The Ethics of Eichmann’s Defense

If the defendant excuses himself on the ground that he acted not as a man but as a mere functionary whose functions could just as easily have been carried out by anyone else, it is as if a criminal pointed to the statistics on crime — which set forth that so-and-so many crimes per day are committed in such-and-such a place — and declared that he only did what was statistically expected, that it was mere accident that he did it and not somebody else, since after all somebody had to do it.
(From the postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem)

In the postscript to her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt presents us with a strange hypothetical. Think of a criminal — say, a murderer — who presents as his only excuse the statistical likelihood of a murder at the time and location where he committed his crime. Let us be clear that the murderer does not use these statistics to imply that the frequency of murders in his district suggests that homicide is less of a moral transgression there. Murder is not okay, and the criminal doesn’t suggest otherwise. He merely says: look, statistically speaking, it was bound to happen — and I just happened to be the instrument through which the statistically expected incident occurred. Had I not done it, someone else probably would have. So how can you punish me for something that would have happened anyway?

What is so disturbing about this line of defense is not that it is wrong. No, what is disturbing about the argument brought forth by the criminal is that it is, in some limited sense, in fact true. Statistically speaking, it might very well be true that someone would have been killed in such-and-such a place. But the argument is no less absurd for its truth, and the absurdity consists in the fact that the general, statistical truth that is pronounced here by the criminal cannot possibly be the truth of the criminal. In invoking the statistical, objective truth, the criminal abandons his perspective as an individual agent who could have acted differently. In his recourse to the statistical argument he has given up his individual, concrete humanity.

By Source, Fair use

Hannah Arendt invites us to think of Adolf Eichmann’s defense that he was merely a cog in the bureaucratic machinery of the Third Reich in terms of the criminal who invokes murder statistics. This is a striking comparison precisely because it is in no way intuitive. Wouldn’t we have to admit that Eichmann’s defense, trite as it is, is much more commonsensical than that of the fictional murderer? After all, the murder statistics are wholly abstract estimates based on the crimes committed in the past: the statistical expectation of murders to be committed doesn’t directly represent any existing reality. In contrast, the Nazi apparatus was frighteningly real and powerful. The mass murder of millions of Jews was actually being committed and what Eichmann’s possible resistance — or at least his non-cooperation — could have accomplished is a matter of mere speculation.

Nevertheless, the comparison of the fictional murderer’s recourse to statistics sheds light on the problem with Eichmann’s defense. Just as the fictional murderer in some sense speaks the truth when he refers to the statistical inevitability of murder, Eichmann speaks, in some sense, the truth when he refers to the power of the bureaucratic apparatus. But in doing so, Eichmann, just as the criminal, looks at his actions from a perspective that is fundamentally not his own. He looks at his deeds from theoretical heights where his own existence is meaningless. Eichmann, too, has, in defending himself, abandoned his humanity.

Eichmann’s defense that he was a mere cog in the machinery does not exonerate him. Quite to the contrary, in trying to mitigate his responsibility, he unwittingly annihilates not only himself, but also our sense of what constitutes the dignity of humanity. In this way, his very defense further underscores the charges of inhuman cruelty that he set out to refute.

Arendt’s concern in Eichmann in Jerusalem is that the modern age has allowed for this kind of inhuman alienation that she witnessed in Eichmann’s defense. As Eichmann’s case showed her, this was the source of great evil in modern times. In the analysis of Eichmann’s rational, but absurdly inhuman line of defense, Arendt constructs her very own dialectic of enlightenment as the process by which the description of our life from an objective standpoint allows for the absurd adoption of a perspective in which this very life is extinguished.


Martin Wagner, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Yonsei University, Underwood International College

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