On January 20, 1942, a group of senior SS-officers and other high-ranking Nazi officials met at a luxurious villa, located on the picturesque Wannsee lake in southwestern Berlin, to discuss their plan to murder every last Jewish man, woman and child in Europe. They had been invited there by Reinhard Heydrich, the deputy leader of the SS and one of the main architects of the “final solution to the Jewish question.”
One of those present at this “Wannsee Conference” wast he 36-year-old SS-Obersturmbahnführer (lieutenant-colonel) Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962). At the time, Eichmann led the SS-Department IV b 4, which was responsible for the transportation of Jews to the ghettos, concentration camps and killing facilities in eastern Europe. He was also entrusted with organizing the conference, with writing the notes for Heydrich’s address to the participants and with producing a memorandum of what had been discussed and decided there (a document which would later provide crucial historical and legal evidence for the Holocaust).
After the war, Eichmann escaped to Argentina, where he lived for many years incognito, but in1 960 he was abducted by Israeli secret agents and brought to Israel. He was put on trial in Jerusalem, pronounced guilty of several major crimes – including mass-murder– and, on May 31, 1962, he was executed by hanging.
The Eichmann trial sparked a worldwide controversy after the publication in 1965 of the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, written by the German-American political thinker Hannah Arendt. She had covered the trial as a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, and had been granted access to Eichmann’s written testimony of his life. At the trial, Eichmann depicted himself as a simple bureaucrat who had only followed orders. (At one point, he blurted out the claim: “The popes ordered: I had to obey!”)
Eichmann’s perverted sense of duty, which had apparently left him oblivious to the suffering of his victims, inspired Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil.” Eichmann appeared to Arendt not as a monster, but as a “clown” – a pathetically ordinary man who had sent countless innocent people to their deaths out of sheer thoughtlessness. The problem with Eichmann, and with countless Germans like him, Arendt argued, was that they lacked the moral imagination to see the human consequences of their actions. According to Arendt’s critique, Eichmann showed that evil need not be the result of malevolent intent, but of a simple failure to think. (Critics of Arendt were incensed because they believed that she had humanized a monster and therefore relativized his guilt. Many were also outraged because she had pointed out the complicity of some Jews in their own people’s destruction.)
Now, Adolf Eichmann has also become a regular topic of discussion within the Modern Stoicism community. As many readers no doubt already know, one of the movements more prominent writers, Massimo Pigliucci, regularly presents Eichmann as a prime example of amathia, an ancient Greek philosophical concept, going back to Socrates, denoting a “lack of wisdom” which results from a failure to use one’s rational faculties. The term can also be understood as a kind of ignorance which results from a refusal to learn.
Amathia can have horrific consequences, causing severe harm to others, even though the perpetrators harbor no evil intent. Socrates and Plato, as well as their respective students and schools of philosophy, shared this view. According to them, men and women never commit evil intentionally. Rather, they do evil because they lack the knowledge of what is truly good. Like the ancient Greek anti-heroine Medea – whom Massimo presents as a kind of “poster-girl” for amathia – they believe their acts are good or necessary. But they are tragically mistaken.
The Stoics also adopted the doctrine of amathia. Marcus Aurelius, for example, states that if men do rightly what they do, we shouldn’t be displeased, if not, clearly they do it involuntarily and in ignorance. As every soul is unwillingly deprived of the truth, so it is deprived of the power of delivering to each man what he deserves. (Meditations, 11:18.) But intellect, by itself, is no safeguard against amathia. It needs to be guided in the right direction and exercised – something which Eichmann failed to do. Hannah Arendt saw Eichmann as
perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he had this sort of stupidity. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous. And that was what I meant by banality.
Arendt herself did not use the concept of amathia to analyze Eichmann’s debased moral condition. It seems rather that the philosopher Glenn Hughes was the first to view the Nazi atrocities as examples of amathia. Massimo agrees with Arendt that Eichmann exhibited “intelligent stupidity” and he also concurs with Hughes that his crimes against the Jews resulted from amathia. For Massimo, the case of Eichmann confirms the Stoic belief that people commit evil out of ignorance, an argument Massimo repeated at the 2017 Stoicon.
Human beings can indeed do terrible things out of ignorance. History shows this over and over again. But the assertion that millions of Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered because the Nazis lacked knowledge of the true philosophical good is, while in a certain sense true, nevertheless a grotesque banalization of the Holocaust. In the case of Eichmann, moreover, it’s completely mistaken. He, like the other main architects of the Holocaust, knew exactly what he was doing. He was aware of the suffering he was causing, but it didn’t bother him in the least. He also recognized that he was violating every moral and ethical standard developed over two thousand years within Western religious and philosophical thought. He acted knowingly, willingly and voluntarily. Far from being a mindless automaton who was simply “following orders,” Adolf Eichmann went far beyond “the call of duty” in his efforts to hunt down Jews and send them to their deaths. He did so not just to please his superiors – as the Eichmann-myth would have it – but out of passionate ideological conviction. He shared the Nazi belief that the Jews were a parasitical race preventing their racial superiors, the Aryans, from taking their rightful place in the world, and he went to great lengths to ensure their destruction.
Outside of academic historical circles, however, this insight into Eichmann’s actions has not yet spread very far, not least because of the powerful influence of Hannah Arendt. Too many discussions about Eichmann – especially among philosophers – are still based on Arendt’s book about him. But the historical research on Eichmann and the Holocaust have since advanced far beyond Eichmann in Jerusalem. Whoever wants to be conversant with the current state of the research should read the work by the German philosopher and historian Bettina Stagneth: Eichmann before Jerusalem.
Stagneth, like other contemporary Holocaust researchers, has availed herself of the many sources that have come to light since Eichmann’s trial. The most important of these regarding Eichmann are The Argentinian Papers, a compilation of writings by Nazis living in Argentinian exile, hoping to bring about a “Fourth Reich.” Among the Papers is a series of interviews Eichmann gave to its compiler and editor, the Dutch journalist Willem (“Wim”) Sassen (1918-2001), consisting of 1,300 written pages and 25 hours of taped material.
Some doubt the credibility of Sassen, who was a veteran of the Waffen-SS (he was a member of its voluntary Dutch division). Sassen also wrote for right-wing extremist publications after the war and belonged to a support network of exiled Nazis hiding in South America, a group that included the notorious Todesengel (“Angel of Death”) of Auschwitz, Dr. Joseph Mengele (1911-1979). But it could also be argued that Eichmann would feel much freer to express his true convictions to a fellow SS-man than he would be to an Israeli prosecutor. In any event, Eichmann valued the Papers highly, instructing that they be published in the case of his death or capture.The autobiographical testimony of Eichmann which Arendt used as a main source for Eichmann in Jerusalem, was actually written by him as part of his contribution to The Argentinian Papers. But it was fragmentary, and without the wider context of the entire document, which includes much more damning information about Eichmann, and which was not fully available in Arendt’s time, it was easier for her to view him as a technical bureaucrat instead of the vicious anti-Semite that he was. (In Arendt’s defense, the court that tried Eichmann also refused to admit the parts of the Papers they had as evidence, because their authenticity had not yet been verified.)
Furthermore, it now looks as though Hannah Arendt was not going to let any contrary evidence cast doubt on her novel and provocative interpretation of Adolf Eichmann and his crimes. One of the Israeli state prosecutors at the trial, Gabriel Bach, spoke in 2012 of what he saw as Arendt’s willful ignorance regarding Eichmann: “She misrepresented essential facts or ignored them”. When Bach first read Eichmann in Jerusalem, he was “astounded” to discover that Arendt, who had access to all the relevant documents at the time, had twisted the meaning of some of the most important of them into their opposites, “such as that Eichmann had clearly countered some of the clear orders of Hitler, in order to do even more damage.” In truth, the evidence for Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is so overwhelming that it becomes hard to understand how anyone could still doubt it. But for many, it seems, that appears preferable to admitting that Hannah Arendt could have been so terribly mistaken.
As Stagneth says:
Humans simply prefer hope to despair. The theory of the banality of evil is a theory of hope: If evil arises from ignorance, the solution is as easy as a project of enlightenment. If we help people think for themselves, the world will be better. But—and this is an ugly “but”—there is an important difference between an inability to think and an unwillingness to accept thinking as worthwhile. Eichmann could think, and his writings and speeches are evidence of this. Follow the arguments, and you will find the thinker. This difference between “inability to think” and “mistrust of thinking itself” is crucial. Otherwise, we underestimate the real danger of National Socialism and every other ideology that wages war against reason. That’s the purpose of my research: to show that philosophy is defensible against this fundamental aggression. But I understand only too well why people, especially intellectuals, refuse to recognize this threat.
What motivated Adolf Eichmann in his innermost being can never be proven without a doubt. We have to judge him on his deeds. But they alone are more than enough to damn him as a perpetrator of evil who was anything but banal. (Readers who find the term “evil” too theological are welcome to use the alternative “heinous crimes.”) After being sent to Budapest to organize the deportation of the Hungarian Jews to the death camps, Eichmann gave graphic descriptions of how he saw his role there. “Do you know who I am? I am a bloodhound!” “I keep the mills of Auschwitz grinding!” “I’m having the whole filthy band of Jews in Budapest murdered!”
And it wasn’t the case that Eichmann was some kind of “desk criminal,” a pencil-pusher with no first-hand knowledge of the consequences of his actions. He didn’t need to “imagine” the suffering of his victims: he witnessed it first-hand. In Vienna, Eichmann personally participated in raids on the Jewish community there. It was his idea that “Jewish councils” also be set up in Vienna, so that the Jewish communities themselves assisted their persecutors in getting Jews to emigrate, while leaving their wealth and valuables to the Nazis.
In an autobiographical text Eichmann wrote in prison – one which Hannah Arendt never saw, and which was then kept secret by the Israeli government for 15 years – he recalled witnessing many mass-killings. The sights were so grisly, he lamented, that he could only tolerate them by drinking heavily. He wrote that one mass-shooting he saw in Minsk was so bad he had to “drink schnaps like water.” Nevertheless, Eichmann actively pursued the discovery of more efficient means of killing Jews. He held discussions on this topic with Rudolf Höss (1901-1947), commandant of Auschwitz, in the camp itself. Eichmann also personally inspected the gas trucks at Chelmno and the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Far from being a passive recipient of orders with no convictions of his own, Eichmann proved himself, repeatedly, to be a committed Nazi and anti-Semite who showed tremendous energy and initiative when it came to the dispossession, transportation and mass-murder of Central Europe’s Jews. In one of his interviews with Willem Stassen, Eichmann even belittled those who committed atrocities and then tried to distance themselves from their actions once the circumstances had changed. No one should claim they were only following orders, he said. “That is cheap nonsense, that’s just an excuse,” adding that humanitarian considerations only served to help “one comfortably ensconce oneself behind orders, edicts and laws.”
To return to the central point, Massimo, as well as most Stoics, would no doubt contend that, while Eichmann certainly committed horrific crimes, he nevertheless did so out of amathia, out of ignorance of the true philosophical Good. In fact, Massimo anticipates criticism of using amathia to explain Nazi atrocities:
Whenever I say this [that Eichmann acted out of ignorance], someone is guaranteed to get outraged. What? Do I seriously mean to say that Hitler wasn’t evil? How could I possibly be so naïve? Or perhaps I harbor questionable sympathies? But as with many terms in philosophy, ‘evil’ and ‘ignorance’ don’t mean quite what we expect.
In truth, both Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil” as well as the ancient Greek concept of amathia are complex ideas that defy “common-sense” thinking. In each case, the proposition is that those we consider to be evildoers are actually motivated by what they consider to be “good” or necessary. That is to say, they do not believe that they are doing “evil.” Some members of the Modern Stoicism Facebook group, responding to the same critique presented here, have agreed with Massimo that Eichmann indeed thought he was “doing good”, in the sense that he believed that ridding the world of Jews was necessary. In fact, in the most notorious part of The Argentinian Papers, Tape Number 67, Eichmann seems to confirm this view. Speaking at what was probably a small gathering of Nazis in Argentinian exile, Eichmann proclaimed: “What is useful for my people, is for me a sacred command and a sacred law. Jawohl.”
Nevertheless, to argue that Eichmann acted out of an ignorance of the good is to fundamentally misunderstand what the Nazis considered to be their world-historical mission: namely, to eradicate all obstacles to the ultimate triumph of the Germanic peoples in the racial struggle for survival. They knew full well that it was “wrong” to murder innocent human beings, they knew that what they were doing was “evil,” but that was precisely the point. As the Yale historian and Holocaust-expert Timothy Snyder has shown, the Nazis viewed traditional Western values such as the sanctity of human life, mercy, justice, fraternity and comity as Jewish lies that sapped the strength of the Aryan race. They therefore had to be eradicated along with the Jews. They knew what “good” and “evil” were, but they consciously chose to pursue evil in full knowledge of the consequences.
Eichmann’s own familiarity with philosophy also went much deeper than what Arendt knew (or could have known at the time). Today we know that Eichmann was not only familiar with Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but he could also carry on fairly sophisticated discussions about them and their ideas. But he rejected the humanist elements of Western philosophy because they were incompatible with the crude social Darwinism favored by the Nazis. It was only in Jerusalem, when he was on trial for his life, that Eichmann concealed his own systematic anti-humanist world-view and placed his own ideas within the Western philosophical canon.
Moreover, as Bettina Stagneth warns us, we should not to dismiss the “atavistic” ideology of Eichmann and the Nazis as “pseudo-philosophy.” Many academic philosophers at the time shared such views, including the man who arguably became the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, Heidegger, referring to the tradition of Western rationalist thought, proclaimed: “We have renounced the idolization of an abysmal and powerless reasoning. We see the end of the philosophy which serves that.”
Adolf Eichmann committed evil purposely, willingly and knowingly. There is a lesson here for modern Stoics: Just as the ancient Stoic belief in a sentient, wise, benevolent universe needs to be revised in the light of modern physics, so the Stoic doctrine that people only do evil out of ignorance needs to be modified in the wake of the Holocaust. Sometimes evil is done in full knowledge of its nature and its consequences.
To be sure, this is no new insight. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, believed that humans do evil, whether in the form of stealing pears or terrorizing entire populaces, precisely because they delight in the pleasure “of doing what we should not do”. By breaking moral customs, norms and laws, men and women set themselves above the rest of humanity. But that doesn’t mean that Stoicism is helpless in the face of it. A Stoic education, for instance, could help prevent people from becoming evil in the first place. But we must also keep in mind that success is not guaranteed. Marcus Aurelius’ son and successor Commodus must have received quite a dose of Stoic philosophy while he was growing up, but that did not prevent him from becoming one of the worst tyrants to ever sit upon the imperial throne of Rome. Perhaps more importantly, Stoicism can guide our own actions as we try to respond to the consequences of evil, an important consideration in our own time, which is characterized by authoritarian demagogues, racism, terrorism, the ruthless exploitation of our natural resources and the reckless accumulation of individual wealth in full contempt of the general social welfare.
Before concluding, I would like to mention that I originally expressed my disagreement with Massimo on this subject on the Modern Stoicism Facebook page. Massimo generously devoted the time to give me a thoughtful response – for which I remain grateful – but he still begged to disagree. Massimo wrote: “Eichmann is a perfect example of amathia because he lacked wisdom, or he would have understood that what he was doing is ‘evil.’ The point is that he didn’t get up in the morning thinking ‘what sort of evil can I do today?’ but rather ‘how can I do my job well today?’ He may have ‘reflected’ on what he was doing, but from a standpoint of ‘ignorance’ (i.e., unwisdom, i.e., amathia).”
Massimo here restates his argument that Eichmann acted out of ignorance of what is truly good. Again, this is to suggest that Eichmann, and all the other Nazis like him, murdered several million human beings because they weren’t thinking like Stoics. To reiterate, this appears to me to be both true, on one level, but also to be a banalization of the Holocaust. Moreover, Massimo remains mistaken about Eichmann, just as Hannah Arendt was. The historical record shows that Eichmann did not “get up in the morning thinking how he could do his job well” – in the sense that the kind of job he was doing didn’t matter. Eichmann’s words and deeds demonstrate instead that he devoted careful and sustained thought to how he could best execute the Nazi plan to humiliate, rob, expel, torture and murder Europe’s Jews.
In that sense, he truly did get up in the morning and ask “what kind of evil” he could do that day. Adolf Eichmann knew what he was doing. He was aware of the “Good” in the Western philosophical tradition, but he rejected it. The Nazis viewed Western humanist values as Jewish lies which only served to sap the strength of superior races and weaken them in the historical struggle for survival. That is why, in the eyes of the Nazis, the Jews had to be destroyed. Adolf Eichmann pursued this goal with energy, initiative and commitment. As the historian and Holocaust expert Yehuda Bauer puts it: “He was evil, but not banal. He read constantly, was highly intelligent and possessed broad knowledge. He referred to philosophy, to Kant. Hannah Arendt was wrong. Evil is never banal.”
Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz in May 1944. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-318 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5367208
Kevin Kennedy is a German-American historian, lecturer, writer and commentator who lives and works in Potsdam, Germany. He is also the father of two children and a long-distance runner. He lectures on Prussian history, modern German history, and the Holocaust. In addition, he works as a local guide in Potsdam, Berlin and Dresden, and as a tour manager in Central Europe.
 In a 1965 West German television interview, Arendt said she rejected the label of “philosopher” for herself. Philosophers thought in eternal and universal categories, she said, something which she felt was no longer possible in the modern age. Arendt preferred to describe herself as a “political theorist,” Hannah Arendt and Political Theory. Challenging the Tradition, Edinburgh 2011, p. 1; for a discussion of the controversy: “The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt. Introduction by Amos Elon, in Hannah Arendt,” Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil, London, 2016, vii-xxiii.
 Arendt, p. 54.
 Arendt, p. 150.
 Massimo Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic. Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, London 2017, pp.115-116.
 Pigliucci, pp. 109.110, 117-119.
 Interview with Hannah Arendt, quoted in Pigliucci, p. 113.
 Pigliucci, p. 116.
 Pigliucci, p.112-113.
 Do People Commit Evil out of Ignorance? by Massimo Pigliucci, https://modernstoicism.com/do-people-commit-evil-out-of-ignorance-by-massimo-pigliucci/ (last accessed on October 19, 2018).
 Bettina Stagneth, Eichmann vor Jerusalem. Das unbehelligte Leben eines Massenmörders, Hamburg, 2004. (English version: Stagneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem. The Unexamined Life of a Mass-Murderer, New York 2015.
 Adolf Eichmann vor Gericht: https://www.fritz-bauer-archiv.de/index.php/genocidium/eichmann-vor-gericht (last accessed on October 21, 2018),
 Stagneth, p. 535.
 “The Lies of Adolf Eichmann. German philosopher Bettina Stangneth reexamines the Nazi commander—and the true nature of evil”: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/the-lies-adolf-eichmann-told/381222/ (last accessed on October 21, 2018).
 Als ich später ihr Buch las, war ich um so erstaunter, dass sie einige der wichtigsten Dokumente zum Teil ins Gegenteil verkehrt hatte – unter anderem die, die beweisen, dass Eichmann klar Führerbefehle hintergangen hatte, um noch mehr Schaden anzurichten, https://www.welt.de/kultur/history/article106393105/Er-sah-Leichenberge-und-stritt-fuer-einen-Anzug.htm (last accessed on October 21, 2018),
“The Lies of Adolf Eichmann. . .”
 Ich bin ein Bluthund! Ich lasse die Mühlen von Auschwitz mahlen! Ich lasse das ganze jüdische Dreckspack von Budapest umlegen!, Stagneth, p. 80.
 Stagneth, pp.31.34.
 Holocaust. Das Böse ist niemals banal, Der Spiegel (33/99), http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-14225495.html (last accessed on October 22, 2018).
 Stagneth, pp. 59-60, p. 63, p.80
 . . .das ist billiger Mumpitz, das ist eine Ausrede; humanitäre Ansichten [dienten nur dazu] sich bequemst hinter Verordnungen, Erlass und Gesetz zu verstecken, Stagneth, p. 285.
 Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic, p. 113.
 Was meinem Volke nützt, ist für mich Heiliger Befehl und heiliges Gesetz, Stagneth, p. 391.
 Timothy Snyder, Black Earth. The Holocaust as History and Warning, New York 2015, pp.4-6.
 Stagneth, p. 288.
 Wir haben uns losgesagt von der Vergötzung eines boden- und machtlosen Denkens. Wir sehen das Ende der ihm dienstbaren Philosophie, Stagneth, 289. Heidegger made that statement at an electoral gathering of German scholars on November 11, 1933.
 St. Augustine’s Confessions or Praises of God in Ten Books, Dublin 1746, p. 47.
 https://www.facebook.com/groups/Stoicism/search/?query=Kevin%20Kennedy (last accessed on March 15, 2018.
Er war böse, aber nicht banal. Er hat immerfort gelesen, war hochgradig intelligent und von breitem Wissen. Er bezieht sich auf die Philosophie, auf Kant. Arendt hatte Unrecht. Das Böse ist niemals banal, Holocaust. Das Böse ist niemals banal. Der Spiegel, 33/1999,http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-14225495.html (last accessed on October 22, 2018).