Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil

A while ago I re-read the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt. In the book, Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher who studied in Berlin and Heidelberg and who emigrated in 1933, describes the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann was a subordinate organizer of the Holocaust; he had begun his career in the SS organizing the emigration of Jews (for horrendous fees, which virtually disowned the victims). Later, he became responsible for organizing the transport of Jews from all over Europe to the extermination camps. After the war, Eichmann emigrated to Argentina. The Israeli secret service abducted him, and brought him to Israel, where he was put on trial and hanged.

It was Eichmann’s personality that led Arendt to speak of “the banality of evil”. Those who attended the trial expecting to see a monster, a psychopathic killer, were disappointed. Eichmann’s most outstanding characteristic was how ordinary he was. Those who had worked with him said he had been professional and polite in his dealings with them, and he seemed to have been a normal husband and father. Nevertheless, Eichmann unquestioningly accepted the murderous framework provided by his superiors, and he was solely interested in being as successful as possible within that framework, without ever questioning the validity of the framework itself. He was enclosed in his limited perspective, which was only directed at the next step, and which never paused to contemplate the big picture of which his behavior was a part. At the core of this seems to be a profound disinterest in the moral dimension of his behavior – in his interrogation, Eichmann talked again and again about the fact that he was not promoted further, while he seemed rather unconcerned by the fact that had taken part in a genocide. His evil deeds were not the results of a villain-like character, but of the simple willingness to do whatever was necessary to be successful. And he was not alone in this – a gigantic undertaking such as the Holocaust required the cooperation of many government agencies, many of them led by officials who had already been working there before Hitler came to power, and who were no Nazis. Eichmann himself explained that what soothed his doubts the most was that none of them raised any objections against the extermination of the Jews. This allowed Eichmann to convince himself that he was in no position to criticize what was going on, since everyone else supported it. His behavior (and the behavior of many others) shows that under circumstances in which murder is normalized, few people are able to protect their critical judgement.

Contemplating the big picture, recognizing the fact that his actions were part of a genocide, would have cast Eichmann into a profound conflict between his self-interest (being promoted) and morality. By avoiding to think about the big picture and his role in it, Eichmann avoided this conflict. His statements betray a wildly incoherent mix of mutually exclusive and contradicting beliefs, convictions and justifications, and the effort to keep it all together. He made a constant effort to look at himself from a certain, fixed distance and angle: Had he only slightly changed his perspective by getting closer or moving further away, or by looking from a different angle, it would have become evident that each of the individual elements was hopelessly broken, or that the whole construct in his mind was a fabrication. 

As Arendt pointed out, probably the greatest problem of the trial, that escaped many observers, was that Eichmann did not recognize that he had done something wrong and that he was guilty. He declared that he had never murdered himself, and that he merely carried out what was law in Nazi Germany. His motives were not base, and he declared that he was no antisemite. From his point of view, he was used as a scapegoat for the crimes others had committed. The judges pointed out that in the political realm of adults, obedience equals agreement, and that while it may be true that many others, had they been in his position, would have behaved in the same way, there is a unbridgeable gap between their hypothetical guilt and his actual guilt. Eichmann had to die because he had taken part in an undertaking that was aimed at eradicating a people from the face of the Earth, as if he and his superiors had the right to decide who is allowed to live and who must die.

Eichmann’s evil was of a very ordinary kind: he may not have been a sadistic killer, but he did act out his aggression on those who were in his power. He had not finished school nor had he been professionally successful before he joined the SS. Psychologically, he was dependent and in need to submit himself to an absolute authority. The Nazi movement both accommodated his dependency issues by providing an absolute authority to submit to, and it allowed him to wield power over others to soothe his inferiority complexes. As Arendt noted, Eichmann only remembered those Jews that had been utterly in his power – everyone else he quickly forgot.

The book is relevant to the political developments we can observe today. One of the main arguments of Donald Trump’s supporters in the Republican Party is that he was democratically elected, and they use this argument to ward off any attempts to point out Trump’s obvious corruption. For them, politics is a contest, it is about winning, and they want to be as successful as possible. They are not interested in the big picture of what is moral or immoral and what helps to build a healthy society and what destroys it. If Donald Trump is the candidate that is most likely to lead the Republicans to victory, they will support him, irrespective of his questionable behavior. If serving in his government furthers their own careers, they will do it, because they are interested in maximizing their success within the framework they are a part of, not in the moral dimension of the framework itself.

Michael Cohen described in his second congressional hearing how intoxicated he was by Trump’s grandiose agenda. He also directed his aggression towards others, which can be seen in how he treated a reporter of the Daily Beast, who enquired about allegations that Trump had raped his former wife; Cohen threatened the reporter very aggressively. The pattern of blind loyalty towards superiors, being intoxicated with the importance of one’s position, and acting out of one’s aggression on others is one that can also be seen in the case of Eichmann.

Hannah Arendt’s writing reflects her single-minded determination to understand. She carefully peels away layers of preconceived notions, attempts to use the trial for a political agenda, or to use it to give absolution to those who were part of the bureaucracy of Nazi Germany, until she arrives at the core of the problem. In times when facts have become a matter of convenience and political affiliation, Arendt’s clear thinking can serve as a important aid to orientation.

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