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It is more than twenty years ago that I first read Arendts Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. Since that time I have regularly referred to the work in classes, and further pondered the consequences of her research into the role Adolf Eichmann played in the murder of millions of European Jews. What remained with me most was her view on the problematic side effects of bureIMG_3703aucracy. The positive goal of bureaucracy can be described as the equal treatment of citizens, and the efficient delivery of goods delivered by state and non-state organizations. Its negative side effect is that it offers the possibility for individuals to wash their hands from their complicity in malfunctioning and even evil procedures. Eichmann the bureaucrat, as he could be seen in the Jerusalem court after his capture in 1960, showed, according to Arendt, an incapacity to think, to put himself in someone else’s shoes, to see a human being as having a right to its own life.

When the political atmosphere in Europe became more xenophobic over the last ten years, and organizations simultaneously relied more and more on bureaucratic procedures to optimize their functioning, I read Arendt’s view on the banality of evil as offering a model to understand present times. I saw the disappearance of individual responsibility of managers and administrator, of teachers, police, scientists and doctors behind protocol as a moral danger for society.  I didn’t realize, however, that for evil to happen, it is not enough that someone with evil intent, or just a morally weak character, can hide behind procedures. Because a well-functioning bureacracy, with well-described responsibilities, and procedures for complaint, still contains obstacles to abuse, which protect the rights of individuals affected.

What the new historical research of Stangneth, which I am currently reading, shows, is that Eichmann and his complicits not just surfed on the possibilities of normal bureaucratic structures, but that, under the guise of being very well organized, Nazi rule actually internally destroyed certain essential elements of bureaucracy, especially official hierarchies of responsibility. I speak here of something different from what, in a recent post, I called ‘freedom to act’. Freedom to act essentially exists for every individual, in those pockets where bureaucratic and legal systems fail to reach. To put it simply: at all times any individual can try to go around the system, calling on an original freedom to act as a human being. What Stangneth shows to have happened in Nazi rule is something else: it is the selective taking more power than ‘the system’ allows by certain individuals, under the protection of the ‘highest power’, the ideological leader of the movement (the ‘Führer’), a highest power which promises its loyal servants to back them up by unlimited violence.

So this new study on Eichmann ‘before Jerusalem’ makes clear how Eichmann actually had much more power than he claimed to have had when he defended his actions in court. He did not have a high rank, but this was not very important in Nazi dealings. It was even beneficial, in order to carry out things that should remain hidden from the public. Being “on the Führer’s special mission”, Eichmann did not need to call on hierarchical responsibilities to get things done: ‘in a regime governed by relationships, only personal access to someone in power carried any real influence.’ (Stangneth, p. 40) Stangneth further analyzes many sources which were not available to Arendt (especially the so called Sassen interviews, held while Eichmann lived in Argentina), but also departs from a quite different anthropology. While for Arendt an evil person is one who lacks the potential to live the idea of Aristotelean practical reason, someone who goes along with a system that ignores humanity, for Stangneth an evil person is a responsible agent, who is perhaps not highly intelligent, but who shows talent in using a psychology of fear to rule others. ‘”Much more power… was attributed to me than I actually had”, Eichmann explained. And “this fear” of his presumed power meant that “everyone felt he was being watched.”‘ (Stangneth, p. 26)

Now, through this new book, we can see how ambitious, to the point of megalomania, Eichmann was. Still, Stangneth’s analysis doesn’t fall back on the simple and dangerous idea that there are just certain evil persons who are to blame for the worst crimes of history. While restoring full responsibility to the criminal, she also maintains the importance, shown by thinkers like Arendt and Foucault, of scrutinizing structures of power to explain what happened. What is new, however, in her work, is that her analysis of how those structures work is more rich, more complex – dissecting the different workings of journalism, state violence, the psychology of fear, and the effects of symbolism on human thinking  – to provide a more real and a less naive understanding of how evil in the midst of ‘modern civilization’ can be organized and carried out. Like Raul Hilberg she follows the view, not of the victim, but of the perpetrator, to understand the workings of what was done.

As to Eichmann, she makes clear that he was a great actor, putting forward a different image of himself as circumstances required. What he did was make use of people’s unreflected ideas about humanity. Thus it could happen, Stangneth writes, that ‘even someone of average intelligence (Eichmann, AR) can induce a highly intelligent person (Arendt, AR) to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.’ (Stangneth, p. xxv) Why this book fascinates, is, therefore, because it shows how a new kind of writing history is necessary for a philosophical understanding of humanity. A writing of history that investigates the psychological, moral, and cultural epistemic frameworks that guide common understanding – to prevent following them naively, and to make sure to count with the possibility that, apart from their already inherent distortions, they may also be used to consciously mislead. Such a historiography warns philosophical anthropology to not take its own idealism as its unreflected point of departure, but to scrutinize its own hopes, dreams, judgments, i.e. all of its normative frameworks, as a potential heel of Achilles.

Citations are taken from Regina Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem. The unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. London: Penguin Random House, 2014.

One cannot talk about ‘morality’, I answered to a Master-student yesterday, without supposing the possibility of free action. She is interested in studying dissociation, identity, and moral responsibility, and  while we discussed those concepts and their relations, I was led to the articulation of a thought on the difficulty of  freedom in modern society which (as it often goes) surprised me although I was the one who put it into words. This phenomenon makes one wonder who is the owner of thoughts. But yesterday we pondered the owner of acts: one cannot suppose the possibility of acting without assuming there to be someone who acts, who can be held responsible, and who thus, somehow, has to be judged to be free to choose an action.

This argumentation would have satisfied Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant: the idea of freedom, he claimed, is enough for a human being to realize his freedom. That is a nice thought, my student and me went on, but what if in fact my freedom is disturbed? I think I am free, but I am the victim of a psychotic illusion, or of blind ambition. What if I am subjected to a temporal dissociative experience, losing my purpose while trying to adapt to the complex interactions and emotions at, say, a party? Or, what if one is influenced unknowingly by some kind of voodoo-practice?

We mused about these different possibilities, and moved on to the question of the difference between traditional and modern societies. The modern person deems himself free in comparison to those unenlightened enough to reckon with the possibility of magic and voodoo, and with the influence in their lives of ancestors and gods. Those people, he thinks, are not free, as they have to visit their spiritual advisors and healers regularly, uncertain whether they are subject to evil inflicted upon them magically, or whether they neglected their duties towards the ancestors. How can freedom, responsibilty, and thus morality, play a significant role in societies where such thought is dominant?

And then I heard myself saying: ‘see it like this: we, moderns, have freed ourselves perhaps from the bonds of traditional society, which thrives on the fears of acting independently and which has stability and conformity as its main goals. But while freeing us from the fears of novelty, we enslaved ourselves to progress.’ Everything we do needs to be ‘rational’, that is, add to progress – to better health, to a better future for my children, to a better relationship with my loved one; to efficiency in my work, to higher quality, to lower cost, to better competiveness… so are we free? Fear of the gods, or of the evil eye, has been replaced by the fear of redundancy – if my acts do not contribute to progress, they are superfluous, and so am I…

When, after that conversation, I went on to ponder how the ideology of constant change and progress (common to communist as well as capitalist thought) makes morality within its parameters very difficult, while it threatens our actual freedom, I remembered Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher from the hippie age who recently gained new interest. Marcuse tried to tackle this problem. The crowbar of his theory lies in the acknowledgment that one cannot be free unless one allows oneself to value the present society against possible alternatives. To do this, one has to presuppose a judgment like: ‘human life is worth living, or rather can be and ought to be made worth living.’ If we dare not critically value society from such a critical viewpoint, we pass our potential for freedom by. And if we do that, I add, the Kantian ‘idea of freedom’ will be void of meaning, and ethical theorizing will have no real subject. Ergo: no thought of moral responsibility, of freedom, makes sense without criticism of society as it is.

Herbert Marcuse lived from 1898-1979. I cited from his One Dimensiononal Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].

Immanuel Kant lived from 1724-1804. His foundation of morality in the idea of freedom is to be found in his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (dritter Abschnitt) – published for the first time in 1785 (and has had numerous editions and translations since then).