The Unbearable Lightness of Evil

April 2015
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State and Ethics

While rejecting personal responsibility and guilt, Eichmann also insisted that he was guided by the interests of the state. Focusing on this aspect in The Banality of Evil articulates another important problem of political philosophy: namely, the relationship between the state and ethics.

In numerous works devoted to the philosophy of Arendt, she is compared with different political theorists and philosophers. One such comparison is especially important in the context of The Banality of Evil. It makes references to Carl Schmitt, a German political philosopher and lawyer. He was a rather controversial figure due to his participation in the formation and consolidation of the Nazi dictatorship (he claimed that his theory of state and law was the ideological foundation and justification for the Führer’s rule). Interest in his political philosophy grew substantially in the second half of the twentieth century, his ideas notably attracting intellectuals who showed commitment to opposite sides of the political spectrum – both the right and the left. Arendt and Schmitt actually represent opposing political concepts. This is the basis for the comparison of their approaches to understanding the moral foundations of politics and the state’s interests. The Banality of Evil mentions Carl Schmitt just once in passing and only in the context of a comment that Eichmann's lawyer, Dr. Dieter Wechtenbruch, had an assistant who was Schmitt’s supporter. Carl Schmitt has famously read The Banality of Evil and was impressed by the exigencies of the book, which he mentions in a letter to his student Ernst Forsthoff.

One of the issues raised by The Banality of Evil is whether the management of public interests involves situations where moral principles can be neglected. Is Carl Schmitt right in saying that the state utilizes a different logic of action, one to which moral categories are not applicable? These are very complex issues of modern political philosophy, as they relate to the capabilities and limitations of sovereign power. Those issues are particularly troubling today, a time when national governments lose their sovereignty due to pressure from multinational entities, and as international agreements that are supposed to maintain world order are crudely violated, which yields merely the rhetoric of “being concerned” from the international community.

Carl Schmitt, in his article "Public Ethics and Pluralistic State", also introduces the concept of "state ethics" and distinguishes three forms of its existence. First is the subordination of the state to ethical standards in which state ethics establish the obligations of the state. Second, the state can establish ethical standards that result from the state itself as a duty to the state. The first and second cases involve the state as something that already exists. According to Carl Schmitt, if the state gets into a situation where its foundations (moral and legal) are problematic, it creates a situation where the normal state of affairs, a precondition to any ethical or legal norms, disappears. State ethics acquires a new form – duty towards the state. Conceivably, in this case, saving the state as a kind of unitary object requires extraordinary measures that exceed the means provided by the normal state of affairs of legal and moral order. For Carl Schmitt (say, if we turn to his work Political Theology) the state of emergency is but a state of the political world, akin to a miracle, because, as the author notes, the intensity that it creates is "the power of real life that breaks through the crust of frozen mechanics". However, the state of emergency is a condition that is not definable by means of law and morality. It has a special rationality, one which makes it impossible to distinguish between a normal state and a state of violence. As a result, law and morality are rather a fiction that seeks to cover up their absence. Instead, the utmost importance is assigned to the decisions of the Sovereign, who, in the Third Reich, was the Führer. Hence, the urgency of "politics", the need to preserve state order and the prioritization of "duty to the state" gave rise to a special sacred aura for the leader that made it impossible to question his decisions or actions. As an example, we can mention the case of Martin Heidegger, who tried to rationally explain his connection with National Socialism through "political expediency." There is one story about him that relates this point: when he last visited Karl Jaspers, he was asked, "How can Hitler, being such an ignorant man, rule the country?" Martin Heidegger replied: "Education is not important at all... just look how wonderful his hands are." Adolf Eichmann was also fascinated by Hitler. In The Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt provides his words about how Hitler could be so completely wrong, but was able to go from corporal to the Führer of eighty million people, a success that convinced him that such a man should be obeyed.

If you try to interpret The Banality of Evil in terms of enacting moral standards in a state of emergency and upholding the state’s interest above all else, we can posit that focusing on uncertainties that are attributed to a state of emergency constitutes an attempt to try to hide the destruction and violation of a moral and legal order. One tries to bring this sheltering of the concept of a raison d'état (i.e. national interests), which provides that the government’s actions are not subject to the same rules as the actions of the citizens of said state. Herein lies the actual prerequisite for moral insensitivity to one's own actions. Hannah Arendt observes that the raison d'état appeals to a higher necessity, and state crimes committed in the name of the state are considered to be emergency measures to maintain power and to preserve the existing regime. Totalitarian systems with the dictatorship of a leader turn such emergency states into the norm, and thus, the non-infringement of the law and moral norms become the exception, not the rule.

So in order to understand the essence of the totalitarian systems' crimes, we would be better served to assume that dictatorship generates such a state of the political world in which decisions and actions which meet moral standards or, conversely, contradict them, appear to be extremely straightforward and clear. This is something akin to the boundary situation described by Karl Jaspers in which people are able to free themselves from the constraints of anonymous living and clearly realize their own existence. The worst aspect of totalitarian systems is that they strip away the human right to such freedom through experiencing this kind of boundary-region existence and places them in an artificially created liminal situation between life and death. Concentration camps are one such example of this "threshold", which Hannah Arendt described in The Origins of Totalitarianism as a place created by an evil spirit that takes joy in holding masses of already non-existent, executed people in a space that sits somewhere between life and death. The emergency state of totalitarian countries reconciles, and normalizes, this “threshold,” formalizing the stripping of the right to be a person (taking away individuals’ citizenship, deporting them, executing them etc.) and insisting on being guided by the state’s interests and on preserving a state that has become a "besieged fortress."

* * *

Hannah Arendt's reflections on the banality of evil are relevant today insofar as another question is raised: how does the desire to establish a state of emergency, which implies an avoidance of moral and legal norms, and which gave rise to the totalitarian systems of the twentieth century, permeate the practices of modern societies (including democratic ones)? The kidnapping of Eichmann by Israeli secret services and his trial in Jerusalem are also a kind of "state of emergency" case. Jews in Nazi Germany were turned into a people without citizenship. The same happened to Eichmann, since his absence of citizenship after the war and escape to Argentina made it possible to organize his kidnapping and trial in Jerusalem. This is a similar displacement of the "threshold" between the law and its absence, between a state and statelessness, and even between life and death, since it was clear from the beginning that the trial would end in a death sentence. Moreover, even today the "exceptions" begin to look normal ­– just recall the scandals of prisons like that in Guantanamo or Nadiya Savchenko’s abduction and trial in Russia2. These cases are a kind of totalitarian throwback that reappear in our era, a time when we are losing our moral and legal vigilance.

After all, Hannah Arendt at the end of her book warns that a repeat of Nazi crimes is possible in the future as the modern development of technology and a population explosion can very easily transform a segment of the population into a perceived "excess." For this reason, not only the  "banality of evil" as a phenomenon of moral degradation, but Arendt’s The Banality of Evil as an example of extremely insightful analysis of this phenomenon sets an important philosophical "precedent" that helps to sharpen our focus on the necessity of being sensitive to the moral and legal pathologies that are not only something that could occur in the future, but something that is already happening today.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anastasiya Snetkova and edited by Devin Ackles.

  • 1.The author reviews the Ukrainian translation of Arendt's book, published in 2013 as Banal'nist' zla. Sud nad Aikhmanom v Ierusalymi [Банальність зла. Суд над Айхманом в Єрусалимі] in Kyiv by "Dukh i Litera" publishing house (translated by Anton Kotenko). 
  • 2.Nadiya Savchenko is a former Ukrainian military pilot and political prisoner who had been kidnapped by pro-Russian paramilitaries in 2014 and imprisoned in Russia (in Voronezh region and later in Rostov region of the Russian Federation). While imprisoned, survived several hunger strikes. Released in May 2016. Has served as an MP in the Ukrainian Parliament since then.

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka