When Hannah Arendt covered the 1961 Eichmann trial, she coined a famous and memorable phrase: “the banality of evil.”
Adolf Eichmann was a senior Nazi and major organiser of the Final Solution, who fled to Argentina after the war. He was captured by Mossad agents in 1960 and transported to Israel where he was tried and convicted for crimes against humanity.
Arendt — a Jewish American who fled her native Germany in 1933 — was a nationally renowned thinker and writer. She covered the trial for The New Yorker, sparking a controversy which still fuels debate fifty years later.
Arendt concluded that Eichmann was neither anti-semitic nor psychopathic, much less the evil monster of popular imagination. In fact, Eichmann’s sheer mediocrity put the lie to evil’s mystique, instead exposing it as shallow and banal.
We can easily forget that evil is banal, thanks in large part to the portrayal of evil in fiction. I think Simone Weil is spot on in this:
Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.
From Gravity and Grace.
A recent film depicts Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial. It looks like great viewing:
However, the movie — like Arendt’s original coverage — has sparked a fierce debate, at least among “New York intellectuals.” The New York Times has weighed in with a thoughtful and compelling defence of Arendt’s claims. It’s well worth reading in full.
Of particular interest is the characterisation of Eichmann as “a joiner.”
In his own words, Eichmann feared “to live a leaderless and difficult individual life,” in which “I would receive no directives from anybody.” . . .
“What stuck in the minds” of men like Eichmann, Arendt wrote, was not a rational or coherent ideology. It was “simply the notion of being involved in something historic, grandiose, unique.”
It isn’t monsters or bureaucrats who enable evil, but joiners. People who sacrifice their own moral convictions for “the greater good” — usually the good of some movement which gives their life meaning.
Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.
I think this is what happened in the cover up of clerical abuse. Good men tolerated evil in the name of a greater good. We could go further: good men facilitated evil in the name of a greater good. What a moral travesty.
It helps us understand what happened though, and how it could happen again — even on a more benign scale, in our own lives. God forbid that we should justify means by their end.
And God forbid that we should sacrifice our independence — our intellect and freedom of conscience — to the Great Beast. (There’s another blog post in this, but it can wait for another time.)
Thanks for this John. Another chilling example is that of SS Oberstambanfuhrer Rudolf Hoess, Commandant Of KZ Auschwitz. In his auto -biography ‘Commandant of Auschwitz’ (that he wrote at the behest of the Poles before his execution) He states that he joined the SS not out of any real commitment to National Socialist ideology but that he feared a vacuum in Germany and the need for a ‘strong leader’ to restore German greatness. The account of his crimes is largely self serving, but is very helpful in understanding the psychic break that occurred in men such as Hoess. He would return from the daily murder and brutality to his wife and children and play the ‘normal’ man of husband and father. He states that he needed this normality otherwise he would ‘go insane’ and therein lies the key to the seduction of abandoning our humanity in the face of the vision of something greater and nobler. Indeed a lesson for our times.