Hannah Arendt: The Banality of Evil

[I’d like to start by thanking the Fistful of Euros team for inviting me to guest-blog here this week. I’m hoping to offer a mini-series on European thinkers, focusing on just an aspect of the ideas of the thinker I choose in each case. I say ‘hoping to’ because I still have to compose the posts. But, anyway, here goes with the first of them?]

Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in 1961. In doing so she popularized the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, applying it to Adolf Eichmann in particular. Arendt referred to?:

the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil. [All quotations from Eichmann in Jerusalem, except as otherwise indicated.]

A certain amount of misunderstanding has been generated by Arendt’s use of this phrase. That is in part because it was inapt to her intended meaning; in part perhaps also because it may have been inapt to its principal object – Eichmann.

The dictionary gives, for ‘banal’: ‘commonplace’, ‘trivial’. But it would be wrong to infer that Arendt thought the evil itself that she was talking about, and for which Eichmann was responsible, was commonplace or trivial. How could she have? To the contrary, she wrote of the ‘unspeakable horror of the deeds’, and called them, also, ‘monstrous’. Neither was there any intent on her part, by use of the given phrase, to exculpate the perpetrators or lessen their degree of responsibility. I shall come back to this point.

Arendt’s main thought was not in fact the banality of the evil, but rather the banality of the perpetrators of it. With reference to Eichmann, she spoke of the ‘ludicrousness of the man’; she said that, like most others implicated in the crimes, he was ‘neither perverted nor sadistic? [but] terribly and terrifyingly normal’, and without ‘any diabolical or demonic profundity’; what characterized him was ‘sheer thoughtlessness’ – or, as she put it in another piece (‘Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture’, Social Research 38, 1971), ‘extraordinary shallowness’ and a ‘quite authentic inability to think’.

Was this all true of Eichmann? Perhaps not. When Arendt saw him on trial in Jerusalem, he was no longer the animator and organizer of the ‘Final Solution’, but a man with no shred left of the power he had once wielded, now facing judgement before the world. The image he presented might not have been a reliable guide to the person he had been before. In any event, the work of Raul Hilberg, Christopher Browning and others confirms Arendt’s more general point. This was that, by and large, the perpetrators of the Nazi genocide were ‘normal’ people, ordinary human beings. We have to understand what they did precisely as a fact about the evil human beings can do. Not only were they not devils or monsters psychologically speaking; for the most part they were not even abnormally sadistic or inherently brutal, or killers ‘by nature’, and so forth.

Other work – by Zygmunt Bauman, Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo – ties in with Arendt’s thesis. The participants in, executants of, the ‘Final Solution’ represented an ordinary cross section of people, most of whom would have passed successfully through any standard set of psychological screening tests. That is the bad news we have to come to terms with, those of us who haven’t already. As it has been expressed in a more dramatic way by Elie Wiesel:

Yes, it is possible to defile life and creation and feel no remorse. To tend one’s garden and water one’s flowers but two steps away from barbed wire? To go on vacation, be enthralled by the beauty of a landscape, make children laugh – and still fulfil regularly, day in and day out, the duties of [a] killer.

I shall express one or two reservations about Arendt’s thesis, nonetheless. First, unless my own reading in the literature of the Judeocide is atypical – and it isn’t – the ‘banality of evil’ thesis, like the companion modernity thesis (of Bauman et al.), seems to me to understate the amount of sheer sadism and cruelty there in fact was in the implementation of that horror. Correspondingly, the accent put by both of those theses on social and administrative structures in easing the path of human conscience towards barbarity gives insufficient weight to – where it does not altogether deny – those human-natural impulses of cruelty, the actual enjoyment of the misfortunes of others, regularly unleashed when the usual restraining circumstances allow them to be.

I also have a wider theoretical misgiving about the emphasis on perpetrator normality: this is that it runs the risk of permitting the sociology and psychology which is involved in trying to understand what happened to displace the ethical perspective. Let us return to Arendt’s writing. On the face of it she was unambiguous about Eichmann having to bear the moral responsibility for his deeds. From a moral point of view she dismissed the notion that, in similar circumstances, others might have acted similarly to him. As though addressing the man himself, Arendt declared:

there is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done.

But in explaining Eichmann, his mentality, his normality, Arendt also speaks of his committing crimes?

under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

If it is well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel it, though, mustn’t this at least mitigate the degree of his moral responsibility?

From an interpretative point of view I think we are bound to stick with Arendt’s assignment of full responsibility to Eichmann, since she is so clear and emphatic about it. On the other hand, I believe that all the talk, in the relevant literature, of the normality of the perpetrators carries a danger of encouraging us to think: well, because of these psychological pressures, these social mechanisms or administrative structures, those patterns of internal rationalization and so on, what the perpetrators did is ‘understandable’. But isn’t there a sense in which, as Primo Levi wrote, one must refuse to understand? Or one must say: each and all of the factors – social, psychological or whatever – that tempted or pressured you, they are understandable; still, you made a choice or choices which you should not have made and which others did not make – you crossed the line.

Normality has an ethical meaning as well as social and psychological meanings. To participate in the mass murder and the torture of other human beings is, ethically, not normal but monstrous. What better definition of an abnormally cruel person than that he or she presided over or participated in abnormal cruelties?

17 thoughts on “Hannah Arendt: The Banality of Evil

  1. Obviously you can read the banality things as a description of the ordinaryness of the people involved, or as a statement about the routinisation of work in an around the concentration camps, which would be the exact dose to apply, how many an hour to send though etc. How to convert human fat into bars of soap, who should extract the gold from the teeth, things like this.

    But I have always preferred to associate it with the kind of thinking to be found in eg Frans Neumann’s Behemoth, in the mass collection of all that apparently innocuous micro data, or in Bruno Bettleheim’s psychologically oriented description of the daily grind in the camps.

    But above all I think it is to be found in the minutiae of the juridico-legal basis of the regime. Who after all was to be considered a ‘jew’ – were behavioural criteria important, etc etc. It is here I would really look for evil in all its banal splendour, and by looking you will find it a-plenty.

    The point about the ‘monumental’ evil – the cruel, savage, sadistic kind – is that it is much easier to spot. That is what makes it all the more important to be aware of ‘evil’s’ other face.

  2. One particular phrase of your essay stands out for me: “the accent put by both of those theses on social and administrative structures in easing the path of human conscience towards barbarity.”

    It is mildly comforting to think that Nazi barbarity required a fair amount of time to achieve the dehumanizing of Jews. The Final Solution could not be implemented right away in 1933. There was steady action over time, from the economic boycott to Aryanization policies to the Nuremberg laws to Kristallnacht. It did not turn into mass murder until the war, when people had become inured to killing in other circumstances.

    Ordinary people certainly were involved in the genocide, but layers of civilization had been peeled away over time.

  3. I’ve read Eichmann in Jerusalem several times – it always amazes me. I find Arendt very hard to disagree with – she just seems so shrewd, so alert, so penetrating, so good at noticing everything that needs noticing; I always think she must have it right.

    I’m keen on Browning’s Ordinary Men, too. And have had some noisy arguments about the Milgram experiment…

    I don’t know, about that ‘understandable’ thing. I think one is at least as likely to think simply – that’s how it can happen, that’s what to be afraid of. I saw a tv documentary once about some of what the Japanese did in China. There was a doctor who had done experiments on conscious people; he was asked how he managed it, wasn’t it awful, how could he bring himself to do it. He answered that it was indeed awful at first…and you gradually got used to it. That’s pretty much what happened with the ordinary men. They hated killing their prisoners at first, and then they got used to it. I think it’s worth knowing that.

  4. Two comments:

    Understanding the social/political pressures that lead to genocide does not excuse the genocide, any more than understanding the physics of a nuclear bomb would excuse the detonation of such a device in a peaceful city.

    I never met Eichmann, but I think it is reasonably accurate to give him diagnoses, in modern terms, of Antisocial Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. One of the remarkable things about a narcissist is the manner in which he or she can seem so ordinary –banal, in Arendt’s terminology — yet still be profoundly disturbed. If Eichmann had been a sociopath with minimal narcissism, he would not have been described as banal. Had he been a narcissist with minimal sociopathy, he would not have been able to do what he did. It was the presence of both clusters of personality traits that led to Eichmann’s particular presentation.

  5. So Eichmann had Antisocial Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Well, now we know! Good to have that little mystery cleared up.

  6. Surely it’s possible for an individual to be both abnormally cruel and also banal, and be fully culpable. The perpetrator who presides over hideous cruelty is abnormally cruel; if he does so for trivial reasons (such as the desire to promote a bureaucratic career) he’s banal; and if he’s acting with sufficient autonomy to count as a moral agent then he’s responsible, and hence culpable. Our ability to understand how he came to do these things isn’t really relevant to the culpability, since there’s nothing contradictory about saying ‘I too could, maybe would, have done those things in those circumstances, but if I had, I’d have been utterly wrong, and fully deserving of blame.’ When we come to understand the more discreditable of our own motives, it doesn’t incline us to withhold blame from ourselves (at least, it needn’t do); and holding ourselves to blame, rather than finding excuses, is surely part of moral maturity.

  7. In other words, Eve, the Holocaust is bound to happen again.

    But… wait a minute! …It already happened, …under Europe’s very nose, …in Yugoslavia. And not too long ago, either.

  8. If you look into biographies of people involved in worst atrocities of 1991-95 wars, you’ll find relatively few genuine psychopaths and people whose pre-war lives indicated propensity for viciousness (although world media tended to concentrate on them; Mladic and Arkan are clearest examples).

    Most of the ethnic cleansing was presided by former schoolteachers, doctors, engineers, policemen – people who would, under normal circumstances, be viewed as pillars of the society. Many of them had university education, some spoke foreign languages, some lived in foreign countries, most had friends and relatives within ethnic groups that they would later target etc.

    Communism, WW2 traumas or centuries of ethnic and religious hatred is far from being sufficient answer to the question “how did it happen in former Yugoslavia”. Part of the answer is, IMNSHO, brutally, disturbingly and universally simple.

  9. I don’t think the Holocaust is *bound* to happen again. What I was arguing implies that it *could* happen again – it’s possible, rather than inevitable. That seems about right to me. The atrocities in Yogoslavia, though not amounting to another Holocaust, encourage that thought, as do the horrors that appear to be going on in North Korea right now.

  10. Yes, I do think another holocaust could happen.

    My father’s family are / were Ukrainian. 36 million Ukrainians died under Stalin before the Nazi camps were built.

    36 million. Mostly they were deliberately starved to death, slowly.

    The only branch of my father’s family that survived Stalin, apart from one great uncle who made it to 1952, were those who came to the US around the time of WWI, during the upheavals in Russia.

    Once when we were talking about the Nazis, my father looked at me quietly and said, “Under the right circumstances, something like that could happen here too. And so could another Stalin.”

  11. Arriving by way of Winds of Change…I’d like to add my 2 cents worth.

    I agree with Anne C.’s comments from several days ago (with a bit of clarification)–the Holocaust itself was preceded by decades of “decivilizing” of all Germans by WWI, hyperinflation, depression, political chaos, the rise of fascism; the dehumanization of Jews actually came in only at the end of this process. This is not to excuse, only explain why the Holocause happened when and where it did.

    I think it’s critical, in light of the insightful original post, to ask ourselves how Arendt is taught these days, and why the “banality of evil” has come to be (in my opinion) grossly misunderstood as an intellectual trope.

    As a graduate student at one of the US’s top history programs, I took a course in German history from one of the world’s foremost authorities on Nazism (especially Nazi women). Here was her take on the “b of e”: there was nothing unique about the Germans who carried out the Holocaust, they were just like you and me. In other words, “it” could happen here, we must all be aware of human frailty and guard against it.

    Now, to the extent that Nazis did not generally sprout horns and a pointy tail, I agree with her. These were ordinary human beings. So am I. So are you. It does not automatically follow that you or I are capable of participating in acts of immense, immediate evil. Sure, Noam Chomsky would say that we are, that we do every day commit unspeakable atrocities, simply by being American. I don’t buy it. Not for a second. Do I sign orders condemning millions to death, personally? Did I swear fealty to a murderous tyrant, and vow to uphold his reign of terror over myself and others? Think not.

    What appalled me about this highly lauded professor’s stance was how ahistorical it in fact was. I understand WHY she took it–German historians are caught in a unique trap of some 50 years’ standing. Since the end of the War, every aspect of German history and civilization has been cast as a precursor to Nazi atrocities–EVERYTHING. Naturally, the reaction among many is to a)distance “their” subjects from the taint (easier to do from, say an early modern perspective than a 20th century one); and b) cast doubt on the “goodness” of everyone else (from the soldiers who fought to overthrow the Nazi regime to the prosecutors who executed its leaders).

    I was able to question and refute her arguments because I was given the tools, as a scholar, to examine their roots and find them remarkably shallow. But undergraduates, however bright, tend to take away a nugget or two of “truth” from a class such as hers. In this case, that Nazi Germany was not uniquely evil, and that genocide can happen anytime, anywhere.

    It’s hard to extrapolate from this instance to a larger society, grappling to make sense of ultimate evil. But I offer it for your consideration.

  12. The question is not: Would I have been a Nazi, or in Rwanda a machete wielder, or in Bosnia a member of a killing squad? The question is rather, “Would I have had the courage to say to those who came to make an arrest or led a lynch mob: ?stop, let them go, what you are doing is evil??”

    In the Nazi system killing was both industrialised and predictable (terror was predictable because it was targeted)its victims created by the nature of its ideology (as were its industrial methods of killing). Being a bystander meant aiding in killing identifiable individuals. Nazism made clear who would be removed, deported, and made to disappear. In communist societies being a bystander could be contrued as helping the system remain in place but it did not mean actively having helped it liquidate innocent people.(because the killing there was predictable only in the aggregate, not for individuals).In the Nazi case what confronts the individual is the question… would I have been an anti-fascist? For most the answer would be no. Happen again? as others have pointed out comparable events have occured. Perhaps it is the case that courage is limited, not that we all have the capacity for evil.

  13. Gadgie asks whether you or I would have the courage to object to a armed mob pounding down one of the doors of our neighbors. Definately not, especially if they were some “official” organization. At that moment neighbors cowered in their apartments, Jews and non-Jews alike, deserately hoping that it would not be them next. Knowing that it might. Experiencing the realization that they were trapped in evil. Objectors were beaten and shot in the steets.

    However, Kellie points out that it took decades to reach this point. Earlier in the process there were some few who objected. They emigrated, they were “shamed”, ostracized, refused work, etc.

    Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of every individual to be vigilant. Stemming the tide of evil is surely easier in a democratic society in which the rights of minorities are enshrined as a Natural Right.

    The energy and perspective necessary for this vigilance depends on certainty of one’s ethical position, and yes, historical perspective. It is very unhelpful to imagine how one might react in the extrimis of pathological societies.

    I can “imagine” the biological imperitive of a parasite’s need to ensure survival by invading my body – but I will not permit it.

  14. A grand discussion; like Ophelia Benson, I too am captured when I read Arendt, and think — she seems to have it right. And at the same time, I feel like the book is a little too controlled, too pat — I’d like to know what Hunter S. Thomspon, writing in his heyday, would have made of Eichmann.

    I never read the banality of evil as somehow excusing evil, but rather, see this, this is how it happens. If you ask most people about intellectual property protection for drug companies, they will give you reasoned arguements for why its normal, appropriate, while 35 million people are dying of a treatable disease. The entire industrial west is watering the flowers and going on vacations and appreciating sunsets dressed in clothes and shoes made by slaves. Half the world goes to bed hungry every night to pay interest which, directly and indirectly, makes possible the infrastructure which allows things like, oh, blogging. Its us, now, and perhaps the problem is not banality but unwillingness to recognize anything uncomfortable.

  15. Garrett, good for you for being honest. I have reacted well and not so well when confronted with that level of risk. I’d testify that I’d rather be knocked out or beaten or jailed than be ashamed of not acting when I knew I should have. There’ve been times when I wasn’t sure, and I might or might not have done the right thing.

    Regarding Arendt. He reflection upon how to view anothers actions in a moral realm most would agree is weirdly sinister evil is kind of strange in itself. It’s a lot of things, but banal doesn’t describe a bloodbath like that… that’s her reflection of it.

    Jess… do you really intend to equate patent and copyright protection with the purposeful organization of so many murders of Jews in camps? Because it seems as if you’re suggesting A=B, and C=B, so therefore we should view “property protection for drug companies” as we would undertaking the killing of millions by Nazis? I think you should reconsider. The problem is not your flawed assumption about the responsibility of scientists to allow themselves to be blackmailed by the propaganda organs of third world rulers, but rather the fact that you have fallen for such propaganda without blinking. So now the people who’ve been working to actually help fight a disease are no better than the Nazi’s who were executed for war crimes after WWII?????? That’s a bit extreme, no?

    Can I ask. Do you understand that if a Countries leader will not admit that a disease exists, nor allow distribution of medicine, that there is some moral responsibility therein due that leader? Or perhaps you’ll demonstrate what moral authority you possess in the matter of the failure to distribute medicine? Did you volunteer, go to Asia or Africa, and find yourself restrained by Novartis execs? Or are you merely pointing out the banality of another persons evil…

  16. Take careful note of the activities of the American soldiers at that prison in Iraq. In the words of their friends and neighbors back home, all of these people are good, normal, upstanding people who would never harm anyone. But there they are in the pictures, abusing prisoners in ways their neighbors could not imagine.

    I believe that most people do not think about the rightness of their actions. If they think at all, they want to think about whether or not the action is permitted (in writing, or by wink and nod, or by inaction of authority). I’m convinced that especially amongst the vast majority of people who feel comfortable doing things “as long as it’s legal”, killing and abusing is as easy as shaving or drinking coffee. Once convinced that there are no punishments coming, they “get used to it”.

    You will also notice that one American soldier did not get used to it, and turned the others in. In any society, these people are rare. And within the Nazi society, there was no outlet for people of conscience to voice their opposition to the mechanism of death. At least within the US military, there was some small avenue to say “No!”.

    I don’t believe that any nation at this point in time has citizens who are all morally superior. The morally superior are rare in any land. What is needed are systems that allow the morally superior to stay the hands of those who would kill and abuse.

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