This quarter, for my senior capstone class, i.e. the class taken for a major that is supposed to cap off our undergraduate studies, I am taking a course focused on Hannah Arendt, the political theorist, with the truly excellent Peg Birmingham, who has been one of my most important instructors during my time at DePaul. In our analysis of it, it has brought to my mind many stark lessons for our current predicaments.
We started our examination of Arendt’s works by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, the book she wrote and compiled from her time sitting in on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who more or less facilitated the extermination of the European Jews by the Third Reich and who was captured, tried, and put to death by Israel in the early 1960s. Most of the book is concerned with the details of the trial, and the testimony of Eichmann and others, but on the whole Arendt attempts to use the man to assess the phenomenon of the Holocaust itself, namely the complete and utter moral collapse of the nations involved, and also what she refers to as the “banality of evil,” the thoughtlessness of Eichmann in his charge to fulfill the duty given to him.
The chilling aspect of the trial for Arendt, and for those who read her recounting of it, is not that Eichmann was some evil ghoul, maniacally bent on the destruction of a people, but in fact something quite different; the man was no such thing. He was not psychologically unhinged in any way; he described himself as doing his duty, having no ability to stop the horrors of the Nazi regime, and so instead he did as he was ordered, because he believed that doing so was the truly moral thing to do, going so far as to cite Kant’s categorical imperative as his driving ideal. He admitted no guilt, no antisemitism, and seems to have at least been not guilty of the latter.
What, then, are we to make of Eichmann? He was not a monster, as is evident from reading Arendt’s account; but surely we should not exonerate him, as well. The message of his trial is that monstrous evil does not necessarily only come from the diabolical mastermind, bent on the destruction of all that is good and pure in the world, but instead that evil is easily done by those who are joiners, those who do not question orders, those who are too apathetic to care about what acts they commit or enable, so long as they think it is correct, though that authority they believe may be a corrupt one. Moral collapse of the sort seen on the scale of the Holocaust is not, as we believe, an extraordinary thing, but rather one that can occur at any time, if, like Eichmann, we allow ourselves be the dupes of power, if we are not skeptical enough to question governments and ethical enough to make the right decisions.
The banality of evil can be seen today. We in the US have spent the past decade or so, if not more, watching our own government commit exceedingly immoral acts in the name of national security, while riling the population up into a fever over anyone who happens to fit the stereotype of being Muslim. It’s happening right now, in the aftermath of the explosions at the Boston Marathon. Long before suspects were identified by authorities, the media and average citizens leapt to conclusions, immediately assuming Saudis and anyone else who was mildly Middle Eastern looking to be the culprits; such reactions are catalogued here and here, amongst other places.
This attitude, the assumptions of guilt, are exactly what Arendt warned us against. But she also offered us a brighter truth; that against all of the horror of the Nazi war machine, there were those that resisted, such as the actions of the state of Denmark to save its Jewish citizens and refugees from the Einsatzgruppen, as well as those of Anton Schmid, a sergeant in the Wehrmacht who saved 250 Jewish people from the concentration camps. There are always those who make the moral choice, not the practical choice of saving their own skins, when the greatest adversity comes. Patton Oswalt wrote much in the same vein in the response to Boston.
It is in these stories that we must take hope from, and from the banality of evil, of the prejudiced assumptions, that we must constantly be on guard from. Our society has the capability to lapse into abjection and horror at any moment, if it has not already. We have stood by while innocent people have been illegally imprisoned by the people we elect to govern us, we have raised barely a peep against drone strikes on innocent civilians, and plenty of other moral lapses; as difficult as it is to do, we must look at ourselves, and constantly check our biases and actions. Ideology is what makes us blind, and so, we must do our utmost to not blindly follow ideology.