- After witnessing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963.
- Eichmann was a lieutenant colonel in the Nazi SS during World War and was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust.
- Eichmann organized the system of grouping Jewish people into ghettos and later led the system of transportation that sent Jews to concentration camps.
- Eichmann said towards the end of the war that he would “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”
- He escaped Europe after the war and was caught by Mossad agents in Argentina in 1960.
- After a trial watched worldwide, he was convicted of war crimes and hanged in 1962.
- During the trial, Eichmann did not deny the veracity of the Holocaust or his role in organizing it, but claimed that he was simply following orders in a totalitarian Führerprinzip system.
The Banality of Evil
- Arendt rejected the idea that Eichmann or other Nazis acted as psychopaths, but were simply normal people willing to do great evil.
- Banality, in this sense, is not that Eichmann’s actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us, but that his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional.
- Misunderstanding of the categorical imperative. Eichmann only recognized the part that said one should live in accordance with the law, but ignored the implicit suggestion that we must live the golden rule, and treat others as we would wish to be treated. Eichmann ended up telling himself, according to Arendt that he was no longer “‘was master of his own deeds” and that he was “unable to change anything.”
- Eichmann was unable to communicate with originality. He used a series of stock phrases and cliches rather than fresh expression. Using terms like the “final solution” and other euphemistic cliches seemed to make Eichmann unaware of the evil of his acts.
- Collateral damage
- ethnic cleansing
- Eichmann was a joiner his whole life, joining clubs and organizations without any purpose other than giving his life meaning.
- Ego combined with lack of intellect hurt Eichmann’s defense. He bragged about deeds he had done, even though it undermined his defense. The French philosopher Jacques Ellul once said that “the mass man is clearly subhuman but pretends he is Superman,” a claim that makes sense about the banality of evil and Eichmann
- Eichmann was more supportive of the genocide against the Jews because it was endorsed by respectable members of society.
- During his imprisonment before his trial, the Israeli government sent no fewer than six psychologists to examine Eichmann. These psychologists found not only no trace of mental illness, but also no evidence of abnormal personality whatsoever.
Moral Choice Remains in Even Totalitarian Society
- Arendt insists that moral choice remains even under totalitarianism, and that this choice has political consequences even when the chooser is politically powerless:[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.
- She gives the example of Denmark:
- “It was not just that the people of Denmark refused to assist in implementing the Final Solution, as the peoples of so many other conquered nations had been persuaded to do (or had been eager to do) — but also, that when the Reich cracked down and decided to do the job itself it found that its own personnel in Denmark had been infected by this and were unable to overcome their human aversion with the appropriate ruthlessness, as their peers in more cooperative areas had.”