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The Banality of Evil

Book: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
Author: Hannah Arendt

Philosophize This! podcast on Hannah Arendt

In his podcast, West refers to Arendt as  a “political philosopher” though she rejected the label (preferring contemplative theorist instead), which seems to be a perfect description of this work; part reporting, part commentary, part defense (in response to what must have been a very unexpected push-back). Arendt is not a big fan of “the contemplative life” – a philosopher who locks himself away to think big thoughts. She is a proponent of “the active life”, being “in the arena” (to borrow a phrase from TR), though she started solidly in the realm of the contemplative life. World War II, and the rise of Nazism in her native Germany, threw her out of that.

In Arendt’s eyes (again, according to West), the principal flaw of the Enlightenment is that it essentially did-away with the political. For the Enlightenment, politics was simply a means to an end (see John Locke, etc.) principally for the sake of economics. To Arendt however, the political was an essential part of the human experience, and the question of “Who Am I?” can only be found through action, and not merely contemplation. Though critical of Capitalism principally, she is also quite critical of Marxism as they both focus on reducing everything to economics while ignoring the roles we used to play in (political) society.

However, most of her philosophy will developed in her other works – such as The Origins of Totalitarianism (likely her most famous work, which explored how it was that in the mid-20th century totalitarian regimes seemed to sprout up everywhere) – for it really doesn’t play deeply into the current work except as background (how an “Eichmann” could have happened in the first place).

But to summarize it briefly, her overall philosophy can be summarized by suggesting that Modernity produces a society of economic cogs filled with people who are starved for a “higher purpose”. In post “Great War” Germany, Nazism gave people that higher purpose. In the aftermath of World War II, it became easy for the survivors to write-off the rise of Nazi Germany as the machinations of an evil death-cult, hateful people driven by an extraordinary madman, an historical anomaly. Arendt clearly disagrees and develops the genesis of this disagreement in “A Report of the Banality of Evil”.

After his kidnap by the Israeli special forces in the slums of Buenos Aires some 15-years after the end of World War II, Adolph Eichmann is presented at his subsequent (show-)trial by the Israeli prosecutors as a monster, an evil man who sat behind his desk, full of hate for Jews (and others), gleefully sending them through typewritten orders to their horrifying death. It was necessary for the newly-created state of Israel, and it’s Zionist leadership, that this image be the sole image of any Nazi, but Eichmann in particular, as an often self-proclaimed “expert on Jewish Affairs” in the twisted and confusing hierarchy of the Third Reich, was the archetype.

The problem for them, as controversially espoused by Arendt, was that no monster appeared to be hidden safely behind bulletproof glass in the courtroom in Jerusalem in 1961 during his trial. This is the case because, simply, Adolph Eichmann was, truly, not a monster. Eichmann was actually a man whose sole crime, according to Arendt, was that of “not thinking”. He was simply a joiner, a follower who was, to use the cliché, merely following orders. Far from being filled with hatred for Jews and others, Eichmann was far, far more concerned about his career progression, bemoaning to his interviewers (after his capture) the fact that he never made it past the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

In other words, Adolph Eichmann was not only not a monster, but Arendt’s point, made subtly and otherwise through her work, is even more terrifying. Eichmann was an “everyman”. He was not brilliant (far from it), was a competent administrator but no genius, spoke in tired clichés and phrases that often seemed ill-suited for the point he was trying to make. He was, to use a later phrase, the personification of The Peter Principle. That as part of his competent but not extraordinary performance he was tasked with (and largely successful at) wiping-out an entire demographic is, to Arendt, a far more terrifying prospect than that some monster, driven by an evil-genius madman, could have done the same.

Hitler and the Nazis, it should be remembered, were elected. Elected, it must be said, by a population of economic cogs who were starved for the very sort of higher purpose that the Socialist Workers Party provided them in the early 1930’s. The dehumanization of the population through the lack of a political voice, without an active life, made it all the easier for the Nazis to keep them under control.

Nazi Germany was therefore, in other words, filled-to-bursting with an entire population of individuals, any one of whom could have been, but for Providence, Adolph Eichmann.

One can almost come-away from Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann by feeling sorry for the man tasked with first deporting, and then executing, an entire demographic population (and effectively carrying out such orders). After all, he never killed anyone (directly), and he claimed repeatedly to have harbored no ill-will of Jews and others he was charged with “removing”. And honestly there’s little reason to not take him at his word on this point. He was a man who knew, for certain, that his fate was the gallows in Jerusalem, and as such he had no reason to lie about his motivations by the time he was kidnapped in Argentina.

Banality is something defined as lacking originality or novelty; something commonplace, in other words. Though she received a horrific backlash for using this term to describe Adolph Eichmann, her description of him seems utterly appropriate. The backlash therefore must be explained by something outside of her work, and is most likely a result of the investiture that an important audience for this story had in making this upper-mid-level Nazi bureaucrat into evil incarnate, a monster.

It is indeed a far more terrifying thought to contemplate that a completely unspectacular man who was “just following orders”, can accomplish what Eichmann accomplished. Perhaps this is the reason for the backlash. The horror that a mere cadre of men “just following orders” could again perpetuate a global horror is, for many, too much to even consider.

Far easier to believe Eichmann is a monster and be done with it.

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