I was pushing piles of books from place to place today, when I noticed the binding of my Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Report on the Banality of Evil being pretty much in tatters. I opened it, and for the first time I actually noticed the letter Gershom Sholem sent her after the book was published. Now, while some very valid criticisms have been voiced since (like, I also didn’t understand her obsession with discrediting Hausner, so ummm, and also her frequent remarks about other people being more convincing or articulate than him, not really based on any evidence that was also shown to the reader), I think Sholem’s criticism is way off the mark: never did Arendt blame the victims of the Holocaust, and nowhere did she claim that “Eichmann became a Zionist” – she only remarked ironically that it was how Eichmann wanted to present himself.
It is the last paragraph of Sholem’s letter that seems to me most revealing: Sholem remarks that he regrets that she rejected the previous version of her analysis of evil, an analysis that was “eloquent” and “erudite”, adopting instead the “slogan-like” conclusion about the “banality of evil”. This, Sholem says, he cannot accept: however, he does not give any reasons for that other than the previous analysis being “eloquent”. This because there aren’t any: you can’t argue with facts.
And well: I guess when you’re a philosopher of religion, you don’t deal with facts, you deal with ideas. There’s no better way of putting it: in the end you actually write what sounds good, and what’s eloquent; you don’t write about facts, there’s nothing to check, nothing to verify, and also the voice of your god you hear in your head is your voice, always your voice(1). When you write about ideas, it’s much prettier to write that evil is radical or demonic or something similarly dramatic.
But when you write about facts, you can’t make them pretty; or at least you shouldn’t. And (some of) the facts are:
There was a man in court, his name was Eichmann, he was an SS-man
He did horrid things
He didn’t feel guilty
He wasn’t very smart
He had trouble expressing himself
He portrayed himself as an unlucky person, a victim of circumstances
He lied to the judges, he lied to himself, he lied to everyone, his lies were typically thoughtless self-contradictory denier lies
There was nothing radical or demonic about him
In the end, there can be no doubt that the final conclusion about the banality of evil stands, that there are facts supporting it; even if they aren’t “eloquent”. You could write something prettier and more erudite about it, but why would you, when there’s no need? The facts are more than enough.
(About some of the later criticisms of Arendt: again, I think they’re off the mark: of course, Arendt repeated often how Eichmann often claimed that he was not anti-Semitic, but nowhere did she say that she actually believed him; quite the opposite, she repeatedly stated that he kept bragging and contradicting himself and could not be trusted. He racist remarks however, are completely indefensible)
(Yes, I actually re-read half of the book this morning)
(1) There was a study like that somewhere, too, but I’m too busy to look.