary to what Wolin explicitly states and implicitly suggests in his piece, seeing and hearing Eichmann testify was a top priority for Arendt between the time of her first visit to Jerusalem and the time of her return there.

On June 4, Arendt tells Blücher that she thinks she’ll be in Jerusalem by the 17th. And adds, “With a bit of luck, it might happen in the week of June 17 that Eichmann will be called to the witness stand.”

On June 14, a Wednesday, she writes Blücher:

So I’m flying to Israel on Saturday, as I already wrote you. The trial will start again on the 20th, and I’m afraid that Hausner will try to delay matters even further. But I have at least to try to see Eichmann on the witness stand>….I will leave there on Friday the 23rd, either directly for Zurich, or via Athens—it all depends.



So, that’s all. Here’s my address again, just to be sure: Hotel Eden, Jerusalem till Friday the 23rd. After that, with you: Waldhaus Dolderer, Zurich.


And then, on June 16, a Friday, she writes Jaspers: “I’m off tomorrow morning.”

Unfortunately, the three editions of her correspondence do not include any letters from this second visit to Jerusalem. Presumably because she was only there for a very short while and because she knew she was going to be seeing Jaspers and Blücher, the two people she corresponded with most intently during that time, within days.

What we do know is that Eichmann did indeed take the stand on the 20th of June, and unless Arendt canceled her trip to Jerusalem at literally the last minute (“I’m off tomorrow morning”), we also know that she was in the city when he took the stand. It would seem strange if, after all these expressions of desire to see Eichmann in court, she decided not to stop by.

Now the question is: Where might Wolin have gotten the notion that Arendt didn’t in fact see, or care much about seeing, Eichmann testify? He refers to “a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence,” but as I’ve shown, nothing in the correspondence indicates that she didn’t see (or didn’t care about seeing) Eichmann testify, and in fact, everything in the correspondence points in the opposite direction.

Several folks initially suggested to me that perhaps Wolin got it from Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial, which came out a few years ago. I don’t have the book nor have I read it. But with the help of Amazon and Google Reader, I’ve been able to find the crucial passages on pp. 178-180. Long story short, Lipstadt confirms what I’ve written above and thus could not have provided Wolin with his source.

First, Lipstadt says that after her first stint in Jerusalem, Arendt traveled to Basel for five weeks (actually, she was also in Germany). She then, says Lipstadt, returned to Jerusalem to see Eichmann on the witness stand. In the courtroom, Arendt saw and heard Servatius, Eichmann’s attorney, ask him questions.

Second, Lipstadt does criticize Arendt for not staying to witness Hausner’s cross-examination of Eichmann. Had she stayed, says Lipstadt, Arendt might have seen something about Eichmann, under Hausner’s withering critique, that she could not have gleaned from the transcript.

Third, Lipstadt is very careful to point out that simply because Arendt wasn’t there for part of the trial does not invalidate her conclusions; a great many accounts of trials, Lipstadt says, are based entirely on a reading of the transcript.

So, bottom line: Lipstadt does not provide any evidence for Wolin’s claim.

Lipstadt’s footnotes to this discussion, however, provide us with a potential lead. Most of Lipstadt’s footnotes refer to Arendt’s correspondence with Jaspers and McCarthy. Again, nothing in that correspondence supports Wolin’s claim. But Lipstadt also refers in her footnotes to p. 148 of Raul Hilberg’s memoir. Hilberg was a historian of the Holocaust. Indeed, he wrote the first genuinely comprehensive history of the Holocaust, from which Arendt drew extensively in her book. Much to Hilberg’s chagrin: he felt like he never got the proper acknowledgment from her or from subsequent scholars of the controversy.

On p. 148 of his memoir, Hilberg claims that Arendt stayed in Jerusalem for ten weeks and then left three days before Eichmann assumed the stand. He also claims that Arendt’s published correspondence with Jaspers shows this. So Hilberg might in fact be Wolin’s source, though I took Wolin’s “a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence” to mean that Wolin had done the perusing. In any event, Hilberg is wrong on all accounts: Arendt did not stay in Jerusalem for ten weeks; she did not leave three days before Eichmann assumed the stand; and her correspondence with Jaspers does not show any of this.

You might wonder why I’ve spent so much time examining this kind of minutia. I’ve wondered the same thing myself. I suppose it comes down to the ethics of literary controversy, a sense of how, if we’re going to argue over this book, we ought to argue over it. (That’s an issue, if I’m being honest with myself, that I have a particular investment in, given my own experiences with some of my writing.)

Since its publication, Eichmann in Jerusalem has generated not only a good deal of justified controversy, but also a good deal of unjustified controversy, a lot of it based on misinformation. As Amos Elon commented in his introduction to a reissued edition of Eichmann: “Hand-me-downs from one critic to another drew on alleged references in the book which no one seemed to have checked.”  It’s in the interest of preventing another generation of hand-me-down allegations that I write this post.

Have an easy fast.

{ 53 comments }

1

Anderson 10.03.14 at 4:59 pm

Thanks for the excellent footwork, particularly on the notion that Arendt didn’t see Eichmann testify!

2

Plume 10.03.14 at 5:17 pm

That is a very deep bit of blog-work. Thanks, Corey.

The Kant aspect reminded me of the early discussion of Rawls. I know I’m not being original here in the slightest, but it made me connect some dots. The Kantian judgment ideal of basically walking in another’s moccasins, and his categorical imperative combining to get to Rawls Theory of Justice. And then the idea of sharing space, sharing the planet, but basing this “inclusion” on some notion of impartial review which could be “universalized” in some way.

The Nazis attempted to turn all of that on its head and universalize a sharing of space via exclusion — killing, torturing, exiling and harassing their choices for out-groups like socialists, communists, liberals, feminists, the handicapped, union activists, blacks, Slavs, gay people and the Jews. Among others. And they tried to make their case for this by universalizing from inclusion as well — all Aryans, roughly. Eichmann must have thought he was “walking in someone else’s moccasins” to rationalize his vision too, that he was doing this for them, but those moccasins were worn almost exclusively by a certain, select ethnic group. Or, more likely, for a certain select group within that ethnicity.

This blog post has me feeling the need to go back and reread Arendt. It’s been two decades. Thanks again.

3

Bloix 10.03.14 at 7:03 pm

When we consider whether Eichmann’s crimes were the result of “thoughtlessness,” we may want to review the testimony at the trial of Avraham Gordon, who at 17 was a part of a work detail that was assigned to Eichmann’s temporary residence in Budapest in 1944, where he was supervising the deportation of the Jews of Hungary:

[Gordon]: I saw and heard this soldier approaching one of the Jewish boys working with us. I knew him by the name of Salomon… I saw how Slawik also appeared suddenly … They were shouting something like: “You have stolen cherries from the tree!” … Eichmann was standing on the upper floor balcony. Apparently some conversation between then had taken place…

Presiding Judge: Between whom?

Witness Gordon: Between Slawik and Eichmann above…

A. I saw how the boy was taken by Slawik and Teitel towards the tool shed … They forced him into the shed and locked him in there… I noticed Slawik returning, going round the building.. Afterwards I saw that he returned with Eichmann, and the two of them entered the toolshed… The door closed. After that I heard terrible screams, beatings, blows and crying.

Q. Did you identify the screams?

A. Yes – it was the voice of the boy who had been taken … And after I didn’t hear the shouting any more, the door opened and Eichmann came out. I saw him, his clothing was dishevelled, he looked wild, his shirt was sticking out – I noticed stains on his shirt and I thought that these were bloodstains…

Q. Were these stains also on his shirt when he went in?

A. No. He went away quickly, and at the moment he passed by us he muttered words which I heard quite clearly. He said: “Uebriges Mistvolk.” I have remembered these words for seventeen years.

Presiding Judge: How would you translate that?…

Witness Gordon: I would translate it “Superfluous dirty people, superfluous garbage people.” …

Q. Please continue with your account.

A. … Slawik came out. I saw that he was looking for his driver… They went into the shed and they dragged the boy’s body outside… The boy was lifeless… the face was swollen, it was completely covered with blood… He was torn, rent apart; they dragged him away and put him down in front of the back entrance. After that the driver went away, and brought back a kind of car-boat – the kind used by the German army.

Presiding Judge: An amphibious car?

Witness Gordon: Yes… they placed the body under the back seat. Then the chauffeur drove off and returned about half an hour later … He said to us: “I threw the carcass into the Danube. You will all suffer the same fate as that boy.”

4

Anderson 10.03.14 at 7:19 pm

One of the points of Arendt’s book is that, despite the sheaves of irrelevant testimony, the chief crime of Eichmann’s was not, in fact, that he physically abused some Jews, like a typical perpetrator in a routine pogrom. Arendt’s inquiry into his alleged “thoughtlessness” pertains to whether he grasped that he was participating in genocide, and what that meant.

5

Mdc 10.03.14 at 7:20 pm

By a strange coincidence, Kant in fact provides the key to understanding Eichmann- not with his theory of judgment, but with his theory of evil. I don’t mean this as a question of influence- I don’t think Arendt understood Kant’s treatment of evil- but as a question of the substance of the matter of Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness”.

6

Mark Field 10.03.14 at 8:39 pm

I have nothing to add, but I do want to say thanks for a great post.

7

john c. halasz 10.03.14 at 8:44 pm

” Arendt, after all, had an especially theatrical conception of politics, understanding all that we do in the public sphere as a kind of performance, a mask we wear, a role we inhabit.”

I don’t think this is quite right. If the private self is masked when assuming the “role” or position of public-political participant, Arendt is emphatic that such public-political participation is an “essential” manifestation of who one is, indeed, a becoming of one’s self, in the face of others, the condition of “plurality”. And she especially values the public-political sphere, as a realm of appearances, i.e. bringing into manifestness what might otherwise remain hidden, because it is for her pre-eminently a realm of worldliness, the only place where finite human beings can come to terms with, be reconciled to their mortality, through community with others. Both the event character and the element of self-display are there in Arendt’s conception of the political, but that doesn’t make it “theatrical”, a matter of spectacle, role-playing and unreality, but rather a realm where reality is encountered and concretized, precisely through the worldly encounter with others, which breaks through any conventional social roles, by uncontrollably renovating the political community.

So perhaps the point is that Eichmann could not help but “perform” a role, (while on trial for his life), in an entirely reified and self-reifying way, precisely because he was utterly incapable of breaking out of his role, as determined by the entirely conventional terms of his ideology.

What Arendt’s entire oeuvre is” about”, is what it means to think and act politically, with both strongly tied to the public status of speech. (She would define herself as a “political theorist”, when denying that she was still a philosopher, I don’t think that is quite right, unless she is invoking the original sense of “theoria”. Rather she is criticizing “theoretical” politics, whether in philosophy of political science, the attempt to reify the political by displacing it with theory, when it is really always a matter of “action”). OT, her initial ground-breaking work, characterized totalitarianism are virtually the apotheosis of the anti-political, in contrast to her distinctive sense of the political, as she would elaborate it in her subsequent works, most thematically in HC. (Hence she would emphasize in OT the essential hollowness of the “leaders” and the wildly incoherent mish-mash of their ideology). What must have made the Eichmann trial so compelling for her was the chance to observe the individual himself, rather than the theoretical type, though unsurprisingly the observation results that the individual was incapable of being on individual, in the relevant sense, of individuating himself, rather than just “playing” his role.

8

Bloix 10.03.14 at 10:14 pm

#4 – of course Eichmann understood he was participating in a genocide. He was at the Wannsee Conference:

Presiding Judge: . . . Now in connection with the Wannsee conference, you answered my colleague Dr. Raveh that this part of the meeting, which is not mentioned in the protocol, the discussion was about the means of extermination, systems of killing.
[Eichmann]: Yes.
Q. Who discussed this subject?
A: I do not remember it in detail, Your Honour. I do not remember the circumstances of this conversation. But I do know that these gentlemen were standing together, or sitting together, and were discussing the subject quite bluntly, quite differently from the language which I had to use later in the record… Look here, I told myself, even this guy Stuckart, who was known as one of these uncles who was a great stickler for legalities, he too uses language which is not at all in accordance with paragraphs of the law…
Q. What did he say about this subject? …
A. I cannot remember it in detail Your Honour, but they spoke about methods for killing, about liquidation, about extermination…
Q. And were these also recorded by the short-hand typists?
Accused: Yes, yes-they were taken down.
Presiding Judge: And you were ordered by someone not to include it in the memorandum of the meeting- in the official Protocol of this meeting, weren’t you?
Accused. Yes, that’s how it was. The stenographer was sitting next to me and I was to see to it that everything would be taken down; then she deciphered this and then Heydrich gave me his instructions as to what should be included in the record and what should be excluded…
Q. And that which was said about this very important theme, you cannot remember at all- is this what you say?
A. Well, the most important thing here was….
Q.I did not say, the most important- I said it was an important theme, and important enough to be excluded from the record…
A. Ah! the means of killing….
Q. That is what we are speaking about- the means of killing.
A. No, no- this of course was not put into the record-no, no!

This is what the sanitized minutes said:

“Approximately eleven million Jews will be involved… In large, single-sex labor columns, Jews fit to work will work their way eastward constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated by natural causes. Any final remnant that survives will doubtless consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately because otherwise, by natural selection, they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival.”

The question is not whether Eichmann knew he was participating in a genocide. Of course he did. The question is whether, by some fault of moral imagination, he did not genuinely understand what that meant.

Well, there was eye-witness testimony at his trial that he knew exactly what it meant to kill. Gordon was a lone witness (the other members of the work detail being dead) and Eichmann and Sawik both denied it, so the judges chose not to make a finding one way or the other. But Arendt ignored his testimony.

9

LFC 10.04.14 at 1:00 am

Pace john c. halasz @7, playing a part or a role does not have to imply “unreality.” After reading halasz’s comment, I googled, for the heck of it “Arendt + theatrical conception of politics.” One thing that came up was a page in an essay by D. Villa in M. Henaff and T. Strong, eds., Public Space and Democracy (2001). Villa refers to Arendt’s “theatrical conception of the public sphere.” My guess is that’s probably not an unusual thing to say. Link.

(There was also a 2011 article that came up that looked relevant on this particular point but I didn’t click on it, as it was a JSTOR link and my browser sometimes doesn’t like them.)

10

Gordon Barnes 10.04.14 at 2:40 am

Suppose that Eichmann’s anti-semitism played a larger role in causing his actions than Arendt realized or acknowledged. The way in which Eichmann thought of himself, presented himself, and defended himself at trial might be equally important, or even more so. The ease with which he subsumed himself into his role, and used it to defend himself might be just as important, or even more important, all things considered, than the underlying causes of his actions. The underlying causes of lots of human behavior are irrational, but ideally those causes can be overridden by rational thought. So maybe there is a way in which both parties in this debate are correct. Anti-semitism was a significant, underlying cause of Eichmann’s behavior, but his thoughtlessness — his inability to see his actions from anyone else’s point of view, was the failure that completed the process that led to his actions, and thus it was just as morally significant, if not more so.

11

Meredith 10.04.14 at 5:07 am

As for performance, that framework should never become an excuse for evasion of responsibility. Where existentialist and post-modernist might meet?

I suspect Arendt already knew that (in some sense of knowing). I read Eichmann in Jerusalem as a 19-year-old in early 1969 with Al Soman…. One of a few books that changed my whole way of seeing the world, however little I could begin to understand it at the time (or still).

Yours (and what you invite us to) is truly repentant reflection, Corey. I will continue to think on this and follow comments. All this brings to mind my ( formally, lapsed) Episcopal thoughts, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from thy table. But thou art the same lord whose quality it is always to have mercy.”

12

J Thomas 10.04.14 at 3:17 pm

In 1950, Eichmann, along with 15 others, managed to flee Europe and set sail for Argentina from Genoa on the Giovanna C. Years later, in a text titled “Meine Flucht,” he reminisced about the relief he felt, finally to have escaped his would-be tormentors. Drawing a parallel only he could have drawn, he marveled, “Once it was the Jews, now it was–Eichmann.” This is the sort of thing Arendt had in mind when she talked about Eichmann’s thoughtlessness.

This is an example of Eichmann empathizing with other people. He compares his own experience fleeing persecution with that of Jews who had fled persecution by him. It works against the view that he could not understand other people’s feelings.

It’s thoughtless in that he did not predict how his attitude would look to people who considered him a moral monster, an ogre who had no right to compare himself to innocent victims. But no so many people are good at that sort of empathy!

13

Collin Street 10.04.14 at 3:35 pm

> The question is whether, by some fault of moral imagination, he did not genuinely understand what that meant.

End-of-the-day, I’m not sure I care. Suppose he didn’t: what would you do with this info? Rehabilitate him, or try to? Spend a hundred person-years of intensive counselling/investigation/therapy, so that at the end of the process — if it works and he doesn’t die first — you get a single additional german who’s near-dead of old age but won’t run genocides again in the three years left in him?

Hardly worth it. Whether he knew what he was doing or not, just lock him up with baseline mental-health care and send the good therapists to help the orphans.

14

Kaveh 10.04.14 at 6:40 pm

Collin @13 I wouldn’t think it would be about Eichmann personally. One thing that might be at stake is how much it helps that genocide is now something people are generally aware of, and is considered almost uniquely evil–how important is it to educate people about past genocides? If Eichmann (and other perpetrators) were not in some sense “thoughtless” (no matter how vicious), it would suggest that the main value of genocide awareness now is to warn potential victims & their sympathizers, and that it would not do as much as we might think to deter or stop people with genocidal agendas. Clearly there are still people with genocidal agendas, but perhaps they have to think twice about how they will be seen in a way that Eichmann and his contemporaries (not just Nazis) didn’t have to.

15

Mario 10.04.14 at 8:43 pm

Corey,

After all, if the claim could be made, however vulgarly (for this was not in fact Arendt’s point at all), that Ground Zero of modern anti-Semitism was not in fact anti-Semitic, what does that tell us about the presence and persistence of anti-Semitism in the contemporary world?

Could you please clarify what you are trying to say here? It reads as if you think that that has a chance of being a legitimate claim.

Kaveh @14:

Clearly there are still people with genocidal agendas, but perhaps they have to think twice about how they will be seen in a way that Eichmann and his contemporaries (not just Nazis) didn’t have to.

The thought warms the hearth, doesn’t it? Potential genocidal person goes all “oops, peeps will think this mass killing business is naughty, maybe I should think it over again!”. Sorry for the caricature, but could you, too, maybe clarify your point? I can’t help at the moment but think that it is a somewhat misguided idea.

16

Collin Street 10.04.14 at 9:37 pm

One thing that might be at stake is how much it helps that genocide is now something people are generally aware of, and is considered almost uniquely evil–how important is it to educate people about past genocides?

Israeli administration started the settlement program five years after they hanged eichmann.

17

Corey Robin 10.04.14 at 10:06 pm

Bloix at 8: “Well, there was eye-witness testimony at his trial that he knew exactly what it meant to kill. Gordon was a lone witness (the other members of the work detail being dead) and Eichmann and Sawik both denied it, so the judges chose not to make a finding one way or the other. But Arendt ignored his testimony.”

That last claim is false. Arendt talks about it in Eichmann in Jerusalem.

18

Rakesh 10.04.14 at 10:57 pm

I think Benhabib gets it wrong. It’s not Eichman’s failure to be a Kantian engaged in devising categorical imperatives through rational monologue–or as she puts it the failure to think for himself– that led him to accept radically evil doctrine in a banal way.

The failure seems to have been more political, namely the refusal by everyday Germans to justify belief and action in open democratic space in which all affected are allowed to participate in public argument through which the beliefs of all are modified and adjusted.

Rather Eichman or at least many were content to assume–without democratic discussion– the doctrines that were made easily available to the public through propaganda. Here the banality of evil is not Kantian but a reference to Das Man. Radical evil thus results not from incomprehensibly evil men but the everyday conformity of unthinking people taking care of their families.

At any rate, I don’t think Arendt’s conception of politics is in terms of staged drama as Robin suggests or Kantian.

A staged drama does not allow for argument. A staged drama depends on suppression of all argument once the curtain is raised and people assume their roles. Staged drama and argument seem to be ultimately incompatible; that also puts Arendt at odds with those who see politics in terms of organized sports activity (for that model of competition probably essentially misspecifies the nature of political argument and conversation). As Michael Billig would put it, social life can’t be reduced to the theatrical or ludic.

19

Rakesh 10.04.14 at 11:05 pm

Yes I think Halasz is quite correct in #7 to challenge the claim that Arendt’s thought of social life as essentially staged drama. Not sure that Robin is making that claim.

20

ZM 10.05.14 at 12:34 am

J Thomas,
“”Drawing a parallel only he could have drawn, he marveled, “Once it was the Jews, now it was–Eichmann.” This is the sort of thing Arendt had in mind when she talked about Eichmann’s thoughtlessness.”

This is an example of Eichmann empathizing with other people. He compares his own experience fleeing persecution with that of Jews who had fled persecution by him. It works against the view that he could not understand other people’s feelings.”

I think that is not quite right -what Eichmann seems to perceive is that he and Jewish people have undergone a similar experience . But this perception I think shows his thoughtlessness which is why it seems so grotesque for us reading it. The experiences are of course not at all equal of Jewish people in the holocaust and of Eichman fleeing from justice – and Eichmann’s words demonstrate his thoughtlessness because firstly he does not recognise the difference in the experiences, and, secondly, this shows he does not recognise the experience of Jewish people in the holocaust for the horror it was or understand how the Jewish people’s experiences and feelings are the experiences and feelings of fellow humans and recognise that the extent of the depth of their experiences and feelings are at least equal to his own (he seems a very shallow man, so likely they were deeper).

That was poorly expressed , but hopefully you can get the drift of my meaning.

21

Corey Robin 10.05.14 at 1:00 am

john c. halasz: I take your point and it’s a useful addendum/counterpoint/corrective to my formulation. There’s room here for some disagreement and interpretation, so I suppose what I would say is that I’m made slightly uncomfortable by this:

“such public-political participation is an ‘essential’ manifestation of who one is, indeed, a becoming of one’s self, in the face of others, the condition of ‘plurality’. And she especially values the public-political sphere, as a realm of appearances, i.e. bringing into manifestness what might otherwise remain hidden,…”

The reason being that she was so leery of anyone who thought that the public sphere should be the space in which the private self appears. There was much about the private self that she thought should indeed be hidden: that was her whole critique of Rousseau in On Revolution, that he sought to put the whole mess of our inner self on display in the public. So while you’re right to say that you can’t, with Arendt, completely separate the public performance from the self that’s doing the performing, I don’t think she’d go so far as to say that the public appearance is a manifestation of the self that’s hidden.

I’d add to this Arendt’s essays from the late 60s and early 1970s on lying. Her take on Nixon as a liar is that, in many ways, the liar is the consummately political animal in part b/c he refuses to accept the world of factuality, that is, in contended the world of things as they are, he suggests that action is about initiating new courses that cut against the grain of that which is. And also b/c the liar understands the performativity and masquerade that is politics.

Anyway, unlike some of our previous disagreements, this isn’t case of black and white for me; more a question of emphasis and judgment than hard stipulation.

22

Rakesh 10.05.14 at 1:15 am

Susan Neiman’s interpretation of the banality of evil is interesting. If I remember, Neiman wants to interpret Arendt to mean that since radical evil can result not from deep beliefs in terms of which the personal character and life projects of evil inscrutable post-humans are defined, then there is reason to believe that the world can be freed of radical evil. It is a matter of challenging the thoughtlessness of ordinary people, not of hopelessly resisting evil post-humans. Not surprisingly, Neiman wants to enlist Arendt in her Obamanian philosophy of hope.

23

Bloix 10.05.14 at 2:14 am

#17 – “The last claim is false. Arendt talks about it in Eichmann in Jerusalem.”

The full text of Eichmann in Jerusalem is available here, machine-searchable and with the original index.

http://platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/arendt_eichmanninjerusalem.pdf

I would be grateful to Prof. Robin for a citation.

24

Henry 10.05.14 at 2:27 am

godoggo – I’m banning you from CT. Any further comments will be deleted on sight.

25

J Thomas 10.05.14 at 2:36 am

The experiences are of course not at all equal of Jewish people in the holocaust and of Eichman fleeing from justice – and Eichmann’s words demonstrate his thoughtlessness because firstly he does not recognise the difference in the experiences, and, secondly, this shows he does not recognise the experience of Jewish people in the holocaust for the horror it was [….]

Yes, that’s what I expected.

Let me try to say it more clearly. Eichmann showed that he had no empathy when he described the similarity between himself being hunted down versus Jews being hunted down, because he failed to notice that the Jews were entirely innocent victims who deserved good treatment, while he himself was a monster who deserved everything he got and more. By not realizing that he himself was a despicable evil person who deserved no sympathy whatsoever from anyone, he proved he had no empathy with any decent person. If he had that empathy he would feel that he himself was the sheerest evil. He would feel such existential dread at his own existence that he could not possibly live with himself. But he proved that he was utterly incapable of empathy with any decent person by feeling OK.

Similarly no decent person could possibly feel the slightest empathy for Eichmann. It might be permissible for them to attempt it, but if they succeeded that would prove that they were in fact monsters like him. No decent person can comprehend his evil. You cannot get a real sense of it without containing it yourself. Eichmann was different from you and me, he was so deep in creeping ichor of devilish practices as to completely remove himself from humanity. He cannot be understood except by entities as inhuman as himself. Anybody who does empathize with him proves themself to be utterly inhuman and incapable of communication with human beings and probably as much an enemy of humanity as Eichmann himself.

How did I do? Did I come close to the sense of the argument?

26

Corey Robin 10.05.14 at 2:39 am

Bloix: It’s in chapter 2, on p.22, of the published edition. You shouldn’t have had to read particularly far into the book to find it. Do a search for “a Jewish boy in Hungary”.

27

ZM 10.05.14 at 2:44 am

Corey Robin,

“I’d add to this Arendt’s essays from the late 60s and early 1970s on lying. Her take on Nixon as a liar is that, in many ways, the liar is the consummately political animal in part b/c he refuses to accept the world of factuality, that is, in contended the world of things as they are, he suggests that action is about initiating new courses that cut against the grain of that which is. “

I have not heard of her work on lying, thank you for mentioning it. I will try to find it. I asked a panel at uni on how to ensure academic integrity is maintained in working with business in the field of climate change and sustainability, when we have people like Maurice Newman on the business council making misleading claims on climate science. The vice chancellor (not Glyn Davis another v-c) said the way was to maintain good scholarship and high principles – but he also said this was to be done in the ‘market of ideas’. I have been thinking about that – because I don’t think the market of ideas is quite the right sort of way to understand the development and exchange of knowledge – particularly because it does not engage with the difference between truths and falsities , and that knowledge rests on truth although there could be and conceivably is a market for both true and false it is wrong to be a lie monger . But I could not think of a proper way of expressing this.

28

Luke 10.05.14 at 3:03 am

@14, 15
Hitler was acutely aware of the colonial history of Europe and the US, and of how (from memory) ‘no-one troubles themselves over eating Canadian wheat’, despite the fact that this wheat signifies that a genocide has occured. There were even Nazi propaganda posters saying (in the ’30s, I think) ‘Are we “barbarians”? If this (images of colonial atrocities) is civilisation, we know which side we’re on!’.

So, I think the question of memory is not entirely insignificant. Hitler assumed that no-one would remember or care about German atrocities if his regime survived, but it didn’t, and so we have ‘Hitler’. Given popular amnesia in the Western world when it comes to things like the Bengal famine of ’43 or depleted uranium in Fallujah, the US state apparati’s persistent (but not always effective) attempts to paint their allies as little Churchills and their enemies as little Hitlers, and the fact that some things (Vietnam) will probably always be objects of horror, the representation of atrocity clearly does matter, albiet as a matter of politics.

29

Rakesh 10.05.14 at 3:09 am

#28
Arendt remembered the British forswearing the use of administrative massacres in their colonies. But this is not the place to get into her understanding of colonialism.

30

Rakesh 10.05.14 at 3:26 am

Neiman has an essay “Banality Reconsidered” in Politics in a Dark Time, ed. Benhabib. I have only read Neiman’s Moral Clarity, and that was four years ago. But it seems that Neiman spells out her interpretation in this interesting essay, which probably has not received the critical discussion that it makes possible.

31

john c. halasz 10.05.14 at 3:27 am

CR @22:

Yes, for once we’re not really disagreeing here. If I didn’t phrase it quite clearly, the point is that Arendt thought the private self, “the unfathomable darkness of the heart”, as she would sometimes put it, needed to be concealed, masked, if you will, in order for the public-political self to come into manifestness, presumably for the sake of protecting both the public and private realms, (hard as any such distinction is to construe or believe in, in this age of the internet and reality TV). But the public-political realm, as what generates communicative power, in her distinctive conception, requires the participants to manifest themselves in their public positions, a “condition of equality rather than an equality of conditions”, as she would somewhat patly put it, in order to constitute the “plurality” that is the essential condition of political community. That is, they must be willing to take hold of and express their diverse perspectives in the face of the perspectives of others. (That’s where the discussion of Kant comes in, because she is focusing on his discussion of the “sensus communis”, a very ancient term). But there is also a bit of phenomenology here: if the phenomenon is that which manifests itself of itself, then it can only manifest itself by also concealing itself. Perhaps that is one way to put the Eichmann case: despite the sensationalism of the trial, under Arendt’s intense observation, the man himself failed to be a phenomenon, rather than the shriveled husk of one.

More generally, to other commenters here, it’s a mistake to think of Eichmann’s flaw as merely cognitive, as if he did not “know” what he was doing. Of course, he did. It’s rather a matter of whether he *understood* what he was doing: the enormity of its horror. One might surmise that if he did so understand it, he wouldn’t have done it. But, having done it, it is impossible that any single individual could be equivalent to, own up to, such an enormity. No one should have expected Eichmann to “explain himself” when put on trial, because it’s so incommensurable: what possible explanation could there be for such an enormity? And perhaps, despite his key bureaucratic role in organizing the machinery of death, he simply lacked the capacity for initiation, a key component of what Arendt means by “action”, since all action, as the exercise of human agency, must be based on some sort of understanding.

I think the key problem with Arendt’s account, which leads to so much misunderstanding, willful or not, is her insistence that what he did was “motiveless”, (which is misunderstood as “unmotivated”), and hence that she failed to recognize his deeply ingrained anti-semitism. (This has always reminded me of a description of Shakespeare’s Iago’s “motiveless malignity”: “I am not what I am”, he declares, one half of the Sartrean formula). Maybe that is partly a rejection of causal accounts of human agency, as determined by psychological motivations: plenty of anti-semites, after all, would never have countenanced such mass murder, and some were even rescuers of Jews, “the righteous among nations”. But more to the point, it’s a recognition of the “disinterestedness” of the ideological fanatic and how much he was prey to his own warped “duty ethics”, rather than just to personal animus, to the elevation of political-ideological hatred to the level of “principle”. (That’s where his garbled account of the “categorical imperative”, which so shocked and surprised Arendt, comes in; few liberals are prepared to acknowledge how much Prussian authoritarianism is ingredient in Kantian morality). But, at any rate, it’s in that “motiveless” disinterestedness that the puzzle of Eichmann’s “banality” ISTM lies.

But since we now all live in “mass societies”, however electronically mediated, one shouldn’t remain obsessed with the Eichmann case or controversy. There are lots of other applications for the problematic: Truman and the Bomb, for instance.

32

ZM 10.05.14 at 5:40 am

J Thomas,

“By not realizing that he himself was a despicable evil person who deserved no sympathy whatsoever from anyone, he proved he had no empathy with any decent person.

Similarly no decent person could possibly feel the slightest empathy for Eichmann. It might be permissible for them to attempt it, but if they succeeded that would prove that they were in fact monsters like him.

How did I do? Did I come close to the sense of the argument?”

I don’t think that is quite what I meant. Possibly past of the difference is that we do not have the death penalty in Australia since the case of Ronald Ryan the last man hanged, so except for those that want it reinstated, we have a general sense that it is proper to maintain some sort of compassion for even people who do very monstrous things. In the US we see you have nuns and other people visit criminals on death row – but I expect the idea of how one ought to be able to maintain a degree of compassion for even people who have acted monstrously and done great evil is not as normative in the US as it is Australia.* I remember when I read the book, I did think Arendt’s conclusion lacking – that because Eichmann refused to acknowledge others and envision sharing the world with them then we also should not share the world with him. Because he can be locked up in gaol for the rest of his life since we know how to build sturdy buildings these days, so perhaps after a lot of time he would one day feel the appropriate great shuddering remorse.

So it is not just he did not understand that he was the evil doer and the Jewish people were the victims — I think Hannah Arendt’s idea of his thoughtlessness points to him refusing to recognise Jewish people as being as fully human as himself or recognise his kin relationship to them as fellow humans – and therefore his understanding of the holocaust, his own deeds in the holocaust, and the Jewish experience of the Holocaust is very diminished. It is in both magnitude (or commensurability) and quality, that he is very wrong when he liken his own experience fleeing justice to the Jewish people’s experience in the holocaust – and also I think there is something I can’t quite put my finger on about how he shows a deformed understanding of morality as being law based and procedural – so first the Jewish people were on the wrong side of the law and then he himself was on the wrong side of the law. And I think it with under this procedural conception he had of morality that he proceeded to enact all the evil that he did, which Arendt points to as ‘banal.’ And I think it was in this sort of procedural evil that Arendt saw the Holocaust as a radical and new form of evil, which we have to come to terms with understanding as distinct and of our own age. (I think though from more of a history perspective than a philosophy perspective I might think of this sort of procedural evil as beginning earlier during the period of European nationalisation and colonisation – but realised in a much more encompassing form with High Modernism’s administrative and technological forms)

That is still not very well expressed, but I have to go back to my assignment.

* I think that this can go too far or be too much an ostentatious gesture. I remember in year 9 in high school reading Leonard Cohen’s book Flowers for Hitler (I do not really recall the poems – mostly just us sitting in the gymnasium reading it aloud between our turns at badminton) — and the title sits quite wrongly with me as an adult partly because having compassion for Hitler without condemning everything Hitler did is not a very good idea (although we do know what he did is condemned widely – but still leaving the condemnation unsaid is not a good idea), and also I guess it seems like something artificial or empty in that title.

33

Bruce Wilder 10.05.14 at 6:38 am

The question is whether, by some fault of moral imagination, he did not genuinely understand what that meant.

As an ideologue, he had an idea of what it meant.

The bureaucratic concern to form a coordinated plan and execute it (which necessarily means giving the orders, etc precisely and accurately and effectively without confusion or ambiguity) combines with a bureaucratic concern to represent the plan deceptively, to persuade some observant mind (in the future?) that the plan was otherwise. He endeavors to be accurate and then to be inaccurate. Is this hypocrisy? Deviousness? Or just following thru with the PR strategy?

The banality is all the quite appropriate and routine and proportionate day-to-day administrative necessities, all quite rational in the commonsense of proportionate and purposeful and even deliberate, involving discussions and coordination.

The profound evil is the nihilism inherent in the grand strategic direction: what was the point of killing all the Jews?

You don’t have to retreat to Kant’s abstractions. You don’t have to retreat to a virulent anti-Semitism, even. Just ask what the point of the destruction was. What was the point of another Nazi project, the total destruction of Warsaw? Why take resources from the desperate struggle against the Soviets, to exterminate Jews or level Warsaw? There’s a profound disconnect between the petty rationalizations of bureaucratic undertaking and the grand strategic vision, whereby the heritage of centuries is to be cast aside.

What is it did the Nazi’s think would be the consequences?

How did a handful come to compete?

34

ZM 10.05.14 at 11:35 am

Bruce Wilder,

Perhaps you are having trouble expressing your ideas in words on this grave topic like me – but –

“The profound evil is the nihilism inherent in the grand strategic direction: what was the point of killing all the Jews?”

You surely can not mean you think the holocaust would have been justified if it contributed to the point of a strategic objective?

35

J Thomas 10.05.14 at 11:40 am

It is in both magnitude (or commensurability) and quality, that he is very wrong when he liken his own experience fleeing justice to the Jewish people’s experience in the holocaust – and also I think there is something I can’t quite put my finger on about how he shows a deformed understanding of morality as being law based and procedural – so first the Jewish people were on the wrong side of the law and then he himself was on the wrong side of the law. And I think it with under this procedural conception he had of morality that he proceeded to enact all the evil that he did, which Arendt points to as ‘banal.’

I think I might get that.

Traditionally when the human population in an area was over carrying capacity the value of human life was negative. It made sense to kill off somebody else and take their land, and tribes/etc who were good at that tended to thrive. Wasn’t that basicly the basis for the Romans? They marched into a new area, killed everyone who opposed them, killed anybody else they wanted, enslaved enough people to satisfy demand for slaves, promoted the most useful collaborators to roman citizenship, kept the rest as a permanent under-class, and gave some of the land to veterans to farm.

Wasn’t the point of the Third Reich to have another such empire? (Although the western roman empire was kind of puny, and Bismark’s empire not that grand either.) Isn’t it normal to consider the people you must exterminate or drive away to be subhumans? If they are your equals or your superiors that’s *scary*.

What looks new is the bureaucracy. When the romans moved into a new area after slaughtering the local army, and then they took what they wanted among the civilians as slaves, it was a period of disorganization. Afterward they couldn’t just take anybody they wanted as slaves — there were rules. Similarly when the Soviet army came into eastern Germany and by some accounts raped every adult or near-adult woman multiple times, that was another period of disorganization and it stopped when things got organized. But the Germans came in and in a very organized way they chose people to send to Germany as slave labor, chose people to work in local factories as slave labor, chose women to serve as involuntary prostitutes, etc.

It wasn’t the chaos of war, where anything can happen and we shouldn’t blame people afterward because it was war and the usual rules were suspended. It was bureaucracy, business as usual.

But of course as we have all seen, bureaucrats get used to whatever the rules are, or they fail and must find other work. US prison administrators who joke about prisoner-on-prisoner rape, are only one small face of it. In US women’s prisons, 5% of inmates are pregnant on arrival and about 9% of inmates are pregnant at any given time. Prison officials say that women in prison often try to get pregnant for the special privileges — better food etc.

The german system was different only in degree, as note the US Bureau of Indian Affairs.

36

James Wimberley 10.05.14 at 12:02 pm

Bloix in #3: The translation of Eichmann’s “Uebriges Mistvolk” as “superfluous garbage people” is euphemistic. “Mist” is “dung”; a “Misthaufen” is the composting pile of animal waste and straw commonly seen in Bavarian villages. Eichmann wasn’t characterising Jews as trash, but as turds.

37

J Thomas 10.05.14 at 12:11 pm

What was the point of another Nazi project, the total destruction of Warsaw? Why take resources from the desperate struggle against the Soviets, to exterminate Jews or level Warsaw? There’s a profound disconnect between the petty rationalizations of bureaucratic undertaking and the grand strategic vision, whereby the heritage of centuries is to be cast aside.

By the time of the destruction of Warsaw, there was no question that Germany would lose. The resources required to destroy Warsaw would not have made the difference, they would still lose. I think part of the rationale was that Warsaw had revolted, and if every occupied city revolted at the same time that would cause even bigger problems. So they wanted to persuade the others not to.

Anyway, it’s hard to decide what the rational response is when facing total defeat. I guess one possibility would be to arrange a surrender and so reduce the death and destruction, but in fact a whole lot of German ex-soldiers died in labor camps after the war and they had no reason to expect there would be any survivors. It would hurt morale badly if the troops heard there were attempts to surrender. And anyway the USSR and USA and Britain had all agreed not to negotiate but to require unconditional surrender. The surrender after WWI probably disinclined Germans to try that again. Possibly their best hope was to hold out in the possibility that a secret weapon could win. It was too late for that, but they could hope it wasn’t too late.

What is the rational response when every alternative leaves you at the mercy of people who have demonstrated no mercy? After the war, many Jews looked back and decided that surrender was stupid, they should have fought to the death with whatever resources they could get their hands on. Which would have left them just as dead, but at least they’d have done something productive. Germans faced with that tended to keep following orders.

Maybe part of the reason we focus on how irrational the orders were, is that the Nazis claimed to be the Ubermench, better than everybody else at everything. So it pleases us to see that they were in fact kind of stupid.

38

Bloix 10.05.14 at 2:55 pm

#26 – You’re right. She does mention it. Here is what she says about it, in full:

“and it was not the accusation of having sent millions of people to their death that ever caused him real agitation but only the accusation (dismissed by the court) of one witness that he had once beaten a Jewish boy to death.”

This is important, because if he had “beaten a Jewish boy to death” that fact would have serious implications for her thesis.

Her treatment of it – implying that the court “dismissed” the accusation, as if it had found it to be false – is tendentious. The court stated that “the impression made on us by Mr. Gordon’s evidence is positive,” but concluded that given the burden of proof for the crime of murder, it was not “safe to find facts” that would amount to a conviction “without corroborative evidence.”

Arendt writes as if the court had affirmatively found that the accusation was disproved. Because it is important for her argument that the charge is not true she mischaracterizes the court’s decision. Arendt, of course, had no obligation to apply the high burden of proof that the court was obliged to apply. But she did not evaluate the evidence herself, and put the finding that the accusation was false on the court, when the court held no such thing.

PS- I searched Gordon, Slawik, Budapest, cherry, tool, shed, murder, blood. Arendt mentioned the event in the most cursory way she possibly could.

PPS – here is the court’s discussion:

“In connection with the Hungarian chapter, we will have to deal with the Attorney General’s contention that, while in Budapest, the Accused took part in the murder of a Jewish youth named Solomon, who was engaged in forced labour in the garden of the house in which the Accused lived. One of the witnesses for the Prosecution, Mr. Avraham Gordon, testified on this matter that the Accused and his servant Slawik beat the boy to death in a tool shed at the house.
This charge does not appear as a special count of murder in the indictment, but the Attorney General wanted to bring this incident as proof of the Accused’s cruelty and his attitude to the life of an individual Jew, apart from his attitude to the lives of Jews in general. Although we have no formal accusation of murder before us, we think that we should evaluate the evidence in this matter according to a criterion befitting the nature of the deed attributed to the Accused (see C.C. 232/55, Piskei Din 12, 2017, 2064). We have examined the evidence according to this criterion, and although the impression made on us by Mr. Gordon’s evidence is positive, we do not consider it safe to find facts against the Accused on the basis of this evidence alone, without any corroborative evidence as to the details of the incident.”

39

Rakesh 10.05.14 at 5:26 pm

40

Corey Robin 10.05.14 at 7:58 pm

Bloix at 38: “Here is what she says about it, in full.”

No, that’s not at all what she says about it in full. The quote you refer to is from chapter 6. But as I’ve already said to you, she also talks about the case in chapter 2. And then she refers to it again in chapter 13. And there may well be other instances; these are just the ones that I remember.

The reason those other two instances are important is that in those instances, while she’s equally brief, she characterizes more accurately (I completely agree with you that her characterization in ch. 6 is tendentious) what happened. In ch. 2, she says that “the prosecution wasted much time in an unsuccessful effort to prove that Eichmann had once, at least, killed with his own hands.” Which in fact is accurate (it wasn’t only the issue of no corroborating witnesses that the Court commented on; there was also the issue of whether Gordon could really know what he claimed to know; one of the judges pressed him or the prosecution on that issue.) And then in ch. 13, she explicitly references the fact that the prosecution had no corroborating witnesses as a problem for the Court. So while you’re right, as I said, that in that one instance, she’s being tendentious, you have to accurately represent the totality of her claims and statements about that testimony before you can dismiss her as being tendentious.

All that said, I don’t think the reason she is being tendentious about it in that one instance, characterizing the court’s decision regarding the murder in the way she does, is that it’s so important for her argument. Remember, she thought Eichmann was guilty of organizing a genocide (whoever it was upthread who said that she thought otherwise is wrong). Even if the court had found him guilty of killing one soul, she thought that was quite beside the point. In other words, the reason she was so impatient with the Gordon testimony is not because she feared it would prove Eichmann was a bloodthirsty Jew-hating killer but because she thought it completely missed and was irrelevant to the real nature of his crime: that he had helped organize the disappearance of the Jewish people. She felt like it simply didn’t matter if he had killed one Jew or not, for he was so much guilty for so much more; focusing on the former seemed like an evasion of the true nature and magnitude of his crime.

It was that misplaced obsession with the one case of murder that leads her to comment sardonically in the paragraph immediately following its first mention (in chapter 2) that Eichmann “had forgotten” a “brief incident” in which, as she puts it, “a mere eight thousand people” were killed upon his direct orders.

41

john c. halasz 10.05.14 at 9:01 pm

With the proviso that I read Arendt sometime in the ’90’s and can’t cite chapter and verse, I think that the quote that Bloix cites doesn’t support his reading. She doesn’t dismiss the claim as false, but rather only notes that the court had dismissed the claim (for lack of corroborating evidence), but the clear gist of the sentence is an observation of Eichmann’s own behavior, that he seemed only to display “real agitation” during that portion of the testimony, while calmly accepting (by implication) the much greater extent of the crimes with which he had been charged. If that’s “tendentious”, it’s still in line with her broader argument and approach. By Bloix’ evident criterion then, all arguments are “tendentious”, including his/her own.

@39:

I found Butler’s argument off somehow and rather overblown. For one thing, Arendt was clear that, though educated as a philosopher, she didn’t regard her work as philosophy. (Perhaps because she associated philosophy with its theoretical form, whereas, in my understanding of her, she was attempting to revive “practical reason”, as something distinct from theoretical rationality, in roughly the Aristotelian sense, though in a thoroughly modernized way. “Action” is a direct translation of “praxis”). For another, the sort of reflective judgment that she’s upholding, drawing on Kant, is not somehow a special dispensation of philosophers, bestowed upon an otherwise resourceless public, but rather could be widely, if unpredictably, distributed.

42

Rakesh 10.06.14 at 2:16 am

Kant’s philosophy may be too individualistic or monological to underwrite the public and political character of the thinking that Arendt wishes to vindicate. I also wonder about Heidegger’s influence on Arendt’s conception of unthinking which seems similar to the empty inner life of Das Man and the chatter in which he is lost. Can we write Heidegger’s influence out of Arendt’s thought as well as the anti-democratic temperament that it suggests?
At any any rate, I differ from halasz in that I find the following from Butler quite persuasive (including the suggestion that Arendt was also extending Kant’s philosophy in new directions, not merely vindicating Kant against Eichman’s cynical use of him):

“Arendt wondered whether a new kind of historical subject had become possible with national socialism, one in which humans implemented policy, but no longer had “intentions” in any usual sense. To have “intentions” in her view was to think reflectively about one’s own action as a political being, whose own life and thinking is bound up with the life and thinking of others. So, in this first instance, she feared that what had become “banal” was non-thinking itself. This fact was not banal at all, but unprecedented, shocking, and wrong.

she thought that nazism performed an assault against thinking. Her view at once aggrandised the place and role of philosophy in the adjudication of genocide and called for a new mode of political and legal reflection that she believed would safeguard both thinking and the rights of an open-ended plural global population to protection against destruction.

What had become banal – and astonishingly so – was the failure to think. Indeed, at one point the failure to think is precisely the name of the crime that Eichmann commits. We might think at first that this is a scandalous way to describe his horrendous crime, but for Arendt the consequence of non-thinking is genocidal, or certainly can be.

Indeed, that for which she faulted Eichmann was his failure to be critical of positive law, that is, a failure to take distance from the requirements that law and policy imposed upon him; in other words, she faults him for his obedience, his lack of critical distance, or his failure to think.

But more than this, she faults him as well for failing to realise that thinking implicates the subject in a sociality or plurality that cannot be divided or destroyed through genocidal aims. In her view, no thinking being can plot or commit genocide.

How, we might ask, does thinking implicates each thinking “I” as part of a “we” such that to destroy some part of the plurality of human life is to destroy not only one’s self, understood as linked essentially to that plurality, but to destroy the very conditions of thinking itself.

to say, as he did, that his whole life was lived according to Kantian precepts, including his obedience to Nazi authority, was too much. He invoked “duty” in an effort to explain his own version of Kantianism. Arendt writes: “This was outrageous, on the face of it, and also incomprehensible, since Kant’s moral philosophy is so closely bound up with man’s faculty of judgment, which rules out blind obedience.”‘

She reformulates Cohen’s project in a new social and political philosophy: truly staying with Kant or, rather, reformulating him for a contemporary social and political philosophy in a true sense would have stopped Eichmann and his cohorts, would have produced another kind of trial than the one she saw in Jerusalem, and would have redeemed the German-Jewish philosophical vocation – one that she tried to bring with her to New York. What had become banal was the attack on thinking, and this itself, for her, was devastating and consequential. Remarkable for us, no doubt, is Arendt’s conviction that only philosophy could have saved those millions of lives.

43

Corey Robin 10.06.14 at 1:09 pm

Sorry, to add one more thought to my response to Bloix above: Arendt’s comment, which Bloix quotes, regarding the Hungarian case, is in keeping with many comments she makes throughout Eichmann about not only the Court’s but also Eichmann’s strange fixation on certain rather small crimes and misdemeanors at the expense of overlooking his much larger crime. So for instance she thinks it’s hilarious at the great umbrage Eichmann takes at the novel Lolita or at the notion that he didn’t follow through on some particular petty rule, while having no problem admitting to his role in helping to organize the Holocaust (in fact, she think he exaggerates that role, but that’s a different issue). To her mind the fixation on the murder of the Hungarian boy (and Eichmann’s agitation over that) is not problematic because it undermines her thesis: it proves her thesis, namely, that he had no sense of moral proportion or judgment, that he could take great offense at the idea that he would have killed a boy with his bare hands but had no problems admitting, and even exaggerating, his role in orchestrating the slaughter of an entire people.

44

Laie 10.06.14 at 2:54 pm

@J Thomas: Eichman had neither hoof nor horns; whatever his day job, he was an ordinary decent citizen (for a quite recognizable definition of “decent”). If anything, too decent. I always took this to be the core message of Arendt’s book.

@James Wimberley: “Mist” is an all-purpose expletive that can be slapped on to anything. Much like the english “fuck”, one shouldn’t take it literally.

45

Mdc 10.06.14 at 9:05 pm

Rakesh:
“Remarkable for us, no doubt, is Arendt’s conviction that only philosophy could have saved those millions of lives.”

Did she really think that? Kant is notable, I think, for holding that philosophy is nearly useless in overcoming evil.

46

Rakesh 10.06.14 at 9:20 pm

The quote is from Butler, and I think the argument is that Arendt located the roots of Nazi genocide in the absence of thinking or critical judgment or philosophy. I think Butler is right that this is a remarkable argument. Butler seems critical.

However, Arendt’s argument underpins Neiman’s conclusion that since radical evil can be understood as the consequence of small concessions to unthinking, it becomes possible to see how to resist it. Otherwise, one can be disoriented, dispirited and defeated by radical evil. The world can still be fit for humans, even after Auschwitz.

It would seem to me that Butler is suggesting that resistance to radical evil requires more than the universalization of critical judgment, the strengthening of Enlightenment ideals, and hopey-ness in the possibility of a better tomorrow.

Butler seems to me not the naive Kantian that Neiman may be.

47

Mdc 10.06.14 at 9:37 pm

“Butler’s not the naive Kantian that Neiman may be.”

Neither was Kant!

48

john c. halasz 10.06.14 at 10:57 pm

@45:

Yes, that’s one of the poinst I found absurdly overblown. I mean, there was the actual example of Heidegger, after all…

49

James Wimberley 10.06.14 at 11:42 pm

Laie #44: “Much like the english “fuck”, one shouldn’t take it literally.” Quite so. It’s a metaphor. Which metaphor you use for characterizing people you dislike or hate is revealing, up to a point. The entire incident is important for assessing whether Eichmann was essentially a soulless accountant of mass murder (proven), or also a visceral anti-Semite (unclear). Was Eichmann the kind of man who punctuated every sentence with meaningless profanity? I don’t think so.

50

J Thomas 10.07.14 at 1:05 am

#44 Laie

Eichman had neither hoof nor horns; whatever his day job, he was an ordinary decent citizen (for a quite recognizable definition of “decent”). If anything, too decent. I always took this to be the core message of Arendt’s book.

Yes, I agree.

And as I understand it, some of Arendt’s detractors disagree with this claim. They claim instead that there was something fundamentally inhuman about Eichmann that made him different from good normal people like you and me. We are good people who could never do the sort of thing Eichmann did; he was an evil person who in fact did so. It’s something specific to Nazis, or Germans, or antisemites.

I consider this naive, but no doubt many people who believe that would consider me naive so it balances out.

In other places I have argued that Israeli treatment of palestinians was qualitatively similar, but of course quantitatively far less bad. And I got responses that there was no similarity. Israelis respond to unprovoked attacks by palestinians, but Jews were innocent victims of the Nazis. Palestinians deserve whatever happens to them because they hate Israel. Some even said that because of their irrational hatred, because they hate Israel more than they love their children, palestinians are subhumans who deserve no rights.

And so I think that what people believe depends strongly on their culture and their sense of identity, but deep down most of us are not so different from each other.

51

bianca steele 10.07.14 at 2:06 pm

Rakesh–

That was interesting. I want to read Neiman now (though I think I bogged down with Arendt because a large part of her book seemed to assume the reader had read Proust). Thanks.

52

Stefan 10.08.14 at 2:26 am

Far from being a diabolical genius, Eichmann was the flunky par excellence–loser, buffoon, boaster, and liar–promoted from the enlisted ranks to be Nazism’s expert lieutenant colonel for Jewish affairs. Perhaps it is impossible to fully fathom the stupidity of an imbecile like Eichmann, who was most elated when stringing cliches together to form his “thoughts.” How are we to take such a boasting liar at his word?

53

J Thomas 10.08.14 at 6:20 am

#53, 54 godoggo

I recall JT arguing quite the opposite of what he now claims he argued

I don’t recall arguing what you say I did. You seem kind of hostile. I don’t claim that I had those conversations here on CT, though it’s possible that we did and you responded something like that. I’d have to look it up and is it really worth the effort?

But in general, I have not always argued the same all the time. I like to try out other points of view and see where they lead, and as a result my views on things evolve over time. I recommend that to you and to everyone who’s open to new ideas.

Comments on this entry are closed.