The crossroads of controversy: Hannah Arendt’s coining of the term 'the banality of evil'?

Over fifty years ago, the philosopher Hannah Arendt witnessed the end of the trial of the notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann, who was one of the key figures behind the Final Solution. Hannah Arendt had been chosen by the New Yorker to cover the Eichmann Trial in 1961, which then evolved later into the book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’ (1963). In her book, for the first time, she fully debated and pondered whether evil is really something all-consuming and radical or if it is simply a form of inattention and an inclination to obey orders. From this trial sprung the question of whether one can commit acts of an evil nature without possessing a fundamentally evil character, resulting in the phrase ‘the banality of evil’. The term went on to have a lasting effect on political theory and deals with this grappling question of how utterly ordinary persons commit mass atrocities and appear to have little or no remorse: illuminating the dark capabilities of the modern administrator. What did Hannah Arendt really mean when she coined this term during the trial?

What Hannah Arendt drew from the trial was a collection of characteristics that she labelled as ‘the banality of evil’ whereby individuals could be shallow and oblivious instead of profoundly immoral, allowing them to be capable of crimes against humanity. Since her conclusions, there have been various other investigations to consider whether unimaginable acts can be committed simply to obey orders, such as the experiments by Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram that found that ordinary persons are capable of evil under certain circumstances, where they feel obliged to do whatever is asked of them and to undertake a new role or task. Arendt illustrated her opinions on this subject when in 1961 she expressed her first impressions of Eichmann writing:

‘I was struck by the manifest shallowness in the doer [Eichmann] which made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer – at least the very effective one now on trial – was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.’

Eichmann taking notes at his trial in 1961

Eichmann taking notes at his trial in 1961

Through this new mode of thought Arendt gained many critics as she attempted to redefine moral responsibility. Her use of the word ‘joiner’ to describe Eichmann by claiming that his whole life he had joined organizations or groups in order to define himself reflects this newfound belief that he was ordinary and that’s what makes what he did so utterly terrifying, is because he was just a normal man who was given a purpose and was so desperate for a role he didn’t pay attention and was zealous to please his leaders. Throughout his life Eichmann had joined organisations in order to define himself, as Arendt wrote that when the Second World War ended ‘it then dawned on him that thenceforward he would have to live without being a member of something or other‘.What she indicates by mentioning these characteristics is that perpetrators have different reasons for committing crimes; they are not always committed because he/she is inherently evil and this must be examined more closely.

Alongside this new analysis of evil was a belief that certain key perpetrators had little thought to the consequences and wider implications of the cause they unswervingly upheld and supported. But is this giving Nazis like Eichmann the benefit of the doubt? After the trial many Jews were appalled by Arendt’s publishings and claimed that she was sympathizing with the Nazis by forming a belief that the Jews brought this fate upon themselves. Her creation of the term ‘the banality of evil’ accompanied this bitterness towards her conclusions in ‘Eichmann on Trial’ as the use of the word ‘banal’ was widely misunderstand. Arendt was referring to her search to uncover how it was possible for crimes to become routinized and recognized with little moral disgust. Her conclusions that Eichmann, who was one of the pivotal members throughout the deportation of Jews during the Holocaust, was no amoral monster deeply affected the Jewish community and continue to be debated fervently today. However, what she certainly did not mean by this was that the acts committed were unexceptional or ordinary in any way; she believed these crimes committed were incomparable to anything the legal court had seen previously and therefore needed to be contended through new legal thought. This was because of the analysis from the trial that led Arendt to believe that this was an exceptional case whereby the violations and crimes were committed without thought and bypassed the normal human function of thinking and acting accordingly. It was this attack on thinking that led her to see that these war crimes should not be viewed solely as an attack on particular groups of society but against humanity as a whole since, without our ability to think and reason, ordinary persons could be capable of taking part in such crimes. As she writes in the New Yorker ‘this case was built on what the Jews had suffered, not on what Eichmann had done’. As a result, Hannah Arendt objected to the trial being conducted by a particular nation-state entirely in the name of its own populace and not in the name of humanity.

Together with these criticisms, other philosophers who believed she was almost defending those Nazis who committed atrocities and genocide tackled her theory; however, this is not what Arendt was saying. She was saying that one might expect a man who is behind the deaths of millions in the cruelest and most brutal of manners to look different, to have eyes that speak of his crimes committed or a look that shows his inhumanity. But when you look at Eichmann you see an ordinary man sitting in a suit, one who followed his bureaucratic role in a political party. Hannah Arendt closely therefore links his passion for National Socialism not inherently with its ideology, but with the joy of having a function that enabled Eichmann to dutifully obey orders whilst going home most nights to his own family having obediently destroyed others. However, Arendt also accounted for the lack of emotion, the lack of any reaction to the images of emaciated bodies put before him, of weeping survivors telling their accounts of loss and unimaginable abuse. In her words she writes he was ‘terrifyingly normal’; unlike the immoral monster she expected to encounter she saw a man who in her eyes was instead incapable of critical thought.

Nonetheless, what shocked, and continues to shock today, is how her search to hold accountable and understand those who committed such evil acts led her to believe that Eichmann should be viewed as an ordinary man searching for a purpose and role in life. Her unflinching analysis of evil takes us to the deepest subconscious of the human mind, where she claims philosophy explains the degradation of individuals’ discernment and contemplation. For Arendt specifically, it demonstrated this: the result of not thinking can absolutely become genocidal.

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