Eichmann conceives himself “as a law-abiding citizen” doing his duty to obey his orders as well as the law. No one raises the question of whether these are truly the same thing, and the attorneys continue to argue about “superior orders” and “acts of state,” if only because “they gave the illusion that the altogether unprecedented could be judged according to precedents and the standards that went with them.” Surprisingly, Eichmann justifies his sense of duty by citing the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant’s concept of duty relies on acting in accordance with individual moral judgment and not at all on blindly following orders. Arendt adds that Eichmann began eagerly following not universal moral laws but the laws of Nazi Germany—and, specifically, Hitler’s will.
The difference between orders—which rely on context—and laws—which hold regardless of context—becomes central to Eichmann’s decision-making at the end of the war and proves that he was not merely following “superior orders” but in fact acting in accord with his conscience. This poses an enormous legal challenge for the prosecution. In a conventional murder case, the criminal must be capable of realizing that their actions were morally wrong (i.e. have acted against their moral conscience), but Eichmann actually followed his legal conscience despite willfully abandoning his previous sense of morality. This does not alleviate him of responsibility, but it does mean that the court needs to develop unprecedented criteria for determining his responsibility.
Eichmann was so dedicated to performing his legal duties that, when he occasionally made exceptions for family members, he was uncomfortable. Later, near the end of the war, Himmler ordered the end of the Final Solution and Eichmann was similarly uncomfortable with the break from the Nazis’ previous policy.
Eichmann’s sense of duty was so strong that it actually prevented him from adapting to new policies. Whereas the Nazi regime’s platform was in fact an incredibly flexible farce, Eichmann followed it with an orthodox rigidity.
In 1944, Eichmann was sent along with three other officials to coordinate mass deportations from Hungary, which began swiftly and efficiently. However, trouble soon arose between Eichmann and Kurt Becher, the S.S.’s main horse buyer. Becher is called as a defense witness, but has his testimony dismissed. While Becher claimed to be in Budapest on horse-related business, he was clearly sent by Himmler to ensure that wealthy Jewish business owners could escape Hungary and take over their assets, and he soon began working with Dr. Kastner to save Jews, each for a fixed price. Eichmann resented this “moderate wing” of S.S. officers who prioritized money and connections over the body count (but were “well-educated upper-middle-class ‘gentlemen’” and would never have accepted him). So, he began sabotaging Himmler’s orders and even made a point of voicing his disagreement with the Red Cross when it came to visit Theresienstadt.
Eichmann tried to stop the other officers in Hungary because, even though they were actually carrying out orders, he saw them as pursuing their self-interest in conflict with the interests of the German state. Perversely, he believed he was putting the common good first by continuing the Final Solution, which shows that Nazi ideology had completely displaced any elementary moral judgment he may have previously been capable of. This becomes extraordinarily relevant in the final portion of the Postscript, where Arendt talks about the Nazis’ inversion of the legal exception and rule, in context of the broader inconsistencies in the “superior orders” defense.
There is thus no question “that Eichmann had at all times done his best to make the Final Solution final.” However, although the Jerusalem court never raises the matter, this proves not his fanatical anti-Semitism but merely his reverence for Hitler and dedication to carrying out the Final Solution (Himmler kept his order for its end a secret from Hitler). Eichmann lost to the “moderate wing,” though: in the war’s closing days, Becher was promoted and Eichmann reassigned to the irrelevant “Fight Against the Churches.”
Eichmann’s continual attempts “to make the Final Solution final” and fight the “moderate wing” are alone sufficient to establish his extraordinary and unforgiveable guilt. However, contrary to the prosecution’s narrative and perhaps the reader’s usual conception of evil, he did so out of blindness, obedience, and ignorance rather than hate. Despite the terms of the indictment, Arendt shows that Eichmann was extraordinarily guilty and yet without evil motives; his ultimate demotion in the hierarchy shows that he was not even strictly pursuing his self-interest, but in fact following his values and conscience, which pushed him to absolute obedience.
At trial, Eichmann emphasizes the difference between Hitler’s orders, which were law, even if only spoken, and Himmler’s, which Eichmann demanded in writing. And so Eichmann believed he was putting the true law first, above Himmler’s unlawful orders contrary to Hitler’s will. The court’s failure to come to terms with this fact “signifies a deliberate refusal to take notice of the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century.” In Nazi Germany, the usual moral laws (like “thou shalt not kill”) were inverted: evil was no longer tempting, but mandatory; and Nazis clearly resisted any temptation they felt to act morally.
Arendt returns to the distinction between orders and laws that she introduced at the beginning of the chapter. Astonishingly, Eichmann in fact thought he was following universal laws rather than contingent orders. The court also refused to see that Nazi totalitarianism did not merely deny the validity of moral laws and encourage people to pursue their self interest but, at its most sinister, also created a parallel and opposite system of values that people like Eichmann followed much in the way ordinary people follow religious doctrines or the values of their communities—which included deriding those who only pursue self-interest.