The Unthinkable: ‘Failed Empathy’ and Hatred of ‘the Other.’ Written by Dr Linda Berman.

1389.9 Holocaust A

Eichmann takes notes during his trial.

‘Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’  Albert Einstein.

1961, Jerusalem: the year of the Eichmann trial. Hannah Arendt, philosopher, political thinker and journalist, was there.

She subsequently reported on the trial for The New Yorker and her perceptions are important to consider in terms of ways of thinking.  She was surprised to find that Nazi war criminal did not look outwardly monstrous or brutal; on the contrary, he appeared bland, ordinary and rather unintelligent. Yet this seemingly unremarkable man had systematically organised the sending of millions of Jews to their death.

How could one adequately describe such a state of mind as that of Eichmann? Hannah Arendt called it ‘thoughtlessness,’ but this has connotations of everyday inconsideration or lack of concern for others’ feelings. This is just too mild a word to describe the behaviour of someone like Eichmann. I know, from her own writings and from her recordings, that Arendt did not intend in any way to diminish the evil of Eichmann through using this term.


Hannah Arendt

Indeed, she was exceedingly angry when, later on, her use of this word was   misunderstood and her critics accused her of excusing his crimes.

In actuality, there are no words to describe this mindset adequately. It is a fact that Eichmann was without thought. The term ‘unthinking’ will not suffice, as it tends to denote a thoughtless, inconsiderate, uncaring attitude; maybe un-thinking is a little closer.

Principally, however, what Eichmann displayed was a subversion of the idea of duty, of how human beings relate to others, of what it is to be human. His behaviour represented a total failure of empathy (Laub and Auerhahn):

‘At Auschwitz, not only man died, but also the idea of man.’

(Elie Weisel quoted in Failed Empathy,.)

Failed empathy is explained as the refusal of another to help in desperate need. Thus the ‘idea of man’ as a fellow traveller through life, the sense of an ‘other’ who will be alongside us, is destroyed. In its place is an emptiness, an aloneness, created by the trauma and the sadism of the other in the place of empathy and love.

How was it that such apparent mediocrity belied Eichmann’s capability to commit atrocities? Arendt concluded that it was this very mediocrity that produced the lack of thinking, the ‘thoughtlessness’ which led to him blindly following orders from his Nazi superiors. He was unable to reflect and he lacked the ability to think through, critically and independently, the orders he was given. He needed to follow ‘routine procedures,’ without which he floundered.

Arendt wonders in her book whether our ability to recognise right and wrong is, in fact, directly connected to our ability to think.  She comes to believe, as she witnesses Eichmann’s behaviour, that ‘absence of thought’ is the cause of evil.

His unthinking, unquestioning submission to the demands of a despotic authority led to the committing of heinous acts. Arendt found no thoughtful profundity in this man, only a ‘cliche-ridden language’ and a superficiality of evil that spread ‘like a fungus on the surface…….Only the good has depth ….’

(The Jew as Pariah.)

Arendt used the term ‘the banality of evil’ to describe Eichmann’s way of mechanically obeying orders without guilt or a sense of responsibility. He could not think for himself. The phrase is used as a subtitle for her book on the subject, written in 1963.


However, there are those who think differently from Arendt about Eichmann; in 2014, Stangneth used evidence and research, in the form of newly discovered documented and recorded conversations by Eichmann, to reveal his blatant anti-semitism and his own murderous ideology. Deborah Lipstatt has also emphasised the central role that Eichmann played in planning the genocide; he was more than a follower of orders.

Some critics feel that these new findings contradict Arendt’s view that Eichmann was merely unable to think for himself.

‘What is most missing is the recognition that a thinking person is not necessarily inoculated against committing evil acts.’ (Douglas)

Arendt, it continued, “grasped an important concept but not the right example.”

The concept is indeed important; whether or not it applies to Eichmann is for another discussion, another time.

Yet such ‘normalization of the unthinkable’ still continues to this day. It is all around us and mostly we do not notice it. In his book ‘Triumph of the Market,’ Edward Herman describes this concept as ‘the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as “the way things are done.”’  He identifies such behaviour in those who produce and manufacture poison gases and instruments of torture and in the sanitized reporting of war and its casualties by the media to this day.

It is disturbing to realise that our thinking often reflects our culture and that we become imprinted with attitudes that might be cruel or racist without us even being aware of it. We may see this in the demonising of ‘the other’ in matters relating to ‘illegal’ immigrants today, where barriers and ‘defences’ are erected against desperate, traumatised people who attempt to enter another country, as if they were wicked enemies. This issue will be further developed in a future post.


Syrian refugees, Budapest railway station, 2015.


Anti-Trump Protestor. London, 2017.



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