Why you should be reading about Nazis during Christmas.

Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party, the Holocaust, and the rise of the Third Reich have left humanity with a number of seemingly impossible moral questions. Evil on the scale of Hitler, carried out by an organized, industrialized, seemingly enlightened country, left the planet reeling in the decades that followed the war, and we, as a species are still dealing with the moral and intellectual aftermath: America’s military intervention in several international crises in my own lifetime seem to have been at least partially motivated—or justified—by the desire the avoid the kind of moral paralysis demonstrated by the Allies in the early days of World War II. The specter of Neville Chamberlain, as much as Hitler himself, has been repeatedly used to goad us into action. Of all of these problems, Hitler himself may be the easiest to solve: a broken, bitter man, turned sociopathic by either circumstances or nature, is not necessarily in and of itself an unusual circumstance, as the occurrence of serial killers and serial rapists would indicate. The real moral conundrum of the twentieth-century—as Hannah Arendt began to realize while attending the trial in Jerusalem of a mid-level Nazi in 1961—lies in a much more unassuming, even banal figure: Adolf Eichmann.

For when we consider Eichmann, as Arendt asked us to do in a series of New Yorker articles later turned into this book, we get at the heart of the Nazi difficulty. We are no longer asking the question, “Why did Hitler exist?” or “How do we keep another Hitler from happening?” We are asking “How, and why, did Hitler manage to get control of a major democratic European country, turn it into a massive war machine, come to control most of Europe, and turn the state apparatus into a bureaucratic tool for destroying Jews, Gypsies, and other groups? How was a madman allowed to destroy the centuries-old European Jewish culture in the matter of a few short years? Why did much of Europe and North America remain complacent, even complicit, for so long? Why did Germany so readily accept someone so clearly mentally ill as their leader for so long?” Even more complex moral and intellectual questions begin to emerge: “Why did so many Jewish people go so willingly to their own slaughter? Why did the Jewish leadership in many European communities act in concert with Nazi officials?” These last questions are the most charged, and in asking them, Arendt opened herself up a controversy that has not fully died down since she published the articles, and the subsequent book.

Eichmann forces these questions on us, because most of us, encountering a similar man in our everyday lives, would not consider ourselves to have met a moral monster. Arendt’s book leads us to believe that we do, in fact, meet the moral equivalents of Adolf Eichmann on a regular basis. We work with Eichmann, we are related to Eichmann, we may be Eichmann, depending on the situation. Eichmann was a loving father and a decent husband (by the standards of the time). He did his job—at least most of the time—to the best of his ability, and followed the orders and dictates of his superiors according to the best understanding of his own conscience. He wanted to advance in the ranks of his own society, but he did not have delusions of world-conquering grandeur. In the early days of the war, he worked hard to find the Jewish people a new home, one where that endlessly displaced people of Europe—suddenly made a problem by the Nazi party’s paranoid immigration policies and the pseudo-science that informed Nazi anti-Semitism—could “get some firm ground under them.” Eichmann read Zionist classics, and entered fully into the problems the diaspora had faced. When Adolf Hitler proposed the ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish question,’—namely physical extermination—Eichmann grew increasingly depressed and despondent in his job. His moral judgment was at least sharp enough to realize that organizing massive deportations of people to death camps put him in questionable moral territory.

And yet, he continued to perform his job. And in doing so, he did what much of Europe did during this period: they obeyed clearly morally questionable orders, rather than listening to their own individual conscience. Perhaps even more terrifying, Arendt proposes, Germans, and many of the countries and peoples who came under their control learned to distrust their own human conscience, seeing the clearly moral option instead as a moral temptation, one to be avoided and suppressed in the morally topsy-turvy world that Hitler and his loyal henchmen had created. When Eichmann obeyed and implemented the dictates of the Final Solution, he was, in many ways, being a good person by his own moral light. For trusting yourself to the moral and intellectual consciences of your superiors was seen as being moral. Eichmann, throughout his own trial, claimed he had a clear conscience, and the Israeli psychiatric experts who examined him proclaimed him to be perfectly normal. In order to be a Nazi murderer, one need not be a psychopathic madman. In the figure of Eichmann we learn that in order to be key in organizing the transportation and execution of millions of Jews, one need only be too complacent to fight the prevailing moral fashions. One need only be a little too interested in advancing one’s career (for the sake of your family, of course). One need only want to be able to do your job, and be left in relative peace. You only need to desire not to have to think too much about the moral aspect of the job you are involved in, or perhaps be a bit too eager to let yourself off the moral hook for the institutional actions in which you are helping to bring about.

The words ‘Nazi’ and ‘Fascist’ are tossed around far too easily these days; political disciples of both major parties enjoy the cheap moral satisfaction that comes with implying that the current president—if he is of the opposite political persuasion—is the reincarnation of Hitler. The analogies are weak and silly at best, and, at worst, are harmful to a true understanding of the evil that caused so much destruction in the middle of the twentieth-century. These questions also keep us obsessed with charismatic leaders, finding moral blame and praise to give them, according to how much we agree with their policies. We get to feel like ‘good people,’ in praising, or condemning, the actions of remote leaders who have little bearing on our own lives; we simultaneously get to get on with our own jobs, our own little lives, advancing our own careers, loving our families, and ignoring whatever institutional evils we may actually be helping to engender.

This may seem like a strange book to review, or even recommend, right in the middle of the winter holiday season, when our thoughts are supposed to turn to lighter, pleasanter subjects. I’ve read this book, in various formats, three times in the past three years—I’ll be teaching in in the spring—and I’m surprised at the moral optimism I often gain from reading it. The quality and clarity of Arendt’s moral vision—not to mention her complex, but clear prose—is reassuring in a world that still seems all too determined to rush headlong into moral madness. If you want reassurance that moral clarity is at least possible, even in the face of mind-numbing evil, then this book may prove to be an oddly appropriate holiday choice.

Nathan Elliott teaches composition and literature in Georgia while living in Newfoundland, using the powers of the internet, and worries about the institutional evil he participates in by doing so. 

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