Sixty years ago, Hannah Arendt shocked Arendt with her thesis on the “banality of evil.” Today is still undisputed.
There was great anger when journalist and philosopher Hanna Arendt published her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil” in 1963. Friends and acquaintances turned away from her. Large parts of the audience attacked them. what happened?
In her report on the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichmann, the former SS Oberstrombahnführer and co-organizer of the deportation of millions of Jews, as a regular employee.
As a government employee devoid of ideology he just did his job – but he was an ordinary person and a family man.
That was shocking. Shock for the Jewish public, who saw Eichmann as the bloodthirsty monster portrayed by the Attorney General in Jerusalem.
It was also shocking for the German public, who realized themselves in Eichmann’s position of fulfilling his duties and suddenly found himself faced with his own responsibility.
Indeed, the Federal Republic of Germany at the time was very lukewarm about the legal treatment of Nazi crimes. The attempt to punish these crimes through the Penal Code of 1871 turned out to be particularly fatal.
As a result, Nazi criminals can only be prosecuted if they committed their atrocities by themselves and with their hands – for example during the violent excesses of concentration camps. The result was acquittals or ridiculously light sentences such as those contained in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in the early 1960s.
Compelling tape recordings
As far as Eichmann’s status is concerned, there are actually new insights that go in a different direction from Hannah Arendt’s view of things. It also contradicts Eichmann’s offer to the recipient of orders in his glass case in Jerusalem during the trial.
Especially The Bettina Stangneths StudyThe link opens in a new window “Eichmann in Front of Jerusalem – The Quiet Life of a Mass Killer” from 2011, in which the German historian and philosopher evaluated the audio recordings from Buenos Aires.
In the recordings, Eichmann talks to Dutch war correspondent and former Special Forces man Willem Sassen about the rehabilitation of National Socialism and confesses his actions.
Bettina Stangnith came to the conclusion that Eichmann was nothing but an office criminal devoid of ideology, but a strong nationalist and anti-Semitic socialist.
Think for yourself and take responsibility
Underestimating Hannah Arendt’s performance due to this is still a mistake. It would also be a killer. Because through her thesis, Hannah Arendt made reference to the relationship between universality and subordination and addressed the shared responsibility of each individual.
This can also be seen in their repeatedly formulated demands to think for themselves and turn away from group opinions. This is a problem at the moment. This can be seen not only in the emergence of populist currents, but also in the fateful return to ideology at the expense of an opinion that one considers subjective.
If this sounds familiar to us, it is time to read Hannah Arendt again. Not necessarily complicated political writings. Her poems suffice.
SRF Radio 2 Kultur, Context, April 9, 2021, 5:58 pm.