Why even the most atrocious evil can have a banal basis
Hannah Arendt was a German born Jewish intellectual who had to flee Nazi Germany. As a reporter for the American magazine The New Yorker, she covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann had organised the transportation of over 2 million European Jews to various death camps – Auschwitz and Treblinka, for example. Around 1950, he had managed to flee to Argentina. Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence Agency, kidnaped him and took him to Israel to put him on trial.
Arendt’s New Yorker articles were later compiled in a book. It was highly controversial when it appeared in 1963. Indeed, Arendt was even accused of anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hatred. The subtitle of the book – the banality of evil – was often misunderstood, and she later regretted having chosen it. Today, the book is considered a classic essay on important aspects of totalitarian rule.
In her eyes, Eichmann was a criminal who deserved the death penalty. However, he was banal in the sense of obeying orders, fulfilling his duties and trying to move forward in his career. Doing so was evil, because he was serving a genocidal regime, enabling it to commit mass murder. Her reporting shows quite clearly that Eichmann was not consumed by racist hatred himself. Nor did he actually kill or even wound anyone directly. However, he never asked himself what consequences his action had nor questioned whether the regime he was serving was legitimate. He insisted that he only ever fulfilled duties and that any guilt had to be borne by his superiors, not him. Arendt considered him “banal” in the sense of being a petty bureaucrat.
Nonetheless, some read her subtitle in the sense of Nazi evil having been trivial. That was clearly not the case she was making. The Israeli prosecution, however, was casting Eichmann in the role of a bloodthirsty monster and mastermind of the genocide. Arendt insisted that this was a false interpretation of his personality – and that he never had the official authority to enforce such a horrendous continent-wide scheme.
She admitted that Eichmann was guilty of bragging about his role, and that he did so among Nazi refugees in Argentina, was why he was ultimately discovered in hiding. She insisted, however, that the evidence showed that he was nothing more than a diligent and efficient underling who wanted to do his job well but did not care about the implications.
Disagreeing with Israel’s prime minister
Many found her assessment disturbing. The public wanted to see Nazi criminals as sociopaths and psychopaths, not ordinary careerists. David Ben Gurion, then Israel’s prime minister, moreover, wanted to use Eichmann’s case to illustrate how Jews had always suffered discrimination and were constantly at risk of persecution. He was interested in portraying Eichmann as an anti-Semitic hate monster.
Arendt, a former Zionist herself, found anti-Semitism unacceptable. She nonetheless rejected the way Ben Gurion wanted Eichmann to be seen. To her, his approach meant to ignore what made the Nazi genocide unique. It was particularly atrocious, to her, because it was implemented by low-level officers in cool-blooded, sober-minded, bureaucratic operations. Eichmann was a prominent example of a civil servant who behaved as though he was implementing a standard government policy, unconcerned by the horrendous suffering it caused.
According to Arendt, the trial in Jerusalem had the markings of a show trial. She argued that Israel would never have kidnapped Eichmann if it had not been very sure of the result. If the outcome of case is obvious before it is even heard, however, the focus is clearly not on discovering what exactly the culprit did and what evidence is available. To Arendt, the unprecedented “banality” of mass murder mattered more than a show trial that emphasised anti-Semitism and thus served to legitimise Israel.
Criminal trials are about perpetrators’ guilt, not victims’ suffering
Eichmann had actually not formally broken German law. He insisted that he was therefore not a criminal. Arendt disagreed. Her point was that Nazi law violated fundamental principles of humanity. Moreover, even the Nazis had not punished people who refused to take part in genocidal action. Eichmann’s crime, in her eyes, was to serve a criminal regime with ambition but without questions.
When top Nazis were tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Nuremberg after World War II, the international court decided that their guilt did not depend on whether or not they had broken German law. What mattered was that their actions caused serious harm. Considering it normal would make it impossible to enforce any kind of peaceful international order. Arendt appreciated that approach. In her eyes, it applied to Eichmann too.
Arendt was adamant that a criminal trial was not about the suffering of victims, but the guilt of perpetrators. Her point was that murder – and even more genocide – did not only affect victims, but disturbed peace in society and, indeed, between nations. Guilt had to be addressed, she argued, to restore peace and mutual trust. That is an important part of coming to terms with a traumatic past. Recompensation of victims matters too, of course, but Arendt saw it as a separate issue.
Arendt’s book also caused controversy by not brushing under the carpet the role of the so called “Judenräte” (Jewish councils) in the genocide. These councils consisted of local Jewish elders who were supposed to manage their community. To a very large extent, they cooperated with the Nazis, and many of them were allowed to escape the holocaust as the reward. Arendt spelled out clearly that their systematic sharing of persons’ details with the Nazi administration allowed the regime to identify Jews easily. Without such, the genocide would have been harder to organise. Eichmann’s transport logistics, for example, relied on such information.
An uncomfortable truth
For many Jews, that was an uncomfortable truth. Accordingly, Arendt was fast and insultingly accused of anti-Semitism. Indeed, she fully appreciated the performance of the judges in Jerusalem and endorsed the death penalty for Eichmann. The judges, she wrote, paid close attention to the accused and were not swayed by the prosecution’s focus on anti-Semitism.
The full horror of Nazi murders was their industrial precision and scale, according to Arendt. It was only possible because people like Eichmann lacked the ability to consider the moral dimension of the orders they obeyed – and thus their own action. In this sense Eichmann was indeed ordinary, trivial or banal. His work, of course, was not ordinary but atrocious. That he was not driven by a strong anti-Semitic ideology made him even more frightful. Insights of this kind is why the book is still considered important today. Reporting from the trial in Jerusalem, Arendt actually dissected an important characteristic of modern totalitarianism.
People doing evil may only be doing so because they are banally irresponsible. Under a different government, Eichmann might have been harmless. What made him evil was that he unquestioningly obeyed orders, not that deep inside he desired to kill and harm others. He was guilty because he failed to consider the suffering he made happen. This point is important for understanding not only Nazi atrocities, but crimes committed under totalitarian rule in general. Eichmann in Jerusalem and other books she wrote became classics. This author deserves attention at time when authoritarian leaders are gaining clout in many places (see Aline Burni and Niels Keijzer on www.dandc.eu).
Arendt, H., 2006: Eichmann in Jerusalem – The banality of evil. London, Penguin (Original edition published in 1963 by Viking Press in the USA).
Suparna Banerjee is a Frankfurt-based political scientist.