Frum: Do you still encounter people who believe in the Eichmann described by Hannah Arendt: a mediocre bureaucrat who literally could not think, whose acts impersonally fulfilled the logic of a larger system?
Stangneth: It wasn’t just Arendt whom Eichmann convinced in believing that, “except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal...” Even Eichmann’s interrogator struggled with Eichmann’s expert manipulation, and he shared a table with Eichmann for over 275 hours. Eichmann’s lies led millions of people to their death, so his continuing manipulation during his trial is no surprise.
A liar hides in the truth. Arendt discovered the banality of evil because Adolf Eichmann unwillingly revealed the inside of his murder apparatus, even as he undertook the role of a subordinate. Her discovery is vital to our understanding of state crimes and macro-criminality.
There’s a greater lesson, though. 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.
Frum: Your last answer directs us to an important point: Eichmann’s lying. Scenes from the Eichmann trial are available on YouTube. Viewers will see an accused whose manner is formal, whose style of speaking is precise and even pedantic, who easily cites dates and places. He invites his audience to regard him as—if nothing else—at least a reliable narrator. Yet you catch Eichmann in deceit after deceit. What was his purpose in continuing to lie at this last hour.
Stangneth: It’s always easy to lie if you possess firsthand knowledge. And Eichmann wanted to play the role of his own storyteller, researcher, historian, and philosopher. He wanted to survive, and he trusted in his ability to lie his way out of death.
Perhaps there’s another reason: Lying can produce a feeling of power. If you make someone believe a lie, you have power over him or her. Believing a lie means you lose a part of the real world, of yourself. The liar is given the power to rebuild the world around us, and we operate according to his or her rules. Think about an inverted street sign: If you are the one who turned the sign, you can take pleasure in watching people run in the wrong direction to catch a train. If you read Eichmann’s note written in his cell (and not available for journalists and spectators in 1961), you can find hints that Eichmann savored this special feeling of power, even as an accused. After he heard the death sentence, he told his lawyers, “I didn’t expect them to not believe me at all.” (Original: Ich habe nicht gedacht, dass man mir so gar nicht glauben würde.)