Eichmann’s Thoughtlessness and Arendt’s Judgment

We are now about four weeks away from the start of my NEH Arendt seminar at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, when I will join 16 other educator/colleagues from across the country for a summer of scholarly study of three key texts by Hannah Arendt—Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and The Human Condition. Several other essays by Arendt will also be part of our bibliography.

As the summer scholars begin to prepare for the seminar, I have asked them to read Eichmann in Jerusalem and the first part of Origins in advance of their arrival at Bard later in June.

As further background to these works, a videotaped conversation between Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center, Tracy Strong, political theorist from UCSD and Southampton University (UK) and with philosophy professor, Barbette Babich, of Fordham University will illuminate some of the themes and controversies we will explore this summer. Among them is the way to understand Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann as “thoughtless.”

In the conversation, Berkowitz notes the way that the famous Stanley Milgram “shock experiments” have often been used to support a common misunderstanding of Arendt’s argument in the Eichmann book. Milgram himself thought his research verified Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann as a bureaucrat following orders. In fact, as Bekowtiz notes, Arendt did not accept the “cog theory;” she did not accept Eichmann’s rationale that he was a mere bureaucrat who was simply obeying what his superiors ordered him to do.

Recently, Milgram’s research itself has come under further scrutiny. The Australian psychologist Gina Perry published an expose last year, entitled Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. In an interview last year on NPR, Perry noted that her research changed her understanding of Milgram’s work: “I regarded Stanley Milgram as a misunderstood genius who’d been penalized in some ways for revealing something troubling and profound about human nature. By the end of my research I actually had quite a very different view of the man and the research… Over 700 people took part in the experiments. When the news of the experiment was first reported, and the shocking statistic that 65 percent of people went to maximum voltage on the shock machine was reported, very few people, I think, realized then and even realize today that that statistic applied to 26 of 40 people. Of those other 700-odd people, obedience rates varied enormously. In fact, there were variations of the experiment where no one obeyed.”

Yet, even Perry asserts the common misunderstanding of Arendt’s views about Eichmann: “The Eichmann trial was a televised trial and it did reintroduce the whole idea of the Holocaust to a new American public. And Milgram very much, I think, believed that Hannah Arendt’s view of Eichmann as a cog in a bureaucratic machine was something that was just as applicable to Americans in New Haven as it was to people in Germany.”

In the seminar, we will spend some intense time together reading and evaluating exactly what Arendt meant by “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil,” and why her work is still so relevant today.

Watch the videotaped conversation for some illuminating conversation about this and related subjects.

Heidegger, Arendt, and the Political

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  • Joy

    Today I asked a banker why banks have started charging us service fees for keeping our money in their institutions. The banker told me banks now follow a retail model. I know this is related to the banality of evil but there is no face to put to the evil. Bureaucrats and managers work hand-in-hand to use me to make a profit for themselves, all the while rationalizing their corruption of our financial system. How do I think about this without becoming bitter?

  • Nina Kunimoto

    That is an interesting question which I hope we can explore this summer. And How do we define “evil” and what does evil really mean. Does labeling the criminal “evil” let the criminal off the hook? Are there other ways to perceive those we deem “evil?”

    • Kathy J.

      I am sure we will be discussing this during the summer. Safe travels and look forward to meeting at Bard soon.

  • Mark Valentine

    It’s been a couple of weeks now since I finished reading E/Jerusalem and the residue acts like a slow-release specter haunting me. Arendt’s use of irony, her bedrock, her abiding sense of justice resonate inside of me. I confess that for the longest time I too thought the Milgram experiment confirmed the “cog” theory (and by extension, Arendt), but now, after reading the book and weighing how she treats her topic (when even her long, parentheticals she lades with important information–never as throw-aways or comet trails), I see that she writes as an arbiter to the reader. Or for me, at least, an arbiter.

    • Kathy J.

      Wonderful comment, Mark. And I am sure it will stimulate excellent discussions. I am just now finishing Gina Perry’s book, Behind the Shock Machine, and she makes a convincing argument for the importance of the outlier cases in Milgram’s work. And for how much the structure of his experiments were designed to elicit a particular response, sort of a self-fulling prophecy. I recommend the book. Yet, even Perry succumbs to thinking Arendt supported the cog theory, which you have already noted is not what EiJ is about. See you soon for more exciting conversations.

  • Mark Valentine

    Eichmann’s specter still haunts me. It appears to me that he used the blame-the-bureaucracy-not-me ruse as an attempt to appeal to progressives or wider, humanitarians who live by the Weber ethic that our (decent) works bring us nearer salvation. Eichmann wasn’t religious but the ethic for promotion still oiled the pistons of his ideology. Who could argue against working hard to appeal to one’s superiors? Well, the victims and those who care for the victims could argue this and do. Duty be damned! What haunts me is that Eichmann did strive to equate his technique with his ideology…and those who think that there is safety in bureaucracy buy it…because no one wants to live outside the safe, psychological suburb of bureaucracy.

    Thanks for letting me exorcise Eichmann’s spirit here. Looking forward to getting to know all of you soon.

    • Kathy J.

      Eichmann..we will take him apart over and over in the coming weeks. Thanks for your contributions. Safe travels!!

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