Churchill, Chickens, and the Banality of Evil

Adolf Eichmann, son of an industrialist, hanged in Israel for his significant administrative participation in the Nazi extermination program, formed the case study for Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis presented in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Ward Churchill referred to Arendt’s thesis in his September 12, 2001 essay “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” an essay that ultimately resulted in Churchill’s firing from the University of Colorado-Boulder.

According to Arendt (see David Cesarani for another interpretation), Eichmann, a sane man, was without an anti-Semitic personality; he harbored neither hatred nor homicidal rage. Indeed, most Nazis were not, contrary to what many others thought, sociopaths; rather, they were ordinary persons whose thoughts and behaviors were shaped by the historical moment—and whose actions pushed the moment forward. Essentially, Eichmann jettisoned his conscience and morality for careerism. He joined the SS to beef up his resume. He was a life-long bureaucrat, a technician in a vast bureaucratic machine, advancing his chosen path by obedience to the rules, rules that were justified by an ethnonationalist ideology.

Adolf Eichmann on trial

Eichmann was well suited for the purpose. He started his professional life in his father’s mining company. He became a sales clerk for a large electrical company in Austria. And worked for a subsidiary of Standard Oil, Vacuum Oil AG. He began his political bureaucratic life by joining the Austrian NSDAP and SS. He then joined German NSDAP and SS and was assigned to the Dachau administrative staff. He was later transferred to the state police. His good work paid off with a promotion to Hauptscharführer and a commission from the SS-Untersturmführer. He returned to Austria and was promoted to SS-Obersturmführer. He was then tapped to organize the Central Office for Jewish Emigration. He was soon promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer and assigned to head a division of the RSHA overseeing Jewish affairs in Berlin. He was promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer and then to Obersturmbannführer. It was at the latter rank that he was given the assignment of transportation administrator, a major component of the extermination project. His first area of operation was Poland. He was then transferred to oversee the Hungary project.

The Nazi project was an ethnonationalist authoritarian capitalist venture aimed at eliminating all popular resistance to industrial and finance capitalism by smashing worker organizations and democratic institutions, as well as replacing the objective basis of mass solidarity, which is naturally the material class interest, with subjective ethnic preference organized as racist nationalism, specifically German. The vast bureaucracy that enabled the extermination project not only served this larger goal, but also provided profit for industrialists through the purchase of technology central to the killing operation, as well as an endless supply of slave labor. This means that Eichmann’s activities were in the service of profit maximization by capitalist firms. In other words, his duties involved the operation of a bureaucracy in the service of capitalist accumulation.

To my knowledge, Eichmann did not personally kill anyone in the sense that he pulled a pistol’s trigger or dropped Zyklon B into a sealed chamber. What he did was organize and coordinate the technical means and bureaucratic system in which scores of men, women, and children died for the sake of capitalist accumulation. There were several Eichmann’s operating the Nazi killing machine. Some of them were held responsible for their actions.

Churchill argued on September 12, 2001, that there were individuals who perished in the World Trade Center the day before who organized and coordinated the technical means and bureaucratic system in which scores of men, women, and children died for the sake of capitalist accumulation. The World Trade Center was the headquarters of the world capitalist economy. Business transactions routinely took place there in which the ultimate consequences in terms of human lives were starvation, disease, and death—all this for the sake of profit. Those who were making such transactions did not personally killing anyone. They did not hate the people whose lives were affected by the decisions they made. They were, like Eichmann, in those towers advancing their careers. But like Eichmann, they were responsible for the consequences of their actions. And those who were affected by their decisions, rightly or wrongly, exacted retribution. Here’s what Churchill wrote that sparked so much anger:

As for those in the World Trade Center… Well, really, let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire – the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to “ignorance” – a derivative, after all, of the word “ignore” – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.

As an opponent of death penalty, I disagree with the last sentence. The execution of Adolf Eichmann was an injustice. There is a better way of dealing with the lethal character of capitalism: overthrow it. However, I understand the motive behind the attacks on 9-11. It wasn’t senseless. Right or wrong, it had a purpose. Whether you agree with Ward Churchill, he has a constitutionally protected right to identify and characterize that purpose. If Churchill offended you, remember that it is really only offensive speech that needs protecting; everyone is for free speech for the things they agree with. The charges of academic misconduct were clearly a pretext for punishing Churchill for his essay.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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