Saturday, July 14, 2007

On the banality of evil - Part 1

Long, rambling post, so don't tell me I didn't warn you. And its only Part 1. This started out as a footnote in a post I started writing on some of Berlin's memorials but it got too long for a footnote that I decided to yank it out and post this independently.

While one could go back on forth on whether a Holocaust Industry really exists, no one disagrees that the publishing industry in the last sixty years hasn't done too badly in terms of the number of books published on the subject. I really doubt whether any other incident in the last century spawned so many books. From Elie Wiesel to Norman Finkelstien to David Irving, everyone has something to say. Which means that everyone you meet has their own "the book" of the Holocaust. No, I don't have one. I probably would have had one except that the time in my life when I got majorly interested in the subject coincided with an ugly femur fracture which left me tied to the bed and the wheelchair for two and a half months. So other than playing Scrabble with Anoop, BM and R~ who used to visit me everyday and wheel me out for my evening "walk", I spent the first month reading books on the subject. One of the few books that I felt was interesting and that has remained in my mind, despite its many criticisms and obvious biases, has been Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem which as everyone knows, is famous for the phrase that she abruptly throws in at the end - the banality of evil. It is indeed sad that the book had been reduced to a phrase when there's so much more to it, so many lessons that our current world could use, and so in the context of visiting Berlin and all that, I figured I might write my own little post about it.

For the uninitiated, Hannah Arendt was a German Jewish political writer and theorist who fled Germany in the 1930s first to France, and then to the United States where she worked closely with the Jewish community. She taught at a number of universities and I believe she was the first woman to be appointed to a full professorship at Yale (No, wrong, not Yale, Wiki tells me its Princeton). In 1961, she covered the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for the New Yorker, and later went on to write a book about it. Her reports and the book proved to be highly controversial and the Jewish community distanced itself from her quite rapidly. It is interesting but not at all surprising that the animosity towards Arendt originated and peaked in the United States[1] and not in any other part of the world such as well, Israel.

One of the main criticisms levelled against the book is not so much about what she says but around how she says it. Arendt has an offhand and sarcastic way of writing that I found that to be a positive while reading the book though it is understandable why people might not like her style. She makes a number of interesting points, and raises some very pertinent questions and I do consider the book a must-read for anyone interested in the subject. For the purposes of this post, I will stick to a few interesting and controversial points that I revisited recently.

0. Arendt was biased. She was disillusioned with Zionism long before the trial happened, and she didn't particularly like Ben Gurion. She hates the rhetoric of the prosecutor and makes fun of him throughout the book. She is always very sure of herself and her theories of Eichmann. More seriously, she is quite dismissive of the Jews of the East - everytime she talks about someone from the East, this bias is very evident. She is very happy and impressed with the three German-Jewish judges. She is extremely sarcastic at times and could come across as being uncaring. None of the above takes away anything from the major issues that she raises in the book but it is worth keeping in mind.

1. The Eichmann trial was more than just a trial, in some respects, it was a show trial, a play put on Ben Gurion and his men for the people of the world. It intended to put not just one individual or the Nazi government, but "anti-Semitism throughout the ages" on the dock. As much as everyone liked to argue this point claiming that Arendt wasn't exactly a Zionist sympathizer, Arendt points that it was Ben Gurion himself who announced to the world multiple times that what he wanted (among other things) was the world to be ashamed, he wanted the world to see the Judaism has always faced "a hostile world", that it was necessary that the new generation of "Israeli youth remember what happened to the Jewish people". Other important motives of the trial, according to Ben Gurion, was "to ferret out other Nazis" (remarkably successful if you think about the number of Nazis who were brought to trail in Germany in the 1960s), and (of course) to expose "the connection between Nazis and some Arab rulers".

This last point, Arendt thinks, is pointless considering that the Arab rulers never made their connection with the Nazis a secret. She is also quick to point out that it was surprising that Ben Gurion mentions the Arab states but not West Germany considering that a majority of Nazis who figure in the history of Jewish suffering still live their normal lives in that country. In this context, she also mentions the 700-odd million dollars that Israel has received from West Germany in reparation during the last twenty years, and now that that will come to an end soon, Israel is looking at a long term loan from the Germans. Yeah, and then I wonder why this book was controversial?!

2. Arendt makes an interesting distinction between "crimes against the Jewish people" and "crimes against humanity, perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people" and says that if the accused is accused of the latter, an Israeli court cannot do it justice; it requires an international tribunal. (or the ICC which was established decades later) A technical point but I think there's more to this that mere technicality, however, in the interest of not making this too long, I will make another post about this some other time.

3. Throughout the book, at every possible opportunity, Arendt brings up the attitude of the German people toward their past. Almost every single instance when the criminal in question was tried in a German court, the sentence has been "fantastically lenient". In comparison, whenever the accused was tried by the country where the crimes took place, the sentence has almost always been death. Yes, Germany did not have the death penalty but that in no way explains a sentence of five years and six months for a man who "liquidated" thousands of lives in the last few days of the war.

This might be surprising considering that the Germany that you and I know of today is arguably the most open and self-critical of nations. However, it is worth remembering that if the country after the War had set on a path to indict anyone related to the atrocities of the Nazi administration, there might not have been an administration. The mass murderers who surely lived peaceful lives in Germany in the 1950s were unlikely to commit any more murders, and the general German population was willing to let it be and get on with their lives[2]. Also, as much as it is difficult to believe, the Holocaust was not a huge issue in the first two decades after the War - it did not enjoy the prominence that it does today in our everyday discourse.

4. Arendt is very clear throughout that Eichmann deserved to be hanged. Eichmann was the person in charge of transporting "shipments" to the extermination centers knowing fully well what was going to be done with the shipments. Any way you look at it, he was a mass murderer and as per the law of the land, he deserved to die. Arendt even goes to the extent of writing her own version of the sentence in the epilogue!

But just because Eichmann deserved to be executed did not mean that he be accused of everything that ever happened during the Holocaust. This is where the distinction whether what's on trial in "Eichmann, the man" or "the history of anti-semitism" comes in. For instance, the prosecution starts its case with the killings in the East as that's where the killing fields were and that's where the situation was the worst and clearly, that's what the prosecution wanted to showcase to the world. But interestingly enough, the judges during the sentencing kept the East for the end. This is because that there was scanty evidence connecting Eichmann to the East, and Eichmann was the one on trial. His activities were mostly in the Western and Central nations, his job was to deport people to the killing fields of the East.

5. Now, what did Arendt think of Eichmann? Normal (as certified by every psychologist who examined him), mediocre, never had an original idea, interested mostly in getting ahead in his career. Boasted about everything, used the most stupid and banal of cliches (even while walking to his death), thoughtless in the sense that he wasn't not capable of thinking from anyone else's standpoint, a clown in some ways. He wasn't anti-Semite and had no real hatred of the Jews. While there is no doubt Eichmann was responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people, he did not wield any real power. He was nowhere as powerful as the prosecution claimed he was. For instance, he didn't even decide how many people to be shipped to where. He was just told. His expertise was in organization and administration and that he carried out as efficiently as humanly(?) possible - yes, that meant in Hungary, in the summer of 1944 when the Red Army was nearly at the gates, he shipped about 400,000 Jews to the death camps in the course of two months.

In our post-Milgram, post-Abu Ghraib times, when a book called the Lucifer Effect has just been published, perhaps a few people might find this picture of Eichmann believable. Might even admit that he might have been human. But it is not difficult to see why it is wasn't for the majority in Jerusalem or in Brooklyn in 1961, and why Eichmann has to be a psychotic, inhuman monster with no sign of normality. And that's one reason, though not the most important one (I think), the banality of evil became such a controversy.

There are two more points, the two most interesting and pertinent points that the book raises, that I wanted to talk about but this is getting too long, so Part 2 will follow. Both points are non-Eichmann related and probably makes sense in a separate post anyway. The first is regarding the complicity of the Jewish leaders in the suffering, and the second is the history of deportations from countries outside the Reich and the Protectorate. The first is probably the most controversial assertion made by Arendt and if she had stayed away from it, she wouldn't have been hated as much as she was. As for the second, I believe that it is in this history, in the reactions of the individual countries to the German Foreign Office's order/request for deportation and the events that followed lie the most important lessons that we can learn from the Holocaust. So.

[1] Highly recommend The Holocaust in American Life by Peter Novick

[2] Before someone jumps on me, I am not justifying it or saying it is right. Just thinking out aloud that this might be what was going on

PS: Too serious kya? I warned you, no? German fascination is like this only. What to do?


Cheshire Cat said...

More Part 1's!!

Space Bar said...

no 2, 3, 4, bring them on!

Veena said...

Good Lord. I am being stalked by the poetry junta! This is so cool!

In a couple of days. First, have to make partner (no, not the one you think) happy and earn my bread.

Space Bar said...

:D what is this poetry junta accusation?! i don't see BM or Falstaff here.

Veena said...

Space bar: Ah! But we will ferret them out, won't we? Hmm..maybe not. Four of you comment on the same post and I will be scaring people away - they might think this is too highbrow or something :)

Falstaff said...

Ah, one poetry ferret reporting for duty:

Maybe it's because things are always clearer in hindsight, but I've never quite got why Arendt's claim is such an a-ha point. You say yourself that the Holocaust wasn't as big a deal then as it is now. Whether or not you think Zionism was a good idea in the first place, the fact remains that Israel existed and couldn't really be undone (what was Ben Gurion supposed to do - tell everyone, ok, show's over, time to go back to Europe?). Clearly the Israelis needed Western support if they were going to survive and not be annihilated by their neighbors. So obviously they took every opportunity they could to play up the evils of the Holocaust. One should have expected no less from them. And to their credit, they succeeded brilliantly - that's one PR war they won hands down. I remember skimming Arendt's book (the 'Holocaust' books I tend to treasure are the fiction ones - Kertesz and all that) and all the time she was making points against Gurion and company, I was thinking what a clever job they did.

And as Arendt herself admits, it's not like Eichmann got any worse than he deserved. So his trial was a little more melodramatic than it needed to be. So what? Personally, I'm all for good theater.

The Black Mamba said...

Aye, one more reporting. Anything to help make your blog highbrow.

The Ashkenazis did surely pull off one of the greatest PR coups in the last few centuries, but then, they did get to observe and learn from Hilter - his propaganda gurus and film-makers were close to superb at their craft too.

ahem, and when exactly did you read this stuff? I only remember fetching you paperbacks from the library. you don't mean Comrade Bill was getting you this?! ;)

Veena said...

Oh no, no sane person will read my blog anymore! Mummy!

Falstaff: I think Arendt was a little of an idealist in that she thought that the point of a trial is to deliver justice and nothing else. However, she does defend the trial in Israel as it is not anything new - now that the Jewish people have their state, they can try him just as every country had done right after the war. The only new thing here is the kidnapping, and not the trial. And even there, the circumstances (with Argentina's record) are in Israel's favor. But she did think that Israel could have refused to deliver the sentence, kept him prisoner and submitted all the evidence to the UN and then pestered them until they acted on it. (The UN was only 15 years old, it wasn't considered terribly useless then, I guess) This might have been even better PR exercise now that no one can claim that its the victors who are trying the losers (the main "accusation" against Nuremberg and the Successor trails). Not to mention its effectiveness in stopping further genocides and not just of the Jewish people. Debatable, but I see her point.

But now that they had decided to do it in Israel anyway, do I think Ben Gurion should have done anything differently? (Not in the interests of justice but in the interests of accomplishing what he wanted to accomplish from the trial) Not particularly.
But I think its silly to make a controversy when someone says "this is what he wanted and this is a PR exercise" in a book.
The only reason I went and read parts of this again and wrote the post is because I read one more old, random article on why Arendt is a self-hating Jew, and why only an Israeli court can deliver justice etc. etc. She was writing about a trial, and I thought her report on the successes and failures of the trial were well thought out and mostly accurate. No, the major a-ha points for me in the book were reg the deportations and thats because (other than for Denmark and Italy) I didn't know this history.

BM: I personally think they are far better at it than the Nazis but we can have that discussion later.

Ah! It was all part of image building - you for the paperbacks, the other two for all serious reading (Falsie, no you didn't hear that)