The Morality of a Coward, Research Time, 27/11/2013

There’s a famous passage in Eichmann in Jerusalem where Hannah Arendt describes Adolf Eichmann’s way of speaking. The page positively drips with her contempt for him. Here, she describes a man who speaks in clichés and political catchphrases, parroting key phrases from the speeches of Himmler and Hitler instead of actually formulating an opinion of his own. This is often cited as a central element of Arendt’s conception of the banality of Eichmann’s particular brand of evil, the man so thoughtless that he doesn’t question horrifying actions, even as he knows the pivotal role his actions have in the torture and murder of millions.

But I see something different in Eichmann from this. I’m not precisely sure why I do. Perhaps it’s my natural contrariness: I don’t want to read a book that’s become so well known for one idea without discovering an alternative reading. Perhaps it’s a spot of academic careerism. If I have an interpretation of a book like Eichmann in Jerusalem that diverges from the vast number of commentaries on it, that revolves around an idea that hasn’t been written yet, then maybe I have an idea for a new article to burnish that CV. Maybe it’s merely that, like my partner says to me so frequently, it’s as if I’m constantly thinking about something. Don’t worry; she intends it as a compliment. At least I think so.

You see, Eichmann displays another ethically contemptuous attitude than his lack of thinking, the inescapable self-absorption that is the literal definition of idiocy. This idea occurred to me as I was reading of an incident Arendt describes long after the description of his borrowed speech. 

This incident was the one time Eichmann displayed a conscience. He was in charge of shipping a large number of Jews on a train, as he was frequently in his job. He could send it to Riga or Minsk, where Einsatzgruppen would kill them all by mass shooting. He could also send them all to the Lódz ghetto, which was run by a Nazi more interested in profiteering than genocide, so turned his ghetto into a workhouse. For this reason, people were rarely shot in Lódz; they died of starvation and disease, but were a slave workforce that wasn’t subjected to mass violence. He sent the train to Lódz.

As I first read these, in my mind, more illuminating
passages, I first thought of Waylon Smithers as a fitting
analogy to Eichmann's sniveling nature. Then I realized
that Smithers actually had a more dignified, ethically
upstanding character.
And he landed in a pile of trouble for it. Lódz was full past its capacity already, and couldn’t accept another trainload of people. The officer in charge kicked up a stink with higher command, and Eichmann only kept his job thanks to the personal intervention of Himmler. Himmler also extracted a promise from Eichmann that he wouldn’t do something like that again. Eichmann obeyed that promise. 

Eichmann never did any research to see if this train could have been accepted anywhere other than at a killing field, he made no contingency plans, made no arrangements with anyone to make this transfer of Jews to a safer place actually succeed. He felt bad for a moment about what he was doing, and impulsively changed the train’s route. At testimony, Arendt relates how he was more concerned about getting in trouble with his bosses over this incident than he was over the actual death of these people when they were properly sent east.

Adolf Eichmann was the most cowardly nebbish the world has ever seen. He perfectly illustrates the ethic of a total coward. 

Another incident puts his nature as a sniveling yes-man at the forefront. Eichmann acted as secretary for the Wannsee conference of the German civil service as they planned the logistics of the Final Solution, all the niggling details of concentrating Jews at key geographical positions and shipping them properly to their extermination camps, making sure that the shipment schedules never overburdened a single camp site. They were literally drawing up a freight train schedule for genocide.

Eichmann remembered very little about the details of this conference, even though it was his job to record all of it in the required detail. He attached very little moral significance to its subject matter, despite its monstrousness. The reason the day stuck in his mind was because it was the first time he ever joined his boss, Security Office Chief Reinhard Heydrich, for drinks and cigars after a busy, tough conference day to shoot the shit and unwind. The only reason he remembered his role in building the literal architecture of the Holocaust was because it was the best opportunity he had in his career at that point to brown-nose and suck up.

Eichmann in Jerusalem isn’t just a study in how idiocy can encourage monstrous acts. It’s also how even in the context of monstrous acts, it’s still possible for a person to be a cowardly sniveling sycophant.

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