I stumbled upon the release of a movie on Hannah Arendt recently. You can see a trailer here. It’s a good movie, not a great one, but worth watching. Amy and I cuddled up to it over two nights and, while not the self-indulgent escape of Downton Abbey, it did make us think and talk about the nature of evil and human culpability, certainly worthy topics in Lent. Hannah Arendt was a 20th century German philosopher and political theorist who escaped to France as Germany fell under Nazi control. She was placed in an internment camp and, by chance and good fortune, escaped deportation to an extermination camp. She spent the remainder of her life teaching in the United States and is perhaps best known for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her report on Adolf Eichmann’s trial. Eichmann was a high-level bureaucrat in Nazi Germany who engineered the transportation of millions of Jews to concentration camps where they were, of course, ultimately killed. He was very good at his job. After the war, he fled Germany but was captured in Argentina by Mossad agents in 1960, taken to Jerusalem to stand trial, found guilty and hung.
The staggering revelation of Eichmann’s trial, in Arendt’s reading, is that he was a rather normal person who knew exactly what he was doing but declined to be held culpable for the death of any particular Jew. “I never killed a Jew or, for that matter, I never killed a non-Jew . . . I never gave an order to kill a Jew nor an order to kill a non-Jew.” He was following orders, the law of the land, and had given his oath to do so. That oath required that he do his job and do it well. He cared little about ideology or outcomes; those matters were left to his superiors. He was a functionary, a mover of people. Responsibility for the decision to exterminate Jews lay elsewhere. Per Arendt, “This was the way things were, this was the law of the land, based on the Fuhrer’s order; whatever he did, he did, as far as he could see, as a law abiding citizen He did his duty . . . he not only obeyed orders, he obeyed the law.”
To the end, he argued that he was more pawn than devil, more faithful citizen than master criminal. “I am not the monster I am made out to be.” He felt he was suffering for the sins of others, those who had set the gears in motion of which he was only a small, inconsequential cog. “His guilt came from his obedience, and obedience is praised as a virtue. His virtue had been abused by the Nazi leaders.” He died well, bravely almost, accepting his fate. Arendt concludes her book as follows: “It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
It’s a brilliant work and a remarkably sobering, almost jarring, conclusion. For page after page she recounts how the deportations had take place, how an entire continent conspired – with enthusiasm, resignation or ignorance (real or feigned) – in the destruction of millions. Banality is not the conclusion we want. Banal is normal; it’s work-a-day life. It’s the Wednesday afternoon with its duties and bills and chores. We want to know why Nazi Germany happened, why lines of children were marched into box cars, transported and killed. We don’t get an answer. Instead, Arendt brings conclusion close to home; she does not allow the evil of Nazi Germany, or of Adolf Eichmann, to be wholly other.
Arendt’s book was published and the debates began immediately. She was vilified as a “Jew-hater” and “Nazi-lover.” She was accused of defending Eichmann. She lost friends, close friends she had called family. Senior level representatives from the newly formed state of Israel asked her not to publish. Her greatest “crime” in the eyes of her detractors was to normalize Eichmann, to make him a human being, flawed to be sure, but not a raving, rabid anti-semite, bent on the destruction of European Jewry. Arendt argued that he was not any form of that but, rather, an eminently reasonable man who simply was caught up in a movement (an ideology and political order) that was impossible to stop. The challenge of Eichmann in Jerusalem is, in part, that it does not allow us to classify Eichmann as an exemplar of evil. The evil results of his actions are beyond comprehension, to be sure. Reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, one begins to recognize that the scope of destruction and the volume of human suffering can’t be grasped, only hinted at with vignettes of almost surreal cruelty and coldness. But his actions and behaviors? They are understandable; almost quotidian.
Why the need to make him other, to transform him from human being to beast or devil? I think, in part, we don’t want to see ourselves in his ‘class,’ his category of human being. And to believe we are different is fair and true. My sins and shortcomings do not actively conspire to kill millions. However, to think that we are categorically different than Eichmann does not take seriously the incontrovertible fact of human fallenness. I don’t want to fall into pious banalities in the face of the unmitigated evil Eichmann caused. The fact that all of us sin does not mean that all sins are equally bad or have equally evil outcomes.
However, the difference between Eichmann and me is not one of category but degree. He instantiated more of the tendency toward self-interest and self-delusion that I, too, possess. More troubling, his defense sounds eerily familiar to the reasoning I often use to avoid hard decisions, to deny the systemic sin to which I contribute and the personal sin that colors my life. We are all stained by sin and Eichmann is a warning of what human beings can become and often do become. If we think Nazi Germany is unique, we are not reading our newspapers. People with jobs and families, once whipped into a frenzy of ethnic hatred, began slaughtering neighbors in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burundi, Rwanda.
When Dante and Virgil approach Acheron, the river all souls cross before entering hell, they find the shades (damned souls) responding to their fate not with tears of repentance but blame, ” . . . they execrated God and their own parents/and humankind, and then the place and time/of their conception’s seed and of their birth.” Why am I here? The damned souls’ answer: it’s someone else fault – the times, my parents, my brain chemistry.
The Calvinists, often reviled for their harshness, might have had it more right than not with their doctrine of total depravity. Total depravity does not mean that I am always as bad as I could possibly be in all circumstance but, rather, that my nature is more broken and corrupted than I could possibly know. ” . . . man became involved in blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, perverseness of judgment; became wicked, rebellious, obdurate in heart and will and impure in his affection.” That sounds about right. If there is one doctrine that is easily proved, it’s the doctrine of human depravity. We read it in the paper every day. We see it at work and at home. We continue to uncover layers of it in our own heart and motivations. Perhaps Eichmann’s lesson to us (or to me at least) as we approach this season of Lent, is to be wary of the soporific lull of easy consolation for my sins and failings, of passing along culpability for the world’s ills to my neighbor, the times, someone in authority, my parents. I don’t need to be Eichmann’s equal in sinfulness to be sinful. I do need to be reminded that my sin is real and has real consequences and is only covered at a great cost.