Arendt argues that, paradoxically, Eichmann (like other seemingly “normal” Germans) facilitated genocide because, rather than in spite, of his conscience. This is because his superiors’ authority and approval structured this conscience; instead of relying on personal moral conviction, he placed absolute faith in his country’s leader. Arendt demonstrates that conscience is not a reliable basis for morality because it often hinges on ideas received from those that surround an individual—in Eichmann’s case, from his Nazi superiors—and suggests that totalitarianism functions precisely by setting entirely new rules for what counts as commendable and criminal behavior.
The Nazi regime inverted the usual notions of criminality and wrongdoing, in the sense that criminal acts became normal and normal acts criminal. Under normal conditions, murder is criminal; under the Third Reich, refusing to commit murder was a criminal violation of the law. Dr. Servatius, Eichmann’s defense lawyer, argued that his client should not have been held liable for his behavior because he simply considered himself “a law-abiding citizen” enforcing orders. Indeed, Eichmann’s apparent normalcy under the conditions of the Third Reich—as when he was delighted to meet an old Jewish friend whom he had deported to a concentration camp—demonstrates his lack of normal human response (outrage, fear, or pity) to the exceptional situation Europe was in. And, in turn, this “normal” reaction in an inhuman situation of his own making demonstrates his inability to recognize a standard for good and evil outside the law.
This inability was shared with many Nazi officers, whose consciences were remarkably flexible depending on whom they answered to: after the war, the Nazi factions that previously competed to murder as many Jews as possible switched to diverting as much responsibility as possible, proving that they had managed to switch back from their obedient Nazi consciences to the regular framework of law and order. (Indeed, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels recognized that “we [Nazis] will go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all times or as their greatest criminals.”)
This inversion was only possible because Nazism replaced a moral conscience with a legal conscience based on obedience to authority. Disturbingly, despite the prosecution’s claims that Eichmann masterminded the Final Solution, in fact he was more like an ordinary citizen concerned with obeying the law than a statesman who legislated it. Eichmann joined the Nazi Party because he saw a path to glory, power, and legacy. Even after his capture and trial, Arendt suggests, he would have still chosen the path he did. But, despite the circumstances of his entry into Nazi politics, Eichmann was not merely a cog in the machine nor a driving architect of that machine; rather, he always wanted to go above and beyond in his job to prove his loyalty and ability (and perhaps to win a promotion) because negotiation and organization were the first things he ever discovered he was good at. In short, the Third Reich won his loyalty merely by rewarding him.
What’s more, Eichmann was absolutely loyal not to his supervisors’ direct orders but to the word of Hitler alone, which he took as law. Indeed, when S.S. chief Heinrich Himmler secretly ordered an end to the Final Solution, Eichmann refused to stop sending Jews to their deaths because it was contrary to Hitler’s will. And, throughout the Third Reich, the government retroactively passed laws to legitimate Hitler’s words, which shows that the law became a tool to defend and propagate Hitler’s power rather than a set of rules to regulate and check the functioning of government—unlike Eichmann, Himmler turned this around and began to resist the criminal Nazi rule of law only when he realized it would no longer rule over him in the near future.
The disturbing fact that a sense of conscience contributed to Eichmann’s evil actions, rather than deterring him from them, demonstrates how people often erroneously make judgments based on the expectations and norms of those around them rather than based on their individual moral judgments. Totalitarianism exploits people’s desire to fulfill their duties in order to make citizens absolutely loyal to their rulers; conscience only deters immoral behavior when it is original rather than received. Eichmann believed that he followed the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s moral law, which is conventionally formulated as the golden rule—one should only act in a way such that one’s principles for actions can become a general law for human action—but he misinterpreted the concept of law at stake here. Instead of thinking about universal, rational principles for action that all humans could follow without contradiction, he thought about the legal system: he believed he must act in accordance with the “general laws” of the Nazi state—his sense of ethical duty came purely from authority.
Arendt argues that the Nazi ideology systematically controlled Germans in the same way, particularly by making usual moral rules irrelevant and replacing them with the value of absolute loyalty to Hitler. Throughout his postwar years and even the Jerusalem trial, Eichmann never abandoned this ideology: Arendt claims he flaunted his role in the Third Reich in Argentina, which exposed his identity and led to his capture. But he was elated to hear that the Israelis held him responsible for the actions of the Reich as a whole because this confirmed that he truly fulfilled his superiors’ will.
Altogether, these bizarre inversions of morality in Nazi Germany demonstrate that conscience must be grounded in individual moral judgment rather than social pressures. Arendt offers a robust defense of this notion at the end of her Postscript, in which she repudiates the popular sentiment “that no one has the right to judge someone else,” and that instead people should only judge broad movements or offer psychological explanations rather than moral blame—this too, she argues, simply involves people bending to social pressure out of fear, letting their moral consciences erode and social consciences take their place, just as under the Third Reich.
Conscience, Authority, and Totalitarianism ThemeTracker
Conscience, Authority, and Totalitarianism Quotes in Eichmann in Jerusalem
Alas, nobody believed him. The prosecutor did not believe him, because that was not his job. Counsel for the defense paid no attention because he, unlike Eichmann, was, to all appearances, not interested in questions of conscience. And the judges did not believe him, because they were too good, and perhaps also too conscious of the very foundations of their profession, to admit that an average, “normal” person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong. They preferred to conclude from occasional lies that he was a liar—and missed the greatest moral and even legal challenge of the whole case. Their case rested on the assumption that the defendant, like all “normal persons,” must have been aware of the criminal nature of his acts, and Eichmann was indeed normal insofar as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime.” However, under the conditions of the Third Reich only “exceptions” could be expected to react “normally.” This simple truth of the matter created a dilemma for the judges which they could neither resolve nor escape.
From a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement that always kept moving and in which somebody like him—already a failure in the eyes of his social class, of his family, and hence in his own eyes as well—could start from scratch and still make a career.
This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés, (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him […] The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.
In his mind, there was no contradiction between “I will jump into my grave laughing,” appropriate for the end of the war, and “I shall gladly hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth,” which now, under vastly different circumstances, fulfilled exactly the same function of giving him a lift.
Thus, we are perhaps in a position to answer Judge Landau’s question—the question uppermost in the minds of nearly everyone who followed the trial—of whether the accused had a conscience: yes, he had a conscience, and his conscience functioned in the expected way for about four weeks, whereupon it began to function the other way around.
In actual fact, the situation was just as simple as it was hopeless: the overwhelming majority of the German people believed in Hitler—even after the attack on Russia and the feared war on two fronts, even after the United States entered the war, indeed even after Stalingrad, the defection of Italy, and the landings in France. Against this solid majority, there stood an indeterminate number of isolated individuals who were completely aware of the national and of the moral catastrophe; they might occasionally know and trust one another, there were friendships among them and an exchange of opinions, but no plan or intention of revolt. Finally there was the group of those who later became known as the conspirators, but they had never been able to come to an agreement on anything, not even on the question of conspiracy.
True it was that the Jewish people as a whole had not been organized, that they had possessed no territory, no government, and no army, that, in the hour of their greatest need, they had no government-in-exile to represent them among the Allies (the Jewish Agency for Palestine, under Dr. Weizmann’s presidency, was at best a miserable substitute), no caches of weapons, no youth with military training. But the whole truth was that there existed Jewish community organizations and Jewish party and welfare organizations on both the local and the international level. Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.
Eichmann himself, after “consulting Poliakoff and Reitlinger,” produced seventeen multicolored charts, which contributed little to a better understanding of the intricate bureaucratic machinery of the Third Reich, although his general description—“everything was always in a state of continuous flux, a steady stream”—sounded plausible to the student of totalitarianism, who knows that the monolithic quality of this form of government is a myth.
Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their “toughness” had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage. That the ideal of “toughness,” except, perhaps, for a few half-demented brutes, was nothing but a myth of self-deception, concealing a ruthless desire for conformity at any price, was clearly revealed at the Nuremberg Trials, where the defendants accused and betrayed each other and assured the world that they “had always been against it” or claimed, as Eichmann was to do, that their best qualities had been “abused” by their superiors. (In Jerusalem, he accused “those in power” of having abused his “obedience.” “The subject of a good government is lucky, the subject of a bad government is unlucky. I had no luck.”) The atmosphere had changed, and although most of them must have known that they were doomed, not a single one of them had the guts to defend the Nazi ideology.
The judges now stated that “the idea of the Final Solution would never have assumed the infernal forms of the flayed skin and tortured flesh of millions of Jews without the fanatical zeal and the unquenchable blood thirst of the appellant and his accomplices.” Israel’s Supreme Court had not only accepted the arguments of the prosecution, it had adopted its very language.