It’s been a while since I read a book that made me think as much as Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. Her central premise is of course well known: that evil is almost boring in its expression. She writes,
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgement, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together for it implied that this new type of criminal commits his crime under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel that he is doing wrong.
Evil is not located in a few psychopaths but rather can be found in most ordinary human beings given the right conditions. It is this focus on the conditions that create or bring out evil that makes this book fascinating.
My favourite part was when she goes through each European country to discuss the details of how they tackled the “Jewish problem.” Here what seemed to matter above all was the extent to which the general population itself was anti-Semitic; and following this, how deep this anti-Semitism was and whether it was directed at foreign Jews or native Jews. In countries such as Italy, Bulgaria and Denmark, almost no Jews were deported or killed because the general population rebelled against directives from Germany to deport their Jews as part of the Final Solution. Denmark above all is an extraordinary story, where the King himself said that he would be the first to wear a yellow star. When Denmark was basically forced to hand over their Jews, they managed to sneak half of them into Sweden where they would be safe, and the other half went into hiding in Denmark and survived. In Bulgaria there were massive strikes against the government when Germany began to demand the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. And in Italy, although the government did not outright disobey Germany, they played a cat and mouse game which resulted in almost no Jews being deported.
Compare this to countries such as Germany, Poland, France and Romania where almost the entire Jewish population was murdered. Romania in particular, which Arendt designates as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, actually began killing its Jews before Germany did, and many of these killings were done by ordinary Romanians in unorganized pogroms that were especially violent. In fact when Germans found out about this, they were disturbed (!) stating that killing should not be done in such an uncivilized manner.
Arendt’s discussion of Holland was particularly interesting. A large number of Dutch Jews were killed and I had always assumed this was because of Dutch collaboration. She points out that because Holland’s government had fallen and the country was effectively under German command, the Nazis were able to infiltrate and identify and deport most Jews. She points out that Holland was the only country where students went on strike when Jewish professors were fired from universities. The Dutch also offered hiding places to almost half of all Jews in the country. The only reason so many were discovered is precisely because the Nazis had infiltrated the country so well.
What is perhaps most shocking about her report is her consistent demonstration of the central role played by Jewish leaders in orchestrating the destruction of European Jewry. In almost all countries, a Jewish council was formed which basically allowed Jewish leaders to decide who to save and how (usually based on financial leverage) and which almost always resulted in the majority of Jews being sent to concentration camps. Highlighting the role Jewish leadership in the Holocaust got Arendt into a lot of trouble and yet seems central to understanding how the Holocaust happened the way it did.
To conclude, I want to return to this idea that the level of anti-Semitism in a country played a major role in determining the fate of its Jews. How does this reflect on Europe today where we not only see rising levels of anti-Semitism but also high levels of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism. What does this mean about constructions of European selfhood, identity and nationalism? Why did some countries resist the Nazis while others went even further in exterminating Jews? Returning to Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, how can we connect particular discourses of race, modernity, nationhood, belonging, rationality, science and development to events such as the Holocaust, and indeed to continuing tensions in Europe related to the creation of an us/them dichotomy?
And above all, how have many of these dynamics been reproduced in Israel itself? Indeed Arendt’s warning at the beginning of the book about how the Israeli state was setting itself up as extremely strong and repressive state is above all important in our current time. She notes that because Jews felt so weak after the Holocaust, Israel was the means through which strength was to be projected outwards. This has, of course, happened at the expense of Palestinians. One act of ethnic cleansing has led to another. And yet, when we think of the banality of evil, it makes sense in the context of Israel even more: it is the belief that the killing and torturing of Palestinians is not wrong; it must happen for a whole host of reason. This is precisely what evil is and how it materializes – in the everyday acts and acquiescence of whole populations who believe that a certain thing is necessary.