What is the banality of evil?

Hannah Arendt’s thesis about the banality of evil is widely misunderstood. I’m not sure I fully grasp it, but here’s my take.

It isn’t that what Eichmann did wasn’t evil; it was. But it was a new form of evil that didn’t quite fit our traditional moral and legal concepts.

And it isn’t that Eichmann wasn’t driven by ideology; he was. He was deeply invested in the Nazi movement, from which he derived the very meaning of his life. Contributing to the movement, carrying out his assigned tasks, playing an important role in something larger than himself, something that demanded great personal sacrifice – all of that was the basis of Eichmann’s identity. He was as fanatical as they come.

What gave Eichmann’s murderous activities the appearance of banality is that they were carried out by means of an interconnected system of bureaus, transportation, labor, manufacturing, architectural design, security, etc. The murders could only be committed thanks to the cooperation of an enormous number of people at all levels of society. Since each person played only one role among many others in bringing them about, it’s difficult to assess responsibility. Everyone and no one is responsible. Eichmann diligently and enthusiastically performed his assigned role in the murder of the Jews, but if he’d been given a different assignment he would have carried that out with just as much commitment and care. That’s the sense in which his evil-doing was banal.

In our tradition, a criminal has the right to be punished. In punishing someone for committing a crime, society recognizes him as a human being who intended to do wrong, rather than an automaton or animal that had no choice. In this way punishment preserves the humanity and dignity of the offender. It says that although he did wrong, we nevertheless share a common humanity in that he is fit to be punished.

But this requires the criminal to be conscious of his guilt. As just one “cog” among tens of millions in the enterprise of administrative evil, the offender was merely carrying out a routine, and may in fact have had the effective moral status of an automaton or a trained animal. The Holocaust, Arendt says, was radically evil, meaning that it had no humanly comprehensible motive. So the offender can’t be punished, with the implication that he can’t be seen as human. To feel guilt for participating in administrative evil we would have to feel responsible for everything done by the collectivity we belong to, perhaps all the way out to the collectivity known as “humanity.” But is that humanly possible?

Oedipus committed the crimes of incest and regicide, although he didn’t know he was doing so. So in Oedipus Rex he blinds himself and Jocasta, his mother and wife, hangs herself. But he didn’t intend to do evil, so why should he be punished for it?

Because of the enormity of the crime. Arendt argued that that was why Eichmann had to hang. In her eyes, Eichmann didn’t demonstrate enough humanity to be worthy of punishment. He could only be put down like a rabid dog.

But that wouldn’t have satisfied the demands of justice. There’s an ancient idea that “a great crime offends nature” and that “the earth cries out for vengeance,” and someone must answer for it. Eichmann had to be found guilty of the enormity he helped bring about, whether or not he understood it. We had to treat him as if he possessed moral worth even though he didn’t, and that required executing him as if he were a human being.

1 Comment What is the banality of evil?

  1. Mack bolgen

    Am I the only person who feels like Eichmann and all the others could not have possibly all been extraordinarily evil, uniquely so? German society was not dripping with indiscriminate evil at every turn, in such a way as would be necessary to churn out these purportedly uniquely evil people. It doesn’t make any sense. These were just people. People get swept up in cults all the time. We learn from our mistakes and we get better, but it seems awfully arrogant to assume that we are people, and that this Eichmann guy and every other prominent Nazi were all non-human, and that it was (I assume) this very non-human trait that allowed them to rise to prominence in the first place (because otherwise would be too much of a coincidence).
    Seems much more likely to me that they believed in the good of what they were doing, the Utopia, the place where there were no wheelchairs or sickness, etc. than that dozens of sadistic lunatics all simultaneously rose to the tops of their respective fields and shared an unwavering commitment to increasing human suffering within the confines of Germany, and did so as an offering to this vague evil that they all became afflicted by mysteriously.

    The reasons for the final solution have been written about endlessly, and I have nothing to contribute to that conversation, but I’m shocked at how easily we can categorize these Nazis as something ‘other’.
    They had pets. They baked cookies. They told jokes. Very few of them had private torture dungeons– because people generally don’t have torture dungeons.
    and no matter how much we don’t like it, we’re the exact same sort of creature they were. We mostly try to do good, but we slip up. We’re inclined to do bad things if the people around us are all doing those same bad things.
    The notion that a mindset of wanting to do evil somehow overtook the German people and stopped at the boundaries of Germany (evil wanting very much to respect the sovereignty of Germany’s neighbors) makes no sense.

    Innumerable people have no doubt crystallized this objection far more eloquently than I am able.
    It seems as though it is this very othering that is at the root of the third reich’s success. If they’re not even people, then what’s there to feel guilty about? Why shouldn’t you exterminate these imposters who only look like people and who take from your pocket? The money changers.

    If you really thought there was a segment of society who had amongst themselves an unspoken understanding of their intention to maximally deprive you of the fruits of your labor– and your neighbor’s–subhuman leeches living amongst you, smiling to your face, while purposely depriving you of a better life in order to selfishly improve their own lot–what could possibly be more evil than allowing these people to go on harming you and your neighbor?
    Don’t you have a duty to act, and to stop evil where you encounter it, to the best of your ability? You are almost obligated.

    The more I write, the more ludicrous the proposition that there was a non-humanoid political uprising of satanists, and that there would be no reason given for why this should have happened or how it even could. It’s almost religious in that way.

    I could name a handful of people who did seem to want to make the world a worse place, but these people were few and far between or were locked up as antisocial killers, they weren’t all in the same place at the same time, and they certainly weren’t the kind of people to have successful careers (hearing voices and obsessing over bizarre acts of sadism.)
    Don’t you have to offer up something more than you have to support this notion that all these positions of power would be simultaneously occupied by non-human Germans born in the same time period despite having grown up in circumstances not drastically unlike your own, or anybody else’s? “They’re nazis, for fucks sake, what more needs to be said?” is the sort of underlying attitude I get from all this.
    Is that really good enough? Are we content with shrugging our shoulders?
    Surely, we can do better. We have to. Dismissing all these people as being nothing like oneself is a misstep I wouldn’t presume to lecture you about (but I would ask for some clarification on your reasoning as to why this would not be a grave error, as you have no doubt considered this question with far more depth than I could hope to.)

    My apologies for the repetition. I know I stated, and restated my point, and it probably could have been done in one well-written sentence, rather than a full page.


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