By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The confessions of key Holocaust figure Adolf Eichmann have been released. His taped confessions have been given to Israeli documentarians making a series about him. His crimes inspired new theories about evil.
Adolf Eichmann, the logistics chief of the Holocaust, was tried, found guilty, and hanged in Israel in 1962 for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Until his death, he repeated an excuse often heard in the Nuremberg Trials: He was just following orders. Recently released tapes of his full confessions, recorded in Buenos Aires in 1957 and denied to Israeli prosecutors during his trial, tell a far more grisly tale.
That tale—including Eichmann’s rabid antisemitism, genuine zeal for hunting down Jews, and role in their mass murders—is being told in an Israeli-made documentary series called “The Devil’s Confession: The Lost Eichmann Tapes.”
Philosopher Hannah Arendt developed the theories of totalitarianism and the banality of evil based on Eichmann and other Nazi war criminals’ attitudes. In his video series Why Evil Exists, Dr. Charles Mathewes, Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, explains Arendt’s theories.
Hannah Arendt gave the world two modern concepts that play a major role in understanding evil in the context of politics: totalitarianism and the banality of evil.
“Many think that these two concepts, for her, suggest two fundamentally opposed views of evil; but, in fact, I think that they cohere nicely together,” Dr. Mathewes said. “The great and dangerous innovation of evil in the 20th century, on this reading of Arendt’s work that I want to propose, is the capacity of states to make people, who would never normally be capable of direct and massive cruelty to another person, become actors who play quite significant roles in vast schemes of human annihilation.”
Arendt found that Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union embodied a new kind of radical evil. She coined the term “totalitarianism” because she believed the totalitarian state demands the total of all within its boundaries—its products, its culture, its people, and its history—and does whatever it wishes with them. Full control means full manipulation and shaping of its people, effectively destroying their capacity for being free-thinking human beings.
“The dark discovery of the 20th century is that humans are far more plastic than we heretofore imagined,” Dr. Mathewes said. “People in a totalitarian state are turned into [metaphorical] zombies […] or robots that annihilate themselves and one another, all in the interest of the abstract totalitarian state.”
The Banality of Evil
Ten years after publishing her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt attended Eichmann’s trial in Israel, writing about it for The New Yorker. What she saw in Eichmann and at his trial inspired her most controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
Near the end of the war, Eichmann was instructed by Himmler to stop sending Jews to death camps. Himmler said they should keep the prisoners as some kind of bargaining chip with the Allies. Eichmann refused and kept sending the trains right until the end. The prosecutors argued this was because he was simply more evil than the other Nazis.
Arendt said Eichmann wasn’t simply “obeying orders”—he believed he was doing his moral duty to follow and enforce the law. Unfortunately, many saw this view as an exoneration of the Nazis or an excuse for their crimes, which was not Arendt’s intent.
“Her point, though, was that the prosecution’s terms they used, the narrative they constructed of Eichmann, was flawed and allowed us to deflect our attention from what Eichmann really represented,” Dr. Mathewes said. “He [carried out the transports to the camps] not out of ‘fanaticism, his boundless hatred of Jews,’ in some sense, but out of duty; in Eichmann’s own self-understanding, it was his conscience, Arendt thinks, that led him to do it.
“He thought it was his duty, under the law, to kill the Jews, and Himmler’s order was illegal.”
According to Dr. Mathewes, Arendt argued that a society can undergo not just a moral collapse but a total moral inversion. He described this as “where the form of morality—the language of duty, honor, conscience, right and wrong—is retained” even while its content is inverted.
“In a criminal regime, the conscience tells us that morality itself is immoral.”