Eichmann Was You But Normal-er

Eichmann in Jerusalem seemed most notable to me for it’s subtitle, A Report on the Banality of Evil. We discussed this in class but I noticed a few passages in the book went undiscussed and so I would like to bring them up here. What was brought up in class was the idea that Banality, as a word, is referring to unoriginality. Some comments being made referenced the fact that while what the Nazi’s did was clearly atrocious and horrible, it is regrettably far from unique in its goals, though it is unprecedented in scope. Certainly this is true and ought to be talked about and dealt with, but something else that was brought up and I think deserves a little more of our time is that this book doesn’t really deal much with the crimes of the Nazi’s as a whole, or as in idea, and deals much more with one man, Eichmann. He is the one who is so unremarkable, so unoriginal. 

Eichmann wasn’t crazy. That’s the problem. He likely wasn’t even unusually malicious. Chapter 2 of the book spends a great deal of time painting a picture of the life of this dull-witted unremarkable desk jockey. He was a mostly unsuccessful man his whole life, who only fell into position because of his family connections, and fell into the National Socialist Party (Nazi’s) more or less the same way. He doesn’t seem to have sought it out, it just sort of happened to him and he went with it. 

Pages 25 and 26 were, for me, the most interesting part of the entire reading. Arendt says

As for base motives, (Eichmann) was quite sure that he was not what he called a…dirty bastard in the depths of his heart.

Eichmann believes, and in fact believes correctly in some sense, that he committed no criminal act, and did the things he did out of no base motives. And what’s more, he isn’t crazy. Arendt goes on on the same pages to say that, 

Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as “normal”…his whole psychological outlook, his attitude towards his wife and children, mother and father, brothers, sisters, and friends, was “not only normal, but most desirable.”

Arendt touches on the significance of this in her epilogue. She states that it is an almost axiomatic principle of modern legal systems that, for a crime to be committed (and therefore punished), there must be on some level the intent to commit a crime. She says on page 277

Where this intent is absent, where, for whatever reasons, even reasons of moral insanity, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong is impaired, we feel no crime has been committed.

Eichmann had no such intent. No such conceptualization that he was doing anything either criminal or morally reprehensible. And as established, he was quite sane. 

The significance of this cannot be overstated. The worst crimes in history were committed by men and women who truly did not believe they were doing anything wrong. Who did so with no malice. How can we hold guilty before the law someone who did not have the desire to commit a crime or the knowledge that they were doing so because in fact, under their laws, they were not? 

And yet we must. 

So a completely normal man, an unoriginal, banal man, not at all unlike you or I, perpetrated in, supported, and carried out the Holocaust. And he did so without any base feelings of rage or hate or malice, and technically committed no crime to do so. That’s hard to deal with.