In my time in graduate school I was assigned an essay by Susan Sontag titled “Fascinating Fascism” which addressed the dangers of being nostalgic for or having a predilection for anything related to NAZI ideology. This included memorabilia, trophies, even books and films. After bashing Leni Riefenstahl, Sontag turned to Liliana Caviani’s film The Night Porter about a former camp prisoner who falls in love with her guard in a sado-masochistic relationship. Already overloaded with German words like Vergangenheitsbewaltigung – the working through of your past – our professor hit us with a new term to struggle to pronounce: Schadenfreude.
Like many words in German there is no direct translation to English. The best one can do is describe Schadenfreude as the taking of pleasure in seeing the misfortune of others. It is used to describe many things about the Third Reich that we as removed generations can never understand. A friend of mine commented in class that he didn’t know what was worse: the fact that Schadenfreude existed or the fact that the Germans had a word for it.
I recently watched a wonderful film on Netflix called Hannah Arendt about the famous, or as others might think, infamous political scientist (others saw her as a philosopher, she did not). The film follows Arendt’s trip to Jerusalem to cover the 1961 trial of SS Officer Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker Magazine. Eichmann ran the notorious Gestapo department 4BIV (Four-B-Four) which negotiated the settlements and scheduled the trains that rounded up Jews and sent them to their deaths. Arendt, a Jew that escaped a camp in France to immigrate to the United States before the execution of Operation Reinhardt – the named plan for the Holocaust – foresaw what many survivors saw: A monster responsible for unspeakable crimes.
But in Jerusalem Arendt was instead faced with an average looking man in an average suit struggling with a cold on the first day of his trial – held in Israel after he was kidnapped from hiding in Argentina. As the trial went on Arendt saw a pattern of almost non-behavior. Eichmann used clichés in his speech, spoke very unexceptional German, and seemed wordy even in his written confession which he agreed and signed off on. How was it, Arendt asked herself, that this non-entity, this boring bureaucrat, could amass the murder of millions – a crime he admitted in taped confession and freely written statement before pleading “Not Guilty – in the sense of the indictment?” Her answer was controversial and much more complex than laying out in a blog, or making a 15 minute video for Yad Vashem or even covering it for an entire class on the Holocaust. Eichmann exhibited what Arendt called the Banality of Evil – the terrible normalness of being. Someone so completely conformed to the society around them populated by bureaucrats, rules, paperclips, rubber bands and telegrammed orders in triplicate – that he lost the ability to simply think.
The SS was the most feared organ of terror in the Third Reich, and was responsible for the great majority of the worst crimes of the regime. Led by wackos like Heichrich Himmler, the “Riechsfuhrer SS” and the psychopath General Reinhardt Heydrich; populated by paranoid murderers like Rudolf Diels and Heinrich Mueller – Eichmann’s superior – we find it hard to contemplate that underneath such thriving personas deserving of their own biography telling their twisted and demented point of view, are simpleton bureaucrats ‘just following orders.’ Arendt was aware of the uselessness of this defense and she made no excuses for him. In fact, she recognized (contrary to popular belief) that he was an anti-semite who deserved to be hanged (in his own words “as an example to other anti-semites”).
Below Eichmann was a horrible structure of concentration camps guarded by some of the most evil people the world had ever produced. Fifty years after the war, German prosecutors never really eager to bring NAZIs to trial, were forced by public opinion to extradite and charge the lowest ranking offenders who had committed the most terrible atrocities of the 20th Century. They had horrible nick names: SS Captain Klaus Barbie was the Butcher of Lyon; SS Doctor Josef Mengele was the Angel of Death; Camp Guard Ilse Koch was The Bitch of Buchenwald; SS Captain Josef Kramer was The Beast of Belsen. In actuality these executioners and masochists reported to Mueller in a different chain of command and Eichmann’s 4BIV with only an office staff had no pool of enforcers to draw from. Their weapon was the telephone, the typewriter, the Fuhrer Order.
In between these two levels of unparalleled evil lay an almost undisturbed office tasked with the ‘unpleasantness’ of arranging deportations. Here, the office environment was no different than a bank or any other company. Removed from the camps and the roundups, Eichmann and others like him operated almost in a vacuum aware of what they were doing but not saddled with the character traits or nicknames of the executioners. With the hurricane of the war and the holocaust they were arranging raging all around them, Eichmann and his ilk looked and seemed to many people, including Arendt, as horribly and terribly normal – banal. This didn’t make them any less guilty, especially in Arendt’s eyes, but it did convey the danger of wanting to fit in, of conforming, of not wanting to experience ‘unpleasantness’ which in NAZI propaganda describes their process of ‘Othering’ the Jews.
The trial was a forgone conclusion, for everyone, even before it started. Though Arendt noted in her eventual book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil that the prosecution tried to ascribe war crimes to Eichmann that were clearly not his doing (the Einsatzgruppen Squads for example, predated the gas chambers and had no connection to his deportations), Arendt was under no illusion that he was guilty as hell. Damning him forever were tons of documents introduced at the trial in which he ‘cooperated’ with local authorities and reached settlements with Judenrats (the ‘self-governing’ Jewish Councils) and negotiated with ministers and diplomats of the highest level in countries allied with the NAZIs or occupied by them with the single purpose of murdering their Jews. Eichmann claimed many truths – he never ‘killed a Jew, or a non-Jew’ for that matter; he never knew which train was marked for immediate extermination as this was done at the receiving end – but he knew the purpose of what he was doing and admitted verbally and in written form that he assisted in the murder of millions. The fact that he could talk about it in court openly without the reality of what he had done emotionally affecting him like others in the court – the judges, the witnesses, the prosecution, even the defense attorney Dr. Servatius – only underlines Arendt’s point. In the amazing documentary film about the trial, The Specialist, Eichmann can be seen in his glass booth watching film reels of the Holocaust with the most gut wrenching footage. He folds his hands. He plays with his pen. He sniffs. He never thinks. It is easier for him to not think. He doesn’t ever think. He just follows orders.
Following orders was always the go-to argument for those who could not talk themselves out of a tight spot, but legally they never had a leg to stand on. Eichmann and others confirmed what many historians pose and believe in which is that a ‘Fuhrer Order’ which is verbal directive from Hitler himself “had the force of law” with nothing else needed. This is why Hitler’s signature has never been found on any document ordering the Final Solution like it has on the controversial Commissar Order or other damning evidence. But regardless of this fact is the long standing German legal tradition of “Unrichtiges Recht” or ‘Unjust Law.’ Germany had like many other western “civilized” nations a clause that protected the morality of the person receiving an order they judged to be wrong: At any time any German military personnel could openly reject an Unjust Law under the legal protection of “Unrichtiges Recht.” Christopher Browning, in his seminal account of regular enlisted men participating in the Holocaust Reserve Police Battalion 101, documents time and again ordinary German soldiers, in this case civilian policemen, refusing to take part in the mass execution of Jews in the East. None of them faced court martial. In the American military this is taught as an “Illegal Order” and troops are instructed never to follow one.
In the face of the Unrichtiges Recht and the structure of legal protection afforded to a German citizen the common excuse of following orders falls apart, the excuse that it was policy and had to be done collapses. In the face of increasingly hostile ‘allies’ that see protecting their Jews as the only leverage with the Western Democracies, this becomes indefensible. As the AXIS waned, so did Eichmann’s ability to cut more deals to kill more Jews. But this never meant those organizations had to participate. In France for example, French cops round up the Jews into camps and later departed them to Auschwitz. Victims never saw a German until they reached Poland, and even then they were few and far between – the Poles and the Jews themselves acting as the exterminators. In fact it becomes apparent that almost anyone could have said no. The soldier shooting Jews at Babi Yar, the Kapos bribed into beating their own people, the diplomats communicating with 4BIV, the list is endless. Very rarely were ‘special actions’ or ‘special treatments’ truly carried out by force because of Unrichtiges Recht. High profile examples remain: the Jewish Sondercommando crews who loaded the chambers of Auschwitz and cleared the bodies afterward knew they were next if they did not kill their fellow man. The crews of Sobibor, Treblinka, Mauthausen all faced this certainty.
But for a German citizen who didn’t suffer the Statelessness created for the regime’s enemies, this simply was not the case. Finding a Wehrmacht soldier tried for not following orders in the common actions the regular army took against civilians and partisans is very few and far between. In fact, every German General could have said no. Every diplomat, every bureaucrat, every single person in the chain of command regardless of wielding a pen or a Lugar could have said no. The fact that very few did, so few that collecting their names on a few pages is not a problem, condemns all of them, Eichmann included, in Arendt’s eyes and the eyes of history. This predilection to do your duty, a Kantian kind of rule which Eichmann admitted that he adhered to is best summed up by another hard to pronounce or define German word: Kadavergehorsam. Like Schadenfruende it takes a sentence to describe Kadavergehorsam, and the best example is Eichmann himself who on 6 June 1960 told Captain Avner Less, his Israeli interrogator, the following jaw-dropping admission: “Throughout all the days of my life, I was accustomed to obey, from the nursery till 8 May 1945 – an obedience which developed in the years when I belonged to the SS – to a blind obedience, an unconditional obedience.”
The trouble for Arendt was two-fold. The first was her assertion of the Banality of Evil, which became immediately contested by other Jews who called her a self-hater, put words in her mouth that she never said, and searched her book for inconsistencies (and found only typos). Her banality argument, though embraced by political scientists and philosophers as entirely plausible, came under great scrutiny by other Jews and some historians who cited Eichmann’s ‘business trips’ to the Death Camps to witness the exterminations as proof the banality argument was invalid. How could Eichmann be banal if he witnessed the Einstatzgruppen in action, the gassings in action, and still carried on with his job? Wouldn’t this affect him in some way? On top of this is the incredible job Eichmann performed when he was put in charge of deportations in Vienna before the war. Ostensibly he was only supposed to aid the process along but what Eichmann saw was an impossible situation. Jews were shuffled back and forth between dozens of departments that took months to get slips of paper just to go to another building in another part of town to get another piece of paper at a different office in a seemingly endless process to sacrifice their property for a passport out of the country. If the point of the policy was to get as many Jews as possible to leave the Reich (for at this time, after the Anschluss, the Riech included what used to be Austria) then the structure of the bureaucracy did not permit it. Eichmann and his colleagues innovated a streamlined organization on the spot, creating one place where a Jew could practically start in the morning, get all the paperwork he needed, give up all his property and obtain his permission to leave the country in the same day. ‘Deportations’ or ‘forced immigration’ went through the roof and Eichmann shined to his superiors. Does someone who can spur such a bureaucratic revolution really deserve to be called banal? This point has the most credibility and is completely passed over in her work, the film that carries her name, and most criticism of her theory. The other point, that she was trying to use the Banality of Evil to describe all responsible for atrocities is simply not only false, but a stretch of the imagination bordering on a deliberate lying campaign to discredit her. Of course she wasn’t calling sadistic camp guards or trigger happy executioners banal. She restricted it to the bureaucrats and used Eichmann as a model. It is a legitimate criticism to say, given Eichmann’s resume, that he doesn’t fit the model.
The second and main reason why Arendt was in trouble was her mentioning the complicity of the Judenrats. The NAZIs organized everything to help them in their quest to make Europe Judenrein – Jew Free. And this included protecting a small group of community leaders to keep order in the midst of the chaos – the Ghettos for example. During the trial, members of the Judenraten testified against Eichmann, undeniably tying his communications with them to the horror of the Shoah. The Judges, who Arendt praises in her first paragraphs as the only good human beings above it all in the trial, were forced several times to remove members of the public due to their angry outbursts directed not at Eichmann, but at those Jews who survived as a result of their dealings with Eichmann. Many of the Judenraten knew of the Holocaust but continued to ‘negotiate’ with Eichmann in an attempt to win favor by trying to mitigate disorder and chaos in the ghettos and, critically, saving themselves in the process. Arendt poses the valid question: What would have happened if the Judenraten, or if all the Jews simply said no? What if they did cause trouble? Most threw her assertion aside as absurd – it was obvious after all, the SS would just destroy all of them.
But Arendt’s argument was they were being destroyed anyway so why not fight? Look at the Warsaw Uprising, which most Jews point to as a proud part of their history. The rebellion of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, the revolt in Sobibor: All indications point to Jews of all brands being more than capable of taking up arms and causing what was in every case for the NAZI’s – a distraction that temporarily stopped the exterminations and deportations and drew resources away from the war effort. Arendt only brought up the Judenraten because of their introduction in the trial and how their testimony further condemned Eichmann. But she was castigated for it. This happened despite the fact that during the trial the aggressive Attorney General Gideon Hausner prodded each survivor standing as a witness with “why did you not revolt?” He did this implicitly to show how the system Eichmann was a part of was a vast plan, designed to tear down the protective barriers of the Jews over time and in such a way as to strip them of their ability to resist. Arendt’s point of view was easily attacked because it seemed she was attacking the victim – never good in any situation but magnificently worse when there are six million victims. But though their conclusions from the questions were different Arendt and Hausner’s questions was essentially the same. Arendt was singled out for attack because some Jews didn’t like the way she was asking the question as opposed to Hausner.
Arendt is often ranked very high in the list of intellectuals of the 20th Century. Mostly this is because her book, On Totalitarianism, spelled out the how the evils of such systems work. There were many rebuttals to her theory of banality that she didn’t consider and some that hold quite a bit of credit. However, these views are often overlooked because of the excellent prose she employs to convey her point. She also had her own issues with banality which she never solved. These issues are hardly ever raised by her enemies when they speak her name in the same vitriolic breath as the contempt she held Eichmann. Instead they focused on phrases she never said, conclusions she never drew and mis-characterized her theory as an outgrowth of her subconscious thoughts regarding her identity as a Jew. These are all unfortunate developments of a people still hurting from an experience so painful it is hard to comprehend. The true tragedy of the controversy were those critics who in their attempt to discredit and silence her, exercised schadenfreunde in a pattern similar to their own persecutors. This is not what scholarship on the Holocaust is supposed to be about. Not even Denialism in its bankrupt ideology should be subjected to such a twisted and sick concept. Shoah scholarship is supposed to be about Never Forgetting, not trying to silence people who just want to ask the question: Why?