In response to:

Arendt & Eichmann: The New Truth from the November 21, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

Mark Lilla’s essay “Arendt & Eichmann: The New Truth” [NYR, November 21], as well as its sequel, “The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator” [NYR, December 5], describe the uproar over Hannah Arendt’s account of the Judenräte. Lilla rightly sees that anger over her characterization of Jewish leaders was overblown, based on taking offending phrases out of context.

But Lilla’s argument misleads when addressing Arendt’s view that Eichmann exemplified “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” Lilla accuses Arendt of calling Eichmann “a cog”; in fact, she argues otherwise, writing—in sections IV, VII, and the epilogue to Eichmann in Jerusalem—that he went beyond orders, enthusiastically supporting the Final Solution. Lilla writes that Arendt “made evil seem banal”; in fact, Arendt contrasts the horrific evil of the Holocaust with Eichmann’s inability to think from the perspective of others—banality not of what he did (evil), but of his person. That “evil violates a natural harmony” is, Arendt writes, the nonbanal and “supreme justification” for why Eichmann must be executed.

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.

Arendt saw Eichmann as an anti-Semite. Might she have underestimated the extent of his hatred? Perhaps. But there’s a difference between virulent anti-Semitism and genocidal mass murder. Both in Jerusalem and Argentina, Eichmann describes pangs of conscience—not about killing Jews, but about killing. His guilt dissipated quickly, though, as he justified mass murder, consoling himself with clichés, and hoping others would understand and forgive him. This dumb shallowness is what Arendt called Eichmann’s banality. Arendt’s point was that Eichmann—beyond being an anti-Semite—thrived upon the power and meaning he got from being a Nazi.

Arendt asked how Eichmann morphed from an anti-Semite to a mass murderer. Her critics owe her the courtesy of engaging the depth of her argument, something Lilla’s false claims of superior knowledge free him from having to do. Fifty years on, it is time to get beyond “gotcha” accounts that dismiss the seriousness of her work and, instead, take Arendt’s arguments seriously.

Roger Berkowitz
Academic Director
Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
Associate Professor of Politics, Philosophy, and Human Rights
Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York

Mark Lilla replies:

Parsing what Hannah Arendt meant by the “banality of evil,” a phrase she was warned against and came to regret, has never been easy. Yes, she did say that Eichmann went beyond the Nazi call of duty. But mainly she portrayed him as a cipher, an aimless man who never finished high school and had “modest mental gifts,” which became apparent in his appallingly convoluted testimony that Arendt found “funny.” The phrases that stick in the mind, for good reason, are those where she declares that Eichmann “had no motives at all” and “never realized what he was doing.” That is the overwhelming impression the book makes on readers with modest mental gifts like myself.

As for the new material that has emerged about Eichmann, I’m baffled that Roger Berkowitz feels obliged to question its significance, as he also did in a lengthy column in The New York Times, and on his center’s website.* Bettina Stangneth’s recent Eichmann vor Jerusalem, which he refers to in his Times piece, comes as a shock even to those of us convinced that Eichmann was highly motivated and knew exactly what he was doing. Arendt did indeed refer to the (already hair-raising) excerpts from the Sassen transcripts that Life published, and to eighty pages of a five-hundred-page memoir that Eichmann wrote in Argentina. But this turned out to be only a small fraction of the more than 1,300 pages of writings and transcripts from Eichmann’s Argentine period.

Stangneth has worked though them all and can place Eichmann at the very center of a network of unrepentant ex-Nazis there who still had supporters in the upper echelons of the Bundesrepublik. (Many dismissed Arendt for surmising this about the Adenauer government, but she was totally right.) This group held regular meetings where they would drink and vent their bile, but also worked methodically to extend a network of sympathizers, forged documents to exculpate themselves and National Socialism, and spoke seriously of returning to Germany and staging a coup. In this circle of friends, Stangneth concludes, Eichmann remained a “fanatical Nazi.”

Berkowitz is right that part of the necessarily truncated quotation from the tape manuscripts I used had already appeared in Life. But those articles were incomplete and slightly bowdlerized, and no one could vouch for their veracity. Relying on the tapes themselves, Stangneth quotes the entire rant, which takes up three densely printed pages in the German edition. What comes through is Eichmann’s intense devotion to Nazi aims and defiance in the face of the enormity of German crimes against the Jews, whose lives mean nothing to him. Denying he was a mere bureaucrat, he presents himself as an engaged fighter for his Volk and Blut, his exact words.

As for the Jews, he gives them almost cosmic significance, explaining that their dominance was secured by their vast learning and the imposition of their revelation on other peoples. He finds it “depressing” to think that the Christian Church is built on Jewish revelation and says (this is not in Life) that “it is from this awareness that I fight against this enemy”—a phrase that could have been taken from Carl Schmitt’s writings on the Jew as civilizational enemy. Eichmann comes through as a classic pro-Zionist anti-Semite, “fascinated” with Judaism—he claimed, falsely, to have learned Hebrew from Benjamin Murmelstein in Vienna—and “passionately” devoted to finding them a new homeland. So long as they were driven, by any means necessary, from their current one.

Berkowitz would have us believe that Arendt divined all this from the material she had, which would be some feat. He would also have us believe that she took it into account in reaching her judgment that Eichmann “never realized what he was doing.” He fails to see that, if this were true, it would make her appear more foolish than even her harshest critics believe her to be. Such defensiveness does not serve his cause.

As Stangneth says, many people, including Israelis, were taken in by Eichmann’s performance at his trial. But none of them saw in him confirmation of a grand theory of alienation in modern bureaucratic socities, and then wrote a book about it. I would think that Arendt’s supporters would, on the basis of the new evidence, want to decouple the Eichmann case from that theory, which deserves consideration on its own merits. Everyone makes mistakes, even saints. Hannah Arendt’s beloved Saint Augustine certainly did; in fact he wrote a whole book about them.