"That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man—that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem."
This book is positively lucid in comparison to the one other book I read by Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, since this is a journalistic piece, first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1963. Basically the book is merely a report on the trial, which would have to exclude examination of the issues that the trial raised, e.g., Why did it have to be the Germans? Why did it have to be the Jews? What is the nature of totalitarianism? What is the nature of evil? But Arendt goes as far in including relevant facts that pertain to the trial as she can, and it is ravishingly interesting. Arendt was already so well-informed by then about the history of development of the "Final Solution" in which millions of Jews (and others: Russian functionaries, Gypsies, the asocial, the sick, and mentally-ill patients) were killed.
Of course we want to know how the Holocaust could happen, and Arendt goes a long way to showing us the compliance of so many government officials of other countries, of German functionaries, and of ordinary citizens. Fear played a large part, but there was more. In Germany, the management of information and expectations was so complete that, for instance, ordinary Germans were convinced that Hitler would gas them eventually, if the war was lost: "The Russians will never get us. The Fuhrer will never permit it. Much sooner he will gas us." They did not sound indignant, she reports, but resigned. Such an action must have seemed rational, in their universe.
In the Postscript to this book, Arendt points out that this report of the trial, when first published in The New Yorker, caused an outcry ascribing to her attitudes which she does not possess, and attributing to her words she did not say:
"Even before its publication, this book became both the center of a controversy and the object of an organized campaign…The controversy began by calling attention to the conduct of the Jewish people during the years of the Final Solution, thus following up the question, first raised by the Israeli prosecutor, of whether the Jews could or should have defended themselves. I had dismissed that question as silly and cruel, since it testified to a fatal ignorance of the conditions at the time. It has now been discussed to exhaustion, and the most amazing conclusions have been drawn…Since the role of the Jewish leadership had come up at the trial, and since I had reported and commented on it, it was inevitable that it too should be discussed. This, in my opinion, is a serious question, but the debate has contributed little to its clarification."
"There is of course no doubt that the defendant and the nature of his acts as well as the trial itself raise problems of a general nature which go far beyond the matters considered in Jerusalem. I have attempted to go into some of these problems in the Epilogue, which ceases to be simple reporting.Superior orders, Arendt points out, are, in law, no excuse for failures of judgment, though persons on trial often have this taken into consideration when their sentences are meted out. Eichmann was hanged shortly after the trial ended, so following orders was not considered to be exculpatory in his case.
Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his own personal advancement, [Eichmann] had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing."
One of the things that damned Eichmann was not his following of orders, per se. He did his job to the best of his ability, something of which he was inordinately proud. When, in 1944, he received orders from Himmler countermanding earlier behaviors, i.e., that he should now take care of the Jews instead of transporting them to the killing fields, Eichmann sabotaged his orders as much as he dared, to the extent at least that he felt he was 'covered' by his immediate superiors. Arendt suggests that his conscience "prompted Eichmann to adopt his uncompromising attitude during the last year of the war," and one can certainly understand his confusion and distress. All his previous excellent compliance that required him to silence thought was now being shown for what it was--a terrible crime.
This report holds within it so much of human behaviors, bad and good. We are blessedly treated to the wonderful story of true clarity of thinking in the case of Denmark:
"The story of the Danish Jews is sui generis, and the behavior of the Danish people and their government was unique among all the countries of Europe—whether occupied, or a partner of the Axis, or neutral and truly independent. One is tempted to recommend the story as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence…Italy and Bulgaria sabotaged German orders and indulged in a complicated game of double-dealing and double-crossing, saving their Jews by a tour de force of sheer ingenuity, but they never contested the policy as such.Police units arrived from Germany for a door-to-door search for Jews to deport, but they were forbidden to break down doors, so only Jews who voluntarily opened their doors to them were seized. The Jewish community had been warned by Danish officials, who had been told by a German shipping agent, who had probably been advised by the German official in Copenhagen whose attitude had, when resistance had been firm, practically melted away.
"That was totally different from what the Danes did.
"When the Germans approached them rather cautiously about introducing the yellow badge, they were simply told that the King would be the first to wear it, and the Danish government officials were careful to point out that anti-Jewish measures of any sort would cause their own immediate resignation. It was decisive in this whole matter that the Germans did not even succeed in introducing the vitally important distinction between native Danes of Jewish origin, of whom there were about sixty-four hundred, and the fourteen hundred German Jewish refugees who had found asylum in the country prior to the war and who now had been declared stateless by the German government. This refusal must have surprised the Germans no end, since it appeared so “illogical” for a government to protect people to whom it had categorically denied naturalization and even permission to work…The Danes, however, explained to the German officials that because the stateless refugees were no longer German citizens, the Nazis could not claim them without Danish assent…
"What happened then was truly amazing; compared with what took place in other European countries, everything went topsy-turvy…riots broke out in Danish shipyards, where dock workers refused to repair German ships and then went on strike… "
"Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin, It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their 'toughness' had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage."It is a great relief to discover that something worked against the thoughtless, just-following-orders persistence of the perpetrators’ human machine.
In the context of my other recent reading and thinking, I have a couple of things to say: that Thomas Pynchon’s book Inherent Vice says something about thoughtlessness and evil—how we must struggle against thoughtlessness at every opportunity in order not to do evil. And with respect to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, we must think about the effects of lifestyle on energy usage and how this affects climate and the world. We must demand better leadership from our government--or at least have the politicians do what we say.
This is one of the indispensable books for it is the jumping point for so much fruitful thought and discussion.
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