October 07, 2010
Arendt reported on his trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker, observing that he deported himself without guilt or hatred, and showed no sign of psychological damage, excusing himself of the responsibility for his actions on the grounds that he was just "doing his job". Incredibly, Eichmann asserted he was following Kant's system of ethics, a claim Arendt found absurd; he had failed to understand anything more than the idea of following the laws of the state, and had thoroughly missed the concept of reciprocity that was central to Kant.
Far from Eichmann being a disturbed psychopath (as, for instance, most serial killers are revealed as being), he was an ordinary man doing his job to the best of his ability. Arendt suggested that that idea that Nazi criminals were different from "normal" people, psychopathic or otherwise mentally deranged did not bear out. She denied, however, that all it takes for ordinary people to commit terrible crimes is suitable incentives, noting that Eichmann still faced a moral choice. The citizens of Denmark, for instance, who pursued non-violence resistance in the face of Nazi Germany, demonstrated that it was possible to resist totalitarian regimes. Eichmann simply had no interest in doing so.
Both the Nazi regime and that of the Soviet Union achieved an extraordinary domination over their people, far beyond the mere outlawing of opposition attained by tyrants. The foundations of these political movements were racism and bureaucracy (the rule of no-one). Systematic prejudice had providing a key ideological weapon for imperialism, and the totalitarian regimes took this further, taking over political systems and institutionalising racial prejudice as a means to depose the state. But at the heart of both these forms of totalitarianism were the same psychological forces at work in other cognitive biases, driving discrimination and persecution on an unprecedented scale.
Part 20 of 23 in the Pentenary series.
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