just a cog?
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by Simon King




Everyone sat in the general seating with anticipation. Three judges – all holocaust survivors – sat on their chairs with commanding presence. The table had been draped in an Israeli flag. The jury sat on the left side of the room. The witness box was encased in thick bullet proof glass, although the defendant had not appeared yet. Once he did appear, the entire room started to talk to each other. The man’s name was Adolf Eichmann and he had been charged with ‘crimes against the Jewish people.’

The trial was filled with survivors – middle-aged and elderly immigrants from Europe, many of whom had settled in Israel. Eichmann had settled in Argentina after the war and had been caught by the Israeli secret police,  Mossad. Eichmann had been living in a quiet suburb of Buenos Aires and the Mossad agents kidnapped him and flew him to Israel. It may have been an invasion on the sovereignty of Argentina, but it was important to bring to trial one of the main organisers of “the final solution”. He had been indicted with fifteen crimes and for shipping millions of Jews to concentration camps. He had organised all of it with great zeal and meticulous care.

The judges listed the indictments. They claimed that Eichmann was responsible for a number of heinous atrocities: ‘Exterminated about 54,000 Jews. […] 360,000 Jews. […] Cruel and inhuman conditions.’ Several witnesses were called up and they were survivors of the concentration camps. One of them claimed the following: ‘Tore the clothing of the man and shot him. […] and then they took my mother. […] She was eighty-years-old and had two children in her arms. […] She had children in her arms and she was shot.’ The woman tried to suppress tears as she said this.

Eichmann sat on his chair as all of this transpired. He seemed passive, stern, taciturn, indifferent and unrepentant. This man was an abomination, a mass murderer and a raging anti-Semite. The witnesses recounted the most hideous memories, yet he simply sat on his chair and he did not seem to care. Whenever it was his turn to speak, he merely spouted banalities like ‘Those orders were thrust upon me’ or staggeringly unempathetic statements like ‘I regret nothing.’

Hannah Arendt was one of the women in the audience and she had been commissioned by the New Yorker to write an article about the trial. She looked at Eichmann and pondered. Once the trial came to an end, she went to a room and smoked a copious number of cigarettes.

Arendt was the author of Origins of Totalitarianism, which included the following statement: ‘The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men and to dehumanise them.’

Hannah felt that this quote was very pertinent indeed. Eichmann did indeed possess agency and he did make many decisions when he shipped millions of Jews to their death. However, Eichmann did not seem to be a satanic person – he was very ordinary. He had no underlying ideology or principles, he was merely a cog in a machine. Totalitarian society created a paradox in which horrible crimes were created by an ordinary bureaucratic apparatus. Indeed, his actions were thought-defying because, although thought tries to reach some depth and some truth, once it concerns itself with evil it encounters nothing. Good had depth, but evil has nothing – it is banal. Eichmann’s evil was banal. Good and evil are often shaped by motives and intentions, but Eichmann could not distinguish between good and evil. He was a cog in a machine. Whereas most enlightened societies tell its citizens not to kill, the Nazi regime told its citizens that they must kill. Eichmann killed because the state asked him to, but it did not bother his conscience. However, this did not absolve Eichmann from his crimes as he was responsible for his actions, as functionaries are human being and are, hence, also responsible.

Who was Eichmann? He was remarkably ordinary. He had been a hard-working pupil, but he was not gifted. He was placed in a vocational school and he trained as a construction engineer, but he ended up working for the Vacuum Oil Company. He claimed that he was fired from this job because it was a period of high unemployment, but he was most likely fired because of his membership of the Nazi regime.

He had not thought of exterminating the Jews, he simply carried out this order. Indeed, the end of the war had been difficult for him because he would have to lead a ‘leaderless and difficult life. I would receive no directives from anybody, no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me, no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult.’ He was a follower, a dull, lifeless bureaucrat who carried out demonic orders with equanimity. He had no strong ideological convictions and he joined the Nazi Party because it was expedient. In the trial, he had cited the Versailles Treaty and the high unemployment rate, but these reasons were unconvincing. He was not properly informed and he did not read the party program. He had not read Mein Kampf, either, but he thought that he could make a career for himself in the Nazi Party after failing at life. Still, party membership had elevated his status. He would have preferred to be hanged as a member of the S. S. than lead his hum-drum life as a Vacuum Oil salesman.

The regime’s crimes were initially aimed at anti-fascists, communists, socialists and left-wing intellectuals rather than Jews. By 1933, however, the Nazis had prohibited Jews from joining the civil service, which included all teaching positions, most branches of the entertainment industry, theatre, operas, concert and the radio. They were removed from public office, but private offices, such as legal and medical professions were not touched until 1938. They were deprived of all of their civil and political rights and they prohibited sex between Jews and Germans.

However, Eichmann was initially interested in Jewish emigration and became interested in Zionism. He even acquired a smattering of Hebrew during this period. He wanted all Jews to emigrate, but the Nazi regime gradually drifted towards the policy of  “the Final Solution”. Indeed, Eichmann indeed bragged about being responsible for the death of six million Jews and never showed any compunction, either during this period or during his trial in Jerusalem.

However, as Arendt looked at his impassive face, she realised that he was not a satanic, evil, monstrous criminal. He was not the agent of his own actions; he merely conformed to a monstrous policy program. He was a dull man who followed orders without any remorse, compunction or empathy. He was a functionary, a bureaucrat, a cog in a machine. He was incapable of original thought – indeed, his responses during the trial were littered with clichés. His actions were evil, but they were banal. It really was the banality of evil.



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