What Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt Can Teach Us About Evil Today
By George Prochnik JUNE 1, 2017
the work of Jewish Councils in overseeing or otherwise abetting the selection process for deportation to the concentration camps.
“…the metaphysical cause of evil is seen in an act which transforms the category of judgement into an absolute.”
“a demonic decay in the midst of life, insecurity in the face of this world […] and a weakness that is perpetually confounded and mingled with debasement and with lust for power.”
Arendt’s diagnosis of Eichmann’s banality was not intended to minimize the harm he inflicted, as she attempted repeatedly to make clear in response to attacks against her work, but to underscore his mediocrity. In Arendt’s view, Eichmann’s astonishing superficiality, on display throughout his trial, could be understood as even more ominous than the character of some classic satanic figure since it represented an easily communicable strain of wickedness.
Eichmann’s banality underscored the susceptibility of unremarkable men and women to becoming collaborators in spectacular crimes under pressure of the right kind of leadership and within the self-contained moral universe of bureaucratic systems that enabled perpetrators to shuck off their sense of personal responsibility
Evil, she now proposed, had no depth, “and therefore has nothing demonic about it. Evil can lay waste the entire world, like a fungus growing rampant on the surface.”
Evil can lay waste the entire world, like a fungus growing rampant on the surface.”
Arendt became convinced that his [Adolf Eichmann’s] actions betrayed not a monstrous personality, but a total inability to think for himself.
‘Officialese [Amtssprache] is my only language,’”
“officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.”
a thought process fatally clogged with grandiose, vacuous slogans.
the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.”
He [Adolf Eichmann] is a monster of self-regard and self-interest, savagely expedient in advancing his fortunes, with a fanatical hunger to be recognized as a great historical figure coupled to an instinct for personal survival at all costs.
“Nobody else was such a household name in Jewish political life at home and abroad in Europe as little old me,”
he later boasted to one friendly interviewer.
By being as unclear as possible, Eichmann cast not just his own testimony but the facts themselves into a soupy haze of ambiguity.
A buffoon who doesn’t even have the mental wherewithal to defend himself except in comically inarticulate banalities is not someone an intelligent person with a liberal bias readily sends off to the gallows.
What Arendt missed above all was the possibility that mediocrity could be performed, and that the man under trial for his life might be a versatile shape-shifter, constantly adjusting his clown act to make his character appear — not innocent of the acts he was accused of — but potentially exculpable by virtue of inanity.
On the simplest level, the Divine aspects of judgment and wrath become detached from mercy and love, spawning the evil forces that plague humanity.
What’s incontestable, about [the work of Jewish Councils in overseeing or otherwise abetting the selection process for deportation to the concentration camps] he avows, is that they were compelled to make decisions under conditions of such unique, immeasurable horror that their quandary cannot be reconstructed.
a tragedy of such magnitude, sheer compassion for the collective — love — must guide the intellectual response at every step.
I suspect Scholem would have felt that expressing a solemn, absolute solidarity with those suffering the abuse of power constituted a more substantial form of resistance than even the most scintillating satiric takedown of those in command.
The solidification of the status quo as entertainment (however dark) becomes its own form of normalization.
What was really going on in his head when he supervised the transportation of hundreds of thousands of people to the extermination camps? If Hitler’s project originated in a politics of wrath, what enabled its ongoing implementation by all those executors among whom Eichmann’s name looms so large?
Scholem does not discount the notion of the “banality of evil” because Eichmann and the other Nazi henchman are zealous anti-Semites, or raging believers in any larger ideology. What Scholem singles out as the flaw in Arendt’s phrase is that it fails to recognize the sheer pleasure involved in being a successful Nazi.
the sheer pleasure involved in being a successful Nazi.
The operators of great bureaucratic mechanisms can still themselves be vainglorious individuals fueled by low appetites. “I don’t picture Eichmann, as he marched around in his SS uniform and relished how everyone shivered in fear before him, as the banal gentleman you now want to persuade us he was
“The gentlemen enjoyed their evil, so long as there was something to enjoy. One behaves differently after the party’s over, of course.”
The enjoyment Scholem refers to is not simple sadism, but the thrill of experiencing a wild inflation of personal power — power over others, power to do as one privately wishes quite apart from any larger, theoretical ideology.
…are we watching numbers of highly self-motivated individuals eagerly, sometimes even gleefully indulging an unconscionable greed for power in all its earthly forms?
The person who thinks himself a God has to be removed from power before the contradiction of their fantasy becomes a capital offense.