Thoughtlessness Revisited


Richard Wolin responds to Seyla Benhabib's NYT piece on Hannah Arendt, in The Jewish Review of Books:

Benhabib’s allegations concerning the purported banality of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism are peculiar, since they are fundamentally at variance with Arendt’s central arguments and claims. In fact, in Eichmann in Jerusalem Arendt repeatedly insisted that Eichmann acted not out of ideological conviction, as one might expect of a fanatical anti-Semite, but as a “functionary,” an exponent of what she terms “administrative mass murder.” Thus as she declared in a 1964 interview: “I don’t believe that ideology played much of a role. To me that appears to be decisive.” These observations led Arendt to the (to my mind, quite astonishing and unacceptable) conclusion that “[Eichmann] had no criminal motives.

Thus, it is not really the case, as Benhabib suggests, that Arendt “underestimated Eichmann’s anti-Semitism,” since, as we have seen, Arendt discounted ideological motives entirely. Consequently, Arendt’s interpretive framework leads to the implausible conclusion that someone who proudly claimed responsibility for the murder of six million Jews—and who, on more than one occasion, openly regretted that he had not killed more—remained unaffected by the reigning ideology of the regime he served: anti-Semitism.

More importantly, it is disingenuous to suggest that Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, crude though it may have been, was “banal,” since it was part of an ideological template that underwrote the extermination of European Jewry. As the historian Raul Hilberg observed: “[Arendt] did not . . . grasp the dimensions of [Eichmann’s] deed. There was no ‘banality in this ‘evil.”

More here.