What did Hannah Arendt really mean by the banality of evil?

adolf_eichmann_at_trial1961.jpg

Adolf Eichman on trial in Jerusalem 1961

From Aeon by Thomas White:

Can one do evil without being evil? This was the puzzling question that the philosopher Hannah Arendt grappled with when she reported for The New Yorker in 1961 on the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi operative responsible for organising the transportation of millions of Jews and others to various concentration camps in support of the Nazi’s Final Solution.

Arendt found Eichmann an ordinary, rather bland, bureaucrat, who in her words, was ‘neither perverted nor sadistic’, but ‘terrifyingly normal’. He acted without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy. Eichmann was not an amoral monster, she concluded in her study of the case, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Instead, he performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his ‘thoughtlessness’, a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. Eichmann ‘never realised what he was doing’ due to an ‘inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else’. Lacking this particular cognitive ability, he ‘commit crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong’.

Arendt dubbed these collective characteristics of Eichmann ‘the banality of evil’: he was not inherently evil, but merely shallow and clueless, a ‘joiner’, in the words of one contemporary interpreter of Arendt’s thesis: he was a man who drifted into the Nazi Party, in search of purpose and direction, not out of deep ideological belief. In Arendt’s telling, Eichmann reminds us of the protagonist in Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger(1942), who randomly and casually kills a man, but then afterwards feels no remorse. There was no particular intention or obvious evil motive: the deed just ‘happened’.

Read the rest of the article at Aeon

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Categories: Philosophy, World War II

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