The Eichman Trial and the Banality of Evil

On this day in 1961, former Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann—one of the key perpetrators of the Holocaust—was sentenced to death by an Israeli court after being found guilty on fifteen criminal charges, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people. His widely publicized trial helped popularize the infamous defense of many evil men: That was just another cog in a bigger killing machine who had no choice but to follow orders.

While undoubtedly one of the most sinister figures in history, yet like many Nazi leaders, Eichmann had a relatively uninteresting life—he was college dropout-turned traveling oil salesman before joining the Nazi Party in 1932. He rose through the ranks to eventually become head of the “Jewish Department”, which was initially tasked with intimidating Jews, through violence and economic pressure, into leaving Germany, and increasingly all of Europe.

After drafting plans to deport Jews to distant “reservations” such as Madagascar, Eichmann was informed of a “Final Solution to the Jewish question”: rather than expulsion and resettlement, Jews were to be exterminated. This was decided at the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, a meeting of leading Nazi figures chaired by Eichmann’s superior, Reinhard Heydrich—widely considered to be the darkest figure of the regime and the principal architect of the Holocaust.

Eichmann on trial in 1961 (National Photo Collection of Israel)

Eichmann was thereafter charged with facilitating and managing the large-scale logistics of the Holocaust: the mass deportation of millions of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II. In essence, he was a faceless administrator of death, tallying the number of Jews in a given area, organizing the seizure and accounting of their solen property, and ensuring the trains ran on time to take them to certain death. He held regular meetings with staff and conducted inspections and tours of ghettos and camps across Europe, like some regional manager making sure all the stores under his care are running smoothly.

In this sense, Eichman revealed the morbidly dispassionate and bureaucratic nature of the Holocaust; he was never a leader or even a policymaker, but like hundreds of thousands involved in the Holocaust, was simply doing his job: Keeping the Nazi killing machine well-oiled and efficient.

After the war, Eichmann managed to avoid Allied forces under several aliases and connections, before finally settling in Argentina to live the quiet life he had denied of so many others. He was captured there by Mossad in 1960—a whole other saga worthy of its own post—and put in trial in Israel.

The trial revealed how normal men could commit and rationalize seemingly abnormal things (like the slaughter of an incalculable number of people). Eichmann defended his actions by simply asserting that he was “just following orders” (coined as the “Nuremberg Defense” for how often it was invoked by his associates after the war.). He insisted he had no authority in the Nazi regime, and that he was bound by his oath to Hitler; the decision to murder millions was made by the likes of Hitler and Heydrich, and he felt completely absolved of guilt. Reflecting on the Wannsee Conference that had implemented the Holocaust, Eichmann expressed relief and satisfaction that a clear decision had been made by the higherups, since it meant the killing were out of his hands.

Even before trial, investigators had concluded that Eichmann seemed genuinely incapable of grasping the enormity of his crimes, never once showing remorse. During trial, he admitted to not liking Jews and even seeing them as enemies, but claimed he did not think they needed to be killed. In one of his last statements in court, he admitted being guilty only for arranging the transports—not for the consequences.

(Eichmann would admit in trial that in 1945, he stated “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction”; however, he wrote this off as simply reflecting his “opinion” at the time.)

In 2016, Eichmann’s written plea for pardon was published, revealing that this steadfast lack of conscience was evidently (and disturbingly) sincere: “There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders. I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty”.

Eichmann was executed by hanging on June 1, 1962. His last words were reportedly, “Long live Germany. Long live Argentina. Long live Austria. These are the three countries with which I have been most connected and which I will not forget. I greet my wife, my family and my friends. I am ready. We’ll meet again soon, as is the fate of all men. I die believing in God”; it is claimed he later mumbled “I hope that all of you will follow me”.

Eichmann’s trial had a lasting impact on our reflection and understanding of the Holocaust and of human evil as a whole. Perhaps the most famous example comes from Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial and later wrote a book about it, Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she described him as the embodiment of the “banality of evil”: an otherwise average and mundane person, rather than a fanatic or sociopath, who rationalized his evil actions rather than own them; who was motivated by advancing his career rather than ideological commitment; and who was simply complacent with what was going on around him.  

Jewish Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who helped captured Eichmann, reflected on the trial:

The world now understands the concept of “desk murderer“. We know that one doesn’t need to be fanatical, sadistic, or mentally ill to murder millions; that it is enough to be a loyal follower eager to do one’s duty.

The term “little Eichmanns” has since been used to describe people whose actions, on an individual scale, seem relatively harmless even to themselves, but who collectively create destructive and immoral systems in which they are actually complicit—but too far removed to notice, let alone feel responsible.

The Eichmann trial is a disturbing reminder that much of human evil, including the worst atrocities imaginable, are perpetrated or facilitated not by psychopaths or fanatics, but by normal and sometimes even otherwise decent people. It is a cautionary tale for all times, places, and people.

The Massacre of Sabra and Shatila

On this day in 1982, a Christian Lebanese militia known as the Phalange carried out a massacre in the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, killing between 460 to 3,500 civilians. The killings went on for three days, under the watch of various forces, including the Israeli and Lebanese armies, which did nothing.

The Palestinians were wrongly blamed for assassinating newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, the leader of the Kataeb Party, a Christian party close to the Phalange. (Just about every political party had an affiliated armed wing.) For their part, the Israelis, who were allied with the Phalange other Lebanese militas, were keen clearing out the camp of fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, even though the vast majority of those killed were noncombatants. Continue reading

Torture Doesn’t Work

As recounted in Scientific Americanas early as 1631, with the publication of Cautio Criminalis by Jesuit scholar Friedrich Spee, it was discovered that torturing criminal suspects did not work. Spee came to this conclusion in the most salient way possible:

The Duke of Brunswick in Germany invited two Jesuit scholars to oversee the Inquisition’s use of torture to extract information from accused witches. “The Inquisitors are doing their duty. They are arresting only people who have been implicated by the confession of other witches,” the Jesuits reported. The duke was skeptical. Suspecting that people will say anything to stop the pain, he invited the Jesuits to join him at the local dungeon to witness a woman being stretched on a rack. “Now, woman, you are a confessed witch,” he began. “I suspect these two men of being warlocks. What do you say? Another turn of the rack, executioners.” The Jesuits couldn’t believe what they heard next. “No, no!” the woman groaned. “You are quite right. I have often seen them at the Sabbat. They can turn themselves into goats, wolves and other animals…. Several witches have had children by them. One woman even had eight children whom these men fathered. The children had heads like toads and legs like spiders.” Turning to the flabbergasted Jesuits, the duke inquired, “Shall I put you to the torture until you confess?”

Having been put in the shoes of the many innocent people maimed and executed solely on the desperate “confessions” of the tortured, Spee was roused into writing the book that helped put an end to centuries of torture as standard law enforcement practice. Hence why all Western countries — including the U.S. via its Eighth Amendment against “cruel and unusual punishment” — recognizing torture as having neither a moral nor practical place in their society. Continue reading

By All Accounts, 2015 Was The Best Year In Human History

This might seem like an audacious statement to make in light of the numerous tragedies and disasters that have churned out with shocking regularity (to say nothing of the persistent and shockingly normalized prevalence of poverty, hunger, disease, and political oppression).

But as The Atlantic points out in great detail, by almost every measure — from crime rates to income levels — 2015 was the best year in human history for the average person. Beginning with what was arguably the most high profile problem of 2015, violence, one finds that from gun crime to terrorism, humans are harming one another far less than they historically have.  Continue reading

The Case for a Universal Basic Income

By now, it is well established that capitalism is fundamentally built upon threats of force. As libertarian philosophers Robert Nozick and Matt Zwolinski have explained, the only way to turn unowned natural resources (such as land, minerals and other goods) into privately owned property is by violently preventing all others from using them. This one-sided exclusion destroys freedom of movement and cuts many people off from the things that they need to survive.

When the physical resources necessary for production are privately held in the hands of very few, as in the United States, the majority of the population is forced to submit itself to well-financed employers in order to live. The precarious position of most workers in this position — desperate for employment but aware that they could lose their jobs at any time — is coercive on its face and susceptible to exploitation and abuse.

Labor protection in the form of safety laws, collective bargaining and prohibitions against harassment and discrimination have helped cut down on many of the worst employer abuses. But no amount of labor regulation can ever undo the fact that workers are confronted daily with the choice between obeying a supervisor or losing all their income. The only way to break the coercion at the core of the employment relationship is to give people the genuine ability to say no to their employers. And the only way to make that feasible is to guarantee that working-age adults, at least, have some way to support themselves whether they work or not….

….True freedom requires freedom from destitution and freedom from the demands of the employer. Capitalism ensures neither, but a universal basic income, if successful, could provide both.

— Matt Bruenig, “Tired of Capitalism? There could be a better way“. The Washington Post.

Lessons from Benjamin Franklin on Business Success

Ultimately, for Benjamin Franklin, the question of how to succeed in business could not be divorced from how to succeed in life and, therefore, the ends to which one should live. To live like a king seemed distinctly un-American. To live for no one else seemed unimaginable. If Americans view things differently today, perhaps that says less about how we succeed in business than what we believe it means to lead a life well lived.

—  John Paul Rollert, “How America Lost Track of Ben Franklin’s Definition of Success”, The Atlantic

The Ice Bucket Challenge Bears Fruit

Amid a fair amount of skepticism and uncertainty — including, to some degree, by yours truly — it appears that the ALS ice bucket challenge that went viral some months ago has literally paid off:

According to Vice’s Mike Pearl, the $100 million in funding the challenge generated has led to breakthroughs in our understanding of what causes ALS and how it can be treated. Researchers now report that ALS — a fatal neurodegenerative disease that causes the muscles in the body to deteriorate — is caused by a defective protein, and stem cell therapy has shown promising results in lab tests.

Jonathan Ling, medical researcher at Johns Hopkins, stated in a Reddit AMA that funding from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been instrumental in helping scientists break new scientific ground.

“All of your donations have been amazingly helpful and we have been working tirelessly to find a cure,” Ling wrote.

An infographic from The ALS Association, the global leader in ALS research that received the funds, breaks it down thusly. Continue reading

U.N. Finds Vast Decline in Global Poverty, Though Big Challenges Remain

Last Monday, the United Nations published details from its final report on the results of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets established 15 years ago to improve the lives of the poor. The eight goals covered every dimension of extreme poverty, from eradicating hunger and child mortality, to improving environmental sustainability and gender equality.

As the New York Times reported, the results were mixed but nonetheless encouraging.

Dire poverty has dropped sharply, and just as many girls as boys are now enrolled in primary schools around the world. Simple measures like installing bed nets have prevented some six million deaths from malaria. But nearly one billion people still defecate in the open, endangering the health of many others.

“The report confirms that the global efforts to achieve the goals have saved millions of lives and improved conditions for millions more around the world”, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said Monday as he released the report in Oslo.

In fact, though, how much of those gains can be attributed to the goals is unknown. The sharp reductions in extreme poverty are due largely to the economic strides made by one big country, China. Likewise, some of the biggest shortfalls can be attributed to a handful of countries that remain very far behind. In India, for example, an estimated 600 million people defecate in the open, heightening the risk of serious disease, especially for children.

Continue reading

Teaching Philosophy to Children

I have shared arguments for why philosophy should be made a greater part of public life, including primary school curricula. But what would teaching kids philosophy look like? Would it really be feasible for such young and still-developing minds? Freelance filmmaker and philosophy teacher Giacomo Esposito thinks it is both desirable and perfectly manageable to teach philosophy to primary school children.

A member of The Philosophy Foundation, which advocates for and facilitates philosophy courses in school, he makes his case in The Guardian, first by outlining how he goes about it.

…While the number of jobs with the word “philosophy” in their title may be limited, the skills and techniques I learned at university have continued to benefit me since I left – hence why the idea of teaching them to children appealed.

The sessions I run usually begin with a story or short “stimulus” which draws on a traditional philosophical problem, but reframes it to make it more engaging for a younger audience. The story then ends with a question, and a discussion ensues. Throughout the class, I try to take a backseat; I’m there to help draw out the children’s thoughts, but it’s really for them to decide where the discussion goes and, crucially, what they think. In fact, rather than teaching philosophy, a more accurate description of my job is “doing” philosophy with children.

And contrary to popular belief, children are far better suited to embracing and understanding philosophy than their ages would suggest. Indeed, the subject is a natural fit. Continue reading

The Right to Draw

Cartoonist Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils has produced another excellent short comic highlighting the plight and bravery of 28-year-old Iranian artist Atena Farghadani, who was recently sentenced to almost thirteen years in prison for drawing a cartoon that “[spread] propaganda against the system” and “[insulted] members of parliament through paintings”. As with all his works, it is both emotionally impactful and inspirational in its simplicity.

The quote used in the comic is taken from the speech Atena gave at her trial, the entirety of which you can read here.

Unfortunately, the harrowing events portrayed in the comic are not symbolic: as Zen Pencils notes, twelve members of the elite Revolutionary Guard came to Atena’s house, blindfolded her, and took her to the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran, where many other young activist are detained and often torture. According to an Amnesty International report:

While in prison last year, Atena flattened paper cups to use them as a surface to paint on. When the prison guards realised what she had been doing, they confiscated her paintings and stopped giving her paper cups. When Atena found some cups in the bathroom, she smuggled them into her cell. Soon after, she was beaten by prison guards, when she refused to strip naked for a full body search. Atena says that they knew about her taking the cups because they had installed cameras in the toilet and bathroom facilities – cameras detainees had been told were not operating.

After being released last November, the Atena gave media interviews and even posted a YouTube video detailing her horrific experience. For speaking out she was shortly after rearrested and remains in prison. Following a hunger strike to protest the horrible prison conditions, she suffered a dramatic decline in health culminating in a heart attack; she was thereafter forced to eat again.

As of today she has only has two weeks to lodge an appeal. With enough international pressure, it is possible that the Iranian government will relent in its brutal treatment (that is certainly not unprecedented). More from Zen Pencils:

Michael Cavna, comic journalist for The Washington Post, has launched a campaign appealing to artists to help bring awareness to Atena’s case by creating their own artwork in support of Atena and using the hashtag #Draw4Atena. Can a bunch of artists and a hashtag really make a difference and put pressure on the Iranian Government to release Atena? Probably not. But just remember that Atena is currently in prison enduring terrible conditions, and if her appeal isn’t successful, she will be there for another twelve years. FOR DRAWING A CARTOON AND POSTING IT ON FACEBOOK. Don’t we owe it to her to at least try?

At the very least, we can demonstrate some measure of solidarity with someone daring to be expressive and open-minded in a regime brutally opposed to both.