We've all heard the phrase "the banality of evil." Some of us even know which political theorist to attribute it to, and among those, a few have even read it in context. Hannah Arendt most memorably employed it in both the subtitle and closing words of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her book on the trial of Nazi lieutenant-colonel Adolf Eichmann. To Arendt's mind, Eichmann willingly did his part to organize the Holocaust — and an instrumental part it was — out of neither anti-semitism nor pure malice, but out of a non-ideological, entirely more prosaic combination of careerism and obedience. Readers have argued ever since its publication about this characterization, and those with a special interest in how Arendt arrived there can find in the New Yorker's online archives the original series of "Eichmann in Jerusalem" articles out of which the book grew: part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five. (Click on the images at the bottom of each page to see Arendt's writing up close. Then click on them again and maneuver your mouse around to peruse the pages.) Given that Hannah Arendt, a new biopic starring Barbara Sukowa, just gained distribution, you may want to read these articles to stay ahead of the next wave of interest in the thinker and her writings.
In today's magazines, one reads rather fewer five-part intersections of trial reportage and moral inquiry by figures like Arendt. But the New Yorker hasn't entirely lost its willingness to confront these matters. Shortly after last year's massacre in Aurora, Colorado, the magazine ran on its site a piece by Rollo Romig in touch with concerns, broadly speaking, similar to Arendt's. Romig, too, looks at the nature of evil, but in a reflection suited to our time — brief, startlingly timely, and specifically for the web — rather than Eichmann in Jerusalem's. "The danger of a word like 'evil' is that it is absolute," he writes. "'Evil' has become the word we apply to perpetrators who we’re both unable and unwilling to do anything to repair, and for whom all of our mechanisms of justice seem unequal: it describes the limits of what malevolence we’re able to bear. In the end, it’s a word that says more about the helplessness of the accuser than it does the transgressor."
H/T to Christian F. for flagging the New Yorker articles for us.
The Trial of Adolf Eichmann at 50
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Cultureand writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.
Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil
Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” while covering the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official charged with the orderly extermination of Europe’s Jews. Arendt herself was a German-Jewish exile struggling in the most personal of ways to come to grips with the utter destruction of European society. In a series of articles for The New Yorker that later became the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arendt tried to tackle a string of questions not necessarily answered by the trial itself: Where does evil come from? Why do people commit evil acts? How are those people different from the rest of us?
A Volker Marz sculpture from the Berlin exhibition Hannah Arendt Denkraum. The show title translates as “a space in which to think about Hannah Arendt.” Which seems perfectly fitting, don’t you think?
Her conclusions were profound. People who do evil are not necessarily monsters; sometimes they’re just bureaucrats. The Eichmann she observed on trial was neither brilliant nor a sociopath. He was described by the attending court psychiatrist as a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.” Evil, Arendt suggests, can be extraordinary acts committed by otherwise unremarkable people.
[Arendt] insisted that only good had any depth. Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet — and this is its horror! — it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.
Amos Elon, The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt, the introduction to Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
Is it any wonder that controversy erupted almost immediately after Arendt’s work was published? Or that she was ostracized even by fellow Jews?
In the past forty years Arendt’s ideas have been championed in two landmark psychological experiments — Stanley Milgram’s electroshock experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment — but decried by luminaries like Norman Mailer.
Even if the phrase itself has lost some of its punch through sheer repetition, the ideas it embodies are no less relevant. It’s hard to talk about real-world horrors like the Rwandan genocide or torture at Abu Ghraib without referencing Arendt.
So for her centennial we’re reminding ourselves why her ideas still matter. Help us out by taking a stab at some of her initial questions: Where does evil come from? Why do people commit evil? Do you buy Arendt’s thesis, or do you think there is something else (be it religious or biological) that leads to evil and distinguishes good from evil people?
Update, 2/28/07 6:08pm
After doing some pre-interviews, talking about things internally, and mining this thread for good ideas, (empathy, the origins vs. the nature of evil, subjective vs. objective vs. moral judgments of evil) we’re leaning towards breaking this show up into at least two different shows.
The first show (tentatively scheduled for Thursday March 8th) would be more of an overview of Hannah Arendt’s life and work, introducing an introduction to the concept of the banality of evil as she described it. Our guests will likely be two of her last students who have spent their lives pouring over her work: Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and Jerome Kohn.
The second show would likely be a more in-depth conversation about evil, starting with Arendt’s concept. We may build this show around Philip Zimbardo, whose recent work has included extensive interviews with prison guards from Abu Ghraib.
Also, apparently Potter had the same idea I did: Meaning and Morality would be (ironically, since it’s been warming up for so long) a really good follow-up to these shows.
Extra Credit Reading
Hannah Arendt, Power and Violence, Bard College, December 1968.
bardlib, Hannah Arendt Workspace: “The Workspace is an open access forum in which readers might look, as it were, over Hannah Arendt’s shoulder as she annotated the texts most important to her.”
Sarah Kerr, The Horrible and the Ridiculous, BookForum, January 2007: “Arendt “lives on in newspeak through just four words,” she notes on the first page. The media’s promiscuous overuse of the phrase “the banality of evil,” from Eichmann in Jerusalem, has turned it into an unhelpful cliche, she writes. Young-Bruehl directs us back to the philosophical problem of evil, a discussion begun two centuries earlier by Immanuel Kant that Arendt saw herself as extending.”
Jerome Kohn, Evil: The Crime Against Humanity, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University: “In a revealing passage she said: “Only the fearful imagination of those who have been aroused by [firsthand] reports but have not actually been smitten in their own flesh, of those who are consequently free from the bestial, desperate terror which . . . inexorably paralyzes everything that is not mere reaction, can afford to keep thinking about horrors,” adding that such thinking is “useful only for the perception of political contexts and the mobilization of political passions.”
(Read the full series of Kohn’s essays on Hannah Arendt here.)
David Byrne, Free Will, Part 2: Support Our Troops, Journal, February 7, 2007: “Ultimately, following that logic that makes about 3 or 4 people ultimately responsible, if the buck continues to get passed on up the chain of command. Of course, those 3 or 4 will blame ‘faulty intelligence’ or try to absolve themselves one way or another, and they usually succeed.”
Robin Varghese, Banality of Evil, The French Version, 3 Quarks Daily, February 27, 2007: “In Bordeaux he resisted in his own way, he said: taking names off arrest-lists, tipping off families in advance, sheltering a rabbi in his house. Why, he even chartered the city trams to spare the very young or old the walk to the station, and booked passenger trains, not goods wagons, to make their journey comfortable. These self-justifications came out at Mr Papon’s trial, one of only two of French officials who collaborated with the Nazis in their crimes against humanity.”
MC, People are willing to commit virtual torture too, Neurophilosophy, December 23, 2007: “In the initial part of the project, Slater et al have used an immersive Virtual Reality environment to re-enact the classic experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s.”
Philip Zimbardo, Power turns good soldiers into ‘bad apples’, The Boston Globe, May 9, 2004: “Now there is a rush to analyze human behavior, blaming flawed or pathological individuals for evil and ignoring other important factors. Unless we learn the dynamics of “why,” we will never be able to counteract the powerful forces that can transform ordinary people into evil perpetrators.”