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One of the more recent criticisms I’ve read of Eichmann in Jerusalem—in Bettina Stangneth’s and Deborah Lipstadt’s books—is that far from seeing, or seeing through, Eichmann, Arendt was taken in by his performance on the witness stand. Eichamnn the liar, Eichmann the con man, got the better of Arendt the dupe.

For the sake of his defense, the argument goes, Eichmann pretended to be a certain type of Nazi—not a Jew hater but a dutiful if luckless soldier, who wound up, almost by happenstance, shipping millions of Jews to their death.

Arendt heard this defense, and though she never accepted the notion that Eichmann was an obedient soldier (she thought he was a great deal worse than that), she did conclude that Eichmann had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Eichmann was hermetically sealed off from the world, from the perspective of people who weren’t Nazis. Because the “more decisive flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view,” he “never realized what he was doing.” He knew he was sending Jews to their death; he just didn’t grasp the moral significance of that act, wherein its evil lay, how others, including his victims and their families, might see it.

According to evidence presented by Stangneth and Lipstadt, Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel was indeed a performance on Eichmann’s part. The truth is that he was a rabid anti-Semite who took initiative and on occasion defied the directives of his superiors in order to make sure even more Jews went to their death; at one point, Lipstadt reports, he even personally challenged Hitler’s order to allow some 40,000 Hungarian Jews to be released for emigration to Palestine via Switzerland.

At every stage of his career, Eichmann knew what he was doing. In power, he did it with zeal; out of power, in the dock, he tried to pretend that he hadn’t, or that if he had, that he had no choice.

Arendt’s vision of the banality of evil, her critics claim, rests upon a failure to see this, the real Eichmann. Eichmann the trickster, Eichmann the con man, rather than Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel.

As I’ve written before, I think there’s something to this argument about Arendt’s failure to apprehend Eichmann’s performance as a performance. Arendt sometimes, though not nearly as often as her critics claim, did take Eichmann at his word, and it never seems to have occurred to her that he would have had the cunning—and necessary self-awareness—to fashion an image of himself that might prove more palatable to the court.

But if Eichmann was indeed a liar, that, it seems to me, argues in favor of Arendt’s overall thesis of the banality of evil, not against it. Once you work through the implications of Eichmann the liar—as opposed to Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel—it becomes clear that it is Arendt’s critics, rather than Arendt, who have not only failed to come to terms with his evil, but who also may have, albeit inadvertently, minimized what he actually did.

So let’s work this one through. [click to continue…]

> [_Attention conservation notice_]( A 5000+ word attempt to provide real ancestors and support for an imaginary ideology I don’t actually accept, drawing on fields in which I am in no way an expert. Contains long quotations from even-longer-dead writers, reckless extrapolation from arcane scientific theories, and an unwarranted tone of patiently explaining harsh, basic truths. Altogether, academic in one of the worst senses. Also, spoilers for several of MacLeod’s novels, notably but not just [_The Cassini Division_](

I’ll let Ellen May Ngewthu, late of the Cassini Division, open things up:
[click to continue…]

The History of Fear, Part 4

by Corey Robin on October 11, 2013

Today, in part 4 of my series on the intellectual history of fear, I turn to Hannah Arendt’s theory of total terror, which she developed in The Origins of Totalitarianism—and then completely overhauled in Eichmann in Jerusalem. As I make clear in my book, I’m more partial to Eichmann than to Origins. But Origins has been the more influential text, at least until recently, and so I deal with it here.

The Origins of Totalitarianism is a problematic though fascinating book (the second part, on imperialism, is especially wonderful). One of the reasons it was able to gain such traction in the twentieth century is that it managed to meld Montesquieu’s theory of despotic terror with Tocqueville’s theory of democratic anxiety. It became the definitive statement of the Cold War in part because it took these received treatments of Montesquieu and Tocqueville and mobilized them to such dramatic effect. (One of the reasons, as I also argue in the book, that Eichmann provoked such outrage was that it undermined these received treatments by reviving ways of thinking about fear that we saw in Hobbes and that had been steadily abandoned during the 18th and 19th centuries.)

But, again, if you want to get the whole picture, buy the book.

• • • • •

Mistress, I dug upon your grave

To bury a bone, in case

I should be hungry near this spot

When passing on my daily trot.

I am sorry, but I quite forgot

It was your resting-place.

—Thomas Hardy

It was a sign of his good fortune—and terrible destiny—that Nikolai Bukharin was pursued throughout his short career by characters from the Old Testament. Among the youngest of the “Old Bolsheviks,” Bukharin was, in Lenin’s words, “the favorite of the whole party.” A dissident economist and accomplished critic, this impish revolutionary, standing just over five feet, charmed everyone. Even Stalin. The two men had pet names for each other, their families socialized together, and Stalin had Bukharin stay at his country house during long stretches of the Russian summer. So beloved throughout the party was Bukharin that he was called the “Benjamin” of the Bolsheviks. If Trotsky was Joseph, the literary seer and visionary organizer whose arrogance aroused his brothers’ envy, Bukharin was undoubtedly the cherished baby of the family. [click to continue…]

O upright judge! Is Hayek Like Nietzsche or not?

by John Holbo on May 20, 2013

I’m a bit late, responding to Corey’s ‘Nietzsche’s Marginal Children’ essay (and post). But here goes.

In this post I will say what I think is right about Corey’s basic thesis. We can then – if you like – argue the degree to which I’m agreeing with what Corey actually said, or maybe substituting something that’s more my own, but clearly in the same vicinity, conclusion-wise. (We’ll be pretty tired by then, however. Long post.)

I know Nietzsche well, Hayek well enough – The Constitution of Liberty, in particular – and the rest of the marginalists not well at all. So this is going to be a Hayek-Nietzsche post.

The proper way to put the Nietzsche-Hayek ‘elective affinity’ thesis – that is a good term for it – is going to sound weak and disappointingly loose. But it’s actually interesting. Showing the interest, despite the looseness, is where it gets a bit tricky. [click to continue…]

André Gorz

by Chris Bertram on October 9, 2007

“A report in last Sunday’s Observer”:,,2185461,00.html carries the news of the death of André Gorz and his wife Dorine in a suicide pact. Gorz was a kind of Cassandra of the left: in the 1968 _Socialist Register_ he published a piece telling us that the great era of revolutions was over. Just a few months later he was ridiculed as May 68 unfolded. But he was right. In the early eighties he published _Farewell to the Working Class_. Absurd! we all thought, as the striking British miners seemed to reaffirm the transformative power of the industrial proletariat. He was righter than we were. And he started thinking about green issues when the rest of the left thought of all that as a petty-bourgeois indulgence. Again, he saw more clearly than most of us did.