The Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt

How could humans have committed all those atrocities that characterised the Holocaust? Were they all monsters and sadists, delighting in the pain of others? Or, more terrifyingly, were they just people like you and me, who simply didn’t recognise the gravity of their choices? Hannah Arendt, a German-American political philosopher, famously proposed that many of the Nazis of WWII Germany were not maniacal sociopaths but rather, ordinary people who didn’t question their own actions enough. In 1963, she wrote a work in which she analysed the horrific deeds of Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organisers of the Holocaust.

Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy, a book that presents the grand sweep of humanity’s search for philosophical understanding from Socrates to Peter Singer.

Hannah Arendt (1906-75) was a German Jew who moved to the United States during WWII, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1950. She reported on Eichmann’s trial for the New Yorker magazine, and her investigations yielded so much that they eventually led to an entire book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt wanted to find out more about the mind of this man, who had committed such terrible acts on such a wide scale, and to understand the motivations behind his choices. What she found out was shocking; shockingly banal. Warburton explains:

‘Unlike some Nazis, Eichmann didn’t seem to be driven by a strong hatred of Jews. He had none of Hitler’s venom. There were plenty of Nazis who would have happily beaten a Jew to death in the street for failing to give the ‘Heil Hitler!’ greeting, but he wasn’t one of them. Yet he had taken on the official Nazi line and had accepted it, but far, far worse than that, he had helped send millions to their death. Even as he listened to the evidence against him he seemed to see little wrong with what he had done. As far as he was concerned, since he had not broken any laws, and had never directly killed anyone himself or asked anyone else to do that for him, he had behaved reasonably. He had been brought up to obey the law and trained to follow orders, and all around him people were doing the same as he was. By taking commands from other people he avoided feeling responsible for the results of his daily work.

There was no need for Eichmann to see people bundled into cattle trucks or to visit the death camps, so he didn’t. This was a man who told the court he couldn’t have become a doctor because he was afraid of the sight of blood. Yet the blood was still on his hands. He was a product of a system that had somehow prevented him from thinking critically about his own actions and the results they produced for real people. It was as if he couldn’t imagine other people’s feelings at all. He carried on with his deluded belief in his innocence all through his trial. Either that, or he had decided that his best line of defence was to say he was only obeying the law; if so, he took Arendt in.

Arendt used the words ‘the banality of evil’ to describe what she saw in Eichmann. If something is ‘banal’, it is common, boring and unoriginal. Eichmann’s evil was, she claimed, banal in the sense that it was the evil of a bureaucrat, of an office manager, rather than a devil. Here was this very ordinary sort of man who had allowed Nazi views to affect everything he did.

[…] Eichmann, like many Nazis during that era, failed to see things from someone else’s perspective. He wasn’t brave enough to question the rules that he was given: he simply looked for the best way to follow them. He lacked imagination. Arendt described him as shallow and brainless – though that too could have been an act. Had he been a monster he would have been terrifying. But at least monsters are rare and usually quite easy to spot. What was perhaps more terrifying still was the fact that he appeared so normal. He was an ordinary man who, by failing to question what he was doing, took part in some of the most evil acts known to humanity.’

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

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