Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.
Geoffrey Hill, Ovid in the Third Reich
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum possesses a photograph of a line of Helferinnen, racially pure auxiliaries made available for the delectation of SS guards in search of a mate. A genial SS officer offers them punnets of blueberries while a man plays an accordion. They are clearly all having a nice time. Originally bearing the caption ‘Hier gibt es Blaubeeren’, the photo was taken on 22 July 1944 , days before the Soviet army arrived. It was unearthed in 2007 as part of an album affectionately assembled by Obersturmführer Karl Höcker, adjutant to the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Richard Baer.
Hier gibt es Blaubeeren disturbs the viewer by offering a glimpse into the humanity of people taking a break from mass murder. It was this uncanny (unheimlich) ordinariness that informs the subtitle of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her account of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann provoked a furore over her alleged sympathy for the accused, her condemnation of Jewish leaders for their alleged cooperation with the Nazis, and her apparently racist disdain for non-German Jews. Such distractions aside*, her reflections on totalitarianism and the Holocaust have compelling contemporary relevance.
One target of criticism was Arendt’s refusal to see Eichmann as a monster. In his introduction to the 2006 edition of the book, Amos Elon suggests that Hitler like other tyrants put in the dock would himself have cut a similarly pathetic figure. She instead referred to him as unheimlich, a moral and intellectual void; not stupid, but containing an absence where you might expect empathy and remorse (Gedankenlosigkeit) – ‘his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view’. He was in fact ‘normal’, like most Germans remained normal throughout the Nazi period. The epistemic absurdity of the trial, for Arendt, was the attempt to prove Eichmann abnormal. A trial cheapens justice by shackling it to politically opportunistic theatre, when its purpose should be ‘to render justice, and nothing else; even the noblest of ulterior purpose [at Nuremberg] – “the making of a record of the Hitler regime which would withstand the test of history”… can only detract from the law’s main business: to weigh the charges brought against the accused, to render judgment, and to mete out due punishment.’
Justice after the Shoah was only ever meted out selectively. Plenty of men who profited from Hitler’s regime managed to outlast it: not only fugitives like Eichmann in Argentina and other safe havens; many seamlessly blended into Adenauer’s government, such as Hans Globke, author of the Nuremberg Antisemitic Race Laws, or continued to prosper in commerce, such as Kurt Becher who had haggled with Hungarian companies to ‘buy’ rich Jews, pack them off out of Europe and sequester their businesses, before Himmler put him in charge of the concentration camps. Worse, Europe proved incapable of bloodlessly expatiating its guilt over centuries of anti-Semitic edicts, pogroms and expulsions. ‘The Palestinians bore no responsibility for the collapse of civilization in Europe,’ Elon writes, ‘but ended up being punished for it.’ Arendt saw the Palestinians as the appointed sacrifice to absolve white people for their sins against the Jews.
It is a wonder (at least, to me) that the wicked bother at all passing laws to legitimise their work. But that is what they typically do, and the Holocaust took place within a legal order. The Final Solution was an order from the Fuhrer, passed by word of mouth of an inner circle of Nazis without being issued formally in writing, and implemented through a ‘shower of regulations and directives, all drafted by expert lawyer and legal advisers, not by mere administrators’. Implementation passed under cover of bureaucratic euphemism: concentration was administration, extermination was a question of economy or even mercy, the gas chambers themselves were, according to Servatius, Eichmann’s counsel, ‘a matter of killing, and killing, too, is a medical matter’. The task of functionaries like Eichmann was to ‘calculate the absorptive capacity’ of the installations for killing Jews rounded up at the rear of the advancing German army as it headed east into Russia. This Sachlichkeit as opposed to romantic emotionalism of horned-helmet nationalism was for Eichmann’s class a source of pride; it was not German pedantry but an effective legitimation of horror. Jurists at Nuremberg and Jerusalem performed mental acrobatics on when one should disobey a manifestly criminal legal order to kill innocent people just because they happen to be Jews. Conscience lost it compass; the whole of society had surrendered ‘normal’ moral maxims to the unprecedented perversions of the Nazi ideology of killing.
Guilt was in a sense, therefore, universal; but Arendt nevertheless held the ‘normal’ Eichmann individually accountable, demolishing his ‘single cog in a machine’ defence. Humans always have their agency; a gigantic seemingly insensate bureaucracy never ceases to be an amalgam of human perpetrators. A little more plausible was the argument that Nazi outrages were acts of state, raison d’état, and that its functionaries and citizens were in thrall to a criminal gang that had seized the powers of government. Neither this could this defence be valid, however, as it would exonerate everyone up to and including Hitler himself. Eichmann’s complicity in ‘a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people’ meant that ‘no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you’. ‘This is the reason,’ she pronounced, ‘and the only reason, you must hang.’
I read Eichmann while on holiday in the Alps near Salzburg. On early morning runs near the Eagle’s Nest and the Berghof, Hitler’s summer lodge, I imagined queasily the Nazis only a few generations ago on their bracing mountain walks between discussions on how to eliminate sub-humans. Flesh and blood, each of them once an adorable, innocent baby cradled in his mother’s arms, breathing, eating and drinking and stooping to shit. Our species. (Arendt: ‘The law presupposes that we have a common humanity with those whom we accuse and judge and condemn.’) Sure of themselves, operating within a framework of rules and authority, the successful ones advancing through knowing when to kowtow, how to use people, how to push at boundaries and refashion the rules and structures to their advantage. (A game, Arendt judged, at which Eichmann was less than adept.) Gazing down from space you would not notice anything remarkable or awry, the green blue earth partly shrouded in clouds continuing to spin slowly between light and darkness. Yet the day-to-day business of these people, along with the cheery personnel running Auschwitz ,was genocide – ‘an attack’, wrote Arendt, ‘upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the human status without which the very words “mankind” or “humanity” would be devoid of meaning.’
The Nazis and their signature brand of insouciant depravity could be coming back into fashion. The media are titillated by the emergence of Eric Zemmour, likely candidate for the French presidential elections next spring, who would have us believe that Vichy France did the Jews a good turn and who is currently polling over 15%. His numbers are only slightly lower than Marine le Pen’s, meaning that around one-third of French voters seem partial to a regime of aggressive, racist nationalism. This equates more or less to the proportion of American voters who believe Biden stole Trump’s re-election alongside related fantasies such as white America being steadily ‘replaced’ and the Covid vaccine containing a government tracking device. The swelling core of reaction across many western democracies is nowhere more tumescent than in Italy, where the combined polling numbers of Fratelli d’Italia and La Lega indicate close to four in ten would sooner see dark people drown in the Mediterranean than polluting la Patria. Nigel Farage tries vainly to stay relevant in the UK by reporting on boats of migrants in the Channel. It is now normal for politicians to equate immigration with security threats. It is a blessing that these reprobates remain largely disunited because their breeding ground is increasingly fertile. In 2019, a Eurobarometer survey showed 68% of respondents uninformed about Jewish culture, history and religion. During the pandemic, antisemitism spiked on social media. Historical consciousness fades with time, and the old analogue anger, prejudice and conspiracy theories are amplified for the digital age by social media algorithms.
‘It is in the very nature of things human,’ wrote Arendt, ‘that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past.’ Now that humans have demonstrated their potential for genocide, ‘no people on earth, least of all, of course the Jewish people, can be confident to survive without the protection of internal law.’ Evil is banal because the coexistence of delusion and cruelty is evident every day. In Eichmann, evil proved itself to be extreme, depthless, and most horrific of all, able to ‘spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world’. That the term ‘Jewish Question’ ever existed at all is in itself horrifying. The problematization of entire categories of people is rife around the world, as the non-Han citizens of China and the Rohingya in Myanmar can bear witness. Jewish people were abused for centuries for being the suspected enemy within; millions of potential immigrants and refugees in a warming world are under similar suspicion as the enemy without. This is what unites the new extreme right, and the reason democracies ought to question their entitlement to stand at all on such platforms. The freedom of expression of white racists is far less important than the right to dignity of vulnerable people of colour.
Rich countries are now spending between twice and fifteen times more money on militarising their borders to keep out the poor than they are on helping them to combat and adapt to climate change. Arendt partly anticipated this. ‘The frightening coincidence of the modern population explosion with the discovery of technical devices that, through automation, will make large sections of the population ‘superfluous’ even in terms of labor, and that, through nuclear energy, make it possible to deal with this twofold threat by the use of instruments beside which Hitler’s gassing installations look like an evil child’s fumbling toys, should be enough to make us tremble.’
Eichmann in Jerusalem ought to be essential reading in every school, because the next genocide will again be the work not of monsters but of normal people.
*William Phillips scolded the ping-pong of her critics and counter-critics in the Partisan Review: ‘Particularly depressing is the procession of polemics, with everyone arguing so cleverly, with so much wit and logic, as though those awful events were being used to sharpen one’s mind and one’s rhetoric.’ Such self-indulgent squabbling merely cripples progressive forces while the right gets on with fleecing the state.