The Nazis are this modern age's greatest villains. You can stop debate on any subject just by invoking a comparison ("You know who else was in favor of the public option? Hitler, that's who!") I know, I know, Stalin killed more people than Hitler, yadda yadda yadda, but did you see the last Indiana Jones film? Nazis make much better villains.
And yet what kind of villains were they and what does this tell us about the nature of evil? Were they Shakespearean villains a la Richard III or Iago, men revelled in their evil? Or perhaps Bond supervillains like Goldfinger or Drago with grandiose dreams of world conquest? Hitler was certainly a charismatic megalomaniac capable of seizing power and twisting people to his will. But Hitler alone did not accomplish the deeds that would later make the Nazis the catchword for evil. He needed a vast bureaucracy. Departments and sections and sub-sections and sub-sub-sections all staffed by secretaries and undersecretaries and directors and on and on.
Adolf Eichmann was one such bureaucrat, and not a particularly high up one. The S.S. to which he belonged was divided into four departments. One department, the R.H.S.A., was divided into four sections. Section IV was divided into four bureaus. Eichmann headed one of the four offices within Bureau IV, specifically Bureau IV-B-4. It was his office's job to deport the Jews to the killing centers. How they were rounded up and what happened to them at the killing centers were handled by other departments in the vast machinery of the Nazi Government. It was not his concern.
In 1960 he was captured in Argentina and taken to Israel to stand trial. Hannah Arendt covered the trial and wrote what she subtitled, "A Report on the Banality of Evil." What she noticed was that Eichmann, rather than being a larger than life evildoer, was rather ordinary. When speaking, he relied heavily on slogans and cliches. He thought rather ruefully of his career as a "hard luck story," because of the office politics he had to endure. In short, he was far from the brown shirt wearing, virulent, violent Anti-Jew we think of when the word Nazi is invoked.
Starting from this fact, Arendt creates a fascinating meditation on evil and the character of the men who carry it out, and the implications this has for the concept of criminal justice.
While I found her picture of the vast bureaucratic operation that was the Final Solution to be compelling, the major difficulty I had with the book was in her writing. She is not always clear and her sentences are sometimes completely cumbersome, which prevents me from giving this book the five stars her portrait deserves. Why is it so hard to find a non-fiction writer who is also a great prose stylist?