The Banality of Evil at 60
Hannah Arendt was vacationing in the Catskills in the summer of 1960 when the news broke that Adolf Eichmann had been captured in Argentina by Mossad agents of the Israeli government. She put down the book she was working on, rearranged her teaching schedule, and flew to Israel to cover the trial. It was her “last opportunity to see a chief Nazi in the flesh,” and she wanted to expose herself to the evildoer.
Eichmann was one of the major figures in the organization of the Holocaust, and as Hitler’s chief logician, he was responsible for the murder of millions.
Sixty years ago today on April 11, 1961, the trial of Eichmann opened before an Israeli Tribunal. But as the trial began, and Arendt was confronted with Eichmann in a glass box, she wrote to her husband, Heinrich Blücher: “The whole thing is so damned banal and indescribably low and repulsive. I don’t understand it yet, but it seems to me that the penny will drop at some point, probably in my lap.”
Arendt’s first impression stuck and she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in her seminal work Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963).
At the time, Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil was revolutionary and controversial mostly because of her ironic tone. The idea that she could call the Holocaust banal seemed beyond the pale to her critics who thought her approach was all wrong. Eichmann wasn’t banal, they argued, he was simply evil: a virulent antisemite who obviously could think just fine, efficiently achieving his horrific goals.
But for Arendt, the tone was inseparable from the argument. She agreed with the poet Bertolt Brecht that “the great political criminals must be exposed, especially exposed to laughter.” Irony was a way for her to keep distance from evil while retaining her dignity. Asked toward the end of her life if she would have written it differently, she said, “No.”
Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil was a rejection of her earlier thesis in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), where she argued that the Holocaust was a new form of radical evil in the world, nothing short of hell on earth. Her first draft of Origins was titled, The Three Pillars of Hell. She argued that totalitarianism was a radically new form of government defined by the tyranny of constant terror and the manufacturing of death camps. But as Arendt sat in the court room, face-to-face with the evildoer, she realized that evil can never be radical, because there is no root for evil that can be dug up and weeded out. Instead, she argued, “Evil comes from a failure to think.”
Eichmann in Jerusalem remains a controversial text, but the banality of evil has lost its punch over time, I suspect because the political side of Arendt’s argument, which insists on separating the doer from the deed has been lost. Today, the banality of evil is often used to lament public displays of stupidity or bureaucratic malfeasance. Most recently it has been tossed around to explain the mismanagement of the Coronavirus and the events of January 6th.
But Arendt meant something specific by the banality of evil. She wasn’t using banal in the common sense. She didn’t mean that evil was stupid or commonplace. She didn’t mean that evil lurked inside the heart of every person. (Though it might.) She meant that the banality of evil is “the resistance ever to imagine what another person is experiencing.” One can be very smart like Eichmann and still do evil. What Eichmann lacked was a form of empathetic intelligence. And in this respect, he wasn’t a monster, just a man for whom thinking had become banal. Which is to say also, that a person can do evil without being inherently evil.
For Arendt, there was no question that Eichmann’s deeds were monstrous, but the doer himself, she wrote, was “quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.” Rather, he was a thoughtless bureaucrat who wasn’t able to see the consequences of his actions apart from the role he played, which was evinced through his rampant use clichés and stock phrases.
Thinking as an imaginative, empathetic act, is self-reflective. It is a conscious activity that one actively engages in, as opposed to being caught up in a tide of passive thoughts, which stagnate in the mind like muddy water. Talking to Eichmann, Arendt said, was like talking to a brick wall. He had thoughts but he was incapable of thinking. There was no room for movement in his imagination, no capacity for self-reflection. Even at the hour of his death as he stood on the gallows he was unable to think beyond himself.
And this is why Eichmann was guilty of crimes against humanity according to Arendt. At the end of her book, she levies her own political judgment against Eichmann for why he must die, because, “politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same.” In participating in the organization of the Holocaust, Eichmann refused the fundamental principle of humanity: plurality. He refused to imagine the world from the perspective of another, and because of that nobody could be expected to share the world with him.
"The greatest evil perpetrated is the evil committed by nobodies,” Arendt wrote, “that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons."
The banality of evil places the responsibility for evil acts squarely on the individual who commits them. Instead of discounting the horrendous nature of Eichmann’s deeds, the banality of evil was a way to take them more seriously by holding Eichmann, the evildoer himself, accountable for his lack of thinking. Arendt didn’t want to excuse his actions in anyway. She just believed that he had a responsibility to think empathetically about what he was doing, as we all do.