Ordinary Evil


Home Up

Eichmann on trial in Israel


"Adolf Eichmann coordinated the identification, assembly, and transportation of Jews to the concentration camps and death.

 After the war Eichmann escaped to Argentina. In 1960 Israeli agents captured him in and smuggled him out of the country.

He was put on trial in Jerusalem and was sentenced to death and hanged May 31, 1962."stevenlehrer.com



 Eichmann and the 'Banality of Evil' 

(the 'ordinariness' of evil)

In her book about the Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) uses the phrase 'the banality of evil' to characterize Eichmann's actions as a member of the Nazi regime, in particular his role as chief architect and executioner of Hitler's genocidal 'final solution'for the 'Jewish  problem'. Her characterization of these actions, so obscene in their nature and consequences, as 'banal' is not meant to position them as workaday. Rather it is meant to contest the prevalent depictions of the Nazi's inexplicable atrocities as having emanated from a malevolent will to do evil, a delight in murder. As far as Arendt could discern, Eichmann came to his willing involvement with the program of genocide through a failure or absence of the faculties of sound thinking and judgment. From Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, Arendt concluded that far from exhibiting a malevolent hatred of Jews which could have accounted psychologically for his participation in the Holocaust, Eichmann was an utterly innocuous individual. He operated unthinkingly, following orders, efficiently carrying them out, with no consideration of their effects upon those he targeted. The human dimension of these activities were not entertained, so the extermination of the Jews became indistinguishable from any other bureaucratically assigned and discharged responsibility for Eichmann and his cohorts.


The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy




Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

MAY 24, 1996


David Gergen, editor at large of "U.S. News & World Report" engages Daniel Goldhagen, professor of government at Harvard University and author of the controversial book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.

DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Dr. Goldhagen, the publication of your book has caused a passionate storm on both sides of the Atlantic, some rising to praise you, others to protest and condemn. Tell us, for starters, what you think is new about the book.

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Well, there are many things that people believe about the Holocaust which need to be revised. First of all, there are many more people involved in the extermination of Jews, many more Germans involved than people commonly believe and understand. The minimum estimate that I've come up with--and this is a minimum--is 100,000 people. In fact, the number was probably far higher.

MR. GERGEN: They were perpetrators.

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: Perpetrators, people who killed Jews, who deported them to their deaths, who manned the concentration camps and the ghettos. The second thing is that many of these people were ordinary Germans, ordinary in every sense of the term. They came in all walks of German life, all social backgrounds, all professionals, all educational levels, different religions, and many of them were not in the SS. They were not the most frenzied followers of the Nazi regime. And a third thing that should be at the center of any analysis of the Holocaust is that many of the killers knew that they did not have to kill. In the history of the Holocaust, never was a German perpetrator ever killed, sent to a concentration camp, jailed, or punished in any serious way for refusing to kill Jews. It actually never happened. It's a historical fact. And many of the men, themselves, knew they didn't have to kill because their commanders told them they didn't have to.

MR. GERGEN: Right. This breaks away from the conventional explanation which is essentially that Hitler and the Nazis, the zealots in the Nazi Party both inspired and directed the Holocaust and that to the extent that other Germans participated, the ordinary Germans participated, they did so under duress.

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: Well, of course, Hitler and the Nazi Party were instrumental for the initiation and commission of the Holocaust. Without the Nazis, there would have never been a Holocaust in Germany; however, they came to power in a country which was already virulently anti-semitic, and so, therefore, they were easily able to mobilize ordinary Germans first in the persecutions of the 30's, the radical persecution of the Jews in the 30's, and then in the extermination of the 40's.

MR. GERGEN: Right.

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: And it's the voluntary--the volunteerism of the killing operations which actually show that it wasn't that difficult to induce ordinary Germans to kill Jews, to slaughter Jewish men, women, and children.

MR. GERGEN: But that's what's knew about it. You're arguing it was not under duress. It was voluntary, and it much more massive. There were far more ordinary Germans involved in this than people have acknowledged in the past.

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: Most of the existing theories about them are social psychological theories of one kind or another that assume that the people did not believe that the killing was right and they try to explain how people who were opposed to it could be brought to kill. It seems to me, and what I argue in the book, that the evidence--and there was an enormous amount of evidence to support this--is that they actually--the perpetrators shared a Hitlerian image of Jews. They were virulent anti-semites who didn't need to be induced to kill through some kind of pressure but who killed willingly.

MR. GERGEN: One of the examples that you had that I found compelling was the group of entertainers who came to entertain the troops, German troops.

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: There was an SRO group of musicians and poets of the spoken word who were with a particular police battalion in Poland. They were just there to entertain them. They found out one day that there would be a killing operation the next day and upon learning about this, they begged--this is the testimony of one of the killers--they begged to be allowed to take part in the executions and, indeed, they were allowed to man the execution squad the next day. These were people who had no formal responsibilities for the killings, who--ordinary Germans who, themselves, hated Jews so much that they wanted to kill them. And they shot Jews at point blank range.

MR. GERGEN: Yeah. I also found the photographs quite striking because there was--the volume of photographs showing the various kinds of torture and in some cases showing German soldiers or German police battalion, ordinary Germans, as you call them, smiling, but also there's this one photograph of a German holding a rifle with a lone woman embracing her child, and he's about to shoot both of them clearly. And that picture was taken, he sent it back to his family.

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: Mm-hmm. Well, one of the reasons we have so many photographs of the Holocaust or the reason that we have so many photographs is because the Germans took them. This enormous photographic record was produced by them, and they didn't take the photographs to indict themselves or to indict their countrymen. They took them in order to memorialize their deeds, quite obviously. In one police battalion, the photographs were hung in the headquarters, and anyone could order copies of them as if they were--as if people--as people would order copies of their favorite snapshots on a vacation or on a safari. And the photographs are really revealing. As you mentioned, they sometimes show the Germans standing in a lordly manner, smiling, with the Jews in a degraded position, Jews whom they are about to kill. These were--the photographs are a telling tale of approval.

MR. GERGEN: Tell me this. Were there not Germans who disagreed, who, in fact, tried to protest during the 30's and were essentially shut down, they were treated brutally, in some cases deported or sent to the camps, themselves, if they protested these kind of activities?

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: There were, of course, many German opponents of the regime, and even some Germans who--who dissented from the prevailing anti-semitic image of Jews and Germany, and who opposed the killing, of course; however, they were clearly a small minority. In Nazi Germany, there is a vast record of dissent against a whole range of policies, economic policies, religious policies, the treatment of slave labor, for example. And despite this vast record of dissent against many of the regime's policies, we have almost no principal dissent against the treatment of the Jews in the 30's and the dominant anti-semitic image that was put forward, let alone the killing. And so that shows that Germans actually had independent views, and they could protest--

MR. GERGEN: Right.

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: --but they didn't against the persecution of the Jews.

MR. GERGEN: Why do you think other historians--many, many historians have looked at the Holocaust. Many have come to different conclusions. Why do you think they have come to very different conclusions looking similar evidence?

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: Well, in fact, there's been very little written about the perpetrators. Until recently, you could read the vast literature on the Holocaust and you would learn almost nothing about the foot soldiers in the war against the Jews, the people who actually killed them and deported them and manned the camps. And so I think that the conclusions drawn have been drawn without a sufficient evidentiary basis about the people who were the killers. Until you understand these people, their backgrounds, their lives as killers and why they killed, you can't possibly explain the Holocaust.

MR. GERGEN: What I find, Dr. Goldhagen, in looking at the various reviews that have been written on both sides of the Atlantic is that you have won many people over to your point of view about who did the killing, the ordinary Germans, and the fact it was volunteeristic, that many of your critics say that you cast a powerful new light on something that needs to be better understood. So the who seems to be widely accepted. What I find has caused a great deal of controversy is why, what led people to do this. Now tell me first of all what your explanation is.

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: When you look at the details of their actions, including the immense cruelty they perpetrated upon the victims, including the photographs they took, including the celebrations they had after killing operations, including that many of them had their wives and girlfriends with them and many other things, it seems that there's no way to explain why they did what they did except for that they believed it was right that they were anti-semites. And also, there's testimony from them on this point. As one of the killers said, a man from a police battalion, speaking for himself and all of his comrades, and this is a direct quotation, "The Jew was not considered by us to be a human being." There's testimony on this point. Now, these people were bred in a society which was virulently anti-semitic, where anti-semitism, a view of Jews which held them to be different from Germans, different because of the biology conceptualized in terms of race, evil, and powerful, this was a common sense of German society even before Hitler came to power.

MR. GERGEN: Well, there's a review coming, for example, in "T'Kum," the Jewish publication, that says, in fact, that in the 19th century Germany that Jews were getting ambiguous signals that they were excluded from much of the economic activity of the country, but they were more culturally integrated, and that Jews in Eastern Europe looked upon Germany as a magnet, a place they wanted to go live, so that that reviewer at least felt that you overstated the case of how much anti-semitism existed in Germany and then connected with that another Clive James of the "New Yorker" writes, you know, you make Hitler look too small in this. Hitler and the Nazis, as he says, in some ways look like walk-ons in the final act of "Gotterdammerung," you know, the sort of spear carriers in Valhalla.

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: Well, I haven't read the "T'Kum" piece yet. It hasn't come out. The German Jewish community was in many ways a prosperous community, but it exists, but its prosperity existed side by side with virulent anti-semitism, which was, which was part and parcel of the common culture. There was an enormous outpouring, for example of anti-semitic literature, pamphleteering, and so on in the 19th century, and even parties in Germany which developed, which were devoted exclusively to anti-semitism, communities have prospered side by side with great hatred towards them. And this hatred simmered beneath the surface under political conditions which would not allow it to emerge. But when the Nazis came to power, it was easy for them to activate it. Hitler is not just a walk-on. Clive James, if he's attributing this to me, it's not entirely--it's not true at all. I'd simply--this is not a book about Hitler. It's not a book about the Nazi leadership. It's a book about ordinary Germans, and that's why I focused on them.

MR. GERGEN: You look at other genocides. After all, Stalin killed more people in the Soviet Union than Hitler killed Jews, and Mao Tse Tung killed more than Stalin and Hitler put together. You look at Cambodia, you look at Bosnia. There is something in the human psyche that goes beyond the Germans.


MR. GERGEN: That, that too many of us made--you know--

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: This is not about the human psyche. This is about the belief that exists in a society or that people believe that, that animate people and which lead them to act. In all these other situations there was also great hatred of the victims of a different kind. They didn't hate Jews, but in Rwanda, the Hutus who slaughtered Tutsis hated tutsis.


DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: And so in this sense the perpetrators of the Holocaust is--exemplifies certain general processes that are at work and other genocides as well.

MR. GERGEN: But doesn't it excuse the rest of us as human beings from what we ought to be thinking about with regard to this? And I found very compelling, for example, your quote from Moby Dick, the line about Ahab that you had--several sentences--the line about Ahab, that "he piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down, and then as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." Don't you worry about whether there's an Ahab in a lot of us?

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: But, you see, I don't think we're letting people off the hook in the sense that--in this sense. In fact, I'm saying that there are hatreds that exist in every society. I mean, one can generalize. They simmer beneath the surface. They can be very quickly activated. Not all hatreds are the same as anti-semitism was in Germany, and that we should be very vigilant against, for example, against public figures articulating what are otherwise private hatreds, because when they're articulated publicly, the politicians reinforce these hatreds, they sustain them, they legitimize them and form the basis for an ideology. So, in fact, I think we should be very vigilant, and that we should be on guard against this in our society and in other societies. I just have a different analysis of what the problem is. It's not some diffuse murderousness that exists within us towards any arbitrarily selected group but what we have to be on guard against are particular hatreds that exist in society against particular groups. That's where I differ.

MR. GERGEN: I understand. You're clearly causing a continuing storm. We thank you for being with us.

DANIEL GOLDHAGEN: Thank you for having me.


Copyright 1996-2006 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. All Rights Reserved.