Trueman: what Arendt got right about evil

In my last post, I noted some criticisms of Arendt. Trueman thinks that she also got something right about many acts of evil (just not Eichmann’s):

This evidence definitively contradicts Arendt’s portrait of a mediocre automaton mindlessly transporting Jews to the east with no care for the larger ethical questions of their ultimate destination. Is evil then still banal? In many cases, most certainly. The Final Solution could hardly have been implemented without a lot of mediocre functionaries who simply saw themselves as doing a job. Stangneth’s work shows Arendt’s thesis to be not so much wrongheaded as too simplistic as a generalization and as incorrect when applied specifically to Eichmann. Documentation to which Arendt had no access now proves that Eichmann was not a cog in the Final Solution machine. He was instead one of those who designed the machine, ran the machine, and took immense pleasure and pride in the machine. Indeed, he was still boasting about his part in making it work in the late fifties. And he did all this not because he was mindlessly committed to obeying orders but because he was passionately committed to an ideological anti-Semitism and to an apocalyptic vision of the race war.


One comment

  1. Perhaps Trueman implies as much in the tail of your quote, but in addition to self-love and the banality of being one cog in a great machine with its own inertia, I suspect there’s a good deal of belief in the righteousness of their actions. They probably did believe that the Jews were evil and convinced themselves that what they were doing was good and justified. Their passion was a passion for justice, as they saw it.

    A similar dynamic plays out all the time in politics. While there is certainly self-love for power and adulation, a sense of justice is essential to their cause. It is often warped, based upon coercion, and ignorant of unintended effects, but they do not see it that way.

    Of course, I am not immune; justice is central to my cause, too. Perhaps the difference is that I am far less willing to coerce and I find the concentration of coercive power, hidden behind layers of democracy and bureaucracy which dilute responsibility and give the illusion of choice, to be inherently dangerous to leave lying around.

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