Who’s On Trial, Eichmann or Arendt?


Seyla Benhabib in the NYT's the Stone (Adolf Eichmann during his 1961 trial. Credit Associated Press):

The Emory University historian Deborah E. Lipstadt told The Times this month that Stangneth “shatters” Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann. In The Jewish Review of Books, the intellectual historian Richard Wolin writes: “Arendt had her own intellectual agenda, and perhaps out of her misplaced loyalty to her former mentor and lover, Martin Heidegger, insisted on applying the Freiburg philosopher’s concept of ‘thoughtlessness’ (Gedankenlosigkeit) to Eichmann. In doing so, she drastically underestimated the fanatical conviction that infused his actions.”

This sort of dismissal of Arendt’s work — essentially a rejection of the “banality of evil” argument — is by no means new, but it does not hold up when one truly understands the meaning of her phrase. Couldn’t Eichmann have been a fanatical Nazi and banal? What precisely did Arendt mean then when she wrote that Eichmann “was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.”? Arendt certainly did not think that ordinary human beings were all potential Eichmanns; nor did she diminish the crime Eichmann committed against the Jewish people. In fact, she accused him of “crimes against humanity,” and approved his death sentence, with which many, including the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, disagreed.

More here.