by Steve Lancaster 12/8/18
Hannah Arendt describes the Eichmann trial and what she labels, “the banality of evil” in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. The phrase has slipped into common usage by people who have never read or even heard of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), or On Violence (1970). This year brings an excellent remake of a 1979 made-for-television movie, The House on Garibaldi St.: Operation Finale, staring Ben Kingsley as Adolf Eichmann.
We know the story outline. The end of the war and Nazis of all ranks are scurrying to hideouts with the help of elements of the Catholic Church, mostly to South America and a few to the Middle East. Two of the most important have slipped into anonymity in Argentina and sympatric regimes in Paraguay, and Chile. Adolf Eichmann and Joseph Mengele, fifteen years after the war are still free from justice. Mengele dies without capture or justice, but providence uncovers Eichmann’s hideout.
The Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, and Nazi hunters like the Wiesenthal Center are watching for proof of Nazis in Latin hide-a-ways. Evidence suggests that Eichmann is hiding in Argentina. Mossad Agents are sent to Argentina to verify his presence and the operation to capture Eichmann and bring him to justice in Israel is approved by David Ben Gurion. Ben Gurion, “This is the first time we, as a state can bring our murders to justice, do not fail.”
Ben Kingsley plays Eichmann well, although he is much older than Eichmann at the time he was captured and flashbacks to the war are unsettling. Its much easier for the make-up person to make a 40-year-old look 70, than to make 74-year-old Kingsley look 40. It is Kingsley’s portrayal of the captured Eichmann that captures the screen for the majority of the movie.
In Western culture we send our best men and women to fight and die to protect the ideals of freedom. All return different people than they were, changed by the raw exposure to the brutal existence of combat.
We attempt to seek the individual in every person. The imperceptible connection to our commonality of life and death. The most vicious criminal has a mother, father, brothers and sisters. They have good days and bad days, suffer from colds and flu. Take out the trash and make the bed. The most vicious camp guard went home to his wife and children. Hitler had a dog and on his last day married Eva. Stalin had a family as did Mao and Pol Pot. We want to believe that there is some redemption for all. If not redemption, then a shared humanity. Lest we appear as inhuman as our tormentors.
Not long-ago President Trump referred to the members of MS-13 as monsters. The mainstream media and many democrats played at outrage that he would dare to call a fellow human a monster, but out here in the real world, where monsters roam, few were surprised or offended. Maybe, one of the failures of our current culture is a refusal to recognize the true nature of evil and its minions. In this regard, conservatives and libertarians are just as guilty as liberals and progressives.
Christian tradition holds forth salvation for even the most repulsive if they are truly repentant. Every year Jews spend the High Holy Days atoning and examining their lives and contemplating how they have offended G-d and other people and we seek forgiveness from G-d and those we may sinned against.
The problem is that evil does not do self-examination or believe in our G-d. The philosophical question is how far towards evil must we go to defeat it? We can attempt to hold a higher moral ground against evil, but history tells us that is a losing position. Uncounted millions have been slaughtered trying to prove, “that’s not who we are”. I have never heard a corpse ask how or why it got so cold.
In Western culture we send our best men and women to fight and die to protect the ideals of freedom. All return different people than they were, changed by the raw exposure to the brutal existence of combat. 100 years ago, we called it battle shock, or fatigue. Today, we call it PTSD. In our country and most of the West we defend our freedoms with people who willingly carry the burden for others. It is an increasingly smaller percentage of our population < 1% ever engage in combat.
It is altogether proper that we sent our best to fight evil in all its forms; for only the best of us can carry the burden of what they have seen and had to do. In the famous John Ford movie, The Searchers, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) has rescued his niece and the family is gathering in the ranch house. We see Edwards, the warrior, looking in the door as it slowly closes, leaving him outside.
Every warrior lives this experience in one form or another. Some deal with it with drugs or alcohol or anti-social behavior. Still others, sometimes years after the events take their own lives. Most, however, find a way to cope and return to the larger culture. But we never forget that evil is just a murmur away.
Eichmann was banal, but that very banality is one of evils strongest assets. Operation Finale is not a great movie. At times it moves slowly, however it is one of Kingsley’s best performances. For that it is a movie you should see. It is currently available for rental on Amazon. • (90 views)