I am now referring to the evacuation of the Jews, to the extermination of the Jewish People. This is something that is easily said: ‘The Jewish People will be exterminated’, says every party member, ‘this is very obvious, it is in our program — elimination of the Jews, extermination, a small matter.’ And then they turn up, the upstanding 80 million Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. They say the others are all swine, but this particular one is a splendid Jew. But none has observed it, endured it. Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when there are 500 or when there are 1,000. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person — with exceptions due to human weaknesses — has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of. Because we know how difficult it would be for us if we still had Jews as secret saboteurs, agitators and rabble-rousers in every city, what with the bombings, with the burden and with the hardships of the war. If the Jews were still part of the German nation, we would most likely arrive now at the state we were at in 1916 and 17. Heinrich Himmler, October 4, 1943
Some people I know recently saw the film “Hannah Arendt” and reported that they liked the film and that, after all, she was right. I refer, of course, to her comment about “the banality of evil”. I have to admit that I have long misunderstood the comment, and I am glad I did.
What she meant was that people like Adolf Eichmann were not “evil” in the sense that mankind usually imagines evil, as some malevolence that is clearly evident in manners or attitudes or expressions or even body language. In fact, in Arendt’s view, Eichmann was, in a way, not even really evil. We know today that Arendt believed Eichmann when he told the Israeli court that he was merely following orders, when he facilitated the murder of five million Jews, and that he, personally, bore no animus towards them.
(It has emerged that Eichmann left some writings that clearly expressed an absolutely savage attitude towards the Jews. He lied to the Israeli court and it is not to Arendt’s credit that she believed him.
It causes me no end of wonder that she believed him.
Now, I had misunderstood the phrase “banality of evil”. I had thought that Arendt was telling us that evil often looks banal to us, but it is still evil. That evil is often disguised as good intentions or well-meaning attitudes. But it is still evil. In essence, I thought she was saying that people are extraordinarily talented at casting their own evil impulses as intentions that are noble or admirable in some way, like bringing freedom to Iraq or Viet Nam, or education to Afghani women, or democracy to Cuba. What people believe in these instances is that we should kill people who don’t agree with our ideas about freedom and democracy. But of course, you can’t say that, so you say, we are here to liberate you. With very few exceptions, this attitude is always a lie. We never really ask our brave young men to die for their country, though we say we do, when we hold sacraments and rituals to commemorate it. No, what we want them to do for our country is kill. But to say that aloud would be to make the evil in us naked, so we don’t.
In my view, Eichmann– even if you can believe his protestations at his trial– was actually evil, and we had better understand that most of the evil that occurs in our world is caused by Eichmanns and they do mean it no matter how talented they are at making it all look rational and sad and necessary.
Nazi Germany did not just walk into Poland and announce that they were conquering a nation in order to take their land. The Germans first staged fake attacks on German citizens by fake Polish soldiers, then howled in outrage, and set out to punish the miscreants. Yes, even the Nazis felt a need to put on a face. Himmler’s speech, as quoted above, is remarkably naked, and remarkably true. He observes the amazing capacity of a nation to indulge in utter denial: everyone pretended it was not “extermination”– it was “resettlement”. Goering himself castigated an underling for using the wrong word once. He learned.
Himmler’s purpose, you need to know, was to destroy the possibility of all those present to deny that they knew what was happening, in the face of Germany’s imminent defeat. He didn’t want them all to be able to say, with Eichmann, I didn’t know what the ultimate destination was. I didn’t know they were going to exterminate them.
This is what Hannah Arendt did not get: that people are powerfully able to present themselves as moral and conscientious while they really are selfish and self-interested. In fact, a good portion of popular culture consists of presenting ourselves as selfless and kind and adorable, for the purpose of which we knowingly falsify our own stories. We killed thousands of Viet Namese because we were all able to pretend that it was about democracy and human rights when it was really all about global domination: America was terrified that the communists would end up controlling most of Asia.
And yes, we killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for the oil. The fact that this was officially presented and accepted as bringing human rights and democracy to Iraq does not mean that most Americans really believed that, or that they really believed that bringing democracy and human rights to Iraq did not include the oil. If, in fact, America had restored democracy to Iraq and Iraq had elected a government that chose not to sell it’s oil to America, the vast majority of Americans would have been outraged and would have urged the government foment a coup.
There is a VERY hot debate going on between partisans of Arendt and critics. Critics claim that Arendt reduced Eichmann to a mere “cog” in the machine, and therefore “less evil” than he really was. Partisans say she did not. But the partisans clearly mean that Arendt didn’t think Eichmann was innocent, which, obviously, is true. So, therefore, she didn’t diminish his culpability. But, in fact, she does, in my opinion, because she asserts that Eichmann’s willingness to be part of a machine, to obey orders, to go along with his friends and family and colleagues and government, is not itself an evil, or at least, not an extraordinary evil. (Borrowing from Martin Heidegger, she suggests that Eichmann wasn’t even a authentic person.)
His unwillingness to decide morally against participation and act on this conviction– is, in my opinion, itself as evil and monstrous as, say, the police in Chicago during the riots of 1968 who saw protesters as weirdoes and freaks, or Joshua Bolton advocating war on Iran, or William Calley, or thousands and millions of others.
As Buffy Ste. Marie would say, “he’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame…” The soldier asserts that he is willing to die for his country. But he knows that he is willing to kill for his country, and that is most authentic thing about him.