The Obedience Box

In May 1960, the former Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann was abducted by the Israeli Secret Service, strapped into a seat on an El-Al commercial flight and taken to Israel, where he would then be tried and sentenced to death for his instrumental role in the murder of six million Jews.

Eichmann began his career with the feared Nazi SS Sicherheitsdienst as a file clerk, constructing a detailed data base on Freemasons. Eventually, he was appointed director of the so-called Scientific Museum of Jewish Affairs, where he managed a massive extortion racket, extracting the wealth of Austrian Jews in exchange for their safe passage out of Austria. His subsequent recommendation for the deportation of European Jews to the island of Madagascar was not approved.


Eichmann served as recording secretary for the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, after which he was appointed transport administrator for the Final Solution. The former file clerk thereby became responsible for the collection, sorting and delivery of six million human “packages” to the death camps, a thanato-logistical network requiring both scrupulous attention to detail and absolute ideological commitment to the ultimate objective.


In 1961, the distinguished political philosopher Hannah Arendt persuaded New Yorker magazine to assign her as correspondent for the trial, resulting in a series of reports that were later published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem with its resonant and provocative subtitle, A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt observed an unimpressive everyman sitting inside a bullet proof glass box. Fidgeting with a pencil and fiddling with his glasses, he looked to her like a postal clerk, a typical German civil servant.

Elsewhere in 1961, a Yale psychologist named Stanley Milgram began a lengthy series of behavioral experiments designed to explore the limits of obedience within a situation defined by both power and authority. As he writes in his 1974 summary opus Obedience To Authority:

Two people come to a psychology laboratory to take part in a study of memory and learning. One of them is designated as a “teacher” and the other a “learner .” The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is conducted into a room, seated in a chair, his arms strapped to prevent excessive movement, and an electrode attached to his wrist. He is told that he is to learn a list of word pairs; whenever he makes an error, he will receive electric shocks of increasing intensity.


The real focus of the experiment is the teacher. After watching the learner being strapped into place, he is taken into the main experimental room and seated before an impressive shock generator. Its main feature is a horizontal line of thirty switches, ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts, in 15-volt increments. There are also verbal designations which range from SLIGHT SHOCK to DANGER-SEVERE SHOCK. The teacher is told that he is to administer the learning test to the man in the other room. When the learner responds correctly, the teacher moves on to the next item; when the other man gives an incorrect answer, the teacher is to give him an electric shock. He is to start at the lowest shock level (15 volts) and to increase the level each time the man makes an error, going through 30 volts, 45 volts, and so on.

The “teacher” is a genuinely naive subject who has come to the laboratory to participate in an experiment. The learner, or victim, is an actor who actually receives no shock at all. The point of the experiment is to see how far a person will proceed in a concrete and measurable situation in which he is ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim. At what point will the subject refuse to obey the experimenter?

Unable to perceive an exit from the tightly controlled situation, though often clearly suffering severe distress, the majority of Teachers in the study eventually delivered shocks to the Learners, all the way to the maximum danger level.

While openly acknowledging the massive historical difference between the German death network and his Yale psychology lab, Milgram references Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” as a concise way of capturing the human proclivity to perform the most morally abhorrent deeds when such deeds are perceived to be obligations within tightly defined and contractual roles, monitored and reinforced by a clearly recognized authority.


In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt had written in 1963:

“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 normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” 

A year later, Leonard Cohen released a collection of poems titled Flowers For Hitler, including:

All There Is to Know about Adolf Eichmann

EYES: Medium
HAIR: Medium
WEIGHT: Medium
HEIGHT: Medium

What did you expect?
Oversize incisors?
Green saliva?



In May 2011, Eichmann’s bullet proof box was transported to Berlin for the first time, to feature in an exhibition within the Topography of Terror on the exact site of the former Reich Main Security Office, where memory traces of Eichmann’s DNA might still be detected. The exhibition questions Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann as the embodiment of her phrase “banality of evil”, contending that as a high ranking official in the SS and underling to genocidal fanatics such as Heydrich and Himmler, he was a true believer motivated not just by duty but by conviction. Letter perfect in his role as recording secretary in the formulation of the Final Solution, he then pursued its practical application with ideological fervor. Neither obedient civil servant nor the human embodiment of demonic evil, Eichmann was rather a remorseless Nazi fully conscious of his role within the meticulously networked death machine.  An annotated map charts Eichmann’s business trips to sites like Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka, to assess efficiency at the sites where packages became corpses.

The exhibition points out that Arendt did not attend the entire trial, and thus did not witness the unraveling of Eichmann’s “just following orders” defense upon being confronted with evidence of his interview by fellow ex-Nazi Willem Stassen, during which Eichmann told Stassen that he regretted not having exterminated even more fervently: I could have done more and should have done more. Meanwhile, Eichmann’s bullet proof box has returned to Israel, and Stanley Milgram’s obedience box remains on display inside the University of Akron’s Center for the History of Psychology:





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