To some extent, Eichmann’s was a hard luck story. He wanted nothing more than to be promoted from the rank of Obersturmbannführer, or lieutenant colonel, to full colonel, or Standartenführer — after all, as he never tired of boasting, he did have standards and therefore merited the promotion. To facilitate being promoted, he’d even “hoped to be nominated for the Einsatsgruppen, the mobile killing units in the East, because when they were formed, in March 1941, his office was [as he put it] ‘dead.’” He was in between jobs of work: the “forced evacuation,” in which Eichmann wanted, as we have seen, to resettle Jews in Madagascar, a solution he falsely boasted to have invented, had come to an end, and the “forced deportation” of Jews to Auschwitz, in which his expertise in the Jewish question would be honed, had not yet begun. To read all this was “funny,” because when he said it to his interviewer in Jerusalem, Captain Avner Less, a German Jew whose parents were sent to Auschwitz on the last transport from Berlin, he expected ‘“normal, human’ sympathy.” Arendt asks: “Is this a textbook case of bad faith, of lying self-deception combined with outrageous stupidity?” No, she answers. “Or is it simply the case of an eternally unrepentant criminal?” Neither that. He admitted he “had played a role in the extermination of the Jews, of course,” saying that “if he had ‘not transported them, they would not have been delivered to the butcher.’” But now, he went on, “he ‘would like to find peace with [his] former enemies.’” “This outrageous cliché,” Arendt writes, gave to its speaker an almost visible “sense of elation the moment it popped out of his mouth.” Indeed, the judges soon “learned that the accused had … a different elating cliché for each period of his life.” As the terrible war drew to its close, he dismissed his men, boasting: “I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews [or ‘enemies of the Reich,’ as he always claimed to have said] on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction” (EiJ 46). And then, sixteen years later in Jerusalem, he said “I shall gladly hang myself in public as a warning example for all the anti-Semites on this earth.” The manifest contradiction of the two statements meant nothing to him. Rather, as Arendt puts it, “under vastly different circumstances [they] fulfilled exactly the same function.” They elated him. They elevated him. They gave “him a lift.” If Eichmann was not a monster, was he a “clever, calculating liar”? Not even that, as we shall see in a moment. But for Arendt, at least, “it was difficult not to suspect he was a clown,” even if that was “hard to sustain in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused millions of people” (EiJ 49–55).
Willem Sassen was a Dutch journalist who joined the Nazi Waffen SS during World War II. After the war, he escaped to Argentina where, like Eichmann, he was a fugitive from justice. The two met in a drinking club frequented by ex-Nazis, but Sassen did not know who “Ricardo Klement” (Eichmann’s alias) was until, in 1955, he conducted a series of interviews with his fellow fugitive who, he soon realized, could not be anyone but Adolf Eichmann. My interest in turning to these interviews, which Arendt knew well and quoted from in her book, is to see if they really are in fact so different from her own account of Eichmann. The notion that the two “portraits” are dichotomous is still prevalent, and even those who agree that Arendt discovered a new kind of criminal often do not admit Eichmann himself to that company, preferring to believe he bamboozled Arendt with his lies in Jerusalem.
As mentioned above, Eichmann was in “full possession of [his] physical and mental freedom” when he told Sassen that “in 1937” after he “had been struggling with Hebrew for two years” he “had the chance to take a trip to Palestine.”[v] Though he was not “impressed” by the way the Jews built “up their land,” he “admired their desperate will to live, the more so since [he] was [himself] an idealist.” Had he been born a Jew, he told Sassen, he would “have been the most ardent Zionist imaginable.” Denying that he was an antisemite, Eichmann said he “was just politically opposed to the Jews, because they were stealing the breath of life from us.” He told Sassen that “at heart” he was “a very sensitive man: I simply can’t look at any suffering without trembling myself.” In Hungary alone he and his men processed “about half a million Jews,” but they “used spiritual methods to reach [that] goal. Let us keep this distinction clear,” he said, “because physical liquidation is a vulgar, coarse action.” He “once saw a soldier beat a frail old Jew over the head with a rubber club.” He demanded the soldier be “punished and demoted,” for “that is sadism,” which is not permitted to Nazis.
Later in these interviews, Eichmann told Sassen that he especially admired one Dr. Rudolph Kastner, the representative of the Zionist movement in Budapest. “As a matter of fact, there was a very strong similarity between our attitudes in the SS and these immensely idealistic Zionist leaders.” He told Kastner, “We, too, are idealists,” and explained to Sassen “that Kastner would have sacrificed a hundred or a hundred thousand… old Jews… to save biologically valuable Jewish blood — that is, human material capable of reproduction and hard work.” Eichmann’s “idealism” was revealed once more when Germany faced an imminent Russian onslaught in the East. It was then that he decided (so he boasted, though the decision probably was not his) to barter one million Jewish lives for ten thousand winterized military trucks. He “wanted to accomplish as much as possible for the Reich,” he said, while knowing all the while that he “could never have squeezed a million Jews out of Hungary.”
The Sassen interviews end on a high note: tired and bored with the life of a fugitive, Eichmann said he would gladly surrender to the German authorities, except that he was far from certain what sort of “witnesses for the defense” his former subordinates would make. In fact he believed, “sad though [it] may sound,” that Jews would make better witnesses for him. “Dr. Kastner, Dr. Epstein, Dr. Rottenberg, Dr. Baeck, the entire Council of Elders in the Theresienstadt Ghetto — all of them [he] would have to summon… [for] after all, there were also relatively harmless actions that took place under the general heading, ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.’” In the end Eichmann said he regretted nothing he had done, indeed, “if we had killed all the ten million Jews that Himmler’s statisticians originally listed in 1933, I would say, ‘Good, we have destroyed an enemy.’” But he did not mean their literal extermination, for that “would not be proper, and we carried on a proper war.” Eichmann must have been dimly aware that the legitimate purpose of war is to defeat an enemy, not to annihilate him. But then he said, “through the malice of fate” many Jews are still alive. Well, what malice? Had he not “always claimed that we were fighting against a foe who through thousands of years of learning and development had become superior to us”? Though he didn’t “remember exactly when,” he was certain that Jews could write even before Rome was founded. I will read the last two sentences from these interviews, and ask you whether they reveal a fanatical hater and killer of Jews, or on the contrary, a clown who could even die with a certain “dignity” for what he thought of as his ideals — the only condition being his elation through a wildly inapposite “cliché used in funeral oratory,” as we have seen. Thus as he faced death, according to Arendt, Eichmann was “in complete command of himself, nay, he was more: he was completely himself” (EiJ, 252). Here are the two final sentences: “It is very depressing for me to think of that people [the Jews] writing laws over 6,000 years of [recorded] history. But it tells me that they must be a people of the first magnitude, for law-givers have always been great.”
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In 1963 Hannah Arendt asked herself why two years before, in 1961, she had attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. She answered that it was because she wanted to see one of the chief perpetrators of the destruction of European Jewry with her own eyes, “as he appeared in the flesh.”[vi] In The Origins of Totalitarianism, written some fifteen years before (mainly in the latter half of the 1940s), she said she had “analyzed the totalitarian mentality” but she had not examined individuals with that mentality. Then she added: “if you look at the [totalitarian] system as a whole, every individual becomes a ‘cog big or small’ in the machinery of terror.” But “a court procedure… inevitably confronts you with [a] person and personal guilt…” She wanted to know, in short, “Who was Eichmann? What were his deeds [but] not insofar as his crimes were part and parcel of the Nazi system?” That last question is essentially the same as that which “a court of justice must answer when it renders judgment. And it is for this reason that the whole small-cog theory [which was the principal point made in Eichmann’s defense] is quite irrelevant” when an individual is tried for specific crimes he has been accused of committing. Is it not absurd to think of charging a cog, which is an insentient wheel that receives motion from another wheel and transfers it to yet another, and so on, with criminal behavior? She then said that she had “been thinking of the nature of evil for…thirty years,” that is, since the Reichstag was burned in Berlin and Nazism unmasked itself to a greater degree than before, and that “the wish to expose myself — not to the deeds, which… were well known, but to the evil doer himself — probably was the most powerful motive in my decision to go to Jerusalem” (emphasis added).
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, published twelve years before the Eichmann book, Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but the people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” There the world “ideal” is used in the sense of a Weberian “ideal type,” that is, not as referring to any individual, much less the individual she travelled to Jerusalem to see in the flesh. And yet, mutatis mutandis, her words seem an almost uncanny description of Eichmann, who literally thought nothing of distorting reality, with the decisive provision that this man was no mere subject of totalitarian rule. He was on trial for his life, not as a cog in the machinery of terror, but as perhaps the worst mass murderer in human history. He actively supported the Nazi version of totalitarian rule, doing all he could to destroy European Jewry, paying no heed to Jews’ right to live in Europe, which had been established for nearly two millennia, since the early days of the Roman Empire.
In a letter to Mary McCarthy in September 1963, a few months after the Eichmann book was published, Arendt wrote: “What a risky business to tell the truth on a factual level without theoretical and scholarly embroidery.” She is referring to the huge controversy that arose in America, Europe, and Israel over her book, which included some serious criticism but for the most part was comprised of vituperation, everything from accusations of hubris, incompetence, and antisemitism to death threats. But the next sentence in the same letter shifts the focus in a manner characteristic of Arendt: “This side of it, I admit, I do enjoy,” she wrote, “it taught me a few lessons about truth and politics” (emphasis added). Well, which side of it? If not the accusations and threats, which were troubling (to say the least), then perhaps the risk in the “risky business” itself. In less than a month Arendt wrote to McCarthy again, saying she had now made up her mind “to write an essay about ‘Truth and Politics,’ which would be an implicit answer” to her critics. Here the word “implicit” must be emphasized, since that dense and complex essay, which first appeared in German the following year, after almost fifty years has hardly stilled the critical and at times slanderous chorus raised against her.
In a note to its title in its English edition, Arendt states that her purpose in writing “Truth and Politics” was “to clarify two different, though interconnected, issues,” which had come to light in the controversy over her book on Eichmann and the banality of the evil he wrought.[vii] (BPF 227) The first issue, which is the principal one that concerns us here, is “the question of whether it is always legitimate to tell the truth…” The second issue “arose through the amazing amount of lies… about what [she] had written, on the one hand, and about the facts [she] had reported, on the other.” We have already discussed the distortion and denial of facts in the Eichmann case, but to question the legitimacy of telling the truth brings us face to face with an entirely different question: How can the truth be told in view of the tenuousness of facts themselves?
The conflicted relationship of truth to politics, which comes into focus when a philosopher attempts to speak the truth in public, is an old story stretching back to Plato, whose notion of a philosopher-king improbably, or perhaps ironically, resolves the conflict in favor of truth over politics. The root of the problem for Plato lies between truth and opinion, for when the philosopher speaks his truth in the market place or in the assemblies of equals it is heard not as the truth but as another opinion among a diversity of opinions. The philosopher-king must perforce become a tyrant and void all public spaces if others — who then in no wise would be his equals but his subjects — are to apply his standards of judgment or logically infallible rules to determine the affairs that concern them all. But among equals the philosopher will find others who are not willing to give up their own opinions, which for them would be to relinquish their standpoints in a common public world. Opinions and standpoints are closely related as what might be called the doxastic places that sustain public spaces and, moreover, fill them with energy. Not even Socrates, the most persuasive of philosophers, could convince the citizens of Athens to examine their lives and their beliefs, and by doing so discover the partiality of every one of their opinions. Instead of that, his fellow citizens chose to put Socrates on trial and condemn him to death.
A shocking part of Arendt’s essay on “Truth and Politics” is concerned with the similarities she sees between lying and acting, almost as if they were mirror images of one another. Yet, as she points out, they are not the same: “the undeniable affinity of lying with action, with changing the world — in short with politics — is limited by the very nature of the things that are open to man’s faculty for action” (BPF 258). We will return to that later, but it is noteworthy that insofar as lying articulates dissatisfaction with some bit of factual reality which can be changed by human action, they both seem instances of a strictly human freedom. Why then should telling the truth be considered a political virtue? Should truth be told if the world were to perish? What sane person would not tell a lie if doing so would avert the imminent destruction of himself, his family, and his world? Indeed, lies “are often used as substitutes for more violent means” and thus “are apt to be considered relatively harmless tools in the arsenal of political action.” That being the case, Arendt says “it will therefore come as something of a surprise that the sacrifice of truth for the survival of the world would be more futile than the sacrifice of any other principle or virtue” (BPF 228–29).
To tell the truth is, for Arendt, to say what is (BPF 229), which sounds simpler than it turns out to be. To tell truths of fact, truths that have been “seen and witnessed with the eyes of the body,” is obviously the opposite of lying, but just as obviously the truth-teller is at a tremendous disadvantage to both the philosopher and the liar. The basic reason for this is that factual truths are always contingent and therefore lack necessity. Philosophic truths, as we have seen with Socrates, can be opposed by a plurality of opinions, but they cannot be destroyed by lies; whereas factual truths, because they are reflections of the contingency of all that transpires in this world — “everything that actually has happened in the realm of human affairs could just as well have been otherwise” (BPF 257) — can be lied out of existence altogether. As Montaigne said: “If falsehood, like truth, had only one face, we would know better where we are… But the reverse of truth has a thousand shapes and a limitless field… A thousand paths miss the target, only one path leads to it” (Essays of Montaigne, “Of Liars”). This seems to me to be the crux of the matter.
Because “reality is different from and more than the totality of facts and events, which anyhow is unascertainable,” the teller of factual truths has always to fit his facts into “a story, and in this story the particular facts lose their contingency and acquire some humanly comprehensible meaning” (BPF 261–62 emphases added). Is it not a matter of common experience that when we hear a well-made story with a factual basis we recognize the meaning of the event the story recounts? We say, This is how it was meant to be. In doing so we exercise our power of imagination, to be sure, but we evoke no extra-human power. On the other hand, lying is unlimited and for that reason can never be part of a story that, as all stories do, comes to an end. If an accumulation of lies is to “form a web of deception” that has the “semblance of truthfulness” it can only be, as Arendt sees clearly, an endless self-deception. It follows that for those who believe Eichmann hid his real self in lies at his trail, his crimes remain inconceivable and meaningless, and that is their enduring horror. It is also why these same people can never become reconciled to the world in which Eichmann’s crimes were committed. The act of lying treats “the past and the present… as parts of the future,” that is, as if in themselves they were not real. To put it another way, because factual truths are always of what has passed, and insofar as the present is the outcome of the past, lying changes both past and present “into their former states of potentiality.” By so doing lying deprives “the political realm… not only of its main stabilizing force but of the starting point from which… change [and beginning] something new” are possible. If lying is a semblance of action, it is that semblance which in fact ruins action: in Arendt’s view, to fail to distinguish facts from lies entails the “sterility” of political life, reducing it to a life squandered in a “constant shuffling and shifting” from one impotent alternative to another (BPF 254–58). If that sounds at all familiar to some of us today, it is noteworthy that Arendt leaves us not with answers, but with questions. Shall we lie impotent before the future, as if its outcome were foreknown by us or directed by some supra-political power? Or shall we summon the courage to act into the future, thereby transfiguring what comes toward us into a setting forth, whose end, to be sure, is not foreseeable and whose purpose cannot be calculated?
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To conclude these remarks, let me turn to a well-known passage from Machiavelli’s Prince in which he says “a prince must… learn how not to be good” (è necessario a uno principe… imparare a potere essere non buono), and adds, “and to make use of [this learning] or not according to necessity” (e usarlo e non l’usare secondo la necessità) (Il Principe, XV, any edition). This does not at all mean that a prince, or for that matter anyone else, must be taught to be bad, and not just because Machiavelli lacked a sufficiently high opinion of human nature. It is far more to the point that, though it is not knowledge and cannot be taught, the necessity “not to be good” is recognizable by human beings. What Machiavelli says here is drawn from the deep well of his political wisdom, in which he stands opposed to any and every blush of idealism in politics. Now that we have seen enough of the results of what might be called the little man’s version of political idealism, let me say that Arendt’s Eichmann In Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is the only work of political thought I would place on a shelf next to Machiavelli’s Prince. That is not because she so greatly admired his book (which she did), nor because these two tremendous political thinkers are among the world’s most misunderstood writers (which they are), but because their shared passion for political reality — the reality of the realm of politics − is extremely rare. And for that reason, namely, that the two works are written for the sake of the world in which we all, whether we want to or not, live until we die, and despite the fact that in these works Machiavelli and Arendt look at what can become actual in that world from almost opposite points of view — his viewpoint being rather more sanguine than hers: better by far to ride with Cesare Borgia into the Romagna than be transported on a train to Auschwitz by Adolf Eichmann — it is mentally exhilarating to see them in the same light next to each other. True, Niccolò Machiavelli never encountered or imagined such a man as Adolf Eichmann, but one can be pretty sure that if he had his judgment would have been much the same as Hannah Arendt’s, which is that Eichmann’s crimes against human beings in their plurality revoked his right to share the world with them. And Machiavelli surely would have relished the epigraph for her book that Arendt borrowed from Brecht, which, as far as I know, has gone unmentioned in the interpretive literature: “Oh Deutschland − / Hörend die Reden, die aus deinem Hause dringen, lacht man. / Aber wer dich sieht, der greift nach dem Messer (“O Germany − / Hearing the speeches that ring from your house, one laughs. / But whoever sees you, reaches for his knife”). Does that not perfectly exemplify what Machiavelli meant when he spoke of a necessity “not to be good,” not to turn the other cheek, not to overlook or forgive iniquity? In the end, that necessity can be entrusted to, and determined by, the faculty of judgment in each and every one of us.