Friday, September 21, 2018

Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil

A new movie raises an old question. The movie, Operation Finale, dramatizes the Israeli capture of Adolph Eichmann in Argentina in 1960. Eichmann was secreted to Israel, tried and executed in 1962.

Among the most memorable phrases from the trial was “the banality of evil,” coined by Hannah Arendt to describe the man who organized the transport of European Jews to death camps.

Arendt offered the term in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. The term has been in use for decades now, to the chagrin of Alan Dershowitz, among others. By declaring evil to be banal, Arendt was saying that those who perpetrated the Holocaust were just like your neighborhood insurance agent, nondescript and commonplace people who just happened to participate in an evil action.

In a recent column Dershowitz takes serious exception with the Arendt designation. In his words:

Arendt was assigned to report on the 1961 trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, but according to contemporaries, she rarely attended the trial. She came to Jerusalem having made up her mind in advance that Eichmann in particular and other perpetrators of the evils of the Holocaust in general, were ordinary nondescript functionaries. She reported on the trial with an agenda. It was not necessary for her actually to observe and listen to Eichmann because to do so might undercut her thesis. So instead she wrote a mendacious screed in which she constructed a stick-figure caricature of one of the most significant perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Blinded by her own prejudice, but also blinded by her feelings for famed Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger. As you probably know, Arendt was Heidegger's student and later his lover.

Perhaps she saw Heidegger as an ordinary functionary, but he joined the Nazi party and, when Rector of the University of Freiberg in 1933, he attempted to induce students to join the Nazi Party and to follow the lead of the Fuhrer. Dershowitz calls Heidegger “perhaps” the most influential philosopher of his time. This is surely correct. He adds that Arendt “tried desperately to rehabilitate” him after the war.

In this she was not alone. After the war, scads of great French philosophers lobbied their government to lift their ban on Heidegger’s teaching. American academics, led by Nazi propagandist Paul De Man and French philosopher Jacques Derrida accomplished the mission by recycling Heidegger’s will toward cultural destruction, especially aimed at Jewish and Anglo-Saxon cultures, and transforming it into deconstruction… a fancy philosophical term for pogrom.

Dershowitz offers us a contemporaneous account of the Eichmann trial, reported by Professor Telford Taylor, a man who actually attended it:

Where she saw banality, he saw calculation, manipulation and shrewdness.

Those who perpetrated the Holocaust, Dershowitz explains, counted among the most brilliant people in Germany. This was not a mass movement led by a bunch of braying imbeciles. It was not effected by ordinary people.

To state the obvious, Nazis considered themselves to be superhuman, to be above and beyond all considerations of morality. They wanted to show their superhuman powers by practicing mass murder, not on the battlefield against opposing armies, but in death camps where they preyed on the weak.

And yet, thanks to Hannah Arendt, we have been led to accept that evil people are not cynical and calculating, not brilliant, but are ordinary, like your neighbors next door.

Dershowitz says:

Deliberately distorting the history of the Holocaust -- whether by denial, minimization, unfair comparisons or false characterizations of the perpetrators -- is a moral and literary sin. Arendt is a sinner who placed her ideological agenda, to promote a view of evil as mundane, above the truth.

And besides, to re-emphasize, she did not just allow her ideology to cloud her analysis. Arendt was exonerating herself for having been in bed with evil. How could she not have known who she was sleeping with? Did she not understand his philosophy? Her response: he was just a man like the others. It's an exercise in self-exoneration.

In effect, the academic world has been mired in the same discussion for decades now. Was Heidegger’s philosophy consistent with Nazi thought? Was it an accident that he got duped into joining the Nazi Party-- affiliation that he never renounced-- or did the “inner truth and greatness of the National Socialist Movement,” as he put it, resonate with his theories?

We can understand that graduate students and their lame-brained professors might miss the connection. We have difficulty understand that a great thinker like Hannah Arendt could not see something that was staring her in the face, so to speak.


A. Dreg said...

Arendt's approach sounds a lot like Margaret Mead's. Develop a pre-existing narrative based on what one wishes to be true and fit cherry-picked facts to the narrative. I call it the Summer of Recovery Syndrome.


David Foster said...

Peter Drucker, who left Germany in 1933, wrote about three men he knew who became at various levels Nazis or Nazi enablers..

–Reinhold Hensch, who came from a working-class family, became an SS officer. He summed up his motivations to Drucker thusly: “Now I have a party membership card with a very low number and *I am going to be somebody*.”

–Paul Schaeffer became editor of a major newspaper, believing he could influence the regime toward moderation. He disappeared when the front that he provided was no longer needed.

–An un-named professor, a distinguished biochemist and a “great liberal,” was expected by many to raise objections at the faculty’s first meeting with their newly-appointed Nazi watchdog. His main concern was about maintaining the level of research funding.

Interestingly, Hensch had a Jewish girlfriend…he advised her to leave the country and asked Drucker to help her when they both went abroad.

Knowing these people led Drucker to object to the Hannah Arendt “banality of evil” formulation:

“Evil works through the Hensches and the Schaeffers precisely because evil is monstrous and men are trivial…Man becomes the instrument of evil when, like the Hensches, he thinks to harness evil to his ambitions; and he becomes the instrument of evil when, like the Schaeffers, he joins with evil to prevent worse…I have often wondered which of these two did, in the end, more harm–the Monster or the Lamb; and which is worse, Hensch’s sin of the lust for power or Schaeffer’s hubris and sin of pride? But maybe the greatest sin is neither of these two ancient ones; the greatest sin may be the new twentieth-century sin of indifference, the sin of the distinguished biochemist who neither kills nor lies but refuses to bear witness when, in the words of the old gospel hymn, “They crucify my Lord.””

Anonymous said...

"Man becomes the instrument of evil when, like the Hensches, he thinks to harness evil to his ambitions"
Sounds very much like the thinking of the people who pushed Hindenburg into appointing Hitler chancellor.

Anonymous said...

We have our own demonstration of evil that permeates one political party that can put up with AntiFA, the destruction of personal property, physically abusing people who might disagree with them, even trying to kill others, et al. If one looks at who finances this mayhem and desire to destroy, we have our own version of the SS, Soros' Stooges. How many democrat party members receive considerable financing from Soros? I would posy the Soros owns these people and they dare not challenge his wishes and desires.
It is interesting to see evil metastasize to such a degree in those who would control us. The lust for power blocks all human emotion and the ability to think.


sestamibi said...

"For the record, I did notice that Frostrup is a wonderful proper name, the kind that only the British could get away with. It should be the name of a character in Henry James"

I was thinking more of Tom Wolfe.