February 13, 2007

Reading Arendt Reading Eichmann

In his opening remarks during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Israel's Attorney General Gideon Hausner paints a vivid picture of Eichmann as a beast operating with instinctual, predatory passions. He killed with malice, operating with hatred from his marrow, and even with his bare hands did he show himself an enemy of mankind and the Jewish people (part of the accusations is that he once strangled a Hungarian Jewish boy). He was, understandably in the state's view, no longer human.

Certainly the chief complaints about Hannah Arendt's analysis of the 1961 trial is her ability to read Eichmann against the grain of this portrait. Her rendering in Eichmann in Jerusalem does not confirm the monster Hausner offered. It is not that of a beast. In one of the frequent sentences of pique, she suggests that one could likely see him as a "clown"; but even if that is allowed one must, against all revulsion, take seriously his actions and reasoning. And so she thinks seriously about the bureaucrat and "specialist" who severed all ties to what one would normally call the inhibitions of "conscience."

One of the great virtues of her work comes from the refusal to yield to a central expectation that such a horrendous "crime" must emerge from someone who was not "human," or if human, clearly knew, on some fundamental level, that he had committed crimes. It is precisely that refusal, however, which has set her at odds with so many critics, bringing consistent condemnation and confusion. For many, it is simply unfathomable that on the surface of things, Eichmann may have been less than his impact. What they cannot likewise understand is how he represents, in this way, something just as chilling as an openly crude anti-Semite like Julius Streicher.

What confounds so many is that Eichmann appears in the glass booth at once without malice and without remorse. To occupy both positions simultaneously, to present both faces, in the wake of the Holocaust he helped carry out, seems absolutely impossible. For the Israeli court, both positions could only be lies. Both the state prosecution and the judges saw in Eichmann was the decision to participate in spite of what must have been a conscience telling him "Thou shall not kill." This, however, relies on a notion of conscience that remains in all cases steadfast and "unequivocal." The insistence on such universals, says Arendt, "signifies a deliberate refusal to take notice of the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century" (148). That deliberate refusal continues today.

What Arendt saw in that impossible combination of Eichmann is itself two-fold. First was his absolute identification with the genocidal language of the Reich. In Arendt's reading, National Socialism provided "language rules" ideal for someone like Eichmann, who steeped in cliche and formulaic expressions--language as technical assembly--readily escaped "thought." Critiques of Arendt have pounced on this description of Eichmann inability to think and tried to show him as cunning and therefore dangerous. For instance, in his 2005 piece for Commentary, Hillel Halkin says of Eichmann, "far from seeming mindless, he strikes one as impressively capable of analyzing what he is asked; of detecting its hidden traps; of breaking it down into its components; or rearranging these in new sequences that suit the responses he wishes to give; and of replying in complex and sometimes long-winded sentences over which he keeps full logical and syntactical control." None of that refutes Arendt's claim that Eichmann could not think the position of another. This is not to say that Eichmann was completely void, or a mute brute; rather, that he was encapsulated in formulas that, however re-arranged, foreclosed the possibility for understanding.

Secondly, she emphasizes that Eichmann's atrocities were sustained by a complex set of cultural and societal relations which existed before and during the destruction of European Jews. The hierarchy of leaders and their communities, the privileging of the "esteemed" at the expense of the stateless newcomer (as with the Ostjuden), or military veterans earning exceptions not granted to "the recently nationalized" all endorsed the same logic as that of the camp selection. "[Eichmann's] conscience was indeed set at rest when he saw the zeal and eagerness with which 'good society' everywhere reacted as he did. he did not need to 'close his ears to the voice of conscience,' the [court's] judgment has it, not because he has none, but because his conscience spoke with a 'respectable voice,' with the voice of respectable society around him" (126). Troubling enough was Arendt's willingness to name that appeasing voice "conscience." Worse was her integration of the Jewish Councils' actions with an appraisal of Eichmann.

She adds that his perverse devotions to the concepts of obedience and murderous laws further worked to armor him from recognizing the malignancy of his actions. Arendt shows that it was far more than the argument that he was simply following orders. Instead, by claiming his fulfillment of his "duty" and his "oath" to the "law" as it came from the Fuhrer, Eichmann was not saying he had been compelled against his will, but that he had given his will a new name, allowing it to be subsumed by the concept of obedience. It was through this volatile mix that the assumed inner voice of conscience in someone like Eichmann was smothered, choked to death by "respectable society" and the moral and legal collapse of his nation.

For Arendt, this more than just a diagnosis. As a "report" it collects a certain constellation of related claims and observations. The problem was how to judge Eichmann (and anyone else) so immune to the consequences of actions taken. Eichmann in Jerusalem is a book, therefore, that performs an inquiry not only into the subject Eichmann but into judgment itself in the wake of the Holocaust. She is in search of grounds for a judgment to come.

Is such an approach to Eichmann a form of exculpation? Is this "humanizing"--a dubious description of Arendt's portrait--designed to dilute the burdens of Eichmann's responsibility? It is impossible to engage truly Arendt's reading of Eichmann and come to such a conclusion, and yet it continues to happen. For those of good will, like students coming to Arendt and Eichmann for the first time, such a reaction stems from habits of differentiation that make Eichmann so vexing. If he was incapable of "thought" that does not mean that he was not acting in such a way as to be beneath judgment, only that the judgment must try and account for the particularities of Eichmann's numbed Kadavergeshoram.

For those who ought to know better, political necessities and ideological blindness lead to unnecessary distortions. Consider the tortured responses of the much-cited Walter Laqueur, who was involved in the early '60s U.S. response to Arendt when Eichmann in Jerusalem first appeared. He published his History of Zionism in 1972 and certainly had time to re-think his initial responses. But in 1997 he remains troubled by the status of Arendt. In "The Arendt Cult: Hannah Arendt as Political Commentator," Laqueur tries to offer a thorough cataloging of Arendt's mistakes and lapses. Included in these is the idea that she paved the way for a functionalist interpretation of the Holocaust. This interpretation eschews the notion of German "evil" for a universal explanation of blameless mechanisms. Such an argument, Laqueur says, could only find a home with Germans seeking solace and what he calls, with apparent seriousness, "the moral relativism of the postmodern movement [sic]" in the United States.

By diminishing Eichmann, says Laqueur, Arendt "put the blame for the mass murder at the door of all kind of middle-level bureaucrats." As a consequence, "the evildoer disappears, or becomes so banal as to be hardly worth our attention, and is replaced by all kind of underlings with a bookkeeper mentality with a bookkeeper mentality. Hitler turns into a boring Spiessburger." So according to Laqueur, Arendt's refusal to follow Hausner's lead was an attempt to blanch the whole question: shifting "blame" downward to the underling so that the crime no longer warrants our attention, the rot of this displacement then ascending up the hierarchy so that even Hitler appears guilty of nothing more than bourgeois pretensions. Such a reading is absolutely and appallingly absurd. But it is not, sadly, surprising.

Doesn't Laqueur's position bring us back to Arendt's aim at hierarchies such as those that comfortably categorize the crimes of underlings as "hardly worthy of our attention"? One of the aspects she finds so repulsive in Eichmann is precisely his slavish devotions to matters of privilege and status, positions and roles that are thoroughly social if also sometimes bureaucratic. As she writes of such categories:

"While the veteran and other privileged groups are no longer mentioned [in Germany], the fate of 'famous' Jews is still deplored at the expense of all others. There are more than a few people, especially among the cultural elite, who still publicly regret the fact that Germany sent Einstein packing, without realizing that it was a much greater crime to kill little Hans Cohn from around the corner, even though he was no genius" (134).