Hannah Arendt - Eichmann in Jerusalem
“Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it - the quality of temptation.” (45)
My wife is a nurse and I am work at a shelter. Both of us have to write down our interactions with the people we work with. In both of our jobs we spend about a third of our shifts covering our asses. If anything goes wrong we can just look it up and show that we followed procedure. This and Eichmann have a lot in common; personal responsibility, how we as a society deal with failure, and hierarchy/power. It is contrasted to Solzhenitsyn’s conscience and spirit.
Eichmann and I are in positions close to what is actually happening on the ground. The little guy is the one who sees the context and our bosses might make a better call in the context, but our boss’s procedure manual won’t. A procedure manual doesn’t understand the context. But everyone follows the procedure manual very willingly because I am not doing this job to do the best job I can do, I am doing this job trying not to get in trouble. I started out ignoring procedure. I got in trouble. I follow procedure. It happens this way because my boss wrote the procedure manual and when I disagree with him it is my position against his. He wins.
In many ways Eichmann is a better employee than I am. He followed the procedure manual with his heart. He believed it was his duty to subjugate his better judgement to that procedure manual. I recognize his defence from my own line of work. When something goes wrong I can bring up the logs and show that I followed procedure. What went wrong isn’t my fault; it’s just an anomaly the procedure didn’t take into account. The point is that I avoid responsibility for my actions. The truth is that I have to avoid responsibility because if I screw up it isn’t a learning experience it is grounds for being fired.
The Nuremberg trial threw out the policy manual and made people responsible for their actions. It makes me wonder how I would stand up if a society that didn’t have the same idea of what is acceptable looked at my life.
What Eichmann has to say to me is only half of the issue raised by Arendt. The other half is understanding how a society could turn evil to the extent that Nazi Germany did.
Hitler became a divinity. Eichmann took Kant’s categorical imperative; do unto others as you would have them do unto you and changed it just a bit. It became do unto others as Hitler does to them. It went from a theory of social contract to obedience to the Fürhrer. How did this happen? Everyone that Eichmann was socially subordinated to was doing it. It was the correct thing to do. What if the politically correct thing to do was to hate the Jews instead of refrain from racism?
Eichmann had part of it right. It isn’t the law (or PC) that should be followed, but the spirit behind the thing, and interacted with in a way that will change us. He forgot conscience though, and in the end he had to answer for his own actions, not for the pressures that informed those actions, but his actions, his role in the genocide.