The Banality of Evil


When I wrote my undergaduate dissertation, on “Effects of the Eichmann Trial and the Hannah Arendt Controversy on American perceptions of the Holocaust”, it was with a distant perspective. Back then, at the very beginning of the 21st century, I felt safe. There were a few wars but globally, politically, and ideologically, the horrors of World War Two felt very far away. That’s not quite the case now and the way the world has changed prompted me to re-read this old piece of work.

Some (lightly) edited extracts below. It’s a naive, young piece of writing, in which you can tell how enamoured I am of Arendt’s intellectual power. But I think it holds some interest. Really, you should go and read the Banality of Evil, because the issues Arendt wrestles with are relevant once more, particularly the normalisation of behaviours that lead society down a dark path.

“Hannah Arendt’s experience as a Jewish communist philosopher in pre-war Europe, created in her later work a preoccupation with one subject: why are humans the way they are? Growing up in an assimilated community, as many German Jews undoubtedly did, forced Arendt to ask why her country and the people within it would turn violently on such an integral group in their society. Arendt’s pre- and post- Eichmann in Jerusalem works show a preoccupation with explaining the place of the Jew in society, as well as outlining how their society could become so violent towards them.

Throughout her work, from Origins of Totalitarianism to a study of the Dreyfus Affair, through discussions concerning the Jewish place in society and musings on the human condition, Arendt consistently attempted to fathom the truth behind the evil of Nazi Germany, and the hugely controversial idea of Jewish involvement in this. This theme runs through the heart of Eichmann in Jerusalem. The second major theme she covered in Eichmann in Jerusalem was the relationship between thinking and conscience, judging and doing, and the implications these have for the meaning of evil. Arendt’s judgement of Eichmann was clear. She was calling his type of evil “banal” and using her criticisms of him to expand on the Kantian concept of “radical” evil. To understand the distinction between the two is to grasp Arendt’s intention when describing the complicity of society that allowed the Holocaust to happen.

Arendt argued that there are three types of people within society, all displaying various ways of behaving. The first person has non conscience, the second person has a conscience and does nothing and the third person has a conscience and listens to it. In a normal society, where there are reasonably fair rules and equality, the most evil of these three is the person without a conscience, and we are largely protected against them.

In a totalitarian society such as Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, the idea of conscience and morality was entirely different. The system worked to invert ideas and to hide actions and events that in a normal society would be be considered wrong and beyond our usual moral compass. Thus, the person without a conscience would take advantage of the opportunities provided by these “new rules” of a society turned upside down to fulfill his desires without any consideration for others. The person with a conscience who did nothing would be an ordinary European, surviving in a Nazi regime. These people did not necessarily take part in what was going on, but implicitly accepted it by not condemning it. These people were crucial for the initial peaceful transition of a clearly corrupt Nazi government.

The hardest case to define was that of a man with conscience who did something about it. This could manifest in three ways, the most obvious being those who were able to maintain their ethics and live as closely as possible within the ethics and morality of a “normal” society, even at risk to their own life. However, there were also those who did something about their conscience for the wrong reasons and those who did not judge what their conscience was telling them. The first case can be best illustrated, in Arendt’s words, by the actions of the July conspirators:

      “No doubt these men who opposed Hitler, however belatedly, paid with their lives and suffered a terrible death; the courage of many them was admirable, but it was not inspired by moral indignation or by what they knew other people had been made to suffer; they were motivated almost exclusively by their conviction of the coming defeat and ruin of Germany.”

The final case, of a man who could not judge what his conscience told him, was applied by Arendt to Eichmann. By always following your conscience in a totalitarian society, you are essentially following the rules, doing what the system has told you is right. Arendt saw Eichamnn as man who knew that what he was doing was “wrong”, but accepted what his “conscience” told him:

    “Eichmann said he recognized that he had participated in what was perhaps one of the greatest crimes in history, but, he insisted, if he had not done so, his conscience would have bothered him at the time. His conscience and morality were working exactly in reverse. This reversal is precisely the moral collapse that took place in Europe.”

The matter of Eichmann’s conscience was at the heart of Arendt’s report and she used to sketch the thesis of “banal” evil versus “radical” evil – where the former is the product of the latter. Thus, she sketched the life of Eichmann throughout the war, beginning with a man who had failed his family and found some kind of redemption for his ambition within the Nazi party. The many condemning factors against him became stepping stones on the way to his final epitaph, that of a weak man trapped within an evil regime. His presence at the Wannsee Conference, his role an expert on forced emigration, his final mission in Budapest, all contributed to the pricking of his newly formed conscience. Despite claiming to have tried saving as many people as he could, Eichmann clearly carried out his job with enthusiasm and efficiency. When carrying out the orders that led directly to the building of Auschwitz, Eichmann convinced himself that he was doing no wrong, by gauging not only his success to date, but also the reactions of those around him. Therefore, “as Eichmann told it, the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience was the simple fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who was actually against the Final Solution.” All of those involved in the state were so bound by rules, they could not judge for themselves the wrongness of what they were doing.

An interesting development in Eichmann’s thought process was his reaction to Himmler’s apparent change of heart at the end of the war. Recognising that the war was lost and that the discovery of concentration camps would do no good for his post-war status, Himmler issued orders that would out an end to the mechanics of the Holocaust. (Again, as with the July conspirators, he was not thinking of right and wrong: simply the status of himself and his country after the war.) Eichmann did not, could not bring himself to, follow Himmler’s orders. During his reign in Hungary at the end of the war, he made every effort to make the country judenrein. This behaviour was held up in his trial as absolute proof of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism and dedication to the Final Solution. But Arendt saw it as absolute proof that Hitler’s law had stifled and change the voice of his conscience:

   “And, just as the law in civilised countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody “Thou shalt not kill”, even though man’s natural desires and inclinations may at times be nurderous, so the law of Hitler’s land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: “Thou shalt kill”, although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people.”

Thus, in the end, though Eichmann knew fundamentally that his actions were wrong, obedience to the state and to Hitler’s law overrode his conscience. The power of a long-term totalitarian state, one which had lied, cheated and manipulated its way to power, overcame any sense of humanity. ”




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s