Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) is one of those Nazis who received lots of attention, both before and after his death. Recently, that attention has been rekindled.
After multiple efforts with the German authorities, Israeli filmmaker Yariv Mozer gained access to the “Eichmann tapes,” –interviews he gave in 1957 to a Dutch journalist and Nazi sympathizer (when Adolf Eichmann was living and working in Argentina under a false name). The tapes had been archived for more than fifty years. Mozer got a documentary out of them, which is still unavailable in these parts. But we already know the gist of what Eichmann said, which may prompt the revisiting of Hannah Arendt’s controversial “banality of evil” concept.
Herein, I associate banality with the “follower” mentality. Followers, particularly those who respond to, and worship, charismatic leaders, are indispensable for the fulfillment of those leaders’ schemes. The plot thickens, because leaders have relied on ideologies that pretend to explain it all and provide an infallible blueprint for political action and societal transformation –always set in a polar, good versus evil narrative (which is not exactly a trope foreign to politics).
Moreover, there are instances in which evil springs and has sprung, from radical confidence in such all-encompassing ideologies. That confidence can amount to hubris, as it discards what, for me and many others, is an unavoidable truism: that humans are fallible, and that the path to knowledge is a piecemeal, intergenerational process.
The Nazi regime showed that, conditioned by demagogy, propaganda, and bad ideas, humans can be and do evil. Nazism was evil, not merely because it was an incarnation of the folly of absolute faith in a set of third-rate ideas of racial superiority, national destiny, and a cosmic battle for survival, redemption, and domination; but because, in implementing that ideology, it engaged in despicable acts, including the mass murder of human beings. In such a scenario, it is irrelevant whether those who commit evil are banal, that is, sheepish followers and enablers; or are charismatic, charming, display leadership, or are somehow out of the ordinary.
Hubris is defined as “exaggerated pride or self-confidence.” It is consubstantial with conceit and arrogance. Implementing the Nazi ideology was the kind of extreme hubris –and reckless disregard for life, morality, and decency– that may justify wondering whether it can be equated with folly. By folly, I mean behavior that displays a lack of good sense or judgment.
Given those definitions, the evil deeds that are demanded from, and justified by, ideologies –by allegedly infallible and all-explaining ideas– cannot only be hubristic, but foolish also. Mass murders are at the top of that list of evil deeds.
Arendt based her assessment of Eichmann, in great part, on the former SS officer’s own testimony at his 1961 trial. That testimony featured a self-serving and untruthful depiction of his supposedly modest role, and of his alleged lack of political and antisemitism motives. In the 1957 tapes, however, Eichmann is heard painting a different picture, admitting to his hatred for the Jews and his satisfaction at having contributed to the defeat and near-annihilation of such an “enemy.”
Some may argue that, since the interviewer, Dutch national William Essen, was also a former member of the SS and a friend of Eichmann’s, the pleaser and joiner that Eichmann was likely played a part in him exaggerating his role and feelings. But the facts point in a different direction. Even in the absence of the tapes, it has been well-established that Eichmann’s actions against the Jewish populations of Germany and the territories occupied by the Nazi war machine preceded and followed 1942, when he participated in the infamous Wannsee conference.
Eichmann’s trial, and Arendt’s musings in her articles for The New Yorker –made into a book titled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963)– have raised the question of whether Eichmann was an ordinary man in an evil regime, and hence less culpable than the likes of Hitler, Himmler, or Heidrich; or whether he, like Hitler and the others, was evil himself. Mostly, Arendt invites us to reflect on whether the most ordinary and seemingly unmotivated, directionless, and unoriginal person can become an important cog in the machine implementing murderous policies of genocidal proportions. That is, whether evil can spring from “banality.”
The Spanish language dictionary of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española defines “banal” as “trivial; common; unsubstantial.” The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines the term as “lacking originality, freshness, or novelty.” The online version of Merriam-Webster offers the following definition: “lacking in qualities that make for spirit and character.” The synonyms and related terms it suggests are: flat, insipid, uninspiring, unrewarding, bland, boring, lifeless, monotonous, pedestrian, uninteresting, common, ordinary, and unexceptional.
According to Arendt, Eichmann’s trial showed that evil could be a consequence of humans’ all too frequent inability “to think,” i.e., the inability to feature a modicum of compassion and empathy by putting themselves, in fancy, in the shoes of others. I believe that such an argument was, and remains, strong, even if Eichmann’s trial testimony and demeanor were a façade –and he just embraced ideas and interests which trumped compassion, knowing that his actions were leading to the murder of millions of innocent men, women, and children.
The Israeli prosecution team that had the burden of establishing Eichmann’s culpability knew of the tapes but failed to obtain them. As it turned out, the tapes were not needed to find Eichmann guilty as charged. The evidence was compelling enough. Moreover, Eichmann’s self-serving version of the facts and of his state of mind just didn’t add up.
Arendt agreed with the judgment while stressing that evil can be compatible with mediocrity, and with want of imagination and of a modicum of critical thinking. I find it impossible to argue with that. Then, there are those who display intellectual prowess, but believe in authoritarianism and are attracted by polarizing “us versus them” mentalities. In Nazi Germany, Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt come to mind. But, as mentioned at the outset, I argue hereinafter that evil is also the most extreme manifestation, not only of mediocrity and ordinariness, but of human folly in the form of hubristic attachment to, and implementation of, a supposedly infallible ideology.
Eichmann was convicted by the Israeli court, and he was also condemned by public opinion. It seems that no one gave credit to the claims he uttered in his defense: either that he did not know that the people transported by train (transportation organized by Eichmann) would meet their deaths; or, even if he knew of that likelihood, that he “merely” organized the transportation; that he himself did not kill a soul. Arendt did not give them credit either, but what struck her was the mediocre man uttering those “explanations,” belying a person with no depth, no intellect, and no imagination. He also displayed a lack of remorse and a substantial dose of self-pity.
Of course, one response to Eichmann’s arguments is that pretending to dissociate yourself from a criminal, genocidal enterprise –to which you contributed– by claiming that you did not actually “pull the trigger(s),” is disingenuous at best. Moreover, when confronted with the instances in which he was present at places where atrocities were being committed, he responded with implausible excuses and nonsense.
Eichmann was indeed an unremarkable man, whose childhood and early adulthood promised nothing out of the ordinary and the dreary. He did not finish high school or technical school, and he worked at jobs that left him feeling unfulfilled. Before joining the Nazi Party in 1932, Eichmann had not discovered having himself some special talent or other. He had no political connections, nor political ambitions. He became a Nazi at the urging of a friend who looked down on him (Nazi lawyer and criminal Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who was tried, convicted, and hanged at Nuremberg).
It was in the SS that Eichmann found a home, and discovered –more importantly, others discovered– that he was dependable, obedient, and good at organizing and complex logistics. Those qualities proved useful to the regime in the implementation of policies directed at harassing, uprooting, and later exterminating European Jewry. But, in essence, Eichmann was a follower, with little imagination or initiative.
What about more charismatic, driven men with leadership qualities at the upper echelons of the Third Reich? Who of those Nazi leaders were “remarkable” or “charismatic”? One would think, for instance, that Hermann Göring was a visibly charismatic, cunning member of Hitler’s inner circle. What about Hitler himself? Was the Führer an extraordinary, talented, charismatic man? That is, what was it that made him stand above the fray?
Like Eichmann, Adolf Hitler had an unremarkable childhood and adolescence. Displaying no interest in academic subjects, Hitler’s only hobbies were drawing and, later, painting. As a young man, he enjoyed the theater, particularly Wagner’s operas, which stimulated his imagination, his pride in Germanness, and his delusions of grandeur. Hitler liked books, but his reading list was not remarkable or diverse. And he was a dreamer, not a doer. Daydreaming was almost all he did. Most things did not interest him.
Today, Hitler probably would have been diagnosed today with ADD (or ADHD), attention deficit for short.
The Adult Adolf Hitler
During his late teens and early twenties, Hitler was a drifter, mostly penniless and often homeless, who was rejected twice for admission to the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts because of his want for artistic talent. The deficit of talent itself, and his megalomania, did not allow him to recognize his limited visual artistry.
During his vagabond years in Vienna, Hitler barely supported himself by painting postcards that another man sold to tourists visiting the capital of the then-Austro-Hungarian Empire. He only found something of a home in the German Army, after he volunteered for conscription in 1914, seeing action during World War I. As a soldier, he was also unremarkable, although brave, working mostly as a courier dispatching messages between headquarters and the battlefront.
Although filled with nationalist sentiments and Pan-German ideas, when the war was over, Hitler’s mind was arguably still up for grabs. Given his proclivities, he was attracted to and influenced by, the most extreme nationalistic, racist politics; and in post-war Munich, there happened to be operating people who had enough of those to offer.
Hitler had charisma, particularly as an orator. He also seemed to be able to display charm, although he also was irascible and intolerant. Along with his oratory prowess, he was a good actor. Of course, many in Germany –not enough, it seems–saw through him all the way, thus preventing themselves from being fooled by such a thug. Then, there was Hitler’s determination to have his way. His persistence was mixed with a remarkable impatience. He wanted things to happen right away.
Evil as Stemming from Hubris
It is true that those few “at the top,” who manipulate the many, do need others –including, of course, “the masses”– to accomplish their goals. The “leaders” often rely on propaganda, on spreading seemingly plausible lies and demagogy, which in turn indoctrinates the many who are ripe to be mobilized in order to commit plain-old evil deeds (or to tolerate them while being credulous sheep or interested enablers simply).
A version of that kind of evil is currently taking place in the United States, where the Republican Party has become an evil organization that misdirects the population and fails to identify –for obvious self-interest reasons– the culprits of the current societal breakdown: The oligarchs and the capitalist system itself. It is interesting to notice that, in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, the Nazi Party was never a “mainstream” party. The GOP was such a party –but it has become a rogue organization, with an authoritarian and demagogic ethos, intent on destroying what is left of pluralism and reasonableness.
In capitalist modernity, too many of us have turned out to be much less than we should aspire to become. Instead, we have become either nihilist apathetic shadows, or religious fanatics, or followers of mass movements intent on destroying whatever is left of societal pluralism, substantial justice, and creative beauty. Arendt herself proposed that our acceptance and implementation of Enlightenment ideas that treated politics as a means to the ends of private contentment and economic prosperity have yielded a mass of humans with no identities, with a chronic malaise and unfulfillment that makes them relatively easy prey of totalitarian politics.
Indeed, neoliberal capitalism has shown to be an ideology seeking to justify greed and the annihilation of social bonds –thus showing hubris of its own, particularly in the face of the disintegration of social ties and solidarity, and of climate and ecological degradation.
Meanwhile, the populations of capitalist countries have retreated from politics, conditioned to find contentment in consumerism and celebrities, while failing miserably to achieve the desired and elusive sense of well-being pledged by mass advertising.
In Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges writes that the current United States of America is “a culture dominated by images and slogans,” which “seduces those who are functionally literate but who make a choice not to read.” Hedges also asserts that “not since the Soviet and fascist dictatorships … has the content of information been as skillfully and ruthlessly controlled and manipulated. Propaganda has become a substitute for ideas and ideology. Knowledge is confused with how we are made to feel.” All that, and more is “fertile ground for a new totalitarianism.”
Hubristic leaders need banal followers, while Adolf Eichmann may not even be the best example of the “banality of evil.” Yes, before joining the Nazi Party, he was as ordinary as any German who, like him, was alienated from the public sphere and thus vulnerable to the Nazi Party qua mass movement offering self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and a narrative of national redemption and triumph. But he later became an insider; he became privy to the behind-the-curtains dealings of the regime while working as an SS officer and top bureaucrat. In analyzing Eichmann, that transformation should be significant.
Eichmann was not one of those sadistic guards who tortured fellow humans at the concentration camps, just for kicks. He was present at the early 1942 meeting (the “Wannsee Conference”), in which he and others pondered how the “Final Solution to the Jewish question” would be achieved; that is, how they would exterminate the European Jews. But, before that meeting, he had already transitioned from being a patron at the restaurant to someone who was in the kitchen doing the cooking.
That is, Eichmann became an insider, so he could not plausibly claim ignorance about the genocidal policies of the Third Reich. Nor could he plausibly claim that he did not participate both in the conspiracy and implementation stages of the “Final Solution.” His position in the hierarchy of the Nazi regime also made him much more of a stakeholder than he would have been if he had stayed on the sidelines, as an ordinary subject of the Reich.
On the other hand, Eichmann’s Führer lacked a natural talent and focus, and certainly lacked the informal and formal education, to become a deep thinker. Hitler was a fanatic with many half-baked, bad ideas about history, race, and sociopolitical processes. He was also consumed by his grandiose dreams of glory. If he was smarter than Eichmann –or more talented; more charismatic; more cunning; more motivated, or more megalomaniacal and narcissistic– he did not know more about reality than Eichmann did.
Part of Hitler’s appeal lay in his fanaticism, in his certainty, in being mesmerized by his own blind faith in the rightfulness of his ideology. Hitler and Germany: the mesmerized one hypnotized his audience, as part of a charismatic leader-follower relationship. In Narcissism and Politics, Jerrold M. Post expounds that such type of relationship is made possible by the convergence of audiences “consumed by doubt and uncertainty,” and by leaders who elicit admiration, and even fervor, with their certainty and ability “to convey a sense of grandeur, omnipotence, and strength.” For those leaders, “preserving grandiose feelings of strength and omniscience does not allow acknowledgment of weakness and doubt.” Moreover, adds Post, they rely on “either-or categorization, with the charismatic leaders on the side of the angels” as part of their “good versus evil, strength versus weakness polar absolutism.”
If to be reached at all, the answers to questions such as how to best organize human polities, and how to maximize societal welfare and justice, require first that we acknowledge human fallibility. Since humans are fallible, we need to engage in constant experimentation, in order to learn from trial and error, as part of an open-ended, intergenerational effort. The demands for “certainty” and for a blissful “here and now” are narcissistic, mindless pretenses. They are also dangerous.
Hitler thought he had all the answers, which may be the utmost form of temerity and hubris. Evil may or may not appear in banal garbs. But it may very well be that the implementation of a purportedly infallible ideology –featuring outright evil deeds like, say, mass murder– is the most extreme and unfortunate manifestation of human folly.
Roberto Ariel Fernández practicó la abogacía por 27 años. Es autor de 6 artículos publicados en revistas jurídicas de Puerto Rico, y de un libro, El constitucionalismo y la encerrona colonial de Puerto Rico (2004). Está trabajando en su segundo libro, con el título tentativo de Puerto Rico: Historia, Cultura, y Parálisis. Educado en el sistema educativo público y en la Universidad de Puerto Rico, tiene un grado de maestría en derecho de George Washington University, en Washington, D.C.