Read for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018
Category: Read a book that scares you
“It is true that the totalitarian state tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June, 1942, on, to erase all traces of their massacres—through cremation, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing machinery—were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents ‘disappear in silent anonymity’ were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be ‘practically useless’—at least, not in the long run. It would be of great practical usefulness for Germany today, and not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition, if there were more stories like Schmidt’s to tell. For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp.
Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not,just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ almost anywhere but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a fit place for human habitation.”
Hannah Arendt’s study of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, first appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker in 1963. Arendt revised the book and added a postscript in 1964. The first few chapters and the last few chapters of the book are specifically about Eichmann’s trial, but the book also covers the prewar years in Germany, the Wannsee Conference, and the response of the European countries to Nazi demands to deport their Jews. Arendt writes that Denmark, alone of all the countries in Germany’s sphere of influence, contested the policy of deportation.
Italy, despite its formal alliance with Germany, protected most of its Jews by bureaucratically sabotaging its own official compliance:“The gentlemen of the Foreign Office could not do much about it, because they always met the same subtly veiled resistance, the same promises and the same failures to fulfill them. The sabotage was all the more infuriating as it was carried out openly, in an almost mocking manner.”
Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann makes it clear that he did not see himself as merely an obedient bureaucrat (“he remembered perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to”) but she did not think that he was driven by a deep personal belief in antisemitism, either. She portrays him as an ambitious person who wanted to be part of some grand project. His indifference to the content of that project, as he avoided thinking about it too hard, lead a particularly destructive version of the common impulse to be part of something larger than yourself.
I didn’t do much background reading, but this article in The Nation is a very interesting look at the book’s critical reception.
Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this suspicion would have been fatal to the whole enterprise, and was also rather hard to sustain, in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused so many millions of people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed. What could you do with a man who first declared, with great emphasis, that the one thing he had learned in an ill-spent life was that one should never take an oath (‘Today no man, no judge could ever persuade me to make a sworn statement. I refuse it; I refuse it for moral reasons. Since my experience tells me that if one is loyal to his oath, one day he has to take the consequences, I have made up my mind once and for all that no judge in the world or other authority will ever be capable of making me swear an oath, to give sworn testimony. I won’t do it voluntarily and no one will be able to force me’), and then, after being told explicitly that if he wished to testify in his own defense he might ‘do so under oath or without an oath,’ declared without further ado that he would prefer to testify under oath?