Western reflection about human nature and the politics of the human condition began with the sunburst of ancient Greece 2,500 years ago, but it lurched into a new phase 70 years ago with the liberation of the Nazi extermination camps. The Holocaust is the dark sun into which humanity should stare, lest troubling lessons be lost through an intellectual shrug about “the unfathomable.”
Now comes an English translation of a 2011 German book that refutes a 1963 book and rebukes those who refuse to see the Holocaust as proof of the power of the most dangerous things — ideas that denigrate reason. The German philosopher Bettina Stangneth’s “Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer” responds to Hannah Arendt’s extraordinarily and perversely influential “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”
Although, or perhaps because, Arendt was a philosopher, in her report on Israel’s trial of Adolf Eichmann, the organizer of industrialized murder, she accepted the facade Eichmann presented to those who could, and in 1962 would, hang him: He was a little “cog” in a bureaucratic machine. He said he merely “passed on” orders and “oversaw” compliance. Arendt agreed.
She called Eichmann “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” lacking “criminal motives,” “a buffoon,” “a typical functionary” who was “banal” rather than “demonic” because he was not “deep,” being essentially without “ideology.” Arendt considered Eichmann “thoughtless,” partly because, with a parochialism to which some intellectuals are prone, she could not accept the existence of a coherent and motivating ideological framework that rejected, root and branch, the universality of reason, and hence of human dignity.
It was odd for Arendt to suppose that the pride Eichmann took in his deportations — especially of the more than 430,000 Hungarian Jews when the war was already lost and even Heinrich Himmler, hoping for leniency, was urging it for the Jews — was merely pride in managerial virtuosity. Arendt, however, did not have, as Stangneth has had, access to more than 1,300 pages of Eichmann’s writings and taped musings among Argentina’s portion of the Nazi diaspora, before Israeli agents kidnapped him in 1960.
Eichmann was proudly prominent in preparations for the “final solution” even before the Wannsee Conference (Jan. 20, 1942) formalized it. “His name,” Stangneth notes, “appeared in David Ben-Gurion’s diary only three months after the start of the war” in September 1939. On Oct. 24, 1941, a newspaper published by German exiles in London identified Eichmann as leader of a “campaign” of “mass murder.”
“I was an idealist,” he told his fellow exiles, and he was. In obedience to the “morality of the Fatherland that dwells within,” a.k.a. the “voice of blood,” his anti-Semitism was radical because it was ideological. Denying that all individuals are created equal entailed affirming the irremediable incompatibility of groups, which necessitated a struggle to settle subordination and extermination.
“There are,” Eichmann wrote, “a number of moralities.” But because thinking is national, no morality is universal. Only war is universal as the arbiter of survival. So, Stangneth writes, “Only thinking based on ethnicity offers a chance of final victory in the battle of all living things.”
Eichmann, a premature postmodernist, had a philosophy to end philosophizing. To him, Stangneth says, “philosophy in the classical sense, as the search for transcultural categories” was absurd. She says his ideology was “the fundamental authorization for his actions.”
In 1996, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust” argued that Germany was saturated with “eliminationist anti-Semitism” that produced much voluntary participation in genocide. This made Hitler a mere product and trigger of cultural latency. But in 1992, Christopher Browning in “Ordinary Men,” a study of middle-aged German conscripts who became willing mass murderers, had noted that the murders of millions of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge and tens of millions of Chinese by Mao’s Cultural Revolution could not be explained by centuries of conditioning by a single idea.
Martin Amis’s new novel “The Zone of Interest” — set in Auschwitz, it is a study of moral vertigo — contains a lapidary afterword in which Amis abjures “epistemological rejection,” the idea that an explanation of Hitler and his enthusiasts is impossible. An explanation begins with Eichmann’s explanation of himself, rendered in Argentina.
Before he donned his miniaturizing mask in Jerusalem, Eichmann proclaimed that he did what he did in the service of idealism. This supposedly “thoughtless” man’s devotion to ideas was such that, Stangneth says, he “was still composing his last lines when they came to take him to the gallows.”