The banality of evil



When Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was abducted from Argentina by the Israelis and brought to Jerusalem, the philosopher Hannah Arendt was commissioned by The New Yorker to cover his trial.

Eichmann, an SS Officer who was head of Jewish Affairs under the Nazis, was a key figure in the implementation of the Holocaust, responsible for organising the deportation of millions of Jews across Europe to the camps. It was an operation he pursued with efficiency and dedication. After the war, Eichmann lived undetected in Austria for five years, before escaping to Argentina, where Israeli intelligence captured him in 1960.

But when Hannah Arendt observed Eichmann on trial, she did not see an evil genius or criminal madman. Despite the enormity of his crimes and the best attempts of the prosecution, Eichmann came across as a pedestrian and mundane figure, devoid of imagination or self-reflection, unable to see the perspective of the other or speak without mouthing clichés. He was a man whose ethical sensibilities were offended by the morality of Lolita (a novel he was lent by a prison guard) and by the suggestion that he had beaten a young boy, but not, apparently, by the six million he helped to murder during the Holocaust.

Respectful to those who worked under him, and often courteous towards individual Jews he encountered, Eichmann expressed no guilt or regret for his actions, and presented himself as a hard-luck story, a man only acting under orders, misunderstood and unable to get a break. It was an encounter which prompted Arendt to coin the phrase ‘the banality of evil’: a striking expression which made her subsequent report famous, and which still resonates today.

This, according to Arendt, is the reality of evil. It is not the work of the crazed monsters and serial killers who are sensationalised in thrillers and horror films and denounced in the populist press. Still less is it the result of the pantomime nonsense of the witches, ghouls, and occult fetishized at Halloween. When Christians and others focus on seeing the demonic here, they fall prey to misdirection.

Real evil – the kind that kills and destroys millions – is the product of a thousand mundane decisions made by the unimaginative and the dull. It is the result of actions taken in the corporate boardrooms and state bureaucracies of our age, the consequences of which we choose to hide from ourselves: decisions made without thought and reflection, because (we tell ourselves) there is no alternative, because we are unable to think differently, because in the end the system says we must, and we do not have the moral vision and character to resist.

Modern evil does not announce itself with horns and a pitchfork. It is much more banal than that. And all the more insidious.