Wednesday, 9 October 2013

"the ordinariness of Eichmann is... a faithful description of a phenomenon"


Miriam Chiaromonte, Czeslaw Milosz, and Mary McCarthy

Bocca di Magra
September 24, 1963

Dearest Hannah

....Nicola (Chiaromonte) feels that the issues raised by your book ought to be discussed. Not the debater's points 'scored' by Lionel (Abel) but the implications of your views about the role played by the Jewish Councils - that is, what is implied about organisations in modern society generally.  He would also like to know why you think the Nazis failed in their anti-semitic (sic) program in Denmark, Bulgaria and Italy - this apart from the presence or absence of Jewish Councils and from the sheer facts as you give them. Can a common factor be found to explain this? For if there is such a common factor, it ought to be cultivated and safeguarded by humanity for future emergencies. Or is there no such thing? Was it in some way random - here the personal courage of a king, there the natural easygoingness and humane realism of an old people (the Italians) etc? And he would like to see you develop your basic notion of the ordinariness of Eichmann. What does this mean? If not the naive formulation that "there is a little Eichmann in all of us," then what?  He thinks he agrees with what you are saying but he is not sure he has understood you. Of course, the idea of sustaining such a discussion in the atmosphere created by Lionel and thousands of preaching rabbis is somewhat farfetched perhaps. But perhaps just such a discussion, pursued in a thoughtful way, would be the necessary and in a way the only answer to what you call the mobilization of the mob...


The University of Chicago
Chicago 37, Illinois
Committee on Social Thought
October 3. 1963

Dearest Mary

....Let me answer your letter as briefly as possible. I am convinced that I should not answer individual critics. I probably shall finally make, not an answer, but a kind of evaluation of this whole strange business. This, I think, should be done after the furore has run its course...If you were here you would understand that this whole business, with few exceptions, has absolutely nothing to do with criticism or polemics in the normal sense of the word. It is a political campaign, led and guided in all particulars by interest groups and governmental agencies. It would be foolish for me, but not for others, to overlook this fact. The criticism is directed at an 'image' and this image has been substituted for the book I wrote...

...To repeat: the question of Jewish resistance substitutes for the real issue, namely, that individual members of the Jewish councils had the possibility not to participate. Or: 'A Defence of Eichmann,' which I supposedly wrote, is a substitution for the real issue: what kind of man was the accused and to what extent can our legal system take care of these new criminals who are not ordinary criminals?

As to the points Nicola made: my book is a report and therefore leaves all questions of why things happened out of account. I describe the role of the Jewish councils. It was neither my intention nor my task to explain this whole business - either by reference to Jewish history or by reference to modern society in general. I, too, would like to know why countries so unlike each other as Denmark, Italy and Bulgaria saved their Jews. My 'basic notion' of the ordinariness of Eichmann is much less a notion than a faithful description of a phenomenon. I am sure there can be drawn many conclusions from this phenomenon and the most general I drew is indicated 'the banality of evil.' I may sometime want to write about this, and then I would write about the nature of evil. but it would have been entirely wrong of me to do it within the framework of the report...