Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Eichmann in Jerusalem 

He's normal. Way too normal.
"More normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him."

And this is the most disturbing book I've read in a long, long time. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Hannah Arendt) is just that. Eichmann wasn't brilliant. He wasn't devious. His only goal was career advancement. His only original thought was to suggest deporting the Jews to Madagascar, and he was grumpy when that idea was rejected. He felt sick on the rare occasions that he had to see people die. Blood made him faint; he confessed he could never be a doctor. But he could devote himself to career advancement and end up in charge of Jewish transportation. He never saw anything wrong with what he was doing because he didn't have the imagination to see the end result of what he was doing. The Reich needed trains? He got trains. He didn't think about where they were going. He remembered the dates of his promotions but not the dates of the invasion of Poland. He had his own world. He shares the responsibility for the deaths of 6 million Jews (he had little to do with the deaths of the other 4 million people killed).

This book documents his trial in Jerusalem after Israel kidnapped him from his refuge in Argentina. It isn't violent, or at least the violence is rarely described in detail, and rarely in numbers small enough for the human mind to comprehend.

The writing is brilliant. The analysis holds up even after 60 years. The differences between Eichmann's trial and the Nuremburg trials are significant - not least because Eichmann was tried by Jews in a Jewish state, not by the international community. The judges speeches are damning:
"And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations - as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world - we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the world with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang."

Somehow beaurocracies are capable of more evil than individuals. The individuals are just the necessary cogs in the machine. And millions die as the individual focuses on their career advancement and tries to avoid visiting the camps that made him sick to his stomach to witness.

I remember reading part of this in high school and being schocked. But there is a beauty in this analysis. While we are capable of more evil as a society, we are also capable of more good. We don't need to be extrodinary just willing to do good.
I was struck by what willingness can lead to. And desire. I want a job. I'm willing to help friends. But what's the cost? Do I know the cost? Do I bother to find out?

It's a really haunting book.
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