Response to Corey Robin on Eichmann: funny man

Adolf Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(This post is a response to Corey Robbin’s blog[1])

One must always remember that ridicule is not a refutation. The most direct way to put this is that victims of the Final Solution did not laugh their way to the gas chambers or the firing squads. Even if they did, what would it prove? They were dead and the Nazis were alive.

We laugh because we are safe?

Arendt can find Eichmann funny because she is in a protected position. The court can find him funny and guilty because they have power over him. What is less clear from her book is whether Arendt refuted Eichmann. Moreover, his intellectual inspiration Heidegger is Eichmann’s shadow throughout the trial.

Why Eichmann and not Heidegger?

Arendt’s project founders on Heidegger. She can deal with Eichmann the bumbling, unthinking, bureaucrat who never thought for himself or even began to think. What does she do with Heidegger? If knowledge is virtue, then how does she explain Heidegger? If she disassociates his politics from his thinking, what does that say about Eichmann? She rightly condemned Eichmann for his unthinking behaviour yet, where his failure to think explains his behaviour. What does she have to say about Heidegger, the paramount thinker of the 20th century, who embraced and justified National Socialism and the Fuhrer’s will? He did not simply go to the tyrant’s court. He promoted and embraced the tyrant’s cause.[2] He was not seeking to change or direct the Fuhrer to the good; he was propagating, in his own way, the Fuhrer’s will.[3] Moreover, he never recanted, revised, or retracted his views.

Was Eichmann a way to avoid dealing with Heidegger’s Nazism?

Heidegger rather than Eichmann should have been in the glass box in Jerusalem. Arendt never condemned or confronted Heidegger. Her failure to confront him or judge him suggests a hollowness to her public statements on Eichmann. Does the banality of evil have any validity beyond a polemical device? Were her comments for popular effect and consumption? Moreover, we have to wonder about her public statements on Heidegger when considered against Leo Strauss’ well-known reticence to make public statement on or about Heidegger.[4] Arendt undermines her philosophical project and her belief in Eichmann’s guilt because she cannot bring Heidegger to justice. She remained publicly and privately friendly with Heidegger.[5] She engaged with him without condemning him. One can condemn a person and recognize their errors and crimes without endorsing them. However, what remains problematic is that Arendt never refuted Eichmann. She condemned him, ridiculed him, and judged him, but she never refuted him. She was only in the position to condemn, ridicule, and judge him because the Allies had won the war. Therein we see the political problem for her philosophical stance.

That which we condemn in others is the sin we hold secretly.

She condemned Eichmann for his unthinking behaviour. On the surface, it would appear she was similarly unthinking regarding Heidegger. If Arendt thought about Heidegger and continued to engage him and write about him publicly in exculpatory terms, what does this say about Arendt? Heidegger was not unthinking when he accepted the Fuhrer’s will and promoted National Socialism.[6] Does that mean she accepted the outcome of his thought was virtuous? In light of this question, her attack on Eichmann loses its lustre and its moral content. Perhaps, we can offer an alternative view that mitigates her problem. It may be that she accepts that there are different standards for different men. Yet, if we accept that argument, then we begin to accept that Heidegger can be above or beyond the law or the common morality, which condemns Eichmann and the other Nazis. If Heidegger is above or beyond the law, what is it that exempts him? He remained unrepentant over his support for Hitler and National Socialism. To that extent, we have to ask whether Arendt implicitly accepts Heidegger’s argument given her decision to condemn Eichmann for being unthinking.

Would a Socrates in power become tyrannical?

What we have to accept is that if Arendt is unable to refute Heidegger/Eichmann it raises the question of whether knowledge is virtue or whether it is something else. If a Socrates in power leads to Heidegger’s “error”, it brings philosophy into disrepute, perhaps terminal disrepute. The gnawing question for Arendt is “Was Heidegger right?” For her to dispute that would require her to accept the political argument and propose a counter political argument. The challenge though is that such an argument has to accept the grounds of the disagreement. The problem is that Arendt and Heidegger cannot share a common ground. Arendt, in her belief in knowledge is virtue, a belief in Socrates as a political philosopher, accepts there is a good, perhaps unknowable, but something upon which the quest can begin and continue. By contrast, Heidegger does not believe such good exists or is knowable. Only a god can still save us.[7] In that statement, Heidegger shows us the problem for Arendt and philosophy.[8]

Without God we find tyranny or nihilism

We return to where we began in trying to understand Arendt’s position on Eichmann and Heidegger. Eichmann was unthinking and thus betrayed what it means to be human, to think, while Heidegger thought and betrayed what it meant to be human by his support and defence of Hitler and National Socialism. What it suggests is that Arendt’s “faith” in reason was flawed, as it appears empty as a basis by which we can condemn Eichmann/Heidegger aside from a political basis. In other words, her book on Eichmann is insufficient because it lacks what Heidegger rejected: God. One may wish to laugh in the face of evil, but one only brings evil to justice before the law and God. To do that, you need more than laughter; you need good arms and good laws.



[2] Heidegger gave speeches supporting Hitler in the fall of 1933 after becoming the rector of University of Freiburg. See also a selection of these speeches found here:

[3] Here is Heidegger’s Rectorial Address curiously it misses out the Heil Hitler at the end, which is in the original. On that point consider

[4] see also This covers the five texts that Strauss wrote that relate explicitly to Heidegger. Only a couple were printed in his lifetime.

Leo Strauss, “Existentialism” _Interpretation_ 22:3 (Spring 1995): 303-319

A lecture first given on Feb., 1956, at the Hillel Foundation (University of Chicago); a different version appeared as “An Introduction on Heideggerian Existentialism,” in _The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 27-46.

Leo Strauss, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science and Political Philosophy,” reprinted from _Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy_ 2:1 (1971) [in _Leo Strauss: Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy_ (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 29-37];

Leo Strauss, “The Problem of Socrates” _Interpretation_ 22:3 (Spring 1995): 339-337

A lecture first given on April 17, 1970 at St. John’s College at Annapolis

Leo Strauss, “German Nihilism” _Interpretation_ 26:3 (Spring 1999): 353-378

A lecture which appears to have first been given on Feb. 26, 1941 at the New School for Social Research

Leo Strauss, “Relativism,” [in Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins, eds., _Relativism and the Study of Man_ (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1961)], pp. 135-157

[5] In light of her adulterous relationship with Heidegger, the following passage, in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations is revealing.

“He went on to say that only the private, almost “secret relationships between Germans and Jews” were legitimate, while “everything about German-Jewish relations that works in public today causes harm.” There was much truth in these words. Written from the perspective of the Jewish question at that time, they supply evidence of the darkness of a period in which one could rightly say, “The light of the public darkens everything” (Heidegger).”

[6] Arendt tries to excuse Heidegger’s “dalliance” with the Nazi party as a youthful “error”. The only problem with this defence is that in 1958 he wrote in the introduction to Introduction to Metaphysics, where on p.166 he wrote about the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism, he explained that all errors had been corrected for this edition. He did not appear to see his support for the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism as an error.  . See Martin Heidegger, Eigführung in die Metaphysik, 2nd. ed. (Tubingen: Max Niemeyer, 1958), p. 152. English translation: An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Ralph Mannheim (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961), p. 166. In the introduction, Heidegger explains all the errors have been corrected for this edition.

[7] Heidegger’s posthumous interview with Der Spiegel.

[8] Wonder is the beginning of philosophy Theaetetus 155d but the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. Proverbs 9:10 and Proverbs 15:33 As Leo Strauss put it quid sit deus?

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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5 Responses to Response to Corey Robin on Eichmann: funny man

  1. I’ve read Robin’s posts on Arendt. I don’t have any strong opinion. I don’t know Arendt’s life well enough to make a fair judgment one way or another.

    However, I would point out that there is the psychological component to laughter. It serves many purposes. There is such a thing as gallows humor. Many people who experience a lot of death end up joking about it. It is how humans deal with horror and suffering.

    I don’t know if or how that might apply to Arendt. As I recall, she did spend some time in a concentration camp, before getting the papers that allowed her to leave. It would be interesting to know what her experience had been. How much suffering and death had she seen firsthand?

    • Thank you for reading the post and the comment. I am not aware that Arendt spent any time in a death camp. If you have a source please let me know. She was in France where she was detained by the authorities before fleeing to the US but I am not aware of her being interned in a death camp. The concentration camp, at that stage were closer to internment camps, ie concentrating the regime’s enemies and not, yet, a death camp.
      There was only one death camp in France so I am not sure gallows humour would apply.
      I appreciate that institutional or bureaucratic humour, related to gallows humour, does exist. However it is of a different order to surviving or living under the shadow of the gallows or the death camps.
      The deeper issue is the philosophical response in that if humour is all that remains it shows a radical limit to thought and a potential inability to resist such acts especially if thought precedes action.

      Thanks again for the comment and reading the post.


      • No, I wasn’t suggesting that she was in a death camp.

        What I recalled was that she was detained in a camp. But I haven’t a clue about what were the conditions of that camp or what may have happened there during her detainment.

        I’m mostly speaking ignorance. I was pondering possibilities, that is all.

        As for your last point, I’m not sure that humor was all that remained. I suspect that wasn’t the argument that Arendt was making, but I couldn’t really say. I’m not familiar with her writings. So, I can’t really defend what she communicated or the intentions behind her words.

        What occurs to me is she maybe was trying to make sense of a strange situation. Here is what stood out to me in Robin’s post:

        “Yet, in reading about the trial, it’s quite clear that Arendt wasn’t the only one who found Eichmann funny. So did the courtroom, which periodically broke out into laughter at the accidental hilarity wafting down from the witness stand.”

        It wasn’t just Arendt who laughed. Arend found herself in a room of people laughing at Eichmann. That is what she was trying to make sense about, not just why she was laughing but why so many others were as well.

        That said, one could still disagree with her observations and arguments in attempting to explain what it meant.

      • Thanks for the reply. Arendt was detained in a camp although it was not a death camp. Even a non death camp would have been a life changing event given what it signified about politics and the possibility of a decent society.
        Eichmann did make some outrageous statements and moment of levity and laughter would occur. In any trial of this nature people might laugh for the sheer ridiculousness of it as well as the defendant’s apparent incompetence as a bureaucrat.
        Yet that only touches the surface of the issue. Would he be as funny of figure ordering people to their death? Many would ignore his faults, as they do with tyrants, for the power they possess.

        Would he have been as funny had the Nazis won? Then the context would change and such humour would not be dindulged. In this sense the humor can be seen as a sign of humanity. Yet that does not refute Eichmann. We find him funny because we can not necessarily because he is. He never saw himself as a clown. He went to his death believing in his cause and saying so with his last words.

        However all of this mot in an important sense as Eichmann is only a shadow of Heidegger. In a sense he is the acts that Heideggger’s thoughts and words enabled if not encouraged.

        Thanks again for reading and the comment.



      • By the way, do you know of any other accounts of the Eichmann trial that made note of the laughter?

        I wonder who were the people in the court who were laughing. How many of them had been in death camps? What was the laughter about? Was it just relief from the tension? Or was there something actually humor-incuding in Eichmann’s behavior?

        Obviously, laughter is dependent on context. It’s a response to something in particular. Part of that context involves the consequences involved. A prank fall can be funny, but the humor disappears if the person actually hurts themselves and starts screaming in pain. Eichmann definitely would have been harder to laugh at, if the Nazis had won.

        Anyway, I still wonder what the context was for that courtroom laugher. What was it in response to? What did it signify? What did those people think about it at the time?

        It would be interesting to compare Arendt’s account with that of others who were present at the Eichmann trial. Also, it would be interesting to know if Heidegger ever discussed the trial and Arendt’s writing about it.

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