Friday, February 21, 2014

Adolf Eichmann: No Exemplar of the Banality of Evil, After All?

Adolf Eichmann
Photograph by Bettmann/Corbis
The New York Review of Books

Sohn Min-ho, in "The 'banality of evil' in Ahn's case" (JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 19, Page 31), compares Eichmann as banal bureaucrat to the Korean sports officials who inadvertently pushed Viktor Ahn (Ahn Hyo-soo) into the welcoming arms of Russia, for which he recently won an Olympic gold medal. As John Milton would say, this is "to compare great things with small" (Paradise Lost 2.921-922), but I won't get deeply into that particular issue; rather, I want to look briefly at Sohn's view of Eichmann, which is based on Hannah Arendt's depiction of the man:
Arendt, a German-American political theorist, came up with the concept of the "banality of evil" after observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a German Nazi war criminal. Eichmann, one of the major architects of the Holocaust, argued he had only followed orders, and Arendt concluded that great evil could be executed by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and, therefore, participated with the view that their actions were normal. She concluded that evil was not the actions by fanatics or sociopaths, but ordinary people who simply followed orders.
Whatever the truth of Arendt's general point about the banality of evil, this turns out not to have been true of Eichmann specifically, as reported by Mark Lilla, "Arendt and Eichmann: The New Truth" (The New York Review of Books, November 13, 2021), who quotes Eichmann:
The cautious bureaucrat, yeah, that was me . . . . But joined to this cautious bureaucrat was a fanatical fighter for the freedom of the Blut I descend from . . . . What's good for my Volk is for me a holy command and holy law . . . . I must honestly tell you that had we . . . killed 10.3 million Jews I would be satisfied and would say, good, we've exterminated the enemy . . . . We would have completed the task for our Blut and our Volk and the freedom of nations had we exterminated the most cunning people in the world . . . . I'm also to blame that . . . the idea of a real, total elimination could not be fulfilled . . . . I was an inadequate man put in a position where, really, I could have and should have done more.
Eichmann's own words convict him of conscious evil, not the banal mindlessness of a mere bureaucrat following orders! I'm indebted to my friend Kent Davy, who Wednesday evening informed me and two other drinking buddies -- Kim Seung-Tae and Kevin Shepard -- of this article by Lilla, among various other fascinating topics of conversation.



At 9:38 AM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

Comparing great things with the small seems to be a Korean speciality, especially in their efforts to assert Korean primacy or at least equivalency with things they regard as "world standard". This is an appropriately banal example, but Korea's efforts to establish its status as an historical victim is less banal if no less risible.

At 9:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've noticed this tendency . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:49 PM, Blogger dhr said...

Na! Hannah Arendt fell into the Evilness of Banality

At 8:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But she climbed out . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Lilla also trades in the lately popular fallacy that newly discovered interviews of Eichmann by Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen prove Arendt mistaken. Lilla claims that a quotation full of ellipses offers such glaring proof of Eichmann’s thoughtful monstrousness that, had Arendt known this “new” information, she “would have to concede” she was wrong.

The problem with Lilla’s assertion is that Arendt was aware of the material he quotes. Partial transcriptions of the interviews—including the quotes Lilla cites—were published in two volumes of Life magazine in 1960. Arendt read those interviews; she suspected they were not fully reliable, but understood them to give a sense of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, his boastfulness and stupidity—all congruent with the seventy pages of Eichmann’s 1956 memoir written in Argentina that she also read. In short, Arendt had seen many of the damning quotes from the Sassen interviews and concluded that, if anything, they supported her interpretation. If Lilla wants to argue that Arendt got Eichmann wrong, fine: he should make his case on its merits, not on assertions of her ignorance of essentials of which she was not ignorant."


At 3:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, but let me link that for you.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:07 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Interesting. Thanks for posting this.

Coincidentally, today at the antique store I was reading an old copy of LIFE magazine which had an article about the Eichmann trial.

At 11:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mere coincidence?

Jeffery Hodges

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