Adolph Eichmann, Funny Man

by Corey Robin on October 22, 2014

One of the criticisms often made of Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial was that she found Eichmann funny. Throughout Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt can barely contain her laughter at the inadvertent comedy of the man, which was connected to her claim of his banality and to the ironic tone she adopted throughout the text. Many at the time found her tone flippant and her irony distasteful; since then, her appreciation of Eichmann’s buffoonery has been seen as a sign, to her critics, of her haughty indifference to the suffering he inflicted.

Yet, in reading about the trial, it’s quite clear that Arendt wasn’t the only one who found Eichmann funny. So did the courtroom, which periodically broke out into laughter at the accidental hilarity wafting down from the witness stand. As Deborah Lipstadt reports:

This was not the only time Eichmann seemed oblivious to how strange his explanations sounded. Servatius [Eichmann’s lawyer] asked him about a directive he had issued ordering that trains deporting Jews carry a minimum of one thousand people, even though their capacity was for only seven hundred. Eichmann claimed that the seven-hundred figure was calculated on the basis of soldiers with baggage. Since Jews’ luggage was sent separately, there was room for an additional three hundred people. The gallery erupted in laughter.

Laughter, Arendt observed in a 1944 essay on Kafka, “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.” Those moments of laughter in Eichmann in Jerusalem—and in the courtroom—did not reflect an indifference to cruelty or suffering but a will to divest them of their unearned gravitas.

Laughter does not minimize evil; it denies evil the final word.



Ronan(rf) 10.22.14 at 11:03 am

Hopefully not off topic, but what do people think of this John Gray article ?

also, is ‘evil’ a specific pyschological category ? Or more likely, what categories does it overlap with (as a clinical diagnosis) ? Gray touches on this a little, but I wonder what professionals would themselves say about these historic monsters.


mattski 10.22.14 at 11:11 am

Laughter is the change up that makes the fastball more effective.



Anderson 10.22.14 at 11:31 am

Laughing at vs laughing with.


Ronan(rf) 10.22.14 at 12:15 pm

Just to add, possibly without relevance to much, Scot Atran has written about what encourages Jihadists to violence (and more specifically self sacrifice), where he argues that rather than being nihilists (which seems obvious) they should be seen as extreme moralists, who dont kill (others and themselves) for material gain, religious brainwashing, humiliation etc, but to right what they perceive as wrongs and for others within their (small, specific, terror) social network.(they die for eachother)
I dont think he generalised this phenomenon (in fact he argued it was quite specific to these groups IIRC) , but could historys mass killers be seen as ‘extreme moralists’ ? (theyre certainly not ‘nihilists’ from my – admittedly limited – understanding of the term?)


Anderson 10.22.14 at 12:45 pm

Ronan: certainly describes Hitler & Lenin, and perhaps Mao. Stalin seems to me a more conventional tyrant, unique in his body count.


Anderson 10.22.14 at 12:51 pm

As for Gray, he flags a pernicious abstraction, but then turns the abstraction up to 11. The metaphysics of evil aren’t relevant to ISIS; they’re a band of assholes who ideally could be stopped from their campaign of misery and murder. Doesn’t mean new assholes won’t pop up, any more than doing the laundry means your clothes are now clean for all time. Gray is ending up in quietism.


JW Mason 10.22.14 at 1:09 pm

If there were prizes for missing the point — well, blog comments would be the site of some intense competitions, but I think Ronan(rf) would be a strong contender. The entire point of Arendt’s book — which Corey has eloquently developed in many posts here — is that you cannot understand the existence of evil in the world in terms of the personal qualities of the people who carry it out.


Lynne 10.22.14 at 1:23 pm

“Laughter, Arendt observed in a 1944 essay on Kafka, “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.””


“Laughter does not minimize evil; it denies evil the final word.”

Wonderfully insightful.


Lynne 10.22.14 at 1:25 pm

Ronan rf, it seems very strange to me to treat evil as a psychiatric diagnosis rather than as a moral choice/action.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 10.22.14 at 2:14 pm

Gray’s article is quite interesting. I think his point taken from Freud is a good one.
Though I tend to think in Jung’s terms, without the mysticism. One of my major problems with religion is the externalization of “evil”. We don’t want to admit it, but we are all capable of what we call evil. We are also capable of what we call good. Any one of us could be or become Eichmann or Mother Teresa. As humans we have to come to terms with what we are capable of. The question we have to deal with is how to minimize the evil.


Anarcissie 10.22.14 at 2:23 pm

Satan is often depicted as laughing, whereas the Lord seems to be a very serious fellow.


Ronan(rf) 10.22.14 at 3:22 pm

JW Mason – Well yes. When someone asks a series of questions (prefaced by ‘I hope this isnt off topic’) they’re implicitly acknowledging they might be missing the point. They are questions, not statements of certainty, asked in the context of the linked article in my comment which (appeared, from my reading) to be implying that it can also be seen ‘as a personal quality, on some level (I dont know)
What I wondering, from someone who might know, was whether there *is* a pyschological categorisation (for want of a better wording) for people who rise to these positions, or help implement these schemes. What would a psycologist think about Arendt’s argument ?
I can understand if you thought the questions were stupid or trivial, but missing the point I don’t (unless you mean to imply Arendt’s position gospel?)


Ronan(rf) 10.22.14 at 3:24 pm

althouugh jake at 10 leads me to think Ive misread Gray as well, so mea culpa to all.


Ronan(rf) 10.22.14 at 3:28 pm

lynne – Im probably not expressing what Im trying to say properly. Ill think more about it and get back to you (or not, as the case may be)


DanielewithoneL 10.22.14 at 3:42 pm

On the subject of “Laughter does not minimize evil; it denies evil the final word.” and laughing at versus laughing with. This sort of specification of laughing or pinpointing of its intent reminds me of the kynicism Žižek differentiates from cynicism in the first part of <a href="" The Sublime Subject of Ideology="".


mattski 10.22.14 at 4:29 pm

From article Ronan linked:

The view that evil is essentially banal, presented by Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), is another version of the modern evasion of evil.

You know how ‘evil’ is evaded? By nattering on about it. (As if it were ‘out there.’)


Tyrone Slothrop 10.22.14 at 4:54 pm

Anderson@6 As for Gray, he flags a pernicious abstraction, but then turns the abstraction up to 11.

Par for the course, as far as Gray’s modus operandi is concerned (I’m thinking of Straw Dogs, Black Mass, False Dawn, et al).


Sasha Clarkson 10.22.14 at 6:17 pm

“Laughter does not minimize evil; it denies evil the final word.”

This reminds me of the famous story about Sigmund Freud being required to declare he had not been mistreated before being allowed to leave Vienna for London.

He wrote “Ich kann die Gestapo jedermann auf das beste empfehlen”, which is usually translated as “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone”.


Bernard Yomtov 10.22.14 at 6:53 pm

Laughter does not minimize evil; it denies evil the final word.

I recall reading an interview with Mel Brooks, who made Hitler and Nazis comic figures not just in The Producers but in many of his other films as well.

Asked about the practice, he said, more or less, that laughter and ridicule were the only possible forms of revenge, and that they rob Hitler of posthumous power.


Michael 10.22.14 at 7:13 pm

It is good manners, and good morals, never to ridicule, never to laugh at, but only laugh with. The one exception is to ridicule small-mindedness and quintessential stupidity *when and where it threatens to be taken at its own estimate*. I say this because the perpetrators of the Final Solution thought themselves to be doing something ‘holy’, a word much used in their rhetoric. So to treat them at their own estimate, as being trans-historical and equally holy, though wholly/holy negative rather than positive, as has been done by so many in both Israel and Germany, still gives away far too much to those noxious bird-brained bigots. Dr Seuss would be the man to take their measure.


John Garrett 10.22.14 at 8:33 pm

And Chaplin: “The Great Dictator” is a much under appreciated masterpiece, doing exactly what so many advise here.



Anderson 10.22.14 at 8:43 pm

And while I’m slagging on Gray, this is just stupid:

Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil tends to support the defence of his actions that Eichmann presented at his trial: he had no choice in doing what he did.

Oh please. Arendt opens up the whoop-ass on the notion that any of the Nazi murderers “didn’t have a choice,” let alone Eichmann. He stuck with the job, on her account, because he saw advancement in that direction. (His own hatred of Jews, which he underplayed at trial, may’ve sweetened the path or may’ve been something he acquired/affected in the course thereof.) But there was no reason to think he couldn’t have gotten into another division, or even quit the Gestapo.

Most evil is banal because most people are banal.


Meredith 10.22.14 at 9:44 pm


Ronan(rf) 10.22.14 at 9:52 pm

Here’s a more sophisticated and less polemical version of Gray’s argument (more or less)

‘Evil’ as an interaction of personal and enviornmental factors (evil might not be the best term, but still .. )


Bloix 10.22.14 at 10:15 pm

You want some evil that wasn’t banal, try Mengele. He wasn’t boring or stupid. He was inventive, clever, ironic – always thinking up something new. Anarcissie notes that Satan is often shown laughing. Satan must have found Mengele’s jokes hilarious:

A: Dr. Mengele … gave orders to knock this plank in at a height above the boy’s head so that he formed a kind of inverted “L.” And then Dr. Mengele gave orders for the first group to pass underneath this plank…
Q. My question is: What happened to those who did not reach the required height?
A. … They were transferred to the gas chambers – they were exterminated in the gas chambers…
Q. Did you see any connection between Yom Kippur and this method of selection?
A. … it was written in the prayer “He causes his flock to pass beneath his rod” – and he wanted to show the Jews of Auschwitz that he was the one who was causing us to pass, and no-one else.

You can imagine Satan when he heard that one: Ooh, that Mengele! He just kills!

Mengele died a free man in Brazil in 1979. The Israelis came close either to extraditing or kidnapping him from Argentina in 1960, but the devil, who must have appreciated him much more than he did Eichmann, was with him and he escaped to Paraguay.

If Mengele had been on trial in Israel in 1960, Arendt wouldn’t have been writing any horseshit about the banality of evil. Mengele was the fucking Robin Williams of evil.


J Thomas 10.22.14 at 10:27 pm

#9 Lynne

Ronan rf, it seems very strange to me to treat evil as a psychiatric diagnosis rather than as a moral choice/action.

OK, let’s try it in terms of moral choice.

We shouldn’t judge morality by outcomes, because nobody really knows for sure what the outcomes are even after considerable study after the fact. You certainly can’t guess what all the outcomes will be because it isn’t over yet.

So we judge morality by intentions. In that context the drunk who kills a car full of strangers on the road is innocent — he had no idea it would happen and if he thought it was likely he wouldn’t do it. His judgement suffers, and we can’t blame him for accidents he did not expect.

We can blame him for making choices while his judgement is poor, but who among us is good at avoiding that? Suppose that you make a thoughtful, well-considered CT post which enrages some conservative to the point that he goes out and kills an abortion doctor. Shouldn’t you have had sufficient judgement that you would be careful not to do that? Ah, but your intentions were good. You only wanted to enrage him, you didn’t want him to do anything about it.

So if a collaborator believes that he is caught up in giant historical forces that will proceed about the same with or without him, he personally does better if he is allowed to join them. Like the song goes, “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail”. He doesn’t have to believe that his own contribution is decisive or even important. (Eichmann said he thought he was important, but many underlings will not think so.) If you do a good enough job that they don’t get rid of you and replace you with somebody better, then you can get by.

And so I think maybe the basic evil is the idea that you should look out for yourself and your friends more than you do for every single other human. If we try to do the best we can for everybody in the world, that’s good. Whenever we get away from “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” we are evil at heart.

It is a banal evil because almost everybody does it almost all the time.


ZM 10.22.14 at 11:05 pm

I think there are different sorts of laughter, some might laught at evil, some laugh with evil or evilly. It is difficult for me to imagine laughing at the trial of Eichmann, but then I think laughter is sometimes just upon you – if something contradictory happens or something – and then you might quickly get a grasp of yourself and straighten your mouth or cover your face with your hand – so maybe it was this sort of laughter, it is hard to say. I would not think it was an appropriate subject for humour given the gravity. But people have different sorts of humour, I sometimes think humour is just plain mean, and I don’t remember laughing out loud at all when I read Kafka.

On the topic of tone – I think Hannah Arrendt was contemporary with Mary McCarthy, as well as Elizabeth Bishop. Elizabeth Bishop did not like Mary McCarthy very much because in a letter she wrote to Robert Lowell castigating him she said she wouldn’t care about Mary McCarthy or Norman Mailer doing a similar sort of thing since she didn’t care for them and 1970s social mores were very low indeed. pBut I think even if Elizabeth Bishop didn’t like Mary !McCarthy , and I don’t know her opinion of Hanah Arendt, there might have been a similar sort of outward demeanour shared by these contemporaries – and a kind of distance and humour and (formality?reserve? I think of my Presbyterian grandparents) would be very much part of this demeanour I would say, although it could be said better.

On psychology and evil – Ronan(rf) I think you have to remember psychology is a social science and has sort of epistemological boundaries colouring its discourse. So a lot of psychology would generally think the idea of evil very old fashioned and pre-modern. The psychologists/psychiatrists that work in the area of what would be non-professionally called evil would probably be in the forensic area.


William Berry 10.23.14 at 12:27 am


Thx for helping me to understand why we are unable to communicate. I cannot imagine anyone not laughing at, say “Investigations of a Dog”, or “A Report to an Academy”.

To the OP: Perhaps what we think of as “ludicrousness” is key to understanding how Eichmann can be viewed as funny (viz., the example of the passengers’ luggage in the OP). Ludicrousness is apt to evoke sardonic or mocking laughter in almost any context.


Thornton Hall 10.23.14 at 12:32 am

I always felt the Bush administration was doing something to keep us from laughing at Bin Laden, but I could never put my finger on it. These were (are) people who frequently blow each other up as they hug for a final goodbye! Giving them the laughter they deserved would have made it more difficult to spend 1 trillion dollars killing Iraqis for no reason anyone can remember.


William Berry 10.23.14 at 12:38 am

Also, too: ZM and I agree on something! Just guessing (under-grad major in psych decades ago, which I don’t credit much), but it seems unlikely that modern (PM?!) psychology would consider “evil” to represent a coherent category of behaviors with real-world implications (not that there are that many coherent categories in psych to begin with, but that’s another subject*).

*Not a criticism, per se, just a recognition of how difficult it is to be “scientific” in the social sciences.


ZM 10.23.14 at 12:53 am

William Berry,

I only read Kafka in my early teenage years and I read his diaries at the same time as the stories. It seemed at the time to me to be a very grim telling of what you have to look forwards to if you are going to be a grown up in modern times – quite different from more pleasant sorts of books, or even a funny 19th C becoming an adult book like My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin. And they did not make you cry as a release like Thomas Hardy either or have high writing like Shakespeare. I could read him again, but I fear I would find it grim and discomforting again. I might try the two you recommend over the summer if they are short and supposed to be laughingly funny.


john c. halasz 10.23.14 at 1:04 am

I think that what provoked paroxysms of laughter in Arendt, when reading through reams of horrific transcripts and documents, was an accumulating sense of the sheer stupidity of it all. In part, that might have been a defensive reaction, but it might also have been a sense of helpless futility, in the face of the demand that “we” take it all “seriously”, as if intelligible sense could always be made out and the whole matter rationalized. The whole process of asking for Eichmann’s rationalizations, which could only be pitifully inadequate, made non-sense of the solemnity of the proceedings.

That’s where Kafka comes in, as the past master of perfectly calibrated absurdity, with his equally child-like and solemn tone, inimitable, and his ruthless legalistic logic. Absurdity, depending on how one is situated, can elicit two contrary reactions: horror and/or ironic amusement. Those who don’t grasp why Kafka is “funny” also don’t grasp his acuity, which is often mistaken for “prophecy”.


PatrickinIowa 10.23.14 at 1:05 am

Let’s not forget that Christopher Hitchens made a prima facie argument that Mother Theresa spent her life doing evil, even by the standards of the religious.

And that when he was advocating the invasion of Iraq, he was, in my view and that of others, doing evil himself.

I don’t know if that gets us anywhere. But it’s kind of funny.


William Berry 10.23.14 at 1:11 am

“[A] very grim telling of what you have to look forwards to if you are going to be a grown up in modern times.”

Yes; “The Judgment”, et al.

From TJ to the ones I mentioned above is a vast distance on the spectrum of un-funny to funny. That’s a kind of “range”, I suppose.


mattski 10.23.14 at 1:40 am

Absurdity, depending on how one is situated, can elicit two contrary reactions: horror and/or ironic amusement.

True. And it’s really impossible to say such-and-such is “hilarious” (Kafka, for example.) It certainly can be hilarious, but there’s no guarantee it will strike you that way at any given point in time. It could just as easily be infinitely appalling. It kind of depends on subjective factors.

I’m reminded of a back-and-forth I had years ago with some holocaust deniers on some website or other. One of them said triumphantly, “It doesn’t make any sense!” Well, sure, it doesn’t make any sense. But that doesn’t preclude it from happening.


Tabasco 10.23.14 at 2:26 am

Never mind Mel Brooks and The Producers, what about Hogan’s Heroes? Made just 20 years after the war, every actor who played a German, including the Gestapo officers, was a Jew.


bad Jim 10.23.14 at 4:51 am

Indeed, Colonel Klink was played by the son of the famous conductor Otto Klemperer.


Vanya 10.23.14 at 8:11 am

Indeed, Colonel Klink was played by the son of the famous conductor Otto Klemperer.

He was also the nephew of Victor Klemperer, whose diaries about life as a Jew in Dresden under the Nazi regime are must reading. Victor also wrote an excellent book about the Nazis perversion of language – “The Language of the Third Reich”.


Vanya 10.23.14 at 8:25 am

If Mengele had been on trial in Israel in 1960, Arendt wouldn’t have been writing any horseshit about the banality of evil.

Mengele was the sort of evil sadist who exists at all times and under all regimes. The Nazis simply allowed men like him to thrive. He was criminally evil, like Daniela Poggiali, the Italian nurse who was recently accused of murdering 38 patients, and who took “selfies” with patients she had just killed. Focusing on people like Mengele explains nothing about how the Nazis were able to come to power, stay in power, and persuade, bribe or force most of Central Europe into working for them. If Hitler had failed to become Chancellor in 1933, I suspect Mengele would still have committed sadistic crimes of some kind. But under a different regime, people like Eichmann or Göring would have just ended up as careerist bureacrats of some kind. Not good people to be sure. They would have been nasty little men taking bribes, cheating on their wives and complaining about “the Jews” in the Gasthaus after work, but not very different from conservative contemporaries in France or England.


Ze Kraggash 10.23.14 at 9:01 am

Here’s my favorite Kafka story (I hope this don’t violate too many IP laws). It’s wickedly funny, pun intended; the combination of child-like sincerity and ruthless legalistic logic, as jch said. Matthew Yglesias used to write a bit like that; maybe he still does, I don’t read him anymore.


When at night we go for a walk, and a man, from afar already visible – as the street before us climbs uphill and there is a full moon – comes running towards us, we are not going to catch him, even if he is weak and rugged, even if someone is shouting and running after him; rather we will let him go and run off.

For it is night, and we can’t help it if the street before us is uphill in the full moon, moreover those two may perhaps have started that chase for their amusement; perhaps they are both chasing a third one; perhaps the first is innocent and the second wants to kill, and we would become accomplices of a murder; perhaps they do not even know each other and are running on their own way to bed; perhaps they are sleepwalkers, or perhaps the first one is armed.

In the end, have we not the right to be tired, and have we not drunk so much wine? How glad we are when also the second one has disappeared from our sight.


Ronan(rf) 10.23.14 at 9:38 am

“On psychology and evil – Ronan(rf) I think you have to remember psychology is a social science and has sort of epistemological boundaries colouring its discourse. So a lot of psychology would generally think the idea of evil very old fashioned and pre-modern. The psychologists/psychiatrists that work in the area of what would be non-professionally called evil would probably be in the forensic area.”

But there are personality disorders ? At the most extreme level individuals who display psychopathic tendencies, or the sort of brain scanning done by neuroscientists that can identify a lack of empathy in individuals ? I agree evil is not a good term, but that’s the term used n the OP so I went with it. I’m also not saying it deterministically. I’m sure plenty of people lack empathy or display characteristics for certain personalty disorders and do nothing to no-one, but my link up there @24 seems to imply that even social psychologists are starting to wonder whether part of it *is* personal (certain types of people being attracted to movements or situations where they can inflict pain or cruelty)
Of course it’s complicated, and enviornment and opportunity are important components, but it would seem strange (to me anyway) not to look at personal atttributes as well (particularly with people like Eichmann who weren’t just grunts or low level careerists)


Alex 10.23.14 at 10:14 am

[Freud] wrote “Ich kann die Gestapo jedermann auf das beste empfehlen”, which is usually translated as “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone”.

Quite possibly the joke of the century.

Regarding Mengele, surely the point is that without people like Eichmann, he would never have had the opportunities he did. Any fool can be a psycho but it takes a striver to get you dozens of train paths a day through the rearward areas of the biggest land invasion in the history of war.


ZM 10.23.14 at 11:32 am

Ze Kraggash,

No, I do not find that funny at all. To enjoy walking at nighttime you need to feel safe.


I meant that psychology would probably not use the term evil formally , but use psychological terms. Evil is more common speech, philosophy, and religion. Philosophy and psychology have quite different perspectives – I will sum it up thus: philosophers like to read Plato’s dialogues featuring Socrates and still write essays on them so long after; psychologists evaluate Socratic dialogue as a pathological condition. Just imagine Socrates spending all day going around your town getting into Socratic dialogues with people for months or years , likely he would be seen as a nuisance and have to go to a psychologist.

I agree you should look at the individual as well as the social. But we can just look at people’s character in common language (which is a jumble) – if you are a psychologist in your formal work you would have to look at the individual’s psychology in the psychological discourse.

There are books and articles on the social psychology of the holocaust, on the holocaust as part of the psychology of labelling, or their is this one on the social psychology and personal dispositions, but I can’t see an open version

Blass, T. (1993). Psychological perspectives on the perpetrators of the Holocaust: The role of situational pressures, personal dispositions, and their interactions. Holocaust and genocide studies, 7(1), 30-50.


Ze Kraggash 10.23.14 at 11:37 am

“the sort of brain scanning done by neuroscientists that can identify a lack of empathy in individuals ”

This is a deviation, not very common. What is common, however, is our ability to rationalize. We all are capable of it, that’s why these bad things happen.


Anderson 10.23.14 at 11:49 am

25: Arendt would not have been interested in Mengele because he was irrelevant to how the genocide happened in the first place. He was more like a serial killer who lucked into his dream job.


Vanya 10.23.14 at 2:54 pm

@18. This reminds me of the famous story about Sigmund Freud being required to declare he had not been mistreated before being allowed to leave Vienna for London.

Unfortunately, like most great stories, that one appears to be apocryphal.


novakant 10.23.14 at 3:48 pm

It’s pretty well established that Arendt was just plain wrong about Eichmann – if you want to read about the “banality of evil” one should read Christopher Browning or something.


Anderson 10.23.14 at 4:04 pm

47: Brings to mind, from the Wikipedia article on Eichmann:

Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal said: “The world now understands the concept of ‘desk murderer’. We know that one doesn’t need to be fanatical, sadistic, or mentally ill to murder millions; that it is enough to be a loyal follower eager to do one’s duty.”

Was Wiesenthal just plain wrong, too?


Robespierre 10.23.14 at 4:12 pm

Perhaps I am missing the point, but what’s so funny about the luggage thing? I don’t get it. People could be packed tighter than usual, especially without luggage. Why should I laugh?


Anderson 10.23.14 at 4:23 pm

49: I took it as rather grim laughter, since the Jews were not going to be needing their baggage where they were going.

… An aside: anyone interested in the post-publication mess, or just having a fondness for the polemical Arendt, should check out “The Formidable Dr. Robinson.


novakant 10.23.14 at 4:37 pm

Yes, Wiesenthal is wrong as well, as far as Eichmann is concerned.

Why should we assume he is right? He never struck me as a great thinker. Anyway, you can google the debate, e.g. Bettina Stangneth


Anderson 10.23.14 at 4:46 pm

Haven’t read her book, but at least one review was inadvertently funny:

Yet as Bettina Stangneth demonstrates in “Eichmann Before Jerusalem,” her critical — albeit respectful — dialogue with Arendt, these insights most certainly do not apply to Eichmann himself. Throughout his post-1945 exile he remained a passionate, ideologically convinced National Socialist. He proudly signed photos with the title ­“Adolf Eichmann — SS-­Obersturmbannführer (retired)” and, quite unlike a plodding functionary, boasted of his “creative” work. At one point he described the mass deportation of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews as his innovative masterpiece: “It was actually an achievement that was never matched before or since.”

Those sound like anecdotes Arendt would have had no trouble whatsoever fitting into her book. “Retired,” indeed.


Anderson 10.23.14 at 4:58 pm

Richard J. Evans reviews Eichmann Before Jerusalem & doesn’t find it proving Arendt just plain wrong.

Stangneth’s absorbing account of his years in exile, which is translated by Ruth Martin, adds considerably to our knowledge of Eichmann, but it is not a “total reassessment of the man”, as the publishers claim, nor is it true to claim that the book “permanently undermines Hannah Arendt’s notion of the ‘banality of evil'”. Half a century after it was written, Arendt’s book, despite the fact that it has been overtaken in many of its details by research, remains a classic that everyone interested in the crimes of nazism has to confront.


Corey Robin 10.23.14 at 5:18 pm

ON whether Stangneth proves Arendt wrong: the strongest part of the Stangneth book is that she shows just how much initiative Eichmann took (though others like Cesarini and Lipstadt have shown the same thing, sometimes to better effect). If you mis-read, as so many people have done, Arendt as saying that Eichmann was just taking orders, was a mindless bureaucrat, rule-follower (that was his defense, to some degree, and Arendt was merciless in going after it), you could Stangneth’s book as a refutation of her argument. But of course she often talked about Eichmann’s initiatives (though she — mistakenly — often thought they came to naught). And she stressed his ambition, his go-get-’em attitude. But people have completely misread her on this score.

And, yes, I too was struck by the Evans review that Anderson cites at 53. But I’m sure there will be people who think they know better than Richard Evans about the nature of Nazism, Eichmann, and so forth.


Tyrone Slothrop 10.23.14 at 7:42 pm

I’m sure there will be people who think they know better than Richard Evans about the nature of Nazism, Eichmann, and so forth.

By Thrymr’s two-ton testicles, this is Crooked Timber, man. Wouldn’t seem right were it any other way…


Harold 10.23.14 at 7:56 pm

This is a boiler-point illustration of how fascism works. From Quantrill’s Raiders to the Klu Klux Klan, to the Freikorps, to the Japanese military in China, to Ferguson, Mo. Underlings were supposed to take the initiative in carrying out the supposed unspoken general wishes of their leaders — the crazier the better.


novakant 10.23.14 at 9:02 pm


I have a lot of respect for Evans, but an argument from authority is intrinsically lame.


Ronan(rf) 10.23.14 at 9:08 pm

Well there are a lot of people in this review

“In the German weekly Der Spiegel, Elke Schmitter argued that new evidence shows Eichmann’s “performance in Jerusalem was a successful deception” — that Arendt apparently missed the true Eichmann, a fanatical anti-Semite. In a review in The New Republic, Saul Austerlitz wrote that Arendt’s “book makes for good philosophy, but shoddy history.” David Owen, a professor of social and political philosophy at the University of Southampton, recently faulted the movie for not grasping that “while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann.” In an essay in The New York Times in May, Fred Kaplan wrote that “Arendt misread Eichmann, but she did hit on something broader about how ordinary people become brutal killers.” ”

Someway supporting novakant. I guess it’s splitting hairs, though.


Ronan(rf) 10.23.14 at 9:11 pm

..although, I should add, the entire article is more generous. ‘Just plain wrong’ could well be hyperbole on novakants part. It seems too strong(though i don’t have a clue personally)


Ronan(rf) 10.23.14 at 9:16 pm

Just to add, (then Ill leave it as three posts is too much), but there’s obviously going to be a difference with what Arendt wrote (in all its depth and complication) at the time, and what her argument becomes down the years (a strawman and caricature) .. so Id assume it’s unlikely her argument *as laid out in the book* was ‘just plain wrong’ , more the simplification that developed.


Kalkaino 10.23.14 at 9:31 pm

Banality of evil….. It seems to me that Arendt’s phrase is richly vindicated every night by the news, incarnated by the picknoses of the GOP, their collaborators in the media, their Democratic co-dependents, and the decorticate citizenry. And then, as Arendt would appreciate, it’s ironized to great comic (not political ) effect by the Daily Show and its spinoffs. I mean Bush and Cheney killed upwards of a million Iraqis and then Bush made a gag video about those lost WMDs. And the American people chuckled or shook their heads sadly, then grabbed the remote and said, ‘What else is on?’

The banality of evil is, in a sense, one of those enigmatic, koanic phrases that perhaps one never fully explicates, but which raises the consciousness of those who ponder it often. Among the senses one can make of it is this: evil is not some alien, demoniac quality inherent in few nihilistic athletes of depravity, evil is as universal as bullshit, weakness, and self-deception. Every so often there arises a great aggregator of this mildly pernicious universal (the Inquisition, the Nazi Party, Fox News) and then real monstrosities are accomplished.

The crowning irony is this: evil is most fully accomplished when undertaken as the fight against evil. To the extent we locate evil outside ourselves we make ourselves susceptible to it. “Speak of the devil,” as Erasmus observed, “and he shall appear.”


Bruce Wilder 10.23.14 at 11:51 pm

I read the Gray essay linked to by Ronan(rf) in comment uno, and it formed a tension in my mind with the OP — it was totally derailing for my mind if not the thread, but in a good way, I think.

Identifying some person or group as evil, in common usuage, does seem to have the function of absolving the accuser. That certainly was not what Arendt was doing, but the “simplification” as Ronan(rf) called it makes way for that usage.

I have little difficulty imagining Eichmann or Mengele living “normal” lives in a less disrupted society. One a petty bureaucrat the other, say, an academic medical doctor — the types are not unfamiliar. I’m not saying that Eichmann “was just following orders” or that Mengele was not a psychopath; what I’m saying is that high-functioning psychopaths are not all that rare.

In “normal” society, we put up with them, treat them as “serious people”. And, if we make jokes, as the OP suggests, we fail to notice that a very large fraction of the population do not get the joke, literally do not understand the irony, do not hear the sarcasm, do not recognize the satire.

P.S. I thought the Evans review was outstanding — his characterization of Arendt’s classic essay was elegant in accurately summarizing her attitude as expressing a rare independence of mind. It is precisely because she so strongly resisted tribal modes that it is difficult for some to understand and respect that remarkable work.


bad Jim 10.24.14 at 9:17 am

When I first heard Kafka described as a humorist I was dumbfounded. The Trial, The Castle, Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony? None of that made me laugh. Cares of a Family Man, maybe. A little. Okay, more than a little.

I ask myself, to no purpose, what is likely to happen to him? Can he possibly die? Anything that dies has had some kind of aim in life, some kind of activity, which has worn out; but that does not apply to Odradek. Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful».

Mark Twain could have written that. Kafka is as dry as old bones, but galgenhumor
is the only way I can make sense of him.


bad Jim 10.24.14 at 10:03 am

Just for fun, Kafka’s story “A Message from the Emperor”, dramatizing, perhaps, the futility of God’s attempts to communicate with humans, ending gently with “You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes”, reminds me of the lengthy path a photon takes to escape from the thermonuclear chaos of the sun’s interior.

The messenger set out at once; a strong, an indefatigable man; thrusting forward now this arm, now the other, he cleared a path though the crowd; every time he meets resistance he points to his breast, which bears the sign of the sun; and he moves forward easily, like no other.

It’s only eight and a half minutes from the sun to the earth, but forty thousand years to get from the sun’s interior to the surface.


Ronan(rf) 10.24.14 at 8:56 pm

ZM @43 I missed it earlier as was rushing, but thanks for the recommendation.

Comments on this entry are closed.