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Archive for October, 2008

In a last swing before Tuesday’s election, the Obama campaign bought air time from the major networks to air a thirty minute informercial that argued Obama’s case that he should be the next president. For the first twenty-five or so minutes, the informercial included previously taped stories of middle-class familes who, through various circumstances, were going through hard times. From an office that conveniently resembled the Oval Office, Obama appeared in between each story and outlined his plan for the country. It was both informative and emotional, and in my opinion, effective. I believe the Obama campaign will probably see a 1 or 2 point bounce as a result.

It wasn’t perfect. Obama threw in a whole host of promises, which may have diluted the content. But otherwise it was a touching piece and well worth the five million spent for it.

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Eichmann in Jerusalem Book Cover

"Eichmann in Jerusalem" by Hannah Arendt

When the Israeli secret service kidnapped Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960, they expected to capture a monster. Instead Israeli psychologists were surprised to examine someone who they claimed were more normal than they. In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt explores the concept of evil and discovers that Eichmann’s philosophy did not possess an irascible hatred toward Jews. Instead, Eichmann’s evil was less complicated, less ideological. The source of Eichmann’s crimes was not so much the supposed claim that the Germans were of a superior race than non-Germans, but rather the lack of thought with which drove Eichmann’s actions.

Adolf Eichmann was an officer within the SS, the much-maligned officer corps that was responsible for both expulsing the Jews from German territory and eradicating their existence. In other words, the SS-led by Heinrich Himmler-organized the ghettos, the concentration camps, and provided the logistics in getting the Jews there and killing them. Eichmann, a lieutenant colonel within the SS, provided the transportation for Jews to leave German territory and later the trains that delivered countless Jews to their death camps. Modeled after the Nuremberg Trials, the tribunal organized in Jerusalem charged Eichmann with “crimes against humanity” for orchestrating the logistics that transported millions of Jews to their deaths.

Surprisingly, Arendt objects to much of the trial’s procedures. The defense did not have the same preparation as the prosecution. While the prosecution had numerous lawyers, Eichmann for the most part had one defense attorney, Dr. Servatius. Moreover, the trial made no attempts to hide the overt reality that its purpose was much loftier than simply to provide justice to Eichmann. The trial served for posterity, to remind future generations of the crimes of the Nazis against the Jews. While Eichmann was a Nazi and a member of the SS, he could not possibly have solely shouldered the burden of the millions of deaths caused by the Nazi regime. By adopting all of the Holocaust as evidence against Eichmann (after all, Eichmann planned the logistics to get the Jews into the camps), Eichmann became a scapegoat for the Nazis and the German people in general.

Instead Arendt seeks a stronger explanation for Eichmann’s crimes. She summarizes the societal effects of a totalitarian government and contrasts it with the rules of a democratic society. Evil is thoughtlessness; it is a sort of “going with the flow” in a totalitarian government. In a democracy, people normally behave the rule of law and, for the most part, are only tempted to break the law. Most people do not succumb to those temptations. However, in a totalitarian society, this idea is turned on its head; corruption and evil become the norm and those elements in those environs shape people’s behaviors. People here only flirt with the idea of behaving morally and most people simply carry out their functions. Eichmann only knew to carry out his orders and to follow the rule of law (which was Hitler and his wish to exterminate the Jewish people) because society’s norms under Nazi Germany were allowed to shape his consciousness.

Eichmann in Jerusalem is a very weighty exploration of morality and much is crammed in its thin 298 pages. Arendt discusses the validity of the Jerusalem court, the complicity and lack of leadership in the Jewish councils that aided the Nazis to perform their atrocities, and the European countries that either complied or refused to extradite their Jews. France refused to expulse their Jews and Denmark refused to comply with any of the oppressive laws of Nazi Germany. But what is most interesting that supports Arendt’s thesis is that, after a short two years, the Nazis who resided in Denmark after its occupation no longer supported anti-Semitic actions and even sympathized with the Jews. It seems that once the Nazi functionaries were removed from the societal constraints imposed by Hitler, they were able to regain their moral consciousness.

In the end, Eichmann was convicted and hung. Hannah Arendt does not disagree with the court’s rulings, but the methods with which they were undertaken. Firstly, the methods with which Eichmann was obtained were questionable. Argentina did not have appropriate extradition laws for former Nazi officials to Jerusalem and Germany would not have taken him. Thus, Israeli officials illegally grabbed Adolf Eichmann and forcefully brought him for trial in Jerusalem. Secondly, the prosecution and defense did not have equal access to resources. The prosecution had more lawyers and was able to utilize documents the defense did not always have access to. Thirdly, the evidence brought forth by the prosecution did not necessarily have relevance to Eichmann’s actions. Such evidence was presented most likely in order to provoke emotion than to indicate Eichmann’s culpability of the crimes against the Jewish people.

Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of Adolf Eichmann’s atrocities during the Holocaust and the subsequent trial is an insightful work because it examines both the interrelationships of totalitarianism and moral consciousness within the self and global society’s responsibilities to bring those who commit these horrific crimes to justice. Any student of humanity, ethics and moral justice needs to grapple with these issues and Eichmann in Jerusalem provides a compelling framework to learn about the depths of morality, the human conscience, and how people’s worldviews are shaped within a totalitarian government.

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