The Case of Eichmann Restaged : Arendt, Evil, and the Complexity of Mimesis

Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(2) 479 –490
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920911201
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were
like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor
sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly
—Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 276.
Like a mirror he reflected people’s fears and expectations,
whether they were fearing for their own lives or hoping he
would confirm a theory of evil.
—Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem, 367.
It might not be popular to say it, but a plurality of critical
voices is currently warning us that the shadow of fascism
haunts, once again, the contemporary scene. Political
theorists, historians, and philosophers have recently
claimed that the growing popularity of far-right leaders,
in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere around the
world, should not simply be defined as conservative,
right-wing, or populist. Rather, influential scholars across
disciplines forcefully show that phenomena like Donald
Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen in France, Jair
Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Boris Johnson in the United
Kingdom, among many others, may not be identical to
fascist leaders like Mussolini and Hitler, and should thus
not be confused with them.1 And yet, to borrow William
Connolly’s (2017a) phrase, they “aspire to fascism”
nonetheless in their rhetoric, bodily drives, and tyrannical
policies. They also manifest characteristics of what
Umberto Eco, writing in the 1990s, called “Ur-Fascism,”
which include “fear of difference,” “the appeal to a frus-
trated middle class,” “machismo,” “irrationalism,” “dis-
agreement is treason,” and “contempt for the weak” (Eco
1995). Interestingly, among emerging symptoms, Eco
also included a type of TV “newspeak,” or “impoverished
Internet language,” we are by now accustomed to. It has,
in fact, become the lingua franca of politicians with an
authoritarian bent who rely on new media to trigger a
type of mimetic contagion that is constitutive of what I
called, “(new) fascism” (Lawtoo 2019a).
Building on emerging genealogies of fascism, old and
new, I now seek to reevaluate the contagious powers of
mimesis at play not only in authoritarian leaders but in
submissive subjects and supporters, mimetic and uncon-
scious powers that can deprive otherwise normal people
of the ability to think critically, and thus act ethically. I
shall do so by revisiting Umberto Eco’s untimely obser-
vation about an “impoverished vocabulary” that has the
power “to limit the instruments for complex and critical
reasoning” (Eco 1995)—a symptom characteristic of
911201PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920911201Political Research QuarterlyLawtoo
1KU Leuven, Belgium
Corresponding Author:
Nidesh Lawtoo, Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven, Kardinaal
Mercierplein 2, 3000 Leuven, Belgium.
The Case of Eichmann Restaged :
Arendt, Evil, and the Complexity
of Mimesis
Nidesh Lawtoo1
This essay reframes Hannah Arendt’s evaluation of the “banality of evil” in light of Eichmann’s mimetic psychology,
which Arendt intuited but did not fully articulate. Rather than considering the banality of evil as symptomatic of
Eichmann’s “inability to think,” the essay foregrounds the affective, contagious, and, in this sense, mimetic tendencies
at play in Eichmann’s personality (from Latin, persona, theatrical mask). This move is instrumental to articulate a middle
path between Arendt’s theoretical diagnostic of Eichmann as “terrifyingly normal” and Bettina Stangneth’s recent
historical account of Eichmann as a “fanatical National Socialist.” My wager is that the ancient problematic of mimēsis
(from Greek, mimos, mime) casts a new and original light on the psychic foundations of a type of evil that is as relevant
to understand the psychology of fascism in the past century as its rising shadow in the present century.
Hannah Arendt, Eichmann, banality of evil, Nazism, (new) fascism, mimesis

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