Of Arendt and Eichmann

By Benhabib, Seyla | International New York Times, September 25, 2014 | Go to article overview

Of Arendt and Eichmann


Benhabib, Seyla, International New York Times


Why recent scholarship stirs more misplaced outrage over her "banality of evil" argument.

The new English translation of Bettina Stangneth's "Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer," is the latest in a long line of scholarship that aims to illuminate the inner life of Adolf Eichmann, one of Nazi Germany's most notorious, and most analyzed, figures. Based on memoirs, notes and interviews given by Eichmann in Argentina, where he lived under the pseudonym Ricardo Clement between 1950 and 1960, it is an impressive study -- one that underscores the fanatical nature of Eichmann's anti- Semitism.

Much of the reaction to the book hinges on how these new findings reflect on Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem," her 1963 work based on her witnessing of Eichmann's trial, which famously depicted him as the embodiment of "the banality of evil." The enduring controversy generated by Arendt's interpretation arouses outrage for allegedly diminishing Eichmann's moral culpability in the Holocaust.

While discussion of the 2011 German edition of Stangneth's book centered on the circle of Nazi sympathizers in Argentina and their hopes to influence postwar German politics, and on Stangneth's claim that German governments had resisted bringing Eichmann to trial there, commentators on the English edition have mainly ignored those issues, choosing instead to turn the trial of Adolf Eichmann into the trial of Hannah Arendt.

The Emory University historian Deborah E. Lipstadt told The Times this month that Stangneth "shatters" Arendt's portrait of Eichmann. In The Jewish Review of Books, the intellectual historian Richard Wolin writes: "Arendt had her own intellectual agenda, and perhaps out of her misplaced loyalty to her former mentor and lover, Martin Heidegger, insisted on applying the Freiburg philosopher's concept of 'thoughtlessness' (Gedankenlosigkeit) to Eichmann. In doing so, she drastically underestimated the fanatical conviction that infused his actions."

This sort of dismissal of Arendt's work -- and of the "banality of evil" argument -- does not hold up when one truly understands the meaning of her phrase. Couldn't Eichmann have been a fanatical Nazi and banal? What precisely did Arendt mean when she wrote that it was "sheer thoughtlessness" -- not stupidity -- that "predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period."? Arendt did not diminish Eichmann's crimes. She, in fact, approved his death sentence, with which many, including the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, disagreed.

Stangneth's book presents new evidence about Eichmann, based on the "Argentina Papers," which took nearly 20 years to emerge completely. In 1957, Willem S. Sassen, a Dutch journalist and Nazi collaborator, conducted interviews with Eichmann, who believed that they would be a basis for a book to be called "Others Have Spoken, Now I Will Speak." The Argentina Papers included over 1,000 typed pages of conversation and 500 pages of handwritten commentary, some by Eichmann and some by Sassen.

Arendt knew that Eichmann's notes were "rewritten by Sassen with considerable embellishments." She also knew that not all the notes were admitted to the trial as evidence; Eichmann and his lawyer convinced the court that most of the material was inadmissible. …

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