IT WAS HANNAH ARENDT’S series of reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker in the early Sixties that became Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In her first dispatch from Jerusalem, the prosecutor, Attorney General Gideon Hausner, in his opening speech, said something that universalised the tragedy of the Jews. He said that if Eichmann was also charged with “crimes against non-Jews”, it was not “because he committed them but ‘because we make no ethnic distinctions.’” Those words captured the truth of suffering, not always brought to the world’s attention with the same theatrical tension the Eichmann trial generated—or with the same narrative flair of an Arendt. Hausner’s words raised the crime against the Jews, carried out with emotionless precision by Eichmann, above race and set a moral foundation on which arguments about justice could be built by nations. By confining evil to the familiar geography of race and ethnicity, his words implied, we only excuse ourselves from the hard choices of fairness and responsibility in a world where the right to exist remains a dispute—and it takes an Eichmann to come out with a solution that’s final.
In the war that was caused by the evil Eichmann represented, the moral mobilisation against Nazi Germany was cemented by a shared vision about humanity, and the Holocaust reflected its urgency. The unity was achieved by nations and leaders who refused to see the Nazis’ agenda, domestic as well as extraterritorial, as a crisis in which a dominant power’s fears were bound to make victims with lesser stakes in the global power play. They read and reacted to the supremacism of an unhinged regime as humanity’s stakeholders, and it was a time when idealism was compatible with national interest. Even though Stalin’s Russia played a major part in the war against the racial unipolarity that the Nazis fantasised about, World War II and the international order born out of it classified leadership in starker terms of totalitarianism and freedom. There were fewer efforts to minimise the evil or reduce it to convenient geographical size, despite the occasional but-he’s-our-bastard mindset. It would have been difficult for the invasion of Ukraine to happen then. And it would not have been possible for the war to continue for this long—and for the warmonger to relentlessly ridicule the Western alliance against him.
What changed? The normalisation of totalitarianism has happened. No dictator today is denied the freedom of playing out his domestic paranoia on a global stage, and his interests are entangled in the national interests of those who are challenging him with more caution than moral urgency. Putin is isolated by the West with sanctions but there are no concerted efforts—apart from some lone-ranger diplomacy—to end the war he has started. Ukraine does not have the wherewithal to withstand Russia’s long-term offensive. And Moscow has already said that an end to the war is not the same as the defeat of Russia. Any withdrawal from occupied territories for Russia is a defeat—and the fraying of the nationalist mythology of greatness built by Putin. A defeat, as it is defined by Putin, is the unmaking of his own legacy, something a dictator aiming for eternal power can’t afford. A ‘regulated’ arms supply is not enough for Ukraine to gain freedom. So the Ukraine war remains local; Putin stays as the surveyor of the wreckage his vision for Russia has created. Who knows, the patience of Putin may help him end this war on his terms. It is not 1945.
If Putinism is an insufficiently imagined fantasy that is bound to unravel, Xi Jinping’s empire is fast gaining solidity. He no longer sees himself merely as China’s helmsman; he has begun to project himself on the global stage as a cultural alternative to American power. His extraterritorial ambition, from Taiwan to India’s Arunachal Pradesh, is built on the confidence of a dictator who draws his strength from ultra-nationalism and ideological apparatus. Perhaps it is the idea of an exhausted America that propels his policy of perpetual turbulence. An enemy on permanent vigil, always anticipating the worst from an inscrutable power, allows the world’s steadiest dictator to stay in absolute control. His self-insulation is made possible by the coveted marketplace he supervises and the closed society he surveys with technological precision. It’s not Emmanuel Macron alone who indulges Xi’s omnipotence; purveyors of unfreedom from Moscow to Tehran to Riyadh have come to acknowledge his usefulness. The elevation of Xi as the statesman of the East brings out the last vindication of evil normalised. It’s a rearmed commissar who sets the norms of the new Cold War.
What the prosecutor said during the trial in Jerusalem that Hannah Arendt reported is worthy of being repeated now. The new confederacy of evil is too normalised to make such a moral position a reality today.