The “Ordinary” Mass Murderer: Inside The Mind Of A Nazi War Criminal

Image Source: The New Yorker

In 1960, The New Yorker, published a series of articles concerning the trial of Adolf Eichmann written by Hannah Arendt. Later, the articles were compiled into a book titled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt was a German Jew who fled Germany in 1933 in the wake of Hilter’s rise to power. For the next few years, she worked with several Jewish refugee organisations in France. However, in 1941 after the  German military occupation of France, the deportation of foreign Jews had begun and Arendt fled to New York. Arendt’s contributions on the subjects of violence, revolution,  freedom, democracies and modernity have been critical to the shaping of political theory in the 20th century.  However, her examination of the Eichmann trial garnered the most attention. While some found her book inflammatory, others observed Arendt’s characterisation of Eichmann fascinating. 

Adolf Eichmann was a high ranking Nazi Germany officer who played a pivotal role in the implementation of the Final Solution – a euphemism used by Nazi leaders referring to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews during World War II. Eichmann was responsible for the identification, assembly and deportation of more than 1.5 million Jews across Europe. He organised these deportations with the help of Nazi officials referred to as Eichmann-Männer (Eichmann’s men). Along with his cadre, he managed to deport Jews to concentration camps and ghettos. Following the war, American authorities arrested and held him at a detention centre for S.S. officers. However, he escaped and fled to Argentina. In 1960, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad identified and picked him up from Argentina in what became an international incident. He was brought to trial in Israel. Held before a special tribunal of the Jerusalem District Court in 1961, the Eichmann trial was most famously analysed by Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s observations outraged critics because of  her criticism of the Israeli authorities. From describing the role of the Jewish council to the nature of Eichmann’s capture and trial Arendt’s tone- for some- suggested the involvement of the Jewish people in their own mass murder. However, most compelling was her analysis of a new type of mass murderer. Her observations on Eichmann’s psyche were unique. Instead of a malicious, anti-Semitic monster, Arendt saw a man who neither considered the significance of his actions nor accepted responsibility for them. 

Projecting himself as a dutiful bureaucrat, during the trial Eichmann consistently maintained that he did not violate any laws. Without claiming responsibility for the extermination unit, he said, “I couldn’t help myself; I had orders, but I had nothing to do with that business.” “I never claimed not to know about the liquidation,” he testified. “I only said that Bureau IV B4 [Eichmann’s office] had nothing to do with it.” In a mechanical manner, he specifically claimed responsibility for only the transportation of the Jews. In fact, Eichmann professed personal discomfort at hearing about the workings of a gassing installation, “I was horrified. My nerves aren’t strong enough. I can’t listen to such things—such things, without their affecting me.” While describing a particular gassing van in operation he stated, “I didn’t look inside; I couldn’t. Couldn’t! What I saw and heard was enough. The screaming and…I was much too shaken and so on.” Claiming no responsibility for the actual killings he stated that he was simply following orders. The nature of the order did not seem to  bother him. Despite the massive scale of the atrocity committed, Eichmann saw no wrongdoing in his deeds.  The execution of the Final Solution can be defined as evil. For evil is an act which is  “profoundly immoral and wicked.”  From a layman’s perspective, I believe that the murder of 5.5  million Jews can be defined as evil. However, Arendt argues that evil can be thoughtless.  

Eichmann suggests that he was simply following orders. In Kantian philosophy, following questionable orders demonstrates the individual’s lack of rationality. Arendt argues that Eichmann did not possess rationality which would provide him a sense of morality. His lack of reasoning, ultimately causes his immoral behaviour. Arendt claims,  

…Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no  motives at all. And this diligence in itself is no way criminal…[He] merely, to put the matter colloquially never realised what he was doing.” 

In fact, Eichmann’s behaviour also explains the psyche of several other S.S. officers who committed similar crimes. He was not the first Nazi defendant to argue adherence and obedience to the law. The “Just Following Orders” defence is useful because people actually feel disconnected from their actions when they comply with orders, even though they’re committing horrific acts. Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments to determine whether “ordinary” human beings could inflict harm to another person upon orders from an authoritative figure. He concluded that, “In particular, acting under orders caused participants to perceive a distance from outcomes that they themselves caused,” 

Arendt suggests that Eichmann’s character is reinstated during his interrogation with the police. She writes, 

“…[he was] pouring out his heart and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the S.S.  and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted” 

However, Arendt believes that his thoughtlessness was in no way related to stupidity. Despite the fact that Eichmann was aware of his duties in principle, his lack of thought did not make him stupid. Rather she coined the term “banality of evil” to describe his character. Arendt argues that Eichmann was incapable of sympathising with the victims’ suffering. His poor judgement was not to be attributed to his hatred for Jews. In fact, he explicitly claimed that he was not an anti-Semite. Instead, it was the missing internal voice of his mind which resulted in his nonchalance towards his actions. His judgement was suspended precisely because of the absence of the ability to self reflect. If  Eichmann had the ability to self-reflect, he would have been able to exercise his imagination enabling him to imagine his victims’ experiences. 

To sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing.” -Adolf Eichmann  

The Banality of Evil is Arendt’s way of denying Nazism any glory. The glamour with which the  authoritarian regime proclaimed the Aryan race superior is destroyed by Arendt’s claim on the subject of evil. Instead of accepting the actions of Nazi S.S. officers as sinister, she categorises them as banal thoughtless beings with poor judgement. Banal is ultimately “so lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.” 

Deep Dive is a weekly column written by Ashini Jagtiani exploring subjects that have revolutionised the socio-cultural fabric of society. 


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