A murderer’s warped idealism

George F. Will,  The Washington Post

Western reflection about human nature and the politics of the human condition began with the sunburst of ancient Greece 2,500 years ago, but it lurched into a new phase 70 years ago with the liberation of the Nazi extermination camps.

The Holocaust is the dark sun into which humanity should stare, lest troubling lessons be lost through an intellectual shrug about “the unfathomable.”

Now comes an English translation of a 2011 German book that refutes a 1963 book and rebukes those who refuse to see the Holocaust as proof of the power of the most dangerous things — ideas that denigrate reason. The German philosopher Bettina Stangneth’s “Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer” responds to Hannah Arendt’s extraordinarily and perversely influentialEichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”

Although, or perhaps because, Arendt was a philosopher, in her report on Israel’s trial of Adolf Eichmann, the organizer of industrialized murder, she accepted the facade Eichmann presented to those who could, and in 1962 would, hang him: He was a little “cog” in a bureaucratic machine. He said he merely “passed on” orders and “oversaw” compliance. Arendt agreed.

She called Eichmann “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” lacking “criminal motives,” “a buffoon,” “a typical functionary” who was “banal” rather than “demonic” because he was not “deep,” being essentially without “ideology.” Arendt considered Eichmann “thoughtless,” partly because, with a parochialism to which some intellectuals are prone, she could not accept the existence of a coherent and motivating ideological framework that rejected, root and branch, the universality of reason, and hence of human dignity.

It was odd for Arendt to suppose that the pride Eichmann took in his deportations — especially of the more than 430,000 Hungarian Jews when the war was already lost and even Heinrich Himmler, hoping for leniency, was urging it for the Jews — was merely pride in managerial virtuosity. Arendt, however, did not have, as Stangneth has had, access to more than 1,300 pages of Eichmann’s writings and taped musings among Argentina’s portion of the Nazi diaspora, before Israeli agents kidnapped him in 1960.

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