'Separation barrier and destruction in Baba Amr, Homs.', from Freedom House'Separation barrier + destruction in Baba Amr, Homs.', Freedom House

Sympathy for the Devil: Eichmann in Damascus

The city of Mannheim in Baden-Württemberg, now as typically German and industrial as any conurbation found on the nearby rivers, is wholly divorced from the events of some seventy years past. Indeed, it  would be unremarkable in both its past and present settings, save for an obscure historical footnote As a railway hub and industrial centre, the Baroque 17th Century ‘Quadrate’ and the many Imperial era art-nouveau constructions that either had grown up around it were destroyed by indiscriminate Allied bombing, beginning as early as 1940.

‘Indiscriminate’ is an inapt description. The bombing was highly discriminatory. The deliberate terror-bombing of German civilians had a dual purpose. First, to impair a war machinery that would, in the Sportspalast speech of 1943, become openly oriented towards Totaler Krieg, or total war, and second, a retributive function as a directly equivalent action to that undertaken by the Luftwaffe through the summer of 1940.

Such formal enactment of the law of retribution, eye for eye and tooth for tooth, has left physiological scars that will be familiar to British readers. The modern replacements in Baden-Wurtemburg have aged discordantly; jarring with the ruthless optimism of the surrounding architectural mongrels and hybrids. Both stand as monuments to the insecurity of their creators.

This insecurity is most evident in the immediately pre- and post-war Brutalist edifices, which are rare in the city, and all the more frightening as a result. The pre-war variants tend to the self-indulgent, the ostentatiously weird and the contrarian. Their post-war illegitimate offspring tend to the impersonal, the nondescript and the utterly blank. The insecurity in both is expressed in their tendency to gigantism; to subtle errors in symmetry that greatly elongate the vertical perspective. Most tellingly, the post-war examples are as silent as mourners at a graveside. It is peculiar to the style that uniform non-conformity is tastelessly ever-present, but these have a particular quality of stone walls; invoking the right to silence with a force that is incriminating by itself.

It is a simple truth of the horror genre that the unseen monster is exponentially greater in its capacity to effectuate dread than the seen one, and that the greater part of fear is incomprehension. The blending of styles in the successive attempts to create a German vernacular is careless, carefree and often comic. The events of seventy years ago were anything but.

For this is Germany. The complex and peculiar ethics of particular orderings of stone and glass, made, kept and used by hands that touched unknown other things, are ever-present. Within these walls, within these picturesque, normal suburban houses with their immaculate gardens and ornate doors, one knows by osmosis what was said, what was done, what was, perhaps most crucially, often not done.

Yet there is a sense also in which one does not know. One, probably, never could truly know. It is for this reason that one is compelled upon spending any time here to revisit those unknown and incomprehensible events. There are few better guides than Hannah Arendt’s complete and authoritative report on, in the author’s own words, ‘the Banality of Evil’, as revealed in Eichmann in Jerusalem.

The details, the testimonies, some ludicrous, some all too straightforward, need not be dwelt upon here. It is a civic duty to confront these truths of a Europe passed, hopefully forever, but this need not be done third hand, and cannot be done justice in this format.

It cannot be done without warning either. The modern reader exudes shock and horror at the idea of parents leaving their children at railway stations full stop, let alone to evacuation to either the British countryside or the ‘East’. This is a sole comfort, the insulating knowledge of the passage of seven decades of determined efforts to learn from history.

For present purposes, only one need be discussed. It is presented with the sincerest warning that these were prosecuted as crimes against humanity for a reason; encounters with these actions are a challenge to one’s humanity, and the utility and appropriateness of humanity as a concept. It is taken from Richard Dimbleby’s report of April 1945 on the liberation of Bergen-Belsen:

“A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.

This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”

Another of the liberators of Belsen, Michael Bentine, wrote the following in his memoir The Reluctant Jester. It enunciates the only appropriate response:

“Millions of words have been written about these horror camps, many of them by inmates of those unbelievable places. I’ve tried, without success, to describe it from my own point of view, but the words won’t come. To me Belsen was the ultimate blasphemy.”

That words should fail is telling in itself. One need not read another of Arendt’s works, The Human Condition, or Gaita’s A Common Humanity, or be versed in Wittgenstein, to know that the charges at Nuremberg, Jerusalem, the Successor States or Moscow could not read: “Nine million counts of failing to treat each individual as an end in themselves”, or “Nine million counts of not obeying the golden rule”. The crime was against humanity; the norms of warfare or international law or even the terms of a specific charge of genocide were simply not sufficient. Due process and the demands of a fair trial required a technically specified offence, but the offence itself was the maximally extreme opposite to a technical one.

'Eichmann walking in the yard of his cell in Ayalon prison', Government Press Office
‘Eichmann walking in the yard of his cell in Ayalon prison’, Government Press Office

Eichmann himself ineptly and implausibly attempted to argue that he had followed Kantian ethics to the letter, that he had diligently enacted the maxim of universal law to his complete satisfaction by relying on a simple distinction between the immoral and the amoral. His contemporaries had made attempts to exclude the Untermenschen from that ethical schema by falsely emphasising the criterion of reasonableness as exclusive. This was the subjective basis for his assertion that he lacked the mens rea for murder and bore no malice towards any Jew on account of their being Jewish, and had not even been reckless towards their destruction. Eichmann’s world was a military one, emphasising deference to authority and superiority as universal laws. Thus, his invocation of Kant was legitimate, though the reasoning of his superiors was supremely faulty.

This particular problem forms the substance of Arendt’s categorisation of this evil as banal. This conclusion was contentious for the obvious reasons; the systematic extermination of a type of human seems incomprehensible as banal or mundane, since such an act of monstrous barbarity makes a monster and a barbarian of the perpetrator, by definition.

That definition rests upon whether Eichmann’s invocation of Kant was objectively reasonable, since the moral standard of humanity against which the crime was committed is an objective standard. It plainly was not objectively reasonable, and on that basis Eichmann’s guilt was established.

However, the difficulty rests in the subjective reasonableness of the assertion. Eichmann was either too intellectually incompetent to recognise a bad argument prima facie, or too doggedly officious to question his superiors. The first raises questions as to his moral autonomy, the second to his principal guilt. Both raise questions of the description of his moral nature as evil. After all, it is sufficient to destroy the myth of the sadist, the monster and the gleeful murderer if one finds that the defendant held a justifiable belief in the rectitude of their conduct.

Arendt records that Eichmann did possess such a mistaken belief, but then criticises only the numerous errors of reasoning that led him to it. To that, history often adds the pervading culture of anti-Semitism in Europe, the martiality and patriarchal social norms that encouraged such attitudes, and the obvious fact that the most fervent Nazis were, by nature, those who had struggled under the preceding regimes, and not drawn from the most intellectually endowed segments of the population. These are explanatory of the origins of the fallacious reasoning, but don’t allow us to determine the existence of that reasoning.

A similar difficulty is present in the discussion of the infamous Nuremberg Defence; the moral imperative to follow military orders in war and acts of law in peacetime, and any resultant mitigation of the conduct of the accused. In this regard, it can be made objectively and factually certain that the accused was in no personal danger under the ordinary conditions for defences of Duress or Coercion; or any danger at all in Eichmann’s case, having exhausted his career potential as an Obersturmbannfuhrer. However, this says nothing about the possibility of rumour, or the general uncertainty inherent to the instability of the Nazi system of delegation, by which Eichmann may have come, subjectively but rationally, to believe that such a danger did exist.

By analogy, it is plausible that a stressed and exhausted armed policewoman, faced with an agitated man holding a bloodied knife and screaming at her in a foreign language, might rationally form the belief that he poses a threat. Moreover, this would be sufficient to explain her shooting him in terms other than as an act of murder. That a subsequent transcript may reveal objectively that the victim of the shooting was seeking help and indicating that the weapon was used in an attack nearby, is not contradictory to that conclusion.

The same may be said of Eichmann. One remains free to determine that any or all of the perpetrators were sadistic anti-Semites who were either too arrogant or too idiotic to formulate a more watertight defence than the ones they trotted out falsely at Nuremberg and subsequently. Similarly, one may conclude that the Court of the Victors had neither jurisdiction nor competence to decide these matters one way or the other. What is important in all cases is that erroneous belief and fallacious reasoning, whether genuinely held or not, simply defeated the conception of the monstrosity of the deeds. For whether these men made these conclusions genuinely or saw these as the best arguments that could be made to avert the death penalty, no evil genii were they.

Yet the acts themselves remain monstrous and unspeakable. Nine million separate counts of murder was legally implausible given the mens rea conditions. Nine million counts of Gross Negligence Manslaughter, or of being a conspirator in or accessory to Murder would have been politically unthinkable, despite their appropriateness to the crime1. As Rousseau observed, omniscience is a prerequisite for a legislator.

To resolve this, a single crime of genocide or offences against humanity was created. Philosophically, it is a crime of two elements; an objective one encompassing the crime against nine million humans, and a subjective one against the foundations upon which ethics or reason rest. It thus sought to make not only the acts themselves literally and utterly incomprehensible, but also their perpetrators.

This wholly defeats the objections to Arendt’s conclusion of banality. Eichmann willingly facilitated extrajudicial execution as a matter of bureaucracy, concerned with his professional status and prestige in so doing. Eichmann rationally believed a number of noble falsehoods about deference, still widely held and disseminated today.

Additionally, he founded upon these lies, without recognising them as such, a system of personal ethics within which, equally familiar moral principles became engaged.

Finally, he demonstrated the remorse and sympathy prized in criminal proceedings not merely to his own benefit at the hour of judgement, but demonstrably when forced to visit the outcomes of his own actions. He was repelled by the Einsatzgruppes and Sonderkommandos, and horrified by Treblinka. Eichmann had a great number of ‘decent Jews’, as Himmler described them, on whose behalf he made personal interventions.

In short, Eichmann and his crime were all too understandable, the same crimes of complicity as enumerated by Peter Unger in Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, of which every one of us is guilty. The, unfortunately, irremovable conclusion that a significant number of individuals could have filled Eichmann’s place, and been even worse for their victims, is evident in Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann’s claim that an orderly execution is morally superior to a chaotic massacre.

The Romanian pogroms offer testimony that that might not be as absurd as it appears. The answer is that there are no ethics that encompass killing as a virtuous action, only a permissible or humane one. Was Eichmann then to be lauded in respect of the few survivors chosen for labour at Auschwitz, and delivered from certain death at the hands of a Moldavian mob?

Potentially, for the reason of the final of Arendt’s conclusions. The great overarching difficulty, emanating from an amor mundi, or common humanity, necessary to establish the crimes, and the difficult conclusion that Eichmann too was included in that common humanity (and uncomfortably representative of a potential in all of it) was that of a tu quoque; the legal formulation of something like Kant’s maxim of universal law.

It will be all too familiar to our inner recalcitrant children, to admit one’s own guilt but mitigate it using the collective guilt of one’s peers; or, more effectively, the specific guilt of one’s accuser. “We’re not discussing me” may be an effective riposte to a five year old, but does grave damage to the competence of a Court claiming custody of justice.

For the truth of the collusion of, variously, the Catholic Church, allies, neutral states and hostile agents lost to history in the attempted destruction of people declared undesirable by the state was an all too obvious fact. Indeed, the moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy of the British instigation of concentration as a convenience of war, or retributive bombing campaigns, or the United States’ razing of whole cities, naturally follow.

The same is true of the broad guilt of humanity, for doctrinal racial segregation, colonialism, imperialism, militarism and even simple mutual antipathy. Finally, the general liability for omission is often too painful to face. That Burke was wholly wrong in attributing the success of evil to the omissions of the virtuous is made clear by Goethe’s epithet: ‘Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in this world than do malice and trickery. They are certainly more common’.

Each of us knows that the correction of any ill afflicting the world at any time is entirely within our collective gift. Yet we omit to do so, from disinterest, distaste or disaffection, preferring instead to think ourselves virtuous or moral for the small goods that we do perform.

We, like Eichmann, invoke our comparative good as a defence to the charge that we lack ideal goodness; our small good is preferable to no good whatsoever. For that reason, the proceedings at Nuremberg, Jerusalem and elsewhere had to acknowledge the most basic reasoning of humanity, and consider that defence on merit.

Fortuitously, the evidence was almost unerring in proving that the defendants were, in fact, negligent and expedient to the point of violence in the execution of their duties. Not for reasons of sadism or anti-Semitism, of joy in the vicious business before them, but because in order to conduct that business in the first instance they had already divorced themselves from the very sympathy necessary to recognise suffering where they inflicted it. Many could have filled Eichmann’s place with a comparatively greater desire to heap misery upon indignity upon death, but this is of no significance to the weighing of Eichmann’s own actions against the ideal.

There is, it must be acknowledged, an unfortunate symmetry between Himmler’s praise of the SS at Posen, and Churchill’s of the RAF in 1940. Both speak of a common humanity, and wholly against it. Both spoke to give legitimacy and support to the commission of murder against a being that one recognises as equivalent to oneself, and both were effective at doing so because they invoked a moral purpose for the act. In this regard, there was little left to the law to say on the matter; the judgement of the District Court of Jerusalem was made on humanity as a whole, in the name of justice, and the finding of the Appeals Court on Eichmann and Nazism solely, at justice’s expense.

In the finality of the balance of the events, then, sympathy for the very Devil is drawn, painfully and reluctantly, from humanity collectively. For Adolf Eichmann and his peers either were of our species, and there, but for the Grace of God, we went, or they were not, and so sat wholly outside the province of the laws and morals of our species.

A figure, head and torso out of view, lies supine on a blue and grey tiled floor.
‘The world was somewhere else’, Erik Pevernagie

Consider the analogues of al-Assad or al-Baghdadi in The Hague. The conclusion may well seem even more revolting; that one is not only roughly equivalent to the perpetrator from a moral perspective, but may share guilt in the crime. It is not made without reasoning, as explained above, but nor is it made without reason.

For we know, indisputably, that a similar attempt to eradicate a type of human, Yazidi, Kurd or Kafir, is being perpetrated. Similarly, the claims of statal immunity, of self-determination and sovereignty, are being employed to justify and legitimate those actions.  We know that the victims are at our very doors, and yet we only muster sufficient moral capacity to regard them as such when they die on our beaches, or sit shocked in ambulances. Perhaps, indeed, we only recognise them as such after reading the work of Hannah Arendt from half a century before. Names like KruppSiemens, and Boss will continue to testify to humanity’s ability to proceed regardless.

In order to assuage the voices of half a million silenced accusers, only two more need be spoken: no more. Otherwise one risks being a witness for the defence at best, and at worst an accessory to the crime. Perhaps most seriously, it makes a mockery of ethics to omit to do the very least that can be done. Above all else, the words of Niemoller’s poem command it;

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Suggested further reading:

Hannah Arendt Eichmann in Jerusalem

Robert Gellately Backing Hitler: Coercion and Consent in Nazi Germany

Immanuel Kant Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals


Robin Hill is a final year Philosophy, Politics, & Law student at Swansea University. In addition to Undercurrent Philosophy, he writes for the superb Jack Swan Swansea City fanzine on the Philosophy of the Beautiful Game. He often considers biographies to be a positive inversion of Aristotle’s ad hominem fallacy, and the first step on the road to sophistry.

How about you dear reader, do you think, as is suggested, that in present troubles we are ‘not only roughly equivalent to the perpetrator from a moral perspective, but may share guilt in the crime?’


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