On this day in 1961, Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death. It’s remarkable to think that he was only 39 years old at the end of World War II. And then you look at him in prison in his mid-50s and it isn’t hard to see why people picked up on Hannah Arendt’s concept, “The banality of evil.” This wasn’t what she was getting at, but I know we all have the same reaction when we see a war criminal long after the fact, “That average looking old man did it?!”
But based upon Arendt’s reporting, I would say that Eichmann was a totally typical authoritarian. So when he gave the explanation that he was simply following orders, he was being honest. Obviously, it is wrong to follow orders when the orders are wrong. But the issue that our civilization has never wrestled with is that all of our governments depend upon people following orders. Every aspect of the official state is designed to get people to follow orders without thinking.
All you really need to do is look at the way that our government responded to Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. I don’t believe for a minute that the government really cares about the secrets that were revealed. The overblown outrage that we see is to send a message: it doesn’t matter what you do because you think it is right, the government will hunt you down and destroy you. Do you really think that the US government would have forced another country’s airplane down to search for Robert Lewis Dear, if he were on the run? Of course it wouldn’t. No one needs a lesson about murder, but they do about never crossing the government.
I do think there was something banal about Eichmann. He was doing what almost all authoritarians would do in his place. And in America, I would say that about 25% of us are authoritarians. But the real problem is that the government seems to think things would be better if we all were.