How helpful is Hannah Arendt in looking «Into that Darkness»?

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (EJ) and Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness(ITD) give us portraits of two Nazi bureaucrats who were involved in the extermination program of the Jews during World War II. Adolf Eichmann was in charge of transporting Jews from all over Europe to the concentration and extermination camps that comprised «The Final Solution». Franz Stangl began as a policeman and administrator in the German «euthanasia program» of the late 1930s, and rose to become Kommandant of two death camps in Poland. The stories of these two men are highly illuminating in presenting complimentary views of the evil that caused the Holocaust. Both Arendt and Sereny raise disturbing questions for which there are no easy answers.

Hannah Arendt was a Jewish philosopher who escaped from occupied France in 1941, and came to the US, where she had a distinguished career as a writer and lecturer.1Villa (2000), pp. xiv-xvi. She covered the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem for The New Yorkermagazine in 1961, and her articles were later published in book form in 1963. Gitte Sereny is a Hungarian-Austrian who worked as a nurse in occupied France and joined the relief organization UNRRA after the war.2Sereny ([1974] 1994), p. 9. She served as a child welfare officer in camps for displaced persons in Germany. Later, she became a journalist. In 1971, she obtained permission to hold interviews with Franz Stangl after he had been sentenced to life imprisonment.

Arendt, a Jew who had herself been a refugee from the Nazi terror, based her study on the testimony of Eichmann’s trial. Her work has a greater scope than Sereny’s, using her philosophical background to examine the nature and causes of evil. Sereny, who had first hand experience with the victims of Nazi war crimes, focuses her examination of Stangl’s story on the questions of conscience and guilt. She seems to be seeking some sign of the acknowledgment of guilt in Stangl’s account of his career in mass murder. Arendt studies her subject from a distance, only through the court proceedings. Sereny becomes acquainted with her subject through interviews, and in some respects presents a clearer, more personal picture of the man. She even interviews his wife and one of his daughters, which contributes to her multi-sided portrait of Stangl.

Hannah Arendt’s writing on the Eichmann trial was in many ways ground-breaking. She was one of the first writers to look in detail at the Holocaust, and to encourage the Jews and the world to face «the facts of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust in all their naked horror».3Benhabib (2000), p. 71. When reading Sereny, one is struck by her reliance on Arendt for many of the basic facts about the Nazi program, for example the «Euthanasia Program» as a preparation for «The Final Solution».4Cf. Arendt ([1963] 1994), pp. 106-107, and Sereny ([1974] 1994), pp. 48ff, 96, 102-105. This is a confirmation of Arendt’s precendency in the field of Holocaust studies. Sereny’s contribution to the literature is in expanding on the information first presented by Arendt, and in presenting the human dimension of Nazism.

Adolf Eichmann and Franz Stangl were both «cogs» in the Nazi machinery of extermination, but they occupied different positions in the hierarchy of death. Eichmann was higher in the chain of command. He served in the Head Office for Reich Security (R.S.H.A.), one of the twelve Head Offices of the S.S.,5Arendt, ibid., p. 68. and rose to become fifth in the R.S.H.A. chain of command.6 ibid., p. 70. His first major job was to facilitate the «forced emigration» of Jews from Austria.7bid., p. 44ff. His «success» in this endeavour led to promotion with responsibility for the transportation of Jews to the concentration and extermination camps after the invasion of Russia in 1941.8ibid., p. 93ff. Stangl, also S.S., rose from Austrian policeman, first to head of security at one of the «euthanasia institutes» in Austria, and later to Kommandant of the extermination camps of Sobibor and Treblinka. As camp Kommandant of Treblinka, he once received the visit of Eichmann, although he later denied it.9Sereny ([1974] 1994), p. 191.

Neither man gave hatred of the Jews as the motive for their involvement in the genocide program. Eichmann’s motivation seems to have been his grand admiration of Hitler. He was deeply impressed by Hitler’s rise to power from corporal to Der Führer.10Arendt ([1963] 1994), p. 149. Eichmann’s blind personal loyalty to Hitler is clearly demonstrated by Arendt in her description of the events of 1944.11ibid., pp. 144ff. As it became clear that the Germans would lose the war, Himmler decided on a more «moderate» policy towards the Jews, in the hopes of a «better peace settlement».12ibid., p. 116, p. 145. This contradicted Hitler’s standing orders on the continued extermination of the Jews. When Himmler sent an order to Eichmann to stop the evacuation of Hungarian Jews, Eichmann threatened «to seek a new decision from the Führer».13ibid., p. 147.  Unlike the Jerusalem judges, Arendt attributed this, not to Eichmann’s fanatical hatred of the Jews, but to his warped conscience that could not allow him to disobey an order from Hitler. In addition to his personal admiration, as a member of the S.S. he had taken an oath which bound him to Hitler, not to Germany.14ibid., p. 149. His «uncompromising attitude during the last year of the war»,15ibid., p. 146. had, of course, a damning effect at his trial.16ibid., p. 147.

Sereny describes how Stangl tried to attribute his participation in mass murder to the fear and intimidation techniques of the Nazis.17Sereny ([1974] 1994), p. 37 et al. At decisive points in his S.S. career, he makes it sound as if he had little choice but to do what he was told and go where he was sent. This includes his joining the Nazi Party in Austria, signing the document renouncing his affiliation with the Church, his involvement with the Euthanasia Program, and, finally, his appointment as death camp Kommandant. The result of these rationalizations is that, from the «imposing and dominant personality in full control of himself» that she first encounters,18bid., p. 22. he becomes a rather pitiful figure, lacking moral courage and secretly loathing himself for it.

Both men claimed to experience revulsion at the murderous consequences of their work. Stangl related that he avoided the gas chambers and execution pits as much as he could.19bid., p. 114. Because of the layout of the extermination camps, it was in fact possible to avoid much of the «unpleasantness» if one was not directly involved with the killing.20ibid., p. 94-95, p. 146-147 He preferred to concentrate on beautifying the more accessible parts of the camps.21ibid., p. 166. This of course contributed to the deceptive impression given to arriving victims, that they were coming to country work camps, not places of extermination.22ibid., p. 115, p. 148. This false sense of idyll made it easier for them to be led to the slaughter. Eichmann related to his examiners how he became physically ill at the sight of gassings, executions and the piles of corpses on his tour of extermination sights in the East.23Arendt ([1963] 1994), pp. 87-89. The natural human reactions of these men to the consequences of their actions leave Sereny, Arendt and the reader pondering over the reason for the lacuna between their physical and moral perceptions. It is one of the most disturbing questions raised by these accounts.

The post-war chapters of these men’s lives also contain interesting parallels. Both were captured by the Americans. Both were held in minimum security prisons in Austria where it was fairly easy for them to make their escape. Both started new lives in South America: Eichmann in Argentina and Stangl in Brazil. They were both able to arrange for their families to join them. Arendt attributes Eichmann’s successful escape and relocation to South America to the help he received from ODESSA, «a clandestine organization of S.S. veterans»24ibid., p. 236. Sereny attributes Stangl’s successful «emigration» to Brazil more to aid provided to him by individuals, and discounts the existence of ODESSA or any other secret Nazi organizations.25Sereny ([1974] 1994), pp. 273-276. What is documented in the case of both men, however, is the help provided to them in their escape by Catholic priests in Italy.26Arendt ([1963] 1994), p. 236, Sereny ([1974] 1994), pp. 275-286. Sereny seems especially disturbed by this, and presents a detailed description of the Pope’s rather complicated position in relation to the Nazis and the war.27Sereny, ibid., pp. 277-286. Stangl himself pointed to the Catholic Church’s «tacit approval» of the Nazis in Germany at an earlier stage as a factor which pacified his conscience and made his involvement with the Euthanasia Program easier.28ibid., p. 58, p. 283.

Gitta Sereny tries to understand her subject by focusing on the chain of personal moral decisions, influential and authoritative individuals and decisive events which led Stangl to choose his fatal path. In the interviews, Stangl does express regret for many things and feels that he deserved to die during the war.29ibid., p. 39, p. 364. But the disturbing thing in his telling of his story is his inability to see «the big picture» and his difficulty in expressing guilt. He tends to blame his situation on factors beyond his control. This can perhaps be attributed to an innate defense mechanism: how can anyone truthfully face the guilt of being personally responsible for the murder of 900,000+ innocent people?30ibid., p. 39. Perhaps Sereny or the reader expects too much in wanting to find this in Stangl, and yet the lack of acknowledgment of personal responsibility leaves a gaping whole in one’s sense of morality and justice. Even his final conversation with Sereny, when the question of guilt was again raised, remains ambiguous, at least to this reader.

Although it can be argued that Sereny does not fully succeed in getting a clear confession of guilt from Franz Stangl, she does succeed in giving us a human portrait which dispels the myth of a «Nazi monster» created, understandingly enough, by «Nazi-hunters» like Simon Wiesenthal.31ibid., p. 21. And, through her personal encounter with this man, she does achieve the aim of her book, which is, in her words:

to demonstrate, how the personality and character of individual men and women, high and low, can affect and influence political life, and the tragic consequences that lack or surpression of courage and moral strength in individuals can have on the history of nations and the fate of men.32ibid., p. 14.

While the personal quality of Gitta Sereny’s narrative gives a needed human dimension to the engineers of the Holocaust, it is the philosophical depth of inquiry into the nature of evil that makes Hannah Arendt’s work the more profound of the two. Added to this is also Arendt’s own complex relationship to the Jewish people, which expresses itself in a tension between identification with and a distancing from the Jews of the Holocaust and the State of Israel.

Arendt came to Jerusalem to cover the trial for The New Yorker. While in her earlier life she had been involved in left-wing Zionist political movements in Europe before World War II,33ibid., p. 72-73. her career since the war had moved into the world of academia, where she had explored the wider issue of Totalitarism as a 20th Cent. phenomenon,34Arendt, Hannah (1951). and the importance of a vibrant political life for the health and security of democracy.35Arendt, Hannah (1958). In her treatment of the Eichmann trial there is an ambivalence mixed with an irony and sarcasm aimed at various aspects of it that shocked and angered Jewish readers both in Israel and America.36Benhabib (2000), p. 67. She questioned the wisdom of Ben-Gurion wanting it to be a show trial,37Arendt ([1963] 1994),p. 8. and criticized the Chief Prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, for theatrics and for often missing key points.38ibid., p. 9.

Arendt’s ambivalence about the trial seems focused on the dilemma of the particular and at the same time universal issue of the Holocaust. It was a particular genocide aimed at Jews simply because they were Jews. At the same time she saw this as expression of a radical new evil, in which the «unprecedented» could create a «precedence for the future», not just threatening Jews, but other races and peoples as well.39ibid., p. 273. She wanted to tell the story and fill in the details of the Nazi genocide, and at the same time emphasize its implications for humanity. She felt that the Eichmann trial failed on this latter score, because of its overtly political character.40ibid., p. 10, p. 269. However, to Karl Jaspers, her philosopher colleague and friend who argued that Eichmann should have been tried by an international court, Arendt defended Israel’s right to try him.41Benhabib (2000), p. 77.

Neither Arendt nor her earlier involvement in Zionist politics was well known in Israel when she wrote EJ. She was seen as an «outsider» in relation to the Holocaust experience by its victims, and her attempt to give it a universal perspective was seen as unjust and unfair by them. They felt that only one who had experienced it could write the story.42ibid., p. 71-73. In her description of the trial, one can also sense the tension between Eastern and Western Jews. She wrote favourably of the judges who were German-educated, and disparagingly of the Prosecutor Hausner who had Eastern European background.43ibid., p. 65. Her use of language also got her into trouble with her Jewish audience. Her use of the term «banality» in relation to Eichmann was misinterpreted by many to mean that she believed his evil deed were banal, when in fact she was referring to the character and mentality of the man himself.44ibid., p. 74.

Like Gitta Sereny, Hannah Arendt’s meeting with the character of Adolf Eichmann was a surprise which she struggled to express cogently. Expecting to see in him the personification of evil, she found an ordinary man who nevertheless was accused of «enormous crimes».45ibid., p. 67.

Eichmann spoke in endless clichés, gave little evidence of being motivated by a fanatical hatred of the Jews, and was most proud of being a ‘law-abiding citizen’. It was the shock of seeing Eichmann ‘in the flesh’ that led Arendt to the thought that great wickedness was not a necessary condition for the performance of (or complicity in) great crimes. Evil could take a ‘banal’ form, as it had in Eichmann.46ibid., p. 67.

As Arendt herself expressed, Eichmann was not a Shakespearean villain.47Arendt ([1963] 1994), p. 287. He simply lacked the imagination to understand the implications of what he was doing. Another way of putting it is that he lacked the ability «to think from the standpoint of someone else»48ibid., p. 49.

That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man — that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem. But it was a lesson, neither an explanation of the phenomenon nor a theory about it.49ibid., p. 288.

As a result of her observations about the «thoughtlessness» of Eichmann and its relation to evil, Arendt turned to philosophy to try to find an explanation or theory which would help her to understand it.50Villa (2000), p. 15. This ultimately led to her last major work, The Life of the Mind (1978). She wondered whether our ability to think and to have an «internal dialogue with ourselves» was vital for developing and preserving our moral sense.51ibid., p. 16. This could in turn affect our «political judgments».52ibid «Could the activity of thinking as such (…) be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or actually “condition” them against it?»53Arendt (1984), p. 8. Quoted in Villa, ibid. And Eichmann’s inability to think from someone else’s viewpoint demonstrates how vital «representative thinking» is in making correct moral choices which have social and political consequences.54Arendt ([1961] 1968), pp. 241-242. Quoted in Villa, ibid., p. 18. The capacity for internal dialogue «has the effect of introducing a kind of plurality into the self. This plurality lies at the root of conscience itself».55Villa, ibid. Eichmann’s thoughtlessness meant that his conscience «was defined almost entirely by his station and its duties».56ibid He could therefore commit the most heinous crimes.57ibid

Because of these insights, Hannah Arendt stressed the importance of independent thought and judgment even when it put the individual in opposition to accepted moral or cultural norms of the majority.58ibid Therefore, she posed Socrates «as the “model” thinker whose capacity to undermine custom and convention leads to an enhancement of moral judgment».59ibid

Hannah Arendt’s record of the Eichmann trial and her philosophical reflections on it are extremely helpful in moving the question of «human darkness» –evil – from the metaphysical realm to the realm of human consciousness. The fact that Eichmann is portrayed as an «ordinary man» makes his story and his crimes even more dangerous than first imagined – for it could have been anyone. The Jewish authorities wanted the picture of a «monster», but Arendt’s portrait serves a larger purpose. She universalizes the key issue, which is greater than the Jewish dimension. It is a strength of her work that she preserves the tension between the two stories: the Jewish and the universal one. The danger of «thoughtlessness» lurks in members of every society. Thankfully, there are few Hitlers in history. But the real danger lies in the many Eichmanns and Stangls who unthinkingly follow them. Arendt argues convincingly that the capacity for human thought is the surest antidote.


Arendt, Hannah (1951), The Origins of Totalitariansism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.)

Arendt, Hannah (1958), The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Arendt, Hannah ([1961] 1968), ‘Truth and Politics’, in Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought Rev. ed. 1968 (New York: Viking Press), pp. 241-242, referred to in Villa, Dana, ed. (2000), ‘Introduction: the development of Arendt’s political thought’, in Dana Villa, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 18.

Arendt, Hannah ([1963] 1994), Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Books)

Arendt, Hannah (1978), The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)

Arendt, Hannah (1984), ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture’, Social Research, 50thAnniversary Issue (Spring/Summer), p. 8, quoted in Villa, Dana, ed. (2000), ‘Introduction: the development of Arendt’s political thought’, in Dana Villa, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 16.

Benhabib, Seyla (2000), ‘Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem’, in Dana Villa, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 65-85.

Sereny, Gitta ([1974] 1995), Into That Darkness. From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder (London: Pimlico)

Villa, Dana, ed. (2000), The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Villa, Dana, ed. (2000), ‘Introduction: the development of Arendt’s political thought’, in Dana Villa, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 1-21.

Fotnoter   [ + ]

1. Villa (2000), pp. xiv-xvi.
2. Sereny ([1974] 1994), p. 9.
3. Benhabib (2000), p. 71.
4. Cf. Arendt ([1963] 1994), pp. 106-107, and Sereny ([1974] 1994), pp. 48ff, 96, 102-105.
5. Arendt, ibid., p. 68.
6. ibid., p. 70.
7. bid., p. 44ff.
8. ibid., p. 93ff.
9. Sereny ([1974] 1994), p. 191.
10. Arendt ([1963] 1994), p. 149.
11. ibid., pp. 144ff.
12. ibid., p. 116, p. 145.
13. ibid., p. 147.
14. ibid., p. 149.
15. ibid., p. 146.
16. ibid., p. 147.
17. Sereny ([1974] 1994), p. 37 et al.
18. bid., p. 22.
19. bid., p. 114.
20. ibid., p. 94-95, p. 146-147
21. ibid., p. 166.
22. ibid., p. 115, p. 148.
23. Arendt ([1963] 1994), pp. 87-89.
24. ibid., p. 236.
25. Sereny ([1974] 1994), pp. 273-276.
26. Arendt ([1963] 1994), p. 236, Sereny ([1974] 1994), pp. 275-286.
27. Sereny, ibid., pp. 277-286.
28. ibid., p. 58, p. 283.
29. ibid., p. 39, p. 364.
30. ibid., p. 39.
31. ibid., p. 21.
32. ibid., p. 14.
33. ibid., p. 72-73.
34. Arendt, Hannah (1951).
35. Arendt, Hannah (1958).
36. Benhabib (2000), p. 67.
37. Arendt ([1963] 1994),p. 8.
38. ibid., p. 9.
39. ibid., p. 273.
40. ibid., p. 10, p. 269.
41. Benhabib (2000), p. 77.
42. ibid., p. 71-73.
43. ibid., p. 65.
44. ibid., p. 74.
45, 46. ibid., p. 67.
47. Arendt ([1963] 1994), p. 287.
48. ibid., p. 49.
49. ibid., p. 288.
50. Villa (2000), p. 15.
51. ibid., p. 16.
52, 56, 57, 58, 59. ibid
53. Arendt (1984), p. 8. Quoted in Villa, ibid.
54. Arendt ([1961] 1968), pp. 241-242. Quoted in Villa, ibid., p. 18.
55. Villa, ibid.

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