I am reading Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi who was instrumental in executing the final solution. She is a precise and skillful writer, and is a pleasure to read. The accounts that I have heard about her report of Eichmann’s trial are somewhat misleading. The phrase “evil is banal” has been tossed about to describe Arendt’s take on Eichmann’s character. I don’t find that as the centerpiece of her opinion, actually.
I assume that Jill Lepore’s use of the term “terror” is not careless or histrionic. During times of terror, one follows the rules exactly; even then, one cannot be assured that they will not come for you.
Eichmann is not a monster, in the sense one might name monsters; he is terrifying because of his vacuity. He was proud of his success in rising through the operation; his mother would have been proud of him. He spoke “Amtssprache” or “bureaucratic language.” He would have risen quickly in HHS, or the modern medical sector.
Personally, he was one of the least anti-Semitic Nazi’s whose ideas were ever probed. He personally believed in relocation of Jews to another homeland; he did not suggest genocide. He was working on a bizarre project to relocate European Jews to Madagascar.
However, as a man thoroughly without a conscience, when the Corporate Office decided on the final solution of genocide, well, he was a Company Man. He lived for the praise of his organization, and he earned it. He was efficient, organized and creative in his work.
“Eichmann did not make policy, but acted in an operational capacity.” says Wikipedia. When he was on trial in Jerusalem for war crimes and atrocities, he was proud of his organizational skills, his can-do effort and his great skills in teamwork. A trail of blood for at least a million lives came to his doorstep. But he certainly was not a sadist or a hate-filled man.
He simply seized on a radical new vision – the “creative destruction” offered by greater minds than his at the Wannsee Conference – and went with it.
One ultimate moral wrong is to surrender one’s conscience; another, to surrender one’s mind. Eichmann, apparently born conscience-blind and with little capacity of mind, fit in perfectly to the New Direction.
This is the abyss we are peering over in America today. Elimination of humanity is elimination of humanity. We shall always have amongst us people who are so damaged that they cannot tell unspeakable evil from reasonably hum-drum office operations. But we should not play at monster-games. Someday, the mask may not come off.