"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Nature Of Evil V

In another in her continuing series on the nature of evil, Clare Carlisle has focused on Adolf Eichmann, the “German Nazi SS Lieutenant Colonel who was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. Because of his organizational talents and ideological reliability, Eichmann was charged with the task of facilitating and managing the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe. (Wikipedia)”.

Eichmann fled to Argentina after the War, but was captured by Israel agents and brought back to Israel to stand trial.

“Hannah Arendt – a German Jew who had fled from the Nazi regime in the 1930s – wrote about Eichmann's trial in a series of articles for the New Yorker, and in 1963 she published a book-length account entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”

The phrase ‘the banality of evil’ came to be associated with the Holocaust because it summarized the fact that otherwise ordinary people participated directly or indirectly, openly or with complicity, in the mass extermination of the Jews. 

“Like the psychologists who examined Eichmann, Arendt was struck by his ordinariness. Indeed, he appeared to be a caring husband, father, brother, son and friend.”

This is what most terrified Arendt – that supposedly normal, ordinary people could be capable of such horrific crimes.  The horror of the Holocaust was not only that six million Jews perished, but that ‘ordinary’ people executed them willingly.  What did this say about human nature or the human condition? asked Arendt.  The question has persisted until this day.  Recently Jonah Goldhagen has written in Hitler’s Willing Executioners that without the complicity of ordinary Germans the Holocaust would not have taken place.  Other critics have suggested that because of the political strategy of Hitler, the extermination of the Jews was decentralized, broken up, and therefore difficult to reconstruct as the Final Solution that it was. No exterminations were carried out in Germany, so the gas chambers and ovens of Poland were very distant and remote. In other words Germans might have suspected, but they didn’t know. 

Some Germans may have felt intimidated and afraid to speak out and risk punishment, imprisonment or death; others may have felt that it was not their affair – they didn’t conceive of the plan and they might not even approve of it, but they simply had to accept what their government was doing.  Those within the lower echelons of the Nazi hierarchy often claimed that they were just following orders; and that the order and discipline of the military required rigid and unwavering obedience. Many Germans who knew of the Nazi plan were simply not courageous enough to shelter Jews as the Danes and some Dutch did.  Such courage is beyond the perspective and strength of most people.

Goldhagen and others writing from his perspective insist that Germans simply had to know.  A program so devilish, so extensive, and so relentless could never have been totally kept from public knowledge. 

The complicity of the common man is one thing, but what about those who designed and carried out the Final Solution?  They knew full well what the goal of Hitler’s program was – the total annihilation of the Jewish people.  Following orders did not apply here as a reason for participating, for Nazis like Eichmann not only participated in the program, they enthusiastically embraced it and zealously pursued it.

Eichmann is a particularly interesting case because he read and was convinced of the philosophical arguments of Kant, an influential German moral philosopher.

The Kantian "categorical imperative" expresses a moral principle that is entirely free of personal, self-centered inclinations. In respecting only rules that should be valid for everyone, the moral person refuses to put his own interests before anyone else's, or to value his own freedom more highly than another's. His morality is guided by respect for humanity itself – for human dignity, which is based on human freedom.

In other words Kant believed that there were such things as moral principles which transcended any individual considerations of right and wrong actions. A rule that is valid for everyone is by nature a higher law and ought to be universally respected.  One assumes that ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ is one of these moral precepts – it is universal, stands above all other personal and venal considerations, and has the force of true, unalloyed principle.  Eichmann believed Kant, but apparently drew his own conclusions.

This is not hard to understand.  Despite Kantian and Biblical injunctions, there will always be interpretations of Moses’ Commandment.  We accept without too much debate public executions for murder.  Many fundamentalist Christians believe that abortion is also murder.  War for a just cause is not murder, etc. In other words, although there may be a categorical imperative, it will always be weakened by interpretation.  Society should always keep this imperative in mind, for it serves as touchstone and reminder in an increasingly complex world where individual action is becoming much more important than collective responsibility.

Eichmann followed the teachings of Kant up to a point and then no more:

Until 1942, said Eichmann, he had tried to live his life according to this Kantian moral principle. (This presumably includes his active involvement, from the early 1930s, with the Nazi party and the SS.) When he was given the task of deporting the Jews, however, he found that he could no longer follow this ethical ideal. He suggested that his freedom was taken away, so that he could not – in Kantian terms – be a moral agent at all: "Now I was trying to come to terms with myself, and I saw that I was unable to change anything and unable to do anything. I said to myself: 'I cannot for the present live entirely according to [the Kantian requirement], although I would like to do so.'"

It is even more difficult to understand the crimes of Eichmann because of his reading of and respect for Kant.  At least he thought about moral action, we say.  Obviously, as for most of us, philosophical guidance has meaning only until our own lives are at stake.

At his trial Eichmann talked about finding himself in a "new" and "unprecedented" political situation. On his account, this brought about a fundamental moral disorientation: "There is no possibility of comparisons, and no one can have any idea of how it was. There was the war. I had to do just one thing." These words are chilling, but they are also tragic. "Just one thing" describes totalitarianism on a personal scale, the reduction of a single life to one horrifying purpose that excludes all other considerations – including morality, and humanity itself.

Eichmann’s moral failings have to be ours because he was an ordinary man.  If he could do what he did, then could we.  That is the most frightening conclusion of all.

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