“Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer” by Bettina Stengneth— Another Look at Evil without Banality


Stangneth, Bettina. “Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer”, translated by Ruth Martin, Knopf, 2014.

Another Look at Evil without Banality

Amos Lassen

Hannah Arendt shocked the world with her idea that evil could be banal. It is quite scary to think that something as horrible as genocide could be perpetrated by simple people who are not evil or bad intrinsically. Arendt claimed that there was another moral category after she observed the trial of Adolf Eichmann as he was questioned about his role in the Holocaust and this is what eventually became her theory that caused a tremendous backlash from which she was never able to recover. I just finished teaching a course in which I maintained that much of what Arendt had to say has since proven to be true and now I am eating humble pie. Of course this new book was not yet published and, in fact, I had not heard that it was even in the process of being written. When Arendt published her book some 50 years ago, critics assumed that by trying to understand Eichmann’s particular kind of evil, Arendt was somehow excusing his actions. Since then there have been ongoing debates as to whether evil can indeed be banal and it seemed that Arendt had the last word on the subject. She had shaped the way we understand man. Now Bettina Stangneth, an independent German philosopher living in Hamburg, has just completely overturned conventional wisdom about the man Arendt observed  in Jerusalem in the glass cage.

Her book, “Eichmann Before Jerusalem,” shows that Eichmann was a hugely successful liar and a performer who managed somehow to convince Arendt and many others that he had no motive other than advancing his career and that he was simply following orders. Stangneth has uncovered Eichmann’s own writings from before his capture in Argentina that prove him to have been deeply anti-Semitic and very committed to the Nazi’s war on race; that he was, indeed, an ideologue who knew and understood exactly what he was doing. What we see here is damning new evidence that will change the way we think not only about Eichmann but also about Hannah Arendt, one of the brilliant minds of the modern age.

Every book that has been written since the Eichmann trial has been a dialogue with Hannah Arendt. Arendt was the only observer of the Eichmann trial in 1961 in Jerusalem who saw the fundamental ethical problems it presented. What she discovered is very important when looking at evil. The term “banality of evil” is an important concept in modern times. Her discovery of an important concept of evil — the banality of evil — is indispensable for discussions about modern crimes. She provided us with what we need to know to understand evil and that alone is a tremendous contribution. We cannot, by any means, ignore what she had to say.

Arendt’s characterized Eichmann in this way: “Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal….” Arendt could not find any sign of ideological convictions or specific evil motives in Eichmann. We now know that he had a strong ideological conviction as well as criminal motives. How could anyone claim that a man who would not deny that the clear decision to kill millions of people and continued to lecture about anti-Semitism to his colleagues and create institutions that had no aim but to realize mass murders are could be anything less than evil and criminal? What is disturbing about Eichmann is that he had the ability to use great diligence so that others would realize that he was indeed a murderer. He understood that the “inability to think” was something very useful. Without it, crimes of the state would be impossible, because one would never find enough convinced helpers. Eichmann understood that he had to use normal men and women. It seems that Eichmann understood the concept of the “banality of evil” very, very well.

It is possible to have people who are simply parts of an evil and murderous machine and seek just a regular life and are not concerned with the larger picture of which they are part. However a machine that murders is more than just the sum of its parts; engineers must make the machine run. When the crimes are completed, the engineer can then pretend to be just a worker and hide behind those that actually made the machine function.

Arendt was obviously very taken with Eichmann at the trial and this also says something about others who watched it. There were those who saw Eichmann as a sad and pathetic weak man. Another reporter saw him as a buffoon and many agreed with these two depictions. Arendt repeated these descriptions and people were aghast. In 1961, Eichmann seemed to be a man without his own thoughts and convictions. When Arendt restated this in 1963, it provoked a scandal. This tells us that Arendt was not willing to deny the public astonishment of the year 1961; she wanted to understand it.

Some of us seem to have forgotten that Life Magazine published Eichmann’s memoirs in 1970 that included statements he made while living in exile in Argentina. But we could not discern his true nature from them. There seemed to be some kind of camouflage. There is the statement that in 1950 he told a reporter that he met in a bar in Buenos Aires and the world who he was and it was regarded as nonsense. In the newspapers of Argentina there was the testimony of a large project conducted by a group of Nazis to bring the idea of National Socialism back to power. Eichmann, himself, was a part of this group and he was consulted because of what he knew firsthand about the “Jewish question.” Members of the group wrote their own drafts for discussions, and Eichmann planned to publish his own book together with Willem Sassen, who was the head of this supposed club of historians. Right there in the Argentinean Press is the portrait of a radical Nazi group with incredible international connections, as well as Eichmann’s thoughts and eloquence that he did not mention in his trial in Jerusalem.

We cannot deny that Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is a brilliant report of the trial. However, Arendt was a political philosopher, and philosophers cannot write about anything without philosophical interest. Some called this a kind of weakness or a mistake but it is an excellent way to write history.

In this new book, Eichmann, the man is secondary to evil and to the lies he told. Stangneth states that it was not her goal to write about Eichmann— she had agreed with Arendt and had read everything about him up until the year 2000. It was then that many unused sources were discovered and she began to consider the man, but from the philosophical point of view. She attributes her ability to write this book to the great philosophers that preceded her—and she includes Arendt along with Aristotle and Kant. We must understand that thought is unlike any other subject studied. Thought cannot be isolated in a laboratory or left behind and then picked up again. Thought enters the mind of the thinker and he studies it. With Eichmann there was a bit of a tremendous difference. Philosophers must examine dangerous thoughts of dangerous people and in this process we arrive at Eichmann before Jerusalem and a duel of philosophies and a breakdown of philosophical power.

One thought on ““Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer” by Bettina Stengneth— Another Look at Evil without Banality

  1. Jacob Zeek Campbell

    Very interesting concepts. I wonder if this “banality of evil” is what I sense in the child molestation by priests, the lack of urgency by higher ups to criminalize it, the indifference to the danger potentially everpresent, and a secret underworld and network of trafficeers in human lives… I guess reading Gregory Alexander’s THE HOLY MARK had me on this same page tonight. Very interesting lesson, Amos, and one I will have to learn more about. Evil and it’s presence, surely we need to know the dynamics better!


Leave a Reply