Angelique Fletcher is editor-in-chief of bardVERSE. She is the recipient of the 2019 Best Essay Award in Seminar.


Would Adolf Eichmann have fit the description of a callous man? This is precisely what author Hannah Arendt seeks to answer in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Interestingly, while Arendt’s book helps readers discover what led to the man presented at trial, it also openly chastises both Eichmann and the Israeli court. Arendt presents a distressing personal backstory and hints at an idea that Eichmann was only dangerous because he was lonely. But Arendt brushes over loneliness too quickly. She does not pay enough attention to Eichmann’s acts and how they were not influenced solely by stupidity, but also a deep emptiness. Eichmann was more dangerous as a follower than he would have been if he had been making his own decisions, and this stemmed from a profound need to belong. By analyzing Eichmann’s past life, Arendt’s writing style, and the psychology of dependency, I argue that Eichmann was not necessarily evil but it was his loneliness entwined with a refusal to think that made him dangerous. Arendt chooses a sarcastic writing style to mock Eichmann’s inability to think. She, therefore, does not take seriously enough the idea that Eichmann’s experience of loneliness is so strong it is more important to him than thinking. Thus, we must take loneliness seriously, not sarcastically so that we might correct the world’s violent disposition. 

In order to fully understand the intricacies of Eichmann’s loneliness, there must first be an understanding of some keywords and history important to German-occupied Europe during the Second World War and the years leading up to it. Most importantly, the SS (Schutzstaffel) was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. They originated as a protection unit but morphed into the main unit of terror in Nazi-occupied Europe. They were not, however, solely a protection unit, and had many subdivisions such as those that dealt with matters of legality and deportation. The Gestapo, a division not directed by the SS, was Germany’s secret police force, and a national agency. Ever growing, both the SS and Gestapo required a constant supply of new recruits. These recruits, upon initiation, were required to fully submit themselves to the Nazi power, and refuse to contemplate any given commands. Some individuals, like Eichmann, were more easily influenced because they had what is known as a followership nature. A followership nature is defined as a person’s ability or willingness to follow a leader, and this is what made Eichmann particularly susceptible to Nazi ideologies. This, combined with loneliness that was the result of a traumatic backstory, molded Eichmann into the so-called dangerous man that was presented at court.


“Ill Feelings”: Loneliness and Unusual Data Norms

Few scholars give enough attention to loneliness in Eichmann in Jerusalem; however, there are many studies on loneliness in our modern time that can be applied to this topic. Writer Olga Khazan, for instance, in “How Loneliness Begets Loneliness,” studies the hard science of our brains and thought synapses. Together Khazan and psychologist John Cacioppo discuss social misconceptions of loneliness, and how despondency affects the social and neurological aspects of human lives. Khazan’s discussion proposes that people who are less social typically develop brain changes that make them “more likely to view human faces as threatening,” and who thus withdraw from human interactions. Khazan’s article can be used to show that Eichmann’s mental reaction to isolation and loneliness differed from the data norms of the psychological studies she discusses.

Eichmann’s divergence from the psychological data norms is a major source of his danger. Dangerous people usually have a traumatic backstory. Eichmann was no different. It has been noted that “as a boy Eichmann was teased about his looks and dark complexion and was nicknamed the little Jew” (The History Place 1). Eichmann as a young boy was also made to face “the death of his [dear] mother.” Death is a surefire ticket to loneliness, but constant degradation from peers is not known to have any positive impact either. Perhaps this mental stress is what led to Eichmann being “unable to finish high school” and being pulled by his father from “the vocational school” into which he was then enrolled (Arendt 28). Being the “only” child in the family to fail at his schooling would have been seen as shameful and serve only to reinforce the feelings of separation and loneliness Eichmann was already harboring (Arendt 28). Eichmann also had no career in which to belong. So when Eichmann joined the SS he did not have any evil intentions, it was just an institution that accepted him when he had nowhere else to go. Eichmann being labeled as evil all stemmed from his innate desire to belong. Eichmann never started out as evil; rather, it was German society that drove him into a position in which he had the power to do evil. This loneliness is what made Eichmann so dangerous.

Eichmann’s isolation most likely caused mental trauma. He did not, however, follow the usual patterns of the isolated person. Typically in lonely individuals, when motivated to connect socially, “a neural mechanism kicks in to make [them] a little skeptical or dubious about connecting” (Khazan). This is because the brain becomes hardwired to doubt people if you have been let down before. According to this testimony, and the rest of Khazan’s discussion, isolation leads to more isolation. Though someone may feel lonely they do not seek further interaction. Eichmann did not follow these norms. After flunking vocational school Eichmann became a salesman because he “liked to sell, to make calls” (Arendt 31). Rather than recede into himself, Eichmann procured a social job, presumably to ward off the loneliness. This was not the first time either. According to Arendt “Eichmann was always a joiner”; a man seeking a place for himself (32). Even before joining the SS, Eichmann was contemplating joining the Freemason’s Lodge Schlaraffia but joined the SS instead, per recommendation from a friend. This highlights that Eichmann was not normal, in any aspect of the word, because he refused to omit himself from society. Thus it can be seen that Eichmann’s affiliation with Nasizm was a result of early childhood trauma and a need to belong.


Seldom a Thought

The inability to think, according to many scholars, was also the cause of Eichmann’s viciousness. Judith Butler, for instance, in her article “Hannah Arendt’s Challenge to Adolf Eichmann,” explores Eichmann in Jerusalem while discussing Arendt’s popular and defining phrase “the banality of evil.” As the most well-known phrase produced through Arendt’s research, there are many different interpretations of its meaning. Butler argues that this phrase asserts Arendt’s belief that the inability to think is the true and most common evil, and suggests that thinking must be reserved for “a more reflective mode of rationality.” Butler’s article proposes that Arendt’s constant exploration of evil and reflection proves that she too believed that Eichmann submitting himself to orders and refusing to think was the source of his danger.

While Butler studies thinking and its relation to the ability to do evil, Lynn Offerman takes a psychological perspective, like Khazan, to explore what makes leaders and followers. In her article “When Followers Become Toxic,” Offermann discusses how leaders are influenced by their employees, advisors, and followers, and what, psychologically, makes this possible. In this article, Offermann asserts that most people–even our leaders–prefer to conform than to express a different opinion. Offermann considers how this desire to conform influences the relationships between leaders and followers. Offermann’s article allows readers to relate Eichmann’s behaviors to the assertion above that would help to explain his actions.

Lyndsey Stonebridge and Krista Tippett in their discussion “The Moral World in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now” most closely follow Judith Butler, in that they too appraise Arendt and her writing style. In their discussion, Stonebridge and Tippett consider thinking and friendship in relation to Eichmann in Jerusalem and explain their interpretation: that evil is the inability to hear others’ voices. Together they declare that one can only have “moral imagination” if they can also think, and Eichmann because he wasn’t thinking had no moral conscience. Tippett’s article suggests that it was Eichmann’s desire for friendship and belongingness that caused him to join the SS and give up his right to think.

In order to conform to the demands of the SS, Eichmann had to be unable to hear not only others’ voices, but his own as well. Psychological research has revealed that people “tend to be [what is known as] ‘“cognitive misers,”’ preferring the shortcuts of automatic thinking over considered examination” (Offermann). During his trial, Eichmann continuously admitted to this. At one point, when recalling orders to scope out the Jewish killing centers, Eichmann was recorded saying “I hardly looked, I could not . . . I was much too upset” (Arendt 87). However, when later asked why he did not intervene he asked the judges: who was he “to have [his] own thoughts o the matter?” (Arendt 114). Even when admitting that he was upset by the action of the Gestapo, Eichmann chose to do nothing. He claimed that it wasn’t “the task of a soldier to act as a judge” over his commander as an excuse to not think (Arendt 149). Eichmann, like most individuals, took shortcuts, conforming to the common opinion rather than take a stance; even implying with the word “soldier” that it was his job to resist thinking. With loneliness becoming an “everyday experience of the ever-growing masses,” it should not be surprising that Eichmann was willing to sacrifice a part of himself to fill another, deeper void (Stonebridge, 2). This mindless acceptance of orders added to Eichmann’s dangerous persona, but it didn’t make him inherently prone to subterfuge. Intriguingly, Eichmann was, at one point, thinking “reflectively about [his] own action[s] as a political being” but decided that it was the laws of other political beings that said he had to give it up (Butler). It should be noted that Eichmann “had never harbored any ill feelings against [the Jews]” but as the SS accepted him completely, he persisted, so that he might not live a lonely and individual life (Arendt 30).   


“Scandalous”: Hannah Arendt’s Writing Style

When Hannah Arendt started writing Eichmann in Jerusalem she opted for a very sarcastic tone. She used her book to analyze and insult both Eichmann and the court itself. Her sarcasm means she is more interested in mocking Eichmann than in taking his loneliness seriously. She scorns her subjects (of study) and makes light of Eichmann’s inner struggles. Arendt starts off her book by claiming that the Israeli court was incredibly vacuous and “could have easily found answers [to many of their questions] had [they] permitted [their] imagination to dwell” on such topics (Arendt 12). And while Arendt found other ways to insult her studies, her most common exploration was humanity’s persistent inability to think. However, Arendt only briefly explored Eichmann’s loneliness and was not interested in connecting this loneliness to his inability to think. Other scholars have noted Arendt’s interest in thoughtlessness too, but they do not spend time on its intersections with loneliness. Such as author Judith Butler who highlights Arendt’s claim that “nasizm performed an assault against thinking” and author Lyndsey Stonebridge who claims that “one can only have moral imagination if [they] can also think” (4). Even two hundred pages later when Arendt compares Eichmann to one of his colleagues and writes that Wislicency had “belonged to the educated stratum of the SS,” she still found ways to call Eichmann stupid.

Arendt’s sarcasm only allows her to dive so deep into Eichmann as an individual because his loneliness was a serious, not sarcastic matter. Arendt seems to make fun of Eichmann for his refusal to think but does not fully acknowledge that his thoughts were preoccupied with his loneliness. Arendt claims that Eichmann was unable to be evil because he was brainless, but this sarcasm does not allow her to tie in his loneliness. Had she taken a more serious tone, perhaps she might have noted that Eichmann was not evil because he was so focused on loneliness, and this is what caused him to give up thinking. Stonebridge, unlike Arendt, takes the analysis of loneliness more seriously. She writes “loneliness prepares men for totalitarian domination” and because he was so desperate to belong, Eichmann gave up thinking to do so (Stonebridge 2).  


Conclusion: Campaigning to End Loneliness

Finally, it would be wise to explore Eichmann’s admission that he was not made to forge his own path but rather that which was laid down by others. He was a follower, always had been, and this is precisely what made him dangerous. When questioned about his plans after the death of Hitler, Eichmann admitted that he had no idea. “I,” he told interviewers, “sensed [that] I would have to live a leaderless and difficult individual life, I would receive no directives from anybody” (Arendt 32). This statement was a direct declaration that Eichmann was nothing without leadership. “Without being a member of something” Eichmann would not have known what do do with himself, because the meaning he found in life came from carrying out the ideas of others rather than creating his own (Arendt 32). Joining the SS gave Eichmann purpose, and by implying that no one else would provide him further orders, it can be seen how lonely Eichmann truly was. Eichmann, as he stated, belonged to a group; he was not alone, and perhaps this is why he “had been very eager” to do as he was told (Arendt 24). This followership nature made Eichmann dangerous because as a follower he had incentive and purpose. As an individual Eichmann would have been an unlikely danger because if he was lost, he most likely would have done nothing. This shows that Eichmann did not long for evil, but his loneliness and desire to belong made him dangerous nonetheless.  

After breaking the psychological norms and seeking out human interaction Eichmann’s eagerness allowed him to “for the first time in his life, [discover] in himself some special qualities” (Arendt 45). If for once in his life Eichmann had a positive reaction to human interaction, why would he leave? He had finally found somewhere that accepted him, and his loneliness was combated. The only sacrifice was giving up his right to think. A small price to pay, in Eichmann’s opinion, considering he held the position for the latter part of a decade. Eichmann only became dangerous as a result of his sacrifice. So desperate was he to remain in his position that he would have done absolutely anything had he been ordered to, including murdering “his own father” (Arendt 22). Eichmann’s crisis of loneliness was not limited to his time period. More and more people today are reporting the hollow hole of loneliness. According to statistics presented in Khazan’s article “the threat [of loneliness] is considered so serious that England has created an entire ‘“Campaign to End Loneliness.”’ If Eichmann’s loneliness drove him to commit his atrocious acts, how does loneliness affect the modern population? Perhaps if we work to reduce the number of lonely individuals, the level of hate crimes and other injustices will reduce as well.    


Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Hannah Arendt’s Challenge to Adolf Eichmann” The Guardian29 Aug. 2011, Accessed 28 Apr. 2019.

“Holocaust Timeline: Adolf Eichmann.” The History Place, 1997, Accessed 10 May 2019. 

Khazan, Olga. “How Loneliness Begets Loneliness.” The Atlantic, 6 Apr. 2017, Accessed 26 Apr. 2019.  

Offermann, Lynn. “When Followers Become Toxic” Harvard Business Review, 1 Aug. 2019, Accessed 28 Apr. 2019.

Tippett, Krista. “Lyndsey Stonebridge The Moral World in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now.” The On Being Project, 21 June 2018, Accessed 26 Apr. 2019.