The Unbearable Lightness of Evil

April 2015
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Lately, people have been talking more and more about hybridity: the whole world seems to be overloaded with it, there are "hybrid regimes", "hybrid war" and so on. Couldn't we also say that today's world has created "hybrid morality"? What exactly does "hybrid" and "hybridity" mean? First of all, it means that we do not give a clear definition to the notions, be it a war, which is called an anti-terrorist operation, or authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, which feign the existence of democratic institutions. Hybridity is most dangerous to the arena of morality, where moral categories and evaluations lose their certainty. As a result, day-to-day routine dissolves moral sensitivity, and urgency, which could rule the world of politics, removes moral regulations. What follows is the birth of what Arendt calls "the banality of evil." Evil does not linger on the essence of things, it does not reveal itself, it just spreads like a mold which covers more and more of the semantic space.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil1 is probably one of the most discussed of Hannah Arendt’s works. Negative reviews of this work surface even today, and they often stem from the position of, "I have not read it, but I condemn it." Sheila Benhabib, pointing to a particular relationship to this book, quite eloquently named one of her essays, published in September 2014, “Who's On Trial, Eichmann or Arendt?”. Of course, the particularly acute debate around this book was already ongoing in 1960, initially after the publication of a series of reports on Adolf Eichmann's trial in The New Yorker, and then after the publication of the book itself. These discussions were even called "a civil war of intellectuals", as has been mentioned, for example, by Amos Elon in the preface of the Ukrainian translation of The Banality of Evil. The author is said to have disrespected the Holocaust and the State of Israel, and is accused of possessing the infamous characteristic of "Jewish self-hatred" (as was written by an Israeli historian, Efraim Zurof). In recent years, discussions regarding the book and the figure of Arendt have been somewhat revived again owing to the screening of the film Hannah Arendt (2012, directed by Margarethe von Trotta), which refers to the three years of this philosopher's life when she was preparing her reports from the Jerusalem court.

It is appropriate to point out that in the title of the Ukrainian and Russian translations of the book the subtitle of the original, The Banality of Evil, was moved to the front of the title, instead of the end as it is in the English. This change can be interpreted as an attempt to actualize the problems which the author reflects upon, namely, the moral pitfalls of modernity. In other words, it is a kind of focused interpretation. However, it requires sensitivity because it can lead to attempts to "embed" Arendt in a certain ideology. Russian publishers, for example, did not limit their changes to the title alone: the Russian publishing house Europe’s translation of the book, which came out in 2008, added an abstract to publication (entirely in the style of the current anti-Western propaganda) about the relevance of the Holocaust to the "bloody attempt of Tbilisi government to create a ‘Georgia for Georgians’" and about the persistent attempts of the West to “’privatize’ the question of crimes against humanity, using the Hague Tribunal as a one-sided tool."

Arendt herself stated that her book is simply a report on the court procedings. However, when she was preparing its materials she was already a famous political philosopher (her fundamental work The Origins of Totalitarianism had already been published and was widely known). So, clearly, she was not just a simple reporter. Her position is rather twofold - that of a political philosopher and that of a commentator and diagnostician of current events. As commentator Arendt criticizes the social, political and legal anomalies that she had faced during Eichmann's trial. As a political philosopher, she presents to us the universal moral foundations of politics, which, if disregarded, can destroy the political world order.

Arendt relates to us the story of the technical aspects of the Holocaust. Her examples show how easy it is to create a mechanism for the mass migration and killing of people (and not just examples from Nazi Germany, but also those from occupied France, Belgium, Eastern Europe, as well as the fascist or pro-fascist regimes in Italy, Hungary and Romania). Yet at the same time, this book is about the difficulties of creating the perfect mechanism. After all, the evil that was spawned by totalitarian regimes is replete with individual shortcomings: the desire for enrichment (with Jews being held as hostages so that a ransom could be asked of their relatives to free them, or allies that “haggled” for pardons for individuals), corruption, and a desire to curry favor with the leadership.

According to Arendt, law and morality are linked in that both of these areas concern judgment. Therefore, someone who makes a report about a court cannot ignore the problem of morality. Here we find an expression of Hannah Arendt's philosophical interests during this period. More specifically, her "Life of the Mind" project, which consists of three parts: thinking, willing and judging. The philosopher was never able to finish this project, and its third part regarding judgement was reconstructed on the basis of her lectures and essays and published in 2003 as a collection entitled Responsibility and Judgment. This collection is associated with another important aspect of Arendt's philosophy during this period: namely, her attempt at interpreting Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment to demonstrate that his basic ideas on political philosophy lie in this work, though they were never clearly expressed. The contemplation of judgment is subsequently tied to the "reporting" of Eichmann's trial as they both relate to the problem of moral choice, the question of responsibility, and creation and destruction of the moral order. In general, it can be said that it is an attempt to understand man’s ability to distinguish between good and evil, given that our views are largely influenced by our surroundings. How is it possible that "dark days" can come about so suddenly, moral order be so easily destroyed, and morality begin to mean no more than “customs,” or “manners” which themselves can simply be altered? How can we judge the past, that is, events that took place without our being present?

The Image of Evil

The Banality of Evil is a book about evil and its manifestations. So the natural question is: Who was Adolf Eichmann, Head of the Gestapo Referat IV B4, an individual involved in establishing the Nazi’s interaction with the Jews, organizing the "final solution" to the “Jewish Question” in the Third Reich and occupied territories, and who was to become a symbol of Nazi evil almost on par with Hitler? One expects to find a monster, pervert and sadist. It is the social imagination that immediately creates such an image of a monster in our heads. We see it, for example, in the film Eichmann (2007, directed by Robert Young). Here Adolf Eichmann is a cunning, cynical maniac (missing only the mask of pop culture's own maniac Hannibal Lecter): he is willing to kill a Jewish baby at the whim of his mistresses, wears a ring made of prisoners' gold crowns and argues that Auschwitz is the best place for growing cabbage as the land there is richly fertilized with human ashes. It is clear that this kind of film seeks to leave an impression and therefore "the bad guy" should be a spectacle. However, this portrayal is no accident as this is precisely how Eichmann was perceived by a lot of people who remember him who say that, for example, he would go to the grave, laughing with the happy memory of sending five million Jews to their death. "The trial of the monster" served, then, a therapeutic role akin to a culture’s burning of the devil or ritual flagellation.

Arendt warns us that in reality evil lurks within banality and normalcy. In court, Eichmann, "a man from a glass box," appeared to be quite different from the leech he was thought to be. We find the following description of him in the book: a short, thin, middle-aged, short-sighted, with a bald spot and bad teeth, for the period of the trial he always positioned his neck toward the judges and never once looked at the audience, diligently and carefully maintaining control, with only a nervous tic moving his lips. Eichmann described himself as a vulnerable person, arguing that it was very difficult for him to endure the concentration camp "tours".

Psychiatrists, following the requisite inspection, affirmed Eichmann's complete normalcy and even noted his exemplary attitude toward his wife and children. There were no signs of any moral or legal pathology! In addition, Eichmann insisted that he was not a Jew hater, had never felt fanatical anti-Semitism and never personally had anything against Jews.


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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka