We children of Eichmann

Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze), [untitled], c.1937-50.


Afterword to the newly edited book by Günther Anders

In a letter dated October 12, 1965, considering a possible visit to his friend Günther Anders, Herbert Marcuse writes the following: “I must see you and complain to you — I also cannot hide that I was furious with your Children of Eichmann. That doesn't work. We can no longer afford to be goody-goodies and of appealing to the feeling and common sense of beasts devoid of all feeling and common sense. Because every argument is already conciliation, and even betrayal towards those who were killed by these beasts - and Eichmann's children, if they have the chance (which is likely), will do again with enthusiasm what they once did. You are an irreducible man - and for that I admired you. Don't give yourself away by writing love letters to executioners. Günther: we (you too?) are old. Let's not use the time we still have with deep and benevolent understanding towards those who are allies of horror... what we need to spend our time on, I don't need to tell you.[I]

It is not at all improbable that the current reader of this open letter to Adolph Eichmann's son will have a feeling similar to that of Herbert Marcuse: Günther Anders' appeal to the young Klaus Eichmann indeed seems, at various times, out of place. However, we must not forget that, at that point, Günther Anders had already corresponded with another emblematic figure of the bestiality of our time – or monstrosity, as he prefers to say –, namely, Claude Earthly, one of the American pilots involved in the mission. dropping a nuclear bomb on the city of Hiroshima and who, at the time, became relatively famous for his mental “illness”, which led him to commit petty thefts and robberies in order to be punished.

At the same time, Claude Earthly was elevated to the status of a national hero, so that his (real) guilt was treated as a pathological case of guilt complex — let us remember that, especially in the United States, all criticism of nuclear weapons was (and is) received as an attack on national security. He was destined to be interned in a monitored military psychiatric hospital, being denied the experience of guilt and remorse, which, in turn, was linked to the awareness of the monstrosity of the act in which he had participated. .

It was in correspondence with Günther Anders, who had sent him his commandments for Atomic age and who wrote to him: "you are condemned to remain sick instead of guilty",[ii] where he found someone who recognized his guilt, that is, his responsibility – something that enabled a clinical improvement in the former pilot, who then began to engage against what he had taken part in, that is, nuclear genocide, whose threat has lasted since 1945.

If Günther Anders came to see in Claude Earthly a “counterfigure to Eichmann”[iii] (although both are twin figures in what they accomplished) it was because, despite his “catastrophism”, the author ofA obsolescence of man nurtures a perspective in relation to the “plasticity of feelings” of human beings, to which he links the human capacity to imagine that, at the time of the “Promethean discrepancy”, it fell short of what man can produce, that is, of his technical capacity . In such a way that the murder of hundreds of thousands of people has become technically possible, although this act itself goes beyond human fantasy – and it is precisely because such acts go beyond human fantasy that they become possible, and not despite this discrepancy between acting and to imagine; this is the intimate link between the magnitude of the barbarism of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the point reached by the civilizing process of capitalist modernity.[iv]

However, if there is something like a “humanism” (we use the term, despite the confusion it can entail) in the author who saw obsolescence everywhere, he was linked to the transformability of the human being, that is, to his non-existent character. fixed, exactly as in leitmotiv of Bertold Brecht, who had a horror of the naturalization of men's vices.[v] It is in this tension between the pessimism of intelligence and the optimism of practice that Ludger Lütkehaus saw in Günther Anders “this double character of ontological-axiological nihilist and rigorous anti-nihilist in his engagement”.[vi]

In response to Marcuse's letter, Günther Anders says it is a big "misunderstanding": "This misunderstanding stems solely from the fact that we live in two completely different worlds (me, for example, in one totally without Jews). and that we speak to completely different audiences. It wouldn't cross anyone's mind here in Europe to understand my Children of Eichmann as goody-goody. On the contrary: I am vilified as one who thirsts for revenge - the effect of the same text in different media can thus be so different. Added to this is the fact that the letter was only apparently addressed to Eichmann's son, and that I present bestiality as the current situation”.[vii]

If the letter was a very important literary genre for Günther Anders, it is because it literally represents the addressed text par excellence. In this small book, the reader is constantly questioned and the pronoun is used in the second person. But (and this also applies to the correspondence with Eatherly) those addressed are also the general public, included in the also recurrent first person plural, in a we that already appears in the title.

And, as Günther Anders often emphasizes, his interlocutors are not professors and students of philosophy, but an audience as diverse as the anti-nuclear movement itself was, which included “doctors from Indonesia, Protestant theologians from Germany and the United States, trade unionists from India , Buddhist monks from Japan, nuclear scientists from the most diverse countries and students from Africa”.[viii] Thus, We children of Eichmann can also be read as a synthetic version and prêt-à-porter of some of his main theses developed in other more extensive works.

Herbert Marcuse's annoyance may be mainly due to the impression given by the text that Anders was almost acquitting Eichmann. Aware of this danger, the author makes a point of explaining what it is about and that is why he writes to Klaus: “I am afraid that you will receive my arguments as a release from your father’s guilt”, at the same time warning that “I could not imagine a misunderstanding worse". But why is it possible to have this (mistaken) impression when reading this text?

For, in fact, the tension between individual guilt (responsibility) for a monstrous crime and the socially systemic character (impersonal, therefore) of that same crime runs through this open letter to Klaus Eichmann — and, in general, also all of Anders's studies devoted to what we might call the structural change of conformism. But if we are talking about “conformism” here, we must not have in mind the traditional image of the one who contemplates as opposed to the one who acts, or of the bourgeois comfortably seated in an armchair, worthy of appearing in a novel by Zola or Balzac.

We are referring rather to the situation in which (as Günther Anders writes in his essay on Waiting for Godot, by Beckett) “doing became a variant of passivity”.[ix] That is, it is about identifying how this new human form of activity works, which mixes action and work, and which has allowed nothing less than “the biggest dirty jobs in history”.[X]

In this situation, “evil” (which allowed something like individual guilt), after having become a system, seems to belong to another era. That is why Hannah Arendt also said that it was inappropriate to say that Eichmann was a “cruel” person. The perception of this phenomenon was not strange to Frankfurtians either: Theodor Adorno, in a course on moral philosophy, insists that, “as Horkheimer formulated it, there are no more good or bad people. The objective possibilities of moral decision are shrunk.”[xi] —which implied, ultimately, the very obsolescence of moral philosophy. Although Kant had more normative than descriptive ambitions in his Critique of Practical Reason, what was observed at that point in the XNUMXth century was the disappearance of the material and social assumptions of moral autonomy as a guide for action, that is, the word “individual”, in its properly modern sense, no longer seemed to refer to anything. This brutal reduction of individuals to the social function they perform had also been foreseen by Kafka, who, anticipating what the coming century would become, put in the mouth of one of the characters in The process: “I am hired to spank, so I spank”.

The question that guides Günther Anders' investigation could therefore be translated into terms that are not the author's: what forms the subjects of domination without a subject? What are the mutations of the soul in this “participation [Mit-Tun] active-passive-neutral”, which works through a “'medial'-conformist principle”?[xii]

Far from simply wanting to dissolve the responsibility of the individuals who participated in the greatest atrocities of the XNUMXth century, Günther Anders wants to show that Eichmann is, in a way, the tip of the iceberg of an enormous system of collaboration that modern society has become. The problem is not only that people "get their hands dirty" in the horror, but that they do so while remaining "innocent", because psychologically they can no longer, due to the infinitely mediated character of social processes, recognize the result of a action as actually being “theirs”. That is why “the understanding of becoming innocently guilty, of the indirect character of involvement today, is the decisive, indispensable investigation of our age”.[xiii] This letter to Klaus Eichmann is certainly a contribution to this investigation, which still has on the horizon, as my friend Herbert would say, the moment of the “Great Refusal”.

*Felipe Catalani is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at USP.


Gunther Anders. We, Children of Eichmann: Open Letter to Klaus Eichmann. São Paulo, Ed. Elefante, 2023, 124 pages (https://amzn.to/3L37sIf).


[I] Günther Anders-Archiv, letter from Herbert Marcuse to Günther Anders, 12 Oct. 1965.

[ii] Anders, Günther. “Off limits für das Gewissen: Briefwechsel mit dem Hiroshima-Piloten Claude Eatherly” [Outside the Limits of Consciousness: Correspondence with Claude Eatherly, Pilot of Hiroshima]. In: anders, Günther. Hiroshima ist uberall [Hiroshima is everywhere]. Munich: Beck, 1995, p. 212 (https://amzn.to/3KACbfu).

[iii] Idem, P. xix.

[iv] Although Anders elevated the problem of discrepancy to the vanishing point of his entire work, this phenomenon was also identified by several authors of the time and was present, for example, both in Walter Benjamin's comments on chemical weapons in the First World War and in the Hannah Arendt's analysis of Eichmann in Jerusalem or even in the human condition, a work in which there are statements very close to the diagnosis of The Obsolescence of Man (As one reads in the correspondence between the two, Arendt reveals that she had read Anders' essay on the atomic bomb with enthusiasm). In the case of a deeper comparison between the Anderian and Arendtian analysis of the Eichmann phenomenon, the analogy between what Anders calls “imagination” and what, in Arendt, is “thought” would become evident. In any case, for Arendt, the “discrepancy” in Adolph Eichmann is also striking: from his atrophied language (even at the moment of his death, he could only speak in clichés), one could see his inability to think, which was far below what he did.

[v] What was highlighted by Anders himself in his reading of the Stories of Mr. Keuner, present in the book Mensch ohne Welt: Schriften zur Kunst und Literatur [Man without a world: writings on art and literature]. Munich: Beck, 1993 (https://amzn.to/3OApuCz).

[vi] lutkehaus, Ludger. Schwarze Ontologie: Über Günther Anders [Dark Ontology: About Günther Anders]. Lüneberg: zu Klampen, 2002, p. viii.

[vii] Günther Anders-Archiv, letter from Günther Anders to Herbert Marcuse, 18 Oct. 1965.

[viii] Anders, Günther. Die atomare Drohung [The atomic threat]. Munich: Beck, 2003, p. 52 (https://amzn.to/3OB8wnr).

[ix] Anders, Günther. The Antiquity of Men, see 1, Über die Seele im Zeitalter der zweiten industriellen Revolution [The Obsolescence of Man, v. 1, On the Soul in the Age of the Second Industrial Revolution]. Munich: Beck, 2010, p. 218 (https://amzn.to/45diD95).

[X] arants, Paul. “Dirty work". In: arantes, Paulo. The new time of the world. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2014 (https://amzn.to/3YDqc6r).

[xi] Adorno-Archiv, “Probleme der Moralphilosophie (Vorlesungen)” [Problems of moral philosophy (classes)], 22 Dec. 1956.

[xii] Anders, Günther. The Antiquity of Men, v.1, op. cit., P. 288.

[xiii] Anders, Günther. Hiroshima ist uberall, op. cit., P. xviii.

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