Hannah Arendt: The Solution to Conscience

So I’m most of the way through Eichmann in Jerusalem, and it’s a compelling read. Today, we’re talking about the issue of conscience, gesturing vaguely towards the upcoming posts on Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (which, to my great delight, shipped yesterday – May 9th.) Until that arrives, we’ll have to make do with the Nazis. One of the big things about the Final Solution was the implementation of a series of code-words (Arendt calls them ‘language rules’). That’s where the term ‘Final Solution’ actually comes from – they didn’t want to call the gas chambers gas chambers, so they called it the Final Solution, alongside other code-names like ‘evacuation’ and ‘special treatment’. Arendt snarkily points out that “the very term ‘language rule’ was itself a code name; it meant what in ordinary language would be called a lie”. 

The motivation behind these ‘language rules’ are relatively simple: it stops people equating what’s going on with what we would normally describe as mass murder. It also provides something of a blanket defense against some uninitiated scoundrel reading official correspondence, but to me that seems the less interesting point. There are people who argue that our language controls the limits of our thought – after all, you can hardly express a thought if there aren’t words for it. Those people might point to these ‘language rules’ as an instance of basically trying to mind-control the public by restricting the ways they could talk about the horror. That’s a neat argument, but it’s also wrong.

Firstly, the point of the language rules was not to sanitise the Holocaust for the general public. More accurately, those language rules sanitised the Holocaust for the various government agencies and departments that were involved in day-to-day Holocaust paperwork. This is an important distinction: the Holocaust only happened because various civil services were willing to carry out the nuts and bolts of extermination. It does seem to have been a remarkably bureaucratic genocide. Secondly, the public obviously weren’t fooled (or controlled) by language, because they protested the gassing of mentally ill Germans and got it stopped. Arendt argues (or at least strongly implies) that the German people never felt the same need to protest against the gassing of Jews – we don’t really have time to properly evaluate that claim, but it’s there in the book.

So according to Arendt, the language rules were designed to help the bureaucracy get to sleep at night. If that sounds a little 1984, it’s about to get much more extreme. We’ve all heard about the gas chambers; probably the lesser-known twin of the chambers was the Einsatzgruppen, the S.S. troops responsible for mass shootings. Basically they were execution squads, which sounds like a job for fuckstick crazy people. However, what’s clear is that the Einsatzgruppen actively weeded out psychopaths, or anybody who took pleasure in their job as an executioner. They probably missed a couple fuckers, but to all intents and purposes, the soldiers in the Einsatzgruppen were really just regular people. Their leadership mostly had academic degrees – at least nine held doctorates! We don’t like to acknowledge that fact, because we want to assert a fundamental difference between ourselves and the Nazis, but this is really the point of Arendt’s book – that difference doesn’t exist.

If, then, the Einsatzgruppen were really just ordinary people, surely there would have been some serious psychological damage from shooting people all day every day. That’s entirely true: the most of them did suffer significant psychological damage, which is why the Einsatzgruppen switched to gas vans. It’s also how they could identify the crazy fuckers: they were the only ones still enjoying themselves. However, Himmler also set about providing ways to solve this issue of conscience for the Einsatzgruppen. This is the scary part: Arendt writes that Himmler’s trick “consisted in turning these instincts around, as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!”

What a terrifying idea. Basically what’s happening here is the human instinct of pity is subordinated to a system of authority. Duty is generally thought of as a positive and virtuous thing – by setting up duty to one’s superiors as a priority, we both push our own moral responsibility up the chain, as it were, while also creating a justification for our actions that paints us in a virtuous light. We abdicate responsibility: it’s not our idea to shoot these people, we’re just following orders. The system becomes the whole of our moral compass – and this is something Eichmann invokes himself. He talks about how he subjected himself entirely to the will of the Fuhrer, to the point where he was disappointed in himself for the couple of times he helped Jews escape their fate:

“…a law was a law, there could be no exceptions. In Jerusalem, he [Eichmann] admitted… he had helped a half-Jewish cousin… this inconsistency still made him feel somewhat uncomfortable, and when he was questioned about it during cross-examination, he became openly apologetic”

He’s not apologising for having sent Jews to their deaths – he’s apologising because he didn’t. Yup. He failed to follow the law of the land, which (for him) seems to have been the justification for his actions – the Holocaust wasn’t his idea, he was just doing what he was told. It’s this appeal to authority that seems to make up the banality of evil – the point is that Eichmann’s not particularly special. He’s not a monster, or a psychopath, or insane – he’s definitely an anti-Semite, but that’s beside the point. First and foremost, Arendt argues, Eichmann is just really fucking stupid. Well, not quite – he just completely fails to think for himself using his own practical reason. In this way, he is banal – he is unoriginal, largely dependant for his moral compass on the authority to which he sees himself beholden. I mean, he describes himself as a law-abiding citizen. When you put it that way, it seems as if the Holocaust is the single biggest factor in shattering our collective faith in authority.


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