Phil-osophically Speaking: September 1, 2011

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Crimes Against Humanity

It was 50 years ago this month that Adolph Eichmann, after a four-month trial in Israel, was convicted of what we call today “crimes against humanity.” Israel suspended, for the first and only time, its anti-capital punishment law to hang Eichmann, who was one of the prime architects of the “Final Solution.”

The case has continued to fascinate me on several different levels. There was the dramatic and daring efforts by the Mossad, Israel’s legendary intelligence agency, to find and capture Eichmann, which they did in 1960, 15 years after the war. Eichmann had been living a normal life in Argentina raising his family as if nothing unusual had ever happened in his life. As head of the “Transportation Administration for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” he had been responsible for bringing Jews, men, women and children, to the concentration camps for the expressed purpose of destroying the entire race. The SS industrialized death on a massive scale, dehumanizing their victims and finally putting them to death. Millions of Jews would suffer and die in these camps; Auschwitz and Treblinka became names that have reverberated in the consciousness, leaving a bleeding and indelible scar on human civilization.

Yet Eichmann was able to compartmentalize the horror and the madness of those years and was by all accounts a model citizen raising his family in Argentina. Could these two conflicting personalities be one and the same person; could an exemplar of nightmarish monstrosities and benign normality simultaneously reside side by side in the human mind? How could one mindset not suffocate the other? Just as intriguing was that Eichmann, before his elevation in the Nazi regime had made several contacts with the Zionist movement and had worked to speed up Jewish emigration from the Third Reich. Once told that all Jews in German controlled Europe were to be murdered, he turned to this task with a cold, bureaucratic efficiency transferring, seemingly effortlessly, his energy from saving Jews to killing them.

It was this paradox of personality that compulsively attracted the attentions of Hannah Arendt, a Jewish political philosopher who was born in 1906, the same year as Eichmann.  Arendt became utterly consumed with Eichmann and the trial. She questioned the nature of evil and wondered about its malevolent designs. How was Eichmann different — or was he different from the rest of us? A scholar of staggering brilliance, Arendt had a youthful but passionate affair with the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger whose book, Time and Being, is regarded by many as the supreme monument of 20th century philosophical thought. It seemed an unlikely pairing since Heidegger was not Jewish and 17 years Arendt’s senior. But in another sense, perfectly natural, for in Heidegger the brilliant young woman encountered for perhaps the only time in her life a mind as intricate and luminous as her own. 

A few years later, Heidegger would be severely criticized for his relationship with the Nazi Party and his support of Adolph Hitler. Arendt’s intimate connection with the German philosopher added spice and intrigue to her perspective on Eichmann’s trial. By now Arendt was celebrated for her magnum opus Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she insightfully recognized that Nazism and Stalinism were not only two sides of the same coin but that there had emerged in the world a new and more execrable form of despotism, one that sought to control every aspect of the human condition.

The outcome of Arendt’s assignment (she was sent by the New Yorker) was a compelling work entitled: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Study in the Banality of Evil. On many fronts it was rivetingly controversial but none more so than in the memorable phase, “banality of evil.” According to Arendt, the great evils of history in general and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics and psychopaths, but by ordinary people. In one sense, Arendt normalizes Eichmann and his cohorts by acknowledging that the killers of the Jews could have been anyone that belonged to a society where mass murder becomes routine.

Eichmann, Arendt noted, was a thoroughly responsible person who respected the chain of command prevalent in any organization. He believed in authority, unthinkingly following commands without any tangible sense of the magnitude of the crimes he was ordered to commit. Eichmann had a need to please his superiors, to advance himself in the hierarchy, qualities that are, after all, not atypical in ambitious individuals. That the tightly organized Nazi killing machine was coldly and brutally efficient in administering death made obeying these commands all the more logical and satisfying for an organizational man. Eichmann respected the complexity of the division of labor that characterized the death camps:  The cobblestones which paved the crematorium yard at Auschwitz were pristinely scrubbed; plumbers skillfully laid the water pipes in the crematorium; electricians meticulously wired the fences and camp managers provided order, structure and coordination in the ongoing, messy process of incarceration and extermination. An esprit de corps eerily prevailed among the camp’s functionaries even if its designs were incomprehensively malevolent.

To support her analysis, Arendt noted that six highly respected Israeli psychiatrists exhaustively probed the psyche of Adolph Eichmann. All agreed that there was not a trace of mental illness, that he was neither psychotic nor a sociopath. Nor was there evidence, or so it was claimed, of Eichmann ever being anti-Semitic.  Indeed, as mentioned elsewhere he had once assisted Jews who wanted to flee from Nazi Germany. When he escaped to Argentina he put aside the war and the crematoriums, conforming to the ways and mores deemed respectable and normal in another country and in another time. By every account, Eichmann was a good employee, neighbor and family man. From this Arendt concluded that there was nothing inherently evil in Eichmann, but that a confluence of circumstances in Nazi Germany proved highly manipulative and in the end Eichmann proved more of a clown than a monster.

Arendt’s thesis is disturbing because, if true, it underscores the depth to which the soul can be corrupted. But are human beings so malleable that a free-fall into iniquity can be embraced, as Eichmann did, with such welcoming equanimity?  In Dostoyevsky’s spellbinding Crime and Punishment, the author, a master psychologist, hauntingly depicts how Raskolnikov’s dispassionate ruminations of murder can, with frightening and shattering suddenness, lead to the bloody corpse of an old woman. Dostoyevsky’s point was that it’s a shorter step than we think from vile thoughts to violence — as short a step perhaps as Stalin’s utopian vision to the purging of entire populations or from Pol Pot’ s vision of an unsullied agrarian society to the killing fields of Cambodia, or Hitler’s argument for racial purity to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Jews had once flocked to Germany because they saw it as a place where they could live and flourish. But once a culture becomes barbarized, there is no safe haven. The only counterweight to spasms of savagery, a volatility that can hastily and irrevocably devaluate the essential character of populations to the point where cultural cleansing becomes convenient if not desirable, is to cultivate a society that sees the whole parade of our mortal existence as something transcendent, immanent, a holy matrix that connects all humanity. It’s the reason, the paramount reason, why I’ve always been ferociously for life from its nascent awakenings to its last gasp of senescence.

In one critical sense, the execution of Eichmann affirmed, paradoxically, the sacredness of life. Israel did not suspend for the one and only time its anti-capital punishment law for the purpose of hanging one Nazi. What it sought was the elevation of genocide as a special consideration in both judging and preventing crimes against humanity. In this it was but marginally successful. Genocide is still with us. But the Eichmann trial did provide a catharsis in that it gave birth to the Holocaust, not in itself but rather a reliving of it. Before Eichmann’s conviction memories of what happened in the death camps had been repressed, like a dark and shameful secret. With that trial, the curtain had been lifted, the veil rent for the entire world, young and old to see, with all the vividness it could muster “man’s inhumanity to man.” It is as it should be. 

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