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.



2 thoughts on “The banality of evil

  1. david broad says:

    Hanah Arendt ‘s portrayal of Eichmann’s banality and modus operandi was not widely applauded at the time and in fact rejected bitterly by two key groups – it provoked outrage in Israel and in the Jewish diasapora – in Israel the prosecution and public opinion portrayed him far from being banal and a mere functinary , rather as ‘uniquely’ evil/ a monster ( a view still shared , self-servingly, in the West generally today ) ; while Jews in the US and elsewhere were incensed at Arendt’s analysis of Jewish elites in each European capital , actively ‘collaborating’ with Eichmann and then in running camps .

    She pointed out that very few Jews in the Holocaust saw a single German , from leaving their homes until reaching the Concentration Camps. The holocaust , in her eyes, was a pan-European endeavour.

    ‘|West’ Germany of course chose after the war to accept ‘sole’ responsibility for the Holocaust – partly in profound contrition and to atone for defeat and partly to be anchored in alliance with the USA . ( Dont forget HMG publsihed the Balfour Declaration in 1917 chiefly to gratify US Jewish opinion and thereby encourage the USA to enter the War . Most US Protestants revere a Jewish Holy Land as much as Jews – as did Llloyd , the Welsh non -conformist Lloyd George for that matter ).

    Arendt’s explored equally profound insights , paralleling ‘banality’, in her Origins of Totalitarianism , essentially how ideologies can crush a sense of shared humanity . Her doctorate was on the morality of St Augustine , supervised by Heidigger – she was throughout a non-practising/non-believing Jew. What she was , as I see it, was one of the last flowerings of 19th century pan-European culture – brought to ruin by the two World Wars but ,luckily for us, still with some odd survivals , mostly Jewish, around today eg Simon Schama , Simon Kuper , Barenboim , Paul Auster. ( But not many in Brussels, I fear !! )

  2. Murray says:

    Very interesting comment from David. I wasn’t sure if I had anything to add here, but last year I discovered that a former colleague’s father- the colleague grew up in Argentina- was friends with Eichmann when he had fled there. Of course there was a bit of a transnational academic fuss about this, especially as some Jewish academics had met this person’s father, not knowing about this awkward past. It seems to have calmed down now, and of course it’s not really my former colleague’s responsibility at all, but it (and you, Charles) reminds me that indeed evil can’t be put in some kind of box that is always “elsewhere” and involves other people. Here I find I had an unsuspected relationship to Eichmann of a sort. Unsettling.

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