A few weeks after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Hitler tasked Heydrich with “the implementation of the desired final solution of the Jewish question” and Heydrich informed Eichmann that the Nazis’ new policy would be extermination. At first, Eichmann was shocked, and at trial he fails to remember that Heydrich also told him that this “Final Solution” would not be his office’s responsibility. Eichmann was one of the first lower-ranking Party members to learn about the Final Solution, but by no means early in the Party as a whole; besides occasionally among the so-called “bearers of secrets” who knew about the program’s details, extermination was only ever discussed in coded language that prevented officers from connecting their actions with “their old, ‘normal’ knowledge of murder and lies.”
Eichmann’s relatively insignificant role in the Final Solution’s planning demonstrates that he is by no means the high-ranking, sadistic mastermind the prosecution makes him out to be. Again, the manipulation of language is perhaps totalitarianism’s most powerful tool: it ensures that people put their legal conscience as a loyal citizen above their moral conscience as a rational human being. Nazi “language rules” prevented officials from seeing their role in the Holocaust as anything beyond their desk jobs, and made it far too easy for them, like Eichmann, to decide not to look at the bigger picture.
Eichmann was mostly uninvolved in the details of the gassing. Although the prosecution falsely claims that he informed many higher-ranking officers about the Final Solution, they certainly knew before him, and when one of these officers described the gassing process to him, Eichmann left horrified, overcome with “a certain inner trembling.” He inspected various killing centers before they became active and observed some of the earliest methods of extermination—gassing in vans (he looked away) and firing squads (he turned around upon seeing bodies and was comforted by the sight of a beautiful railway station on the way home). He saw one group go to their deaths at Treblinka, but never visited the Auschwitz gas chambers or actually watched people being gassed. He merely saw and knew all he needed to understand “the destruction machinery.”
Once again, in its quest to make Eichmann stand for the totality of the Nazis’ crimes, the prosecution covers up the truly horrific nature of totalitarianism—its ability to corrupt average, even well-meaning people. Eichmann’s horror at witnessing the means of genocide illustrates his unrealized capacity for moral judgment. It is far scarier that the Nazis managed to shut this conscience down than it would have been if they merely picked people who were already amoral criminals. Eichmann’s wonder at the beautiful train station shows how tempting distractions (much like his cliché stock phrases) prevented him from confronting the reality of his job.
The defense never challenges any of these facts, which were established and are certainly enough to warrant the death penalty, especially since Eichmann’s visits to the killing centers proves his knowledge of and legal responsibility for his deeds. He was not acting “to save himself from the danger of immediate death” and did nothing “to avert consequences more serious than those which resulted,” so the laws based on those principles cannot acquit him. There is the “remote possibility” that his punishment could be reduced because of “acts done under superior orders,” but the defense does not make this argument and instead appeals to “acts of state,” a principle which would have made no Nazi liable to stand trial.
The defense’s strategy continues to seem bizarre and incoherent. This may be because of its lack of resources relative to the prosecution, or the fact that only “acts of state,” unlike “acts done under superior orders,” could have fully acquitted Eichmann. The “acts of state” defense is clearly unpalatable here—although Arendt does not fully explain why Eichmann fails to meet the principle until much later, it seems untenable to exempt all government actors from prosecution, which reflects the problem of jurisdiction and responsibility raised by a bureaucratic, state-run policy of mass murder. If another state does not have jurisdiction over Eichmann’s crimes, what kind of court could, and how would it differ from the Nuremberg Trials?
There is also the legally irrelevant but morally interesting question of whether and when Eichmann managed to “overcome his innate repugnance toward crime.” Interestingly, in September 1941, Eichmann uncharacteristically disobeyed orders and sent a shipment of Jews to the Lódz ghetto instead of straight to extermination in Russian territory, but was reprimanded by his superiors. “This was clearly the only instance in which he actually had tried to save Jews,” however, proving that he abandoned his conscience after four weeks at his new post, “whereupon it began to function the other way around.”
This question is morally interesting because it demonstrates how easily ordinary citizens with ordinary moral consciences—even relatively inept ones like Eichmann—can transform into ruthless monsters. His inability to think and lack of moral sense seem as much cultivated by the Nazi state as inherent to his person. After his reprimand, Eichmann’s conscience “began to function the other way around” because it encouraged him to follow his superiors rather than his moral sense.
Eichmann mostly worried about German Jews getting killed, and paid no attention to Jews from other countries—a worldview that, Arendt says, continues to be common in Germany, where many falsely claim that no German Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. In fact, Israel echoes this attitude by claiming that the murder of Jews was uniquely horrifying because of their cultural achievements.
Eichmann’s preference for German Jews shows that he continued to think in national terms, even against the Nazi ideology that Jews were a separate group and could never be Germans. The persistence of this mindset after WWII shows that nationalistic and ethnic-supremacist sentiments remain latent in the population, and are more likely amplified and exploited than outright created by fascism.
The Nazis were more worried about “this question of conscience” than they needed to be—even the anti-Hitler “conspirators” were mostly Nazis worried about preventing civil war within Germany; they paid no attention to the plight of Germany’s victims. Up to the end of the war, the majority of Germans supported Hitler, and the few who did oppose the Nazis on moral grounds were never organized enough to act. The “conspirators” merely saw the Nazis’ mass murder policies as potentially hurting Germany’s postwar negotiations with the Allies, and many wanted to continue the war after deposing Hitler. Eichmann, of course, considers all these men “traitors and scoundrels,” although he might have agreed with their leader Goerdeler’s desire to create a Jewish state. The real dissenters, who opposed Hitler consistently from day one, never acted and “were never heard” even though their consciences remained intact.
The Nazi leaders’ great anxiety about conscience proves that they fully understood that their policies were antithetical to the most basic universal dictates of human morality. Still, most “conspirators” worried about Hitler’s means only because they thought they might jeopardize his ultimate goal of German supremacy over Europe (and perhaps the world). Totalitarianism not only shut down conscience, but also portrayed moral dissent as untenable and criminal. Arendt nevertheless praises these silent moral dissenters, who in different circumstances might have reached the critical mass necessary to oppose Nazi policies—as she later illustrates through the examples of various occupied countries that refused to deport their Jews.
Himmler was the “most gifted at solving problems of conscience,” and he invented many of the slogans Eichmann loved. These slogans needed no ideological justification; they simply reminded functionaries that they were “involved in something historic, grandiose, unique.” Himmler encouraged them to turn their pity at their horrible deeds into self-pity: “What horrible things I had to watch!” “The simple fact of war” also solved the “problem of conscience” by making everyone accustomed and indifferent to death.
Perhaps surprisingly, Arendt argues that the slogans were not ideological: while they made Germans declare their unflinching loyalty to the Nazi regime, they never tried to justify, explain, or win support for the Nazi extermination policy. Rather, they were primarily distractions, designed to prevent thought by controlling emotions rather than redirecting thought toward the Nazis’ party line.
Unlike the early massacres conducted by Einsatzgruppen with the backing of the German army, the Final Solution was not associated with the war effort but rather with the “euthanasia program” that initially offered “a mercy death” to “incurably sick persons” in Germany. Soon, this stopped, and gassing began in the Eastern concentration camps. The crucial “language rule” was replacing “murder” with “to grant a mercy death,” and Eichmann seemed to internalize this; he believed it was better for Jews to die immediately than suffer, and he grows agitated when S.S. torture comes up at trial.
Nazis selectively defined Jews as either enemies or as an incorrigibly sick population to be “cured” through euthanasia, depending on what was convenient. While Eichmann formerly declared European Jews “enemies,” here, by treating mass murder as a benevolent medical matter rather than a component of the war, the Nazis justified their own behaviors without having to consider the morality of killing noncombatants.
There were some protests against euthanasia before the war, but by its end, it seemed a welcome alternative to the possibility of violent death. One observer recalled a town of Bavarian peasants dutifully listening to a woman who promised them a peaceful death by euthanasia if Germany lost a war; another remembered a woman enthusiastically declaring that Hitler “will gas us” before he lets the Russians “get us.”
Nazi propaganda, it seems, was so effective at making German domination seem an all-or-nothing, life-or-death proposition that it convinced ordinary citizens with little stake in the war that they should die before accepting Hitler’s defeat. Like Eichmann, they learned through Nazi “language rules” to see gassing as benevolent rather than murderous.