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Adolf Eichmann and the Actualization of Evil
In this world, there is an objective moral right and objective moral wrong. Both transcend any sense of principles a man might hold, as well as any circumstances a man might encounter.
Scott Howard studies political science and journalism at the University of Florida. He wrote this paper in response to a prompt about whether Adolf Eichmann was morally responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust. It is based on the book Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt.
Between the years 1939 and 1945 an estimated six million Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime in Germany in what has become known as the Holocaust. At the end of World War Two, this unspeakable crime was put on trial in numerous places, most famously at the Nuremburg Trials, where former Nazi leadership faced execution for their acts.
However, some leaders escaped, such as Adolf Eichmann, who disappeared to Argentina before he could be tried. In 1960, the Israeli government captured Eichmann and brought him to Jerusalem, where over the course of nine months he stood before a court and was judged for his crimes.
Hannah Arendt, a reporter for the New Yorker, was sent to report on the trial. The book she produced astounded readers for its deep philosophical undertones and its controversial takes on Eichmann, the Jewish people, and the inherent nature of evil.
One of the important questions raised by her writings is whether Eichmann himself is morally responsible for the murder of these six million Jews. After reading Arendt’s book, I conclude that he is in fact morally responsible. In explaining my thoughts on the matter, I will examine what I believe to be the nature of evil, how Eichmann embodies and embraced that evil, and whether possible objections to my argument stand in the face of scrutiny.
Though it is unorthodox to start with the objections, I believe it is important to understand the arguments against Eichmann’s culpability before I explain my perspective. So that is where I will start.
There are two principal strains of thought on this subject matter. I will deal with them separately. The first objection to his guilt comes from Eichmann himself. During the trial, Eichmann and his defense argued that, due to the fact that Eichmann himself had not killed a Jew, he could not be held guilty of these murders. The argument laid out by Eichmann (or, more specifically, his defense lawyer) is one of direct culpability: for one’s morality to be compromised, one must have directly participated in the evil act.
On its face, this argument does not hold water, because there are certainly instances in which a man can cause evil without directly committing the crime. If we take this argument to its extreme, we can see that it falls apart. Take, for instance, Adolf Hitler himself. It is unknown, though unlikely, that Hitler ever killed a Jew himself. Does that give him cover from which to escape his moral rot? Of course not. Hitler was the instrumental figure in this grand evil. To say he lacks guilt due to a lack of direct action would be foolish.
On that point, we can move to the next, more plausible objection, one which Eichmann himself again raises. This is one of legal cover: the “do your job” argument. Eichmann lays out his case in his discussion of Kantian principles. As is explained in the book, “…he had not simply dismissed the Kantian formula [that which says that the principles a man holds must be able to become the principles upon which laws are formed] as no longer applicable, he had distorted it to read: Act as if the principle of your actions were the same as that of the legislator or of the law of the land…” (Arendt p. 136).
In his estimation, Eichmann’s morality was covered by not only the legality of his actions but by the principles of the laws themselves; he did what he did because that is what was asked of a good man at the time. This argument, while severely distorted, seems sound until we again take it to its extreme.
Suppose, for instance, that you are a soldier fighting for Nazi Germany. You do not sign up to participate in the death camps, because you find them morally repugnant. At the same time, you know that as a soldier you must follow orders, and you do so blindly because your principles dictate that you must. Are you innocent? Certainly not. While you may only be a part of the machine, your actions are still done by choice. Similarly, Eichmann does not escape moral responsibility because his principles said that he must execute these laws. Principles are only meaningful once acted upon, and Eichmann chose to act.
I chose to lay out these objections first because from these two objections we get the cornerstones of my argument. As I attempted to establish in the first objection, evil is not confined to direct actions. Indirect involvement still holds moral relevance. This is not to say that every person who watches an evil act unfold and does nothing is culpable. The bystander is not evil by virtue of being a bystander, just as a bystander to something righteous does not become righteous merely by watching.
This brings me to the second objection, and our second conclusion. One’s morality cannot be excused merely because they live in a system in which morally wrong actions are considered virtuous. Action has moral weight, and the individual, ultimately, is the last arbiter of whether to act, regardless of the circumstances. With these two points in mind, we are finally ready to get to the heart of whether Eichmann is in fact evil, and, if so, what his moral guilt should be.
Let us begin by laying out a definition of evil that is based on the two points concluded above. There are objective moralities in this world. That is, there is an objective moral right and objective moral wrong. These moralities transcend any sense of principles a man might hold, as well as any circumstances that the man might encounter.
If we accept this to be true, then we must certainly conclude that the Holocaust was an objective moral wrong, an evil that stands above the subjectivity of its time. It is also true (or, at the very least, I believe it to be true) that every man has the capacity for both objective right and objective wrong. Our capacity to do good, and our capacity to do evil, are born out of action.
With these considerations in mind, we come to the core of my argument: evil requires action. A man is not born evil. He chooses it. The bystander is not inherently evil, because he does not actively support the evil. For evil to come about it requires a catalyst. Evil (and good, for that matter) must be actualized.
Hitler was not an evil man solely because he held prejudiced beliefs about the Jewish people. Those beliefs make him morally reprehensible, but not evil in and of himself. His evil came from the actions he put into motion. His capacity for evil was actualized as soon as he endorsed violence against the Jewish population. Similarly, the average soldiers working the death camps were evil. They actively participated in Hitler’s evil vision. Though they were just cogs in the machine, their choice to work efficiently as a cog gives them moral culpability.
In a similar vein, Eichmann is indeed an evil man, even if at his core he does not hold the same views of Jews as his inferiors. Eichmann chose to design those timetables. He made a conscious decision to participate in the Holocaust. He was a willing member of the machine, a self-oiled cog, and his choices led to the death of millions. Eichmann’s moral agency was his own. He chose to help actualize the evil ideas that Hitler brought forth. His decisions were his own, and once he made the decision to work on the Final Solution, his moral guilt for the outcome was settled.
This moral guilt is not unique to him, however. Every person who worked within the Nazi Party, in the German government, or for the German military shares the same guilt. They are all responsible for the Holocaust because they all actualized their capacity for evil.
This brings me to my broader point: evil is not a confined phenomenon. Men like Hitler, like Eichmann, are not born to do evil. They choose it. Eichmann is not much different from the rest of us. He will go down in history, and rightfully so, as an evil man, because he chose to do evil. We would do well to remember this. Men can choose to do good, and should. Men can also choose to do evil. It is the burden of the individual to understand which is which.
Editor’s note: When this commentary was first published, Hannah Arendt’s book was referenced as a novel. Eichmann in Jerusalem is nonfiction, and the term novel has been replaced with book to avoid confusion.