At the end of May 1960 newspapers seemed to have only one story subject line: Adolf Eichmann, the organizer of the Holocaust, had been captured. The Number One man on the Wanted List of German war criminals, deeply involved in the mass murder of six million Jews, was alive, and Israel would put him on trial.
Hundreds of journalists applied for an exclusive press pass. Lawyers from all over the world showed interest, offered help or write about the juridical aspects of the upcoming trial. Psychologists discussed the possibility of murderous minds. But where were the philosophers?
Thanks to Hannah Arendt (a German-born, American intellectual who covered the Eichmann trials for The New Yorker), today nobody is in any doubt that Adolf Eichmann is the keyword for one of the most difficult philosophical questions: the question of evil.
But in 1960 the philosophers weren't interested in the man or the trial. Max Horkheimer, the famous friend and colleague of Theodor W. Adorno, had nothing but a warning: this trial seems like a big mistake, highly dangerous for our young people in Germany.
The only aspect that the philosophers liked to discuss passionately was Israel's legitimation for staging such a trial against a perpetrator who committed his crimes in the middle of Europe, not on the Levantine coast. How was it possible that only 15 years after the fall of the Nazi regime, thinkers could be so assured that there was nothing to be learnt about Nazi crimes and their specific morality?
One reason why the philosophers shied away from the task of examining the National Socialists mind was, and still is, a mixture of conceit and the refusal to visit archives.
We have cultivated an image of the Nazi as anything but a thinking man. We comfort ourselves we don't have to read all their books, brochures and correspondence, because what people like Eichmann had to say was thoughtless stammering and parroted phrases. And we are absolutely sure that we know everything about Nazi non-thinking. In other words, we are convinced that Nazis and philosophers are from totally different stock. We think, which is why we have moral standards; they were unable to think, which is why they were murderers.
This picture of Nazis as non-intellectuals -- if not mentally ill -- isn't just based on the idealization of thinkers and thinking as such. It also has a calming effect. The theory that evil itself has no depth, that evil is a superficial phenomenon, is so touching and beautiful, because it is first and foremost a theory of hope. If even the cruelest crimes were a consequence of thoughtlessness, the project of enlightenment would remain unharmed -- if we can just get every human being to think for him or herself, if we teach and encourage people to use their own ability to think, the world will be a better place.
But reading the writings of Adolf Eichmann confronts us with the disturbing fact that National Socialism gets its power from a fundamental and consistent criticism of the ideas of reason and justice as a guide for life.
The Holocaust was anything but an unthinkable crime. In the beginning there was a thought, the dangerous thought that some people are superior to others, that they have more rights than others. It wasn't thoughtlessness, but the perpetrator's way of thinking and talking, that produced Auschwitz. Thinking may lead us to moral understanding, but for that reason it can lead us beyond morality, too. In other words -- and how could it be anything else -- thinking is a tool, and therefore a means to many different aims.
We must learn to live with the fact that great thinkers were capable of errors that were not just great, but dangerous. That a philosophy exists which is untrue in its fundament and aims, one that is evil. There is a big difference between (Hannah Arendt's famous phrase) "thinking without banisters" and "thinking without limits."
The heights of thinking are not holy ground, attainable only by those who renounce all worldly weapons, and the depths of thinking are not a ritual initiation, leaving us necessarily cleansed and anointed. On the contrary: if it really exists, the battle between good and evil, then this is where it takes place. It's just that the countless victims will die on another battlefield.
It is time for an uneasy philosophy. Why have philosophers learned how to replicate thinking in a safe mode, if not to be able to examine attitudes of mind that are able to infect the world? Who, if not we, should take it upon themselves to explore the virus and carry out these experiments, for which no laboratory exists, because we have no other way to study thoughts than by letting them into our own minds?
There is no shame in fearing experiments that replicate the minds of mass murderers, terrorists and dangerous demagogues. But we have to understand in the same way people like Eichmann understood. Otherwise we will never recognize when thinking starts to become something that is no longer honourable. Only those who are willing to dirty their own minds can find out, not only how to make humans think for themselves, but how to stop them again.
Bettina Strangneth's Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer is a book that debunks the myth that Adolf Eichmann was a banal stooge for Hitler. The non-fiction book is a finalist for the Cundill Prize. The Cundill Prize is the world's richest non-fiction book award -- the winning author will receive $75,000 and the two remaining finalists receive $10,000.
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