Currently reading Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem
. It's a book compiled from her reporting on the 1961 trial of a Nazi official who was captured by the Israeli government when he was living retired in Argentina. Its famous refrain is "the banality of evil", the notion that horrendous crimes are often enough committed through bureaucratic stupidity rather than by radical malevolence, but the substance of the book is much less trite than might be suggested by the catch. Arendt has a keen sense of what constitutes a political action and does much to contextualize the trial (David Ben-Gurion's interest in promoting "Jewish consciousness" in the post-war era) and the actual difficulties faced by both the prosecution and the defense in dealing with such a ridiculous figure in Eichmann (who, for instance, thought he was joining the national guard when actually he was signing up for a low level intelligence gathering position in the S.S.).
The book offers a portrait of the vulnerability of people in the age of nation states and modernity, one hobbled by self-grandeur and ultimately turning hollow and parodic, and delivered in cold and unremittingly ironic tones. It is also, of course, in the wake of its shrewd assessments, a point of self-reflection.
A passage from the third chapter, 'An Expert on the Jewish Question':Eichmann's mind was filled to the brim with [insipid mannerisms]. His memory proved to be quite unreliable about what had actually happened; in a rare moment of exasperation, Judge Landau asked the accused: "What *can* you remember?" [...] and the answer, of course, was that Eichmann remembered the turning points in his own career rather well, but that they did not necessarily coincide with the turning points of Jewish extermination, or, as a matter of fact, with the turning points in history (he always had trouble remembering the exact date of the outbreak of the war or of the invasion of Russia). But the point of the matter is that he had not forgotten a single one of the sentences of his that had at one time or other served to give him a "sense of elation". Hence, whenever, during the cross-examination, the judges tried to appeal to his conscience, they were met with "elation" and they were outraged as well as disconcerted when they learned that the accused had at his disposal a different elating cliché for each period of his life and for each of his activities. In his mind, there was no contradiction between "I will jump into my grave laughing," appropriate for the end of the war, and, "I shall gladly hand myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth," which now, under vastly different circumstances, fulfilled exactly the same function of giving him a lift.
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