Banality of Evil (The)

Date: 
3 November, 2007
Auteur: 
Leibovici Martine

In the spring of 1961, The New Yorker sent Hannah Arendt to Jerusalem to report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. The desk of IV-B-4 in the R.S.H.A, to which Eichmann had been appointed in March 1941, had the task of regulating “Jewish affairs and evacuations.” Until July 1944 it played a central role in organizing the deportation of European Jews to the killing centers. Eichmann was convicted on fifteen charges, among which were crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity and crimes of war. After the trial which lasted from April to December 1961, Eichmann was sentenced to death. Israel’s Supreme Court confirmed the judgment, and Eichmann was hanged on May 31,1962. Arendt’s report on the trial appeared in The New Yorker as a series of articles in 1963. From these articles she later published a book entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

The abyss between the banality of the evil’s doer and the horror of the genocide

Arendt’s term, the expression “banality of evil,” does not refer to a theory or a doctrine, but fits “a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial” (Arendt, 1992: 287), the experience of an abyss : a lack of common measure between the gigantic scale on which the crimes (the evil) were committed and the insignificance (the banality) of the persons who were among those most responsible. Confronted with Eichmann in the flesh, Arendt felt it impossible to ascribe the phenomenon she observed to “any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction of the doer.” (Arendt, 1971: 417). As a concept created through contact with a specific situation the “banality of evil” neither referred to Shoah nor Nazism’s evil as a whole. The banality did not concern all of the agents carrying out orders1, but specifically the evil that was committed by Eichmann. His case was all the more exemplary because he had not been simply a subordinate. Rather, his part was decisive in implementing the crimes. Arendt neither doubted Eichmann’s guilt, nor did she doubt that he deserved the death sentence.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism and when dealing with the concentration camps, Arendt qualified the evil that was committed as “radical evil”, borrowing an expression from Immanuel Kant. Confronted with Eichmann during the trial however, she changed her mind2. In this case, one of the aims of employing the word banality was to break with traditional and deceitful representations of evil as exceptional, profound and demonic. Banality refers to Eichmann as a character: his way of speaking, his use of clichés and stock phrases applicable to any situation and supported by the Amtsprache (officialese), which he still admitted in 1961 was the only language he knew. Secondly, his motives were also banal: ordinary, trite and intrinsically non-criminal. That is, he was ready to do anything to advance in the Nazi bureaucratic grades. One of the most astonishing things about him was that anti-Semitism was not his foremost motive. Like Harry Mulish, Arendt systematically chose to believe Eichmann when he claimed not to harbor “ill feelings against his victims.” (Arendt, 1992:30) 3 Nonetheless, a triteness of motive did not inhibit his fearsome efficiency, insomuch as the murder of the Jews called for planning and the carrying out of the whole administration, state and party. In other words, it demanded officials experienced in tasks at which Eichmann himself excelled. The other side of banality refers to the activities that produced such evil. These activities were not murderous in themselves. They were comprised of office work such as organizing transport, deciding how many Jews should be deported and to where and “negotiating” arrangements with the countless “partners ” involved in the “final solution”. Eichmann knew perfectly well the train destinations and understood that the Jews were to be killed, and how they were to be killed. Yet, the enigma Arendt wants to emphasize was that “he [Eichmann] merely (…) never realized what he was doing.” (Arendt, 1992 : 287. Arendt’s italics). Namely, he did not connect his activities to their eventual consequences. Arendt qualifies such a lack of imagination, pity and the inability to adopt somebody else’s viewpoint as “a curious, quite authentic inability to think” (Arendt, 1971: 41), as if he perceived reality through a screen. Moreover, when Eichmann considered his activities, he saw them as irreproachable; all the more so since he had carried them out as duties.

What is the nature of Eichmann’s conscience? Personal responsibility in a totalitarian frame.

Apart from giving rise to an enormous controversy, Arendt’s book created numerous misunderstandings that often consisted of hasty generalizations.4 Still, linked to her description of a phenomenon, Arendt points out several tracks for understanding the phenomenon. To understand her argument, one has to see that the focus of her questioning is moral. The problem is Eichmann’s conscience: he never felt any remorse, “he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to - to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and meticulous care.” (Arendt, 1992: 25). Yet, as anyone else in the western world, Eichmann had been brought up on the commandment “Thou shall not kill”, and his conscience first functioned as one would expect, and then, after a short time, it functioned the other way round until completely extinguishing. What happened in that short time? What Arendt suggests is that Eichmann heard no voice saying “Thou shall not kill”, but rather every voice he heard said “Thou shall kill”. In other words Eichmann did not hear what has been traditionally understood as conscience, namely, the eternal, unchanging voice of God. For Arendt that means he was incapable of thinking. For her the conscience is the internal dialogue of thinking, the voice of oneself in agreement with oneself, that is the actualization of conscience, telling one what one cannot do if one is to go on living with oneself. 5

But to understand how thoughtlessness becomes one of the conditions for the accomplishment of a crime against humanity, one has to consider also a criminal regime that presupposes a “new type of criminal, who (…) commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible to know or to feel that he is doing wrong” (Arendt, 1992: 276). Arendt is not clearing Eichmann. He is a criminal. In addition, she refuses to take seriously the justification repeatedly used by Nazis criminals: “I was a cog in the machine”; “I obeyed the orders”; “anybody would have acted the same way”… etc. Instead, she reflects on how to express personal responsibility within the framework of such a regime. She does not sidestep the problem, but points to the necessity of expressing it anew. Such a project presupposes finding one’s way through the department competitions that were characteristic of the Third Reich. The aim of these competitions was to kill as many Jews as possible, not merely as murder but also as an aspect of the job.

Nevertheless, in order to understand what Arendt calls the core of the problem, it is neither enough to refer to the banality of evil by calling into question modernity, nor to call into question the extension of the bureaucracy within it. Dana Villa believes that in spite of important convergences between them, Arendt and Zygmunt Bauman’s approach are not exactly the same. Zygmunt Bauman relates the Holocaust to the division of labor’s normal and modern devices and to a bureaucratic “remoteness” from the goals of action dependant upon the substitution of “technical responsibility ” for “moral responsibility ” (Baumann, 1989: 101-102). Some critical interpretations of Arendt, such as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s, are not far from Zygmunt Baumann's approach. Goldhagen considers Arendt as one of the main instigators of recent Holocaust studies that stresses the bureaucratic behavior aspect and minimizes the anti-Semitic element.

Neither is it enough, as Rony Brauman and Eyal Sivan argue, to focus an interpretation of the banality of evil on the ravages caused by submission to authority. Of course Eichmann never stopped obeying. Yet, for Arendt, Eichmann’s obedience was something beyond simple submission to authority. One of the main points in her theory of totalitarianism is, in fact, the differentiation between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian regimes do not rely on the idea of a superior and stable force external to human power, with each level of the pyramid relaying commandment from the top to the bottom. As Eichmann repeatedly told the police and court, he did not obey orders coming from an immediate superior. However, while carrying out his orders, he obeyed the law. Still, to obey the law in a totalitarian regime has a different meaning than in a non-totalitarian framework. If it is true that evil’s modes of performing are of the same kind as bureaucratic and technological devices, those devices do not become criminal unless they are articulated as a perversion of the law’s meaning. In the Nazi case, the law is the law of nature, a law of movement immanent to society and expected to produce a new and purified mankind through the elimination of impure parts. The Fuhrer’s will was the only interpreter of that law, and it was supposed to be the principle directly inspiring the agents’ activities. The law was unwritten, and all persons were expected to identify their own will within the principle of this law, to understand it in veiled terms and through acting to become the law’s perfect incarnation. An incarnation of the law even if the law’s content was a total reversion of usual moral codes: “the law of Hitler’s land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody ‘Thou shall kill’ although the organizers of the massacre knew full well that murder was against the normal desires and inclinations of most people.” (Arendt, 1979: 150) According to Arendt, one has to remember the above facts to understand Eichmann’s particularly zealous attitude, grounded upon an oath directly binding the SS to Hitler. In short, thinking was superfluous. And the lesson to learn in Jerusalem was that “such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together.” (Arendt, 1992: 288)

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_ Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975, Harcourt Brace &Company, 1995

_ ___Eichmann in Jerusalem. A report on the banality of evil (1963), Penguin Books, 1992

_ ___Introduction to Bernd Neumann, Auschwitz, New York 1966

_ ___The Jew as pariah, ed. by Ron Feldman, New York, Grove Press, 1978

_ ___The Origins of Totalitarianism. Totalitarianism, Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1979

_ ___“Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship “, The Listener, August 6, 1964: 185-87

_ ___“Thinking and Moral Considerations”, Social Research, 38, 1971: 417-46

Barnow, Dagmar, “The secularity of evil: Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann controversy”, Modern Judaism 3 (1983): 75-94

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Lozowick, Yaacov, “Malicious clerks” in Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem, Stephen Aschheim ed., University of California Press, 2001: 214-223

_ ___Hitler's Bureaucrats:The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil, London-New York, Continuum, 2002

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  • 1. Individuals acting with an unbelievable sadistic brutality also took part in the slaughters, especially in concentration camps. See Arendt’s comments about the Frankfurt trial. (Arendt, 1966)
  • 2. See Gerschom Scholem-Hannah Arendt, “An exchange of letters” in Arendt, 1978: 250-251. For an analysis of this modification, see Bernstein (1996), Ophir (1996). See also Revault d’Allones, (1995: 21-72), Ciaramelli, (1995), Chalier (1996).
  • 3. For a recent calling into question of Arendt’s approach, specially about Eichmann’s and his staff’s anti-Semitism, see Lozowick (2001, 2002).
  • 4. About the Eichmann’s controversy in general, see Krumacher (1963), Young-Bruehl (1982), Barnow (1983), Ring (1997).
  • 5. On Eichmann’s conscience, see Kohn (1996).

Cite this item

Leibovici Martine, Banality of Evil (The), Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on: 3 November, 2007, accessed 19/09/2019, https://www.sciencespo.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance/en/document/banality-evil, ISSN 1961-9898