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Banality and the Fetish: Reflections on Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem

July 30, 2011

Amidst a great deal of poor coverage of the mass murders in Norway, I found myself particularly annoyed by Henning Mankell’s attempt to shoehorn the event into Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil”.

My immediate reaction to Mankell’s piece (aside from thinking that the Guardian possibly shouldn’t have someone writing on the Eichmann trial who apparently got Eichmann’s actual role wrong – as per the erratum notice at the bottom of the article), was that the Norway killings are precisely not the sort of phemomenon Arendt was trying to theorise in Eichmann. The concept of the “banality of evil” is not meant to cover any killer who happens to appear relatively normal and functional prior to their atrocity – it’s not a catchall concept for people who commit barbarous crimes, whose colleagues later come forward to say that, before all this happened, they seemed remarkably normal.

The concept is instead meant to thematise the problems that the judicial system – with its tacit notions of the personal responsibility of an identifiable perpetrator for crimes against specific victims – runs into when it tries to manage large-scale atrocities that require the distributed actions of hundreds and thousands of people, most of whom are not personally pulling triggers or engaging in direct physical brutality. The Norway atrocities, by contrast, fit relatively well within a conventional conception of justice: the scale of the crime is horrific, but enacted by a definable individual who planned the crime and pulled the trigger himself, and who did not reside in a society whose members casually condone this sort of conduct as a consensus view.

So my initial reaction was to dismiss the article with irritation. But then I started thinking about the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem when the work came out (hat tip Carl). And I became curious how much Arendt’s concept may have been flattened through the general distribution of the catchy turn of phrase “banality of evil” – and also curious how much such a flattening might owe something to the very peculiar case study through which Arendt introduced this term. For, while the Holocaust required the distributed actions of many people to carry out, Eichmann was no minor player, and the level of responsibilty and autonomy he possessed place him more squarely on the terrain for which conventional judicial understandings of responsibility can be said to apply. Eichmann in Jerusalem thus suffers, as a work, from a poor fit between the specific case it examines, and the moral challenge it poses – and this poor fit, I would suggest, leads to many of the passages that have made the work such a lightening rod for generations of critics.

Eichmann’s rank and relative autonomy mean that Arendt needs to work particularly hard to narrate his circumstances in a way that allows her to shoehorn his life story into her theoretical and moral critique of the limitations of conventional judicial categories, when applied to atrocities that rely on distributed mass action. The resultant forced fit, which selectively interprets Eichmann’s history in order to turn him into an example of her general point, often comes across apologistically, as though Arendt is excusing Eichmann and downplaying his role. This leads to a number of incendiary passages and outright empirical misrepresentations, which help to make it difficult for many readers to separate out the valid theoretical challenges posed in the work, from the often offensive steps taken to enable those points to be raised in relation to this unpromising case material.

This problem is exacerbated by that fact that Arendt’s presentation is often deeply sarcastic, and this sarcasm is often expressed in the form of ventriloquising Eichmann’s own perspective on his life and fate, attempting to express the incidents in Eichmann’s life from his point of view. Arendt takes for granted that her readers will understand this presentational device, and will identify with her tacit contempt for Eichmann, rather than with her explicit re-enactment of Eichmann’s own internal stances (which she frequently clearly regards as self-evidently absurd, in how thoroughly disconnected they are from the sense of reality she expects her readers to share). Arendt’s Eichmann is at base a pathetic creature, self-absorbed and utterly unable to anticipate or understand alternative perspectives on his actions. He therefore often narrates himself as the victim of unfortunate circumstances or incomprehensible bad luck. By presenting him in what she takes to be his own voice, Arendt tries to show how thoroughly and (darkly) comically he remains oblivious to the impacts of his actions on others – impacts that Arendt takes for granted her readers will be able to infer.

The form of presentation is meant to shock her readers with their own sense of the obvious things Eichmann is unable to understand – and thus make her case that, while psychologically “normal”, he does not exist in the same universe of moral action that is often presupposed to follow from this sort of “normality”. This sort of strategy is in play, for example, in the following passage, which reports on Eichmann’s relationship to anti-Semitism:

Worse, his was obviously also no case of insane hatred of the Jews, of fanatical anti-Semitism or indoctrination of any kind. He “personally” never had anything whatsoever against Jews; on the contrary, he had plenty of “private reasons” for not being a Jew hater. To be sure, there were fanatic anti-Semites among his closest friends, for instance Lazlo Endre, State Secretary in Charge of Political (Jewish) Affairs in Hungary, who was hanged in Budapest in 1946; but this, according to Eichmann, was more or less in the spirit of “some of my best friends are anti-Semites.”

Alas, nobody believed him. (26)

This passage is written to express aspects of Eichmann’s internal monologue, as the periodic scare quotes and, eventually, the phrase “according to Eichmann” are meant to express. She outlines the reasons the prosecutor, defense and judges find him to be an unreliable narrator. Arendt is critical of their positions but, in the end, she doesn’t believe Eichmann either – and certainly doesn’t expect her readers to conclude that she is endorsing the unique self-understanding that would allow Eichmann to defend himself as not really being an anti-Semite. Many critics have been tone-deaf to this presentational strategy, and have therefore attributed to Arendt the propositional content of passages where she is attempting to present Eichmann’s own self-understanding – a self-understanding from which she distances herself precisely by the heavily sarcastic tone.

Arendt does, though, disagree with the reasons that others conclude that Eichmann’s narrative is unreliable. The prosecution and the defense both have their roles in the judicial play – the prosecutor won’t believe Eichmann because “that was not his job”; the defense doesn’t want to get into the issue of Eichmann’s internal states, but wants to focus instead on the way in which Eichmann was following external orders. But it’s the judges’ reasons for disbelief that interest Arendt in particular.

Arendt has already – with deep sarcasm – presented what she calls the “comedy of the soul experts” – the verdicts of the psychologists and minister who declare Eichmann “normal” and sane, so that he could stand trial. She argues that the judges:

…were too good, and perhaps also too conscious of the foundations of their profession, to admit that an average, “normal” person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong. They preferred to conclude from occasional lies that he was a liar – and missed the greatest moral and legal challenge of the whole case. (26)

Here we get to the heart of the matter: the “greatest moral and legal challenge of the whole case”, for Arendt. That Eichmann’s very “normality”, in the context in which he found himself, was not a foundation for a strong internal sense of “right and wrong”, but was instead precisely what could lead to his inability to distinguish them, what could drive him to commit atrocities because, in Arendt’s paraphrase of his position, what would have bothered his conscience most was “if he had not done what he had been ordered to do – to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and meticulous care” (25).

For Arendt, the judges missed the fact that:

Eichmann was indeed normal insofar as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime.” However, under the conditions of the Third Reich only “exceptions” could be expected to read “normally” [in the sense of maintaining the socially transcendent sense of right and wrong the judges assumed Eichmann must have had all along]. This simple truth of the matter created a dilemma for the judges which they could neither resolve nor escape. (26-27)

Sarcasm and irony can’t be invoked to excuse all of the statements that have drawn down fire from critics. Fundamentally, Arendt’s attempt to shoehorn Eichmann, who held a high level of personal responsibility and autonomy, into a theoretical framework that is best suited for analysing the aggregate effects of distributed actions, resulted in repeated passages that seemed to downplay Eichmann’s role, sometimes while contrastively elevating the roles of others – including, in places, the victims themselves. Even her supporters – and even Arendt herself, in later reflections on the work – have conceded that many passages were deeply problematic. If I am able to return to the book in the future, I might be able to unpack some of its more controversial sections in greater detail, while also further developing the case that the rational core of her argument relates to the distributed consequences of mass action.

But the reason I am writing a post now is less to analyse Arendt’s text, than to put up a brief placeholder to myself about the relationship between the rational core of her argument, and Marx’s conception of the fetish.

I have argued elsewhere that the concept of the fetish relates to the way in which actions can have multiple layers of consequence. Some layers are immediate and easy to perceive, so that most social actors will have some awareness of their responsibility for effecting these immediate consequences that follow from their actions. Some layers, however, are much more indirect and downstream – and may depend on the tandem performance by many other social actors of the same, of other kinds, of social practices. Marx suggests that these downstream consequences are often more difficult to see – he accuses the vulgar political economists of essentially denying they exist, and focusing just on the surface level of the most immediate and striking consequences of our social practices.

Classical political economy, for Marx, does see the downstream consequences – but doesn’t understand how these consequences arise. Its attitude toward them is therefore fatalistic – it adopts a passive relationship to these downstream consequences, “discovering” them, but not approaching them as determinate results of complex networks of social practices whose interactions can be analysed in order to understand how the aggregate result arises.

Marx thinks the complexity of the aggregate process generates so many sticking points – so much experiential flypaper – on which competing theories can get stuck. When stuck, theories fixate on a certain level of consequence, but lose the ability to keep track of other levels. Sometimes, as with vulgar political economy, this can be apologistic and self-serving: it can be in the interests of a particular observer to attend to certain consequences of their actions, but not others. Sometimes it can be closer to a socially-instituted optical illusion: some consequences can be incredibly difficult to see, because other aspects of our social experience are more prominent, and tend to deflect the eye in a different direction.

I mention all of this because one way to express one of the rational cores of Arendt’s argument, is to say that there is a fetish quality to certain kinds of atrocities whose causation relies on distributed mass action. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible for people to understand what they are contributing to, but that it’s easier for many participants to focus on the immediate consequences of their actions – interacting with colleagues, earning a wage, holding down a “respectable” position in society – than on the indirect and aggregate effects which rely on the tandem performance of many other people. It’s easy to rationalise that withholding one small contribution will in any event have little impact on the end result. And, if the impact of withholding your own contribution is so small, the calculus of how much risk to take on, for that small impact, becomes more difficult for those who confront it.

Arendt focuses particularly on the small realm of choice available in totalitarian societies, at least in this work, but the core issue is also presented by the consequences of globally distributed actions in the capitalist world system. We are each of us participants in immediate actions that are not on their face harmful – and may even be, on a local level, morally beneficial. Our actions have consequences, however, beyond this immediate and easily-perceptible layer of experience. Combined with the actions of others, in a complex global network, we make our small contributions to what, in some cases, are horrific end results. How do we think our responsibility for these downstream consequences? What sorts of institutions would be required to prevent this sort of blind, senseless, thoughtless causation of a rolling juggernaut of human tragedy?

Arendt focuses on withdrawal – on the choice to do nothing – as the quintessential moral act of those confronted with a severely limited range of choice. This centres the moral core of the analysis on the internal moral dignity of the individual person. I would focus more on the institutional question: what would be required to make disaggregated social practices more sensitive to horrific downstream consequences – what sorts of institutions do we need to prevent these sorts of horrific downstream consequences from happening?

Apologies that this piece is a bit rough and unfinished – I’m very pressed for time at the moment, but wanted to preserve some very rough thoughts to which I might be able to return more adequately later… This is a difficult work, and a difficult topic, to treat superficially, and what I’ve written risks not communicating the nature and extent of my critique of Arendt’s position. And any abbreviated discussion of atrocity, particularly one oriented to talking about very abstract concerns such as the adequacy of theoretical categories, risks charges of callousness… In spite of these concerns, I’ve decided to post this publicly and hope that I can do better justice to the topic at a later point.

Citations to Arendt from the Penguin Classics edition, 2006.

From → Arendt, Fetish, Marx

  1. John Garvey permalink


    I recently read Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, a novel written just after WWII. It was based, in part, on a true story of a married couple who made and distributed anti-nazi/anti-Hitler postcards across Berlin during the war until they were arrested. It’s a remarkable, and heart-breaking, book. One of its most striking accomplishments is its desciption of the ordinariness of the lives of workers and even Gestapo members. There are also moments of exceptional bravery and tenderness.


  2. Hey John – I’ve been really wanting to read that work – I’ve read about it, but have had so little time for reading recently. Now that my schedule is opening up, I really should look at it…

  3. Hi Nicole,

    You wrote this a while ago, but I recently read Arendt’s book and so will comment now. I think you misread the passage about Eichmann’s anti-Semitism: Arendt is not being sarcastic. In fact, to read that passage as sarcasm undermines the entire book.

    Also, one of the best things Arendt does is explode the myth of “the small realm of choice available in totalitarian societies”. Her discussion of the few places where the Shoah was actively sabotaged – specifically, Denmark – revealed just how much choice Europeans did have.

    I am trying to get access to the translated transcript of the trial (published in 7 volumes), but I do have the translated interrogations of Eichmann. I trust Arendt’s account, but it will be interesting to judge it against the texts of the case.

  4. N Pepperell, you’re amazing. Just got to reading this piece and it’s blown my mind. I may make some more insightful and less groupie-like comments once I’ve digested the full meaning of it. Regardless, thank you, as always, for your work.

  5. Ooops. This is not, in fact, the post I was trying to comment on. It was a piece on Marx and Inversion. Ah well.

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