Anthology – Peoples’ Plan for Life, Now and Forever …
It pains me to counter such a sensible, forgiving essay, written by an exceptionally courageous person who’d experienced Hell in person, with a quote from Adolph Eichmann during his self-arranged exile in Argentina before his capture and trial by Israel for his crimes against Jews, characterized by Hanah Arendt as “the banality of evil.” In so describing Eichmann’s crimes, she gives him a pass. In her mind he was just like most people, and quite vulnerable to his environment and times. She was dead wrong. Evil he was, and banal too. If she’s right about this behavior being spawned by our ordinariness, what does that make of Americans authorizing aggressive war in their name? According to Eichmann however, he knew exactly what he was about and why, whereas we like to say we are being tricked. Besides, we are all patriots, all the time, as well as Berliners for a time, a status assumed for us in a speech at the Berlin Wall by John F. Kennedy.
Eichmann pretended to be following orders. Michael Kimmelman, reporting on the opening of a new exhibition in May 2011 at the Topography of Terror Museum in Berlin (NY Times, Monday, May 9, 2011) reports that the exhibit “…devotes a section to reappraising the work of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, pointing out that she failed to attend much of the trial, never saw Eichmann cross-examined and thus didn’t witness his ‘just following orders’ defense crumble.” In Argentina Eichmann had been interviewed by an ex-Nazi, Willem Sassen, who, along with some other ex-Nazis there, dreamed about exonerating Hitler and inaugurating a Fourth Reich. Confronted with some of the Sassen material at the trial, Eichmann was exposed. He had told Sassen that he only regretted not having murdered more Jews. ‘I could have done more and should have done more,’ he said.”
Now, what do you make of the naming of a street paralleling the Berlin Holocaust Museum after Hannah Arendt? There is more to tell and more to know. If the Berliners don’t want it known, it may be their reticence has a lot to do with how thorough their leading citizens were during the period beginning in 1919 when they ‘schmiedete das neue deutsche Schwert’ (forged the new German sword).” (See Manchester, above.) We don’t have an Arendt street in Washington, DC., but we have its conscious-driven equivalent all around in our Capitol. Street-naming and monuments. They come in quite handy in obscuring asocial behavior, on a par with parking regulation suspensions to keep the peace among the various religionists in New York City.
Mr. Langbein’s feelings about Germans helps every witness to the crimes committed in their name. It is probably necessary for those who bore witness so dramatically close as he to find some basis of forgiveness. And it helps the people, like me, who do not want to carry ill will and grudges towards a people among whom there are many deeply loving and personal relationships. If asked to choose, I’d give Mr. Langbein the last word. But I’d ask that it be noted, in Eichmann’s words, that “I could have done more and should have done more,” and that Americans take a harder look at our own society.