On Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem

[The following pages are the text of a lecture delivered, in part, in Liberal Studies 402 in March 1997 by Ian Johnston, at Malaspina University-College. This document is in the public domain, released October1999.  the hit counter was installed in May 2000]

For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston




When we read this book, we are confronted with some huge issues, many of which are a central part of the living experiences of some of the people in this room. For many of us, the horrors of World War II, and especially the actions of the Nazi government with regard to the Jews and other groups deemed inferior and unwanted, are so much a part of our own
lives that it is difficult not to want to talk about a great many things—the nature of evil, the "guilt" question, the history of Anti-Semitism, the growth of totalitarian government, and so on.

In dealing with Arendt's book, however, we must resist a great many temptations to digress into many such complex areas, if we wish to focus on her main point, because the book is centrally about none of these global issues. And if we stray too far into various matters which arise out of the Eichmann story and do not look clearly at what Arendt wishes us to consider, then we will miss the main point—indeed, as I should like to argue in a moment, we may become an integral part of the problem she wishes to deal with.

What I want to focus on here for a few minutes, then, is what I see as the central concern of this text. I want to call it quickly and cursorily to our attention, so that we do not lose sight of it in our discussions about all the other matters. I don't have much time, so I shall be as brief as I can be. Simply put, I want to insist that there are two major and related lessons Arendt wishes to consider. The first is an old-fashioned Kantian injunction that we are all members of a single group, the human community, and that our responsibilities are above everything else to than community of individuals. Secondly, the failure to base our judicial treatment of genocide on this awareness leaves us dangerously incapable of recognizing and therefore of dealing with the most pernicious new crime to appear before the courts in this century. These are urgently practical questions which concern all of us in our daily lives. Thus, Arendt's main concern is not to educate us about the Holocaust or about Eichmann but about ourselves.

The Issue of Justice in the Community

If this book is not primarily intended as a history of the Holocaust, an essay on the nature of evil, a study of anti-Semitism, an examination of the "guilt" question, or even a complete biography of Adolph Eichmann, then what it is about? Well, Arendt tells us many times: this is a book about justice in the modern world. Arendt's purpose here is clear (and repeated many times throughout): the details of the Eichmann trial matter because they indicate to us the nature of our own responsibilities for justice in the human community and of the ways in which we too often evade or ignore those responsibilities.

Some time ago, soon after we began this four-cycle curriculum in Liberal Studies, we examined Aeschylus's play The Oresteia. That work, as we discussed then, is about the establishment within the human community of a system of justice administered by the citizens of the polis. The moment comes about as a divine gift, and there is an assurance given by the gods that the community which establishes justice properly and which carries it out with integrity and respect will flourish. Of all the works we have read in Liberal Studies, The Oresteia is the most optimistic and the most challenging: human beings can, in the human community, rule each other in such a way that the community will thrive. But the play also contains an ominous warning: the community that forgets its full responsibilities or upsets the appropriate balance upon which justice depends will perish.

The major point that Arendt wants us to derive from this book is the same. For her the story of Eichmann and the story of his trial are important primarily for what they
reveal to us about the nature of justice and about the attempts, deliberate and otherwise to pervert it.

I do not have time here to rehearse her argument—and in any case there's no need, since she makes it very clear herself. But I do want to call attention to some points in it, once again in order to emphasize that this book has a specific point which we should not miss.

The first point that is made repeatedly through the book is that justice—criminal, moral, and political justice is a highly individual matter. That is, it involves the particular actions of particular people, and the business of rendering a judgment or making a decision is corrupted as soon as this key point is forgotten. One of her main indictments of the proceedings in Jerusalem is that the trial was deliberately engineered, in spite of the attempts of the judges, to deal with group interests—both those during the events being judged but, more importantly, group interests at the time of the trial (i.e., fifteen years after the end of the war).

Thus, for example, the Israeli government wanted a trial that would remind the world of the sufferings of the Jewish people, that would once more raise the question of the collective guilt of the German people, that would let everyone know about the horrors of anti-Semitism, that would at last allow the Jewish survivors an official hearing, and so on. Arendt points out again and again that there was a political agenda driving much of this trial, and in her view that perverts justice, no matter how sympathetic we might be to some of the motives for this use of the trial. The strength of this political agenda was so strong that it led to the judge's original verdict being rewritten in order to mesh with the government's (and the prosecution's) perceptions.

And why does this matter, when she has no doubt about the guilt of the defendant? Her book raises a number of important and challenging legal points, but they are, in a sense, secondary. A trial, like Eichmann's, as she points out many times, has a simple task: to render judgment on this man, for these deeds, at this time, taking into account various factors which might have significantly affected his ability to choose how to act (e.g., was he mentally sound, was he in a position to know what he was doing, did he have any way of acting any differently, and so on). Anything which shifts the business of the trial away from this sharp particularity into wider cultural or historical issues, no matter how important, is an erosion of justice, because it subsumes questions of justice to political and social and cultural questions not immediately relevant to the principal reason for the trial: justice in the community.

Political and social questions are important, indeed essential, parts of the background information, so that the individual under scrutiny can be fully understood in terms of the various social and political pressures with which he had to deal. But, according to Arendt, they serve as background only. Any attempts to explain away individual actions (or refusals to act) by reference to collective pressures is pernicious to justice, because they strike at the very basis of the central hope on which our civilization rests: that human beings are individually responsible for what they do.

Again and again in her text Arendt takes issue with those who wish to do this, to explain away the horror by reference to cultural generalities. One can understand people's reasons for wanting to do this. After all, faced with the extraordinary horror of the events, many of us find it easier to blame something like the German people or European Anti-Semitism or the pathological Nazis, rather than to see the cause in the particular actions of ordinary people. Even in our seminar comments, often the discussion is dominated by comments about groups, as if the collective identity of certain people (Germans, Jews, Italians, and so on) is the key element in understanding and judging them. Arendt wishes to remind us that this sort of thinking perverts justice.

The strength of Arendt's case comes, not from her grasp of the bewildering complexities of detail (impressive as that is) or from her moral indignation at what was done, but rather from her uncompromising sense that in the human community, we as individuals—no matter what group loyalties and identities we may possess—have a personal moral responsibility for what we do and that we can be held accountable—in fact, must be held accountable as individuals—for crimes against the human community.

We have spent a good deal of time this semester dealing with various forms of relativism—the pragmatic relativism of James, the cultural relativism of Benedict, and the existential relativism of de Beauvoir. It comes across to me as immensely refreshing to return to an old fashioned Kantian, a moral thinker who maintains that we are responsible to the human community for our actions, that there are certain universal principles by which we must conduct our actions and in terms of which we will be judged and must judge others, that subsuming such matters under cultural questions is a moral evasion of the first order. This is immensely refreshing because it establishes a clear and uncompromised sense that we are, first and foremost, human beings and that any attempt to deal with our fellows on any other basis is suspicious.

The Moral Compromise of Classification

This issue of group thinking becomes particularly acute when Arendt moves to the key question raised by the Holocaust: How could so many people from such a culturally rich  place become willing agents in a diabolically evil program? She has no doubt that the origin of the Final Solution was in Hitler's own personality, something beyond our understanding. She's not interesting in probing that origin. For her what really matters is how Hitler secured massive compliance with his irrational hatred.

Her analysis brings out very clearly how such compliance is secured: it comes through something really common to us all, the manipulation of our thinking and our imagination through classification. Once we have accepted certain labels, then we are well on the way to sanctioning different treatment.

Arendt spends a good deal of time discussing the complex issues of citizenship in many European countries after the First World War. This was a quagmire because, as a means of
accommodating the tense ethnic rivalries in often artificially created countries, the peace makers after the war had come up with various schemes of classifying citizens, which had been more or less accepted (not least of all by the citizens themselves). These classification systems had, in effect, recognized human beings as belonging to different groups and, beyond that, as fundamentally unequal in their political rights. Hence, Arendt argues, it became easy to think that different ethnic groups required different treatments and had different values.

This issue of classification is one of the most important in the book. Arendt discusses in great detail how the success of the Nazi extermination apparatus depended initially upon classification schemes which designated citizens as having different status: Jews and non-Jews, assimilationist Jews and Zionists, native Jews and refugee Jews, Jews in the Council and ordinary Jews. The first step in the eradication process was to insist upon the official implementation of a publicly acknowledged classification system. Once that was in place, then getting acquiescence for different treatment became relatively easy.

The Green Berets supposedly had a saying: "If you get them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." This pungent saying suggests that moral attitudes are primarily a
matter of physical security and fear. As Arendt points out, the physical dangers are important, and we should never underestimate just how horribly the Nazis could make active resisters suffer. But it's an important part of her case that our moral responsibilities do not begin and end with active resistance. In many cases, what we do have at our disposal is passive resistance or the refusal to carry out actions we perceive as immoral. And one thing we have to attend to in any such system of passive resistance is the way in which oppressors wish to sell us a classification system.

Anyone seeking, like the Nazis, to persuade us to carry out such actions, will generally place a high priority on persuading us that compliance with certain actions is no big deal because those concerned are not like us—the classification systems we have accepted tell us that.

So Arendt's text offers a different lesson: "If you get them by the mind, their hearts and balls will follow." And the classification system served to do just that. It is a very old principle, which goes commonly by the name "Divide and conquer."  Once you can get people to abandon the really essential category of "human beings," and get them thinking in terms of ethnic categories, most of the work is done.

[That point, to compare great things with small, is an important point in an article this weekend on Canadian multiculturalism arguing that dividing Canadians into official minority categories is serving to promote hostility rather than to foster tolerance for diversity].

I would like momentarily to digress on this business of classification. What makes this so effective is that we are all used to it; in fact, we cannot function without it. Quite apart from the point that we probably cannot perceive, understand, or remember things without having some system of classification, there is also the fact that the modern state cannot exist without a huge classification system which establishes the categories, hierarchies, group identities, and so on essential to all aspects of the modern state.

Part of the Enlightenment project was to make these classification systems rational and fair, rather than based upon ancient family lines, religion, tradition, or personal allegiance. This, it was thought, could be done if, following the liberal tradition, our state operated as a bureaucracy, in which functions were classified, endorsed by the sovereign power, and subject to the rule of merit or periodic election and, as much as possible, an equal playing field.

That is very much how we operate today. At the risk of a very simple generalization, let me suggest that we have a three class society. Most of the people are at the bottom; they are the classified ones. They are the workers, and what they have is jobs or school or welfare or jails. At the next level are those in charge of implementing classification systems (of pasting the labels on people). They are the professionals, and what they have are positions (professors, lawyers, doctors, probation officers, social workers). At the very top is the small group of those who make up and emend the classification system. They are the rulers, and what they have are names.

As a teacher I am a professional classifier, like a lumber grader; I spend most of my time putting labels on people. The state pays me to do that, and students seek the services of me and my colleagues in order to get stamped. And most of the students I teach have one important career ambition: to move from the ranks of the classified into the ranks of
the implementers of classification systems (to move from a job to a position). That's exactly what Eichmann wanted.

Arendt wants us to see in the Eichmann story how classification can produce evil, how it corrupts one's sense of something much more important than any label—the human
being on whom you are pasting the label. What, after all, was the start of Eichmann's professional career and his crime? It was a classification process. He early on made his career by distinguishing between assimilationist Jews and Zionists and, on the basis of this difference, establishing for himself moral differences between two groups of human beings. Having made the initial distinction, he now has at his disposal moral categories "good Jews" and "bad Jews."  That is why he can express a certain bewilderment at the way people see him an such an enormous monster: had he not admired and been friendly with many Jews?  It is perhaps a small step, perhaps even in the context easy enough to understand. But it reveals a method of thinking (or of refusing to think) which leads to the most horrible consequences.

That point underlines the importance Arendt gives to stressing Eichmann's normality. It was of considerable importance to the Jewish people to portray Eichmann as a monster. And we all have a stake in that form of thinking because it's so reassuring: only monsters are capable of such horrific crimes. But Arendt wants us to see clearly that Eichmann was just like almost everyone else—like many people in our own communities. He became an active agent of horror because, in the last analysis, he didn't think clearly or feel intelligently. He forgot his human moral responsibility. The classification system and, just as important as that, everyone else's acceptance of it, made the omission easy.

The power of the classification system as a basis for the entire operation is no more terribly ironic than in all those details about how the Jewish communities themselves accepted the classification systems the Nazis imposed. Once again, one can appeal to the traditions of the country or to the power of the Nazi machine in order to explain away the complicity of the Jews in their own extermination. But the point Arendt wants us to see is that those factors are not enough: the first step is the acceptance of the system which separates neighbour from neighbour, which establishes that some human beings are more valuable than others and that, therefore, there should be different treatment, different laws, different railway destinations.

That is the reason, among others, that Arendt can point out that the usual system of dealing with murder—arraigning the person who actually carried out the deed—is in this case of state crime inoperable in the usual way, because: "in general the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hand" (Arendt 247). Those people far away from the actual crime, by their individual decisions, set in motion the classification system and therefore the very thought process which, if it doesn't actually carry about the murder, makes it possible, perhaps even inevitable.

Arendt pays tribute to those countries which successfully resisted the implementation of the Nazi extermination program: Denmark, Bulgaria, and Italy. She makes it clear how such successful resistance worked: the countries either flatly refused to accept the classification system (like Denmark) or they simply sabotaged it, making the differentiation unworkable. And once they did that, the Nazi officials were, in effect, powerless. More than that, they began to question their uncritical allegiance to that system of thinking. What's important about these examples is that the process of evil was stopped at its first appearance—in the moral differentiation of people according to certain defined groups.

We have talked a good deal in LBST 401 about classification systems and the way they affect understanding. Arendt sees in the Eichmann story (both in his life and in his trial) an object lesson of the dangers of classification systems in politics. As a Kantian she will admit no compromise with the term "human community" or "human being" and she quite rightly sees that attempts to subdivide can lead to the most horrible crimes committed without a pause to reflect.

So one point she wants to stress is that we must beware of such classification systems. We must as individuals recognize our responsibility to the human community. When she talks about the banality of evil at the end of her book, and refers to the lack of imagination and the thoughtlessness at the heart of Eichmann's "evil," what she means, above all, is the inability to perceive this responsibility or the ease with which people get seduced from this awareness in pursuit of social goals like promotion or approval.

One important corollary which she does not explicitly make in her book, although many of her examples bring the point out, is the banality of goodness. That is, she provides examples from many areas of a common refusal to accept the classification system, of the refusal to treat human beings as somehow less than oneself. Here again, the key first step, from which all the others flow, is the refusal to let one's perceptions of others become perception of the Other, the Different, the Person Officially Defined as Undesirable. Not all such efforts were successful in large heroic terms, but, and this is a key point for her, each one made an important difference. So in her narrative people like Anton Schmidt and Georgi Dimitrov, otherwise unremarkable people, emerge quite rightly as heroes. And that is precisely the reason why the high officials of the Vatican and many others emerge as such contemptible villains.

Collective Guilt

And how do people get seduced by these classification systems and their consequences?  Arendt makes clear that one important feature which contributes to the seduction of the individual's moral awareness is the compliance of everyone else. After the Wannasee Conference, where the Final Solution was openly proposed, debated, and agreed to by the cream of German civil service (a meeting which took only an hour and a half), Eichmann correctly concluded that no one opposed the idea. Who was he to stand up to all these superior types?  This is not a matter of obeying orders. It's a matter of the moral climate of a professional culture.

Arendt wants us to understand as clearly as possible the consequences of a refusal to speak out or to walk away. Qui s'excuse, s'accuse. The most damning sentence in the entire book for me is one that probably most people pass over without remarking anything special. It is this (in a discussion of the deportations of the Jews): "but the population at large obviously could not have cared less." Many of the Nazis themselves were understandably worried about how their own population, which had actively protested the mistreatment of the mentally deficient, would react to the treatment of the Jews. One of the most confident about how the clergy, the universities, the medical profession, and the educated middle class would endorse Nazi policy (or at least not oppose it) was Adolf Hitler. He was right.

For Arendt anything which tends to weaken this awareness of our immediately moral and political responsibilities is potentially a perversion of justice. Let me cite one particular example. In the years of the Eichmann trial, there was much talk of the collective guilt of the German people. I was a student at Heidelberg during the early 1960's immediately after the Eichmann trial, and I can remember going to lectures in which die Schuldfrage was endlessly debated. Our professors, all of whom had been educated and started their professional careers during the Nazi years, had much to tell us about their difficulties. And one could sympathize with the very real difficulties they faced as their classes filled up with students wearing swastikas.

Still, one wondered why they had not just turned their backs and walked out the door the moment their Jewish colleagues were sent packing or the day the state demanded a loyalty oath. Some would deflect the questions aimed at them personally to talk of the collective guilt of the German people.

Arendt has nothing but contempt for those who would seek to explain this phenomenon by some notion of collective German guilt. It may be all very well, she indicates, for young Germans to stand up and talk about the collective guilt they have inherited from their ancestors and so on. To her this is simply a cheap moral evasion, designed to relieve particular feelings without challenging the moral sensibility in a significant way. There is no meaning to collective guilt in that sense.

What Arendt means is that guilt is an individual matter. There may indeed be many people in the community, including our community, who deserve to feel very guilty about actions from their own past. But the concept that I share a guilt for other people's actions, that is, for events in which I was in no way involved, is false. What I do have is not guilt but a moral responsibility for justice. That means that I have a responsibility to the community to fight wrongdoing or, at the least, not to perpetuate it, not to beat my own breast for some notion of collective guilt.

This is a matter of the highest importance. Arendt is speaking, most pointedly, of Germany, where, amid all the cries of collective guilt in the 1960's, there were many very guilty individuals who were untouched by the judicial process and, more importantly, who were allowed to go free because there was no strong demand from the community for their arraignment. What point is there in agonized expression of collective guilt combined with an abdication of political responsibility for prosecuting those who are publicly known to be guilty of terrible crimes?

Those young German men and women who every once in a while—on the occasion of all the Diary of Anne Frank hubbub and of the Eichmann trial-treat us to hysterical outbreaks of guilt feelings are not staggering under the burden of the past, their fathers' guilt; rather, they are trying to escape from the pressure of very present and actual problems into a cheap sentimentality. (251)

This is, incidentally, a lesson of particular importance to us. Today it is fashionable for those defending the environment or the native people to invoke concepts of the collective guilt of some group—the capitalists, our ancestors, General Custer, and so on. From Arendt's text we should, I think, draw the important lesson, that such talk is simply rhetorical posturing (except for those who really do carry a moral guilt, and they should be voluntarily delivering themselves up for judgement), especially when it helps to conceal from us or enable us to evade our present responsibility to deal with present injustice.

In one respect, Arendt's treatment of Denmark, Italy, and Bulgaria—the countries which resisted the Nazi extermination program—is in some ways misleading (or at the very least incomplete). Because the real story there (following Arendt's own priorities) is not that the Danes, the Bulgarians, or the Italians were, as a group, better than anyone else. Arendt goes to great lengths to show that that sort of thinking is very dangerous. And I personally doubt if collectively qualitative statements like that have much meaning. What happened in Denmark, Italy, and Bulgaria is that particular individuals—particular Danes, Italians, and Bulgarians-confronted with the usual requests from the Nazi bureaucrats, decided that they would not go along. It is not a matter of cultural natures (although such traditions may play an important part in individual decisions); the key idea throughout Arendt is that the best defence against totalitarian bureaucratic horror is individual courage, example of moral responsibility which inspire and which, as Arendt points out, can spread. The bureaucracy requires compliance; a rational bureaucracy bent on state evil gets compliance only if most of the individuals it needs to carry out the work resign their moral responsibility. There may be all sorts of reason why people resign their responsibility and such acts of resignation may indeed be common. That does not make them right; that does not make them just.

Let me add, by way of a conclusion to this first point, that I am fully in agreement with Arendt. And that is why I have strong reservations about "official" multiculturalism and the idea of an officially sanctioned mosaic. Cultural diversity and "official" multiculturalism may make an attractive tree in the cultural garden of Eden, but the snake in the garden is busy categorizing and classifying differences, so that Adam and Eve may more quickly forget that above and beyond diversity is a higher priority, the universal demands of a common humanity.

And I would suggest that, in our discussions of this book, we must be careful not to ourselves fall into this same difficulty, by explaining away difficult questions by reference to particular groups and their behaviour—the Jews, Germans, Poles, Catholics, and so on. Such classification, in Arendt's argument, deflects attention from the essential guardian of or threat to justice in the community: the particular actions of human individuals.

The Importance of Precedent

Arendt's second important point, which arises directly from her preoccupation with individual responsibilities to the human community, is that the Eichmann trial failed properly to recognize the complexity of the legal issues it was dealing with. The final chapters of the book may seem to some readers like something of an anti-climax, for there Arendt seems to be (from a cursory look) engaging in legal nit-picking. After all, if Eichmann was guilty and if the court reached that decision and sentenced him accordingly, then why quibble about the particular laws, jurisdictions, precedents, and so on which made the process possible?  That view is understandable enough, but it represents a failure to appreciate why Arendt wants to explore the Eichmann trial in the first place.

First, Arendt wants us to recognize that what happened in Germany was not a crime against the Jews. It was crime against the human community. The function of justice, she points out, is not to avenge the victims; it is to protect the human community. To forget this (for whatever political motive) is to make sure that we will be less able to deal with such things again. For if Eichmann's crime was only against the Jews, then what stake do I have in it? By an extension of this logic, what legal stake or obligation do I have concerning any repetition of the crime, if it does not touch my community?

This, too, is a question of classification. If Eichmann's crime, however immense, is a crime against the Jews only (one justification for setting the trial in Israel), then I, as a non-Jew, have no particular stake in it. After all, by definition, he did not hurt me. This form of thinking, Arendt argues, is particularly injurious, especially in the sorts of crimes exemplified by Eichmann.

Arendt goes to great lengths to argue that "genocide" is a fundamentally new crime (new in the sense that for the first time we are called upon to judge it in a court of law, not new in the sense that it has never happened before). What makes it new is that it is a crime against the human community in total, not against a particular smaller compartment (like the Jews). Israel's refusal to recognize this point creates for Arendt an unfortunate example and represents the loss of a precious opportunity.

It's unfortunate because it will happen again. And we will lack the measures for dealing with it. For Arendt, the great failure of the Eichmann trial (like the Nuremberg

Trials) is that they failed to strengthen International Law. Why should this matter?  Arendt explains as follows:

It is essentially for this reason: that the unprecedented, once it has appeared, may become a precedent for the future, that all trials touching upon "crimes against humanity" must be judged according to a standard that is today still an "ideal."  If genocide is an actual possibility of the future, then no people on earth--least of all, of course, the Jewish people, in Israel or elsewhere--can feel reasonably sure of its continued existence without the help and the protection of international law. Success or failure in dealing with the hitherto unprecedented can lie only in the extent to which this dealing may serve as a valid precedent on the road to international penal law. (273)

If, that is, we want justice in the full human community, we must not, as happened in Jerusalem, serve the interests of particular sections of that community, no matter how sympathetic we might feel towards that section of the community. To the extent that the Nazi crimes were committed against Jews, it was appropriate that the trial be held in Jerusalem. To the extent that the Nazi crimes were committed against the human community, the refusal of the Israeli authorities to move the trial out of Jerusalem or to admit an International Tribunal into Jerusalem was a serious mistake. It may have served the political interests of the Ben Gurion government, the deep need of the Jewish survivors for a public hearing, for a formal justification, the interests of many other countries (including Germany, France, Argentina, Canada, and many others) which had shown great reluctance to bring Nazi war criminals to account. But it did not serve justice.



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