Eichmann and the Banality of ‘The Banality of Evil’

Perhaps now is the time. Perhaps the imminent publication of the diaries alleged to be Adolf Eichmann’s makes this the moment to put to rest one of the most pernicious and persistent misconceptions about Eichmann and the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust: the fashionable but vacuous cliché about the “banality of evil.” It’s remarkable how many people mouth this phrase as if it were somehow a sophisticated response to the death camps, when in fact it is rather a sophisticated form of denial, one that can come very close to being the (pseudo-) intellectual version of Holocaust denial. Not denying the crime but denying the full criminality of the perpetrators.

Perhaps now is the time. Perhaps the imminent publication of the diaries alleged to be Adolf Eichmann’s makes this the moment to put to rest one of the most pernicious and persistent misconceptions about Eichmann and the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust: the fashionable but vacuous cliché about “the banality of evil.” It’s remarkable how many people mouth this phrase as if it were somehow a sophisticated response to the death camps, when in fact it is rather a sophisticated form of denial, one that can come very close to being the (pseudo-) intellectual version of Holocaust denial. Not denying the crime but denying the full criminality of the perpetrators.

You’re probably familiar with the origin of “the banality of evil”: It was the subtitle of Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (She didn’t use it in the New Yorker pieces that were the basis of the book.) The phrase “banality of evil” was born out of Ms. Arendt’s remarkable naïveté as a journalist. Few would dispute her eminence as a philosopher, the importance of her attempt to define, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, just what makes totalitarianism so insidious and destructive.

But she was the world’s worst court reporter, someone who could be put to shame by any veteran courthouse scribe from a New York tabloid. It somehow didn’t occur to her that a defendant like Eichmann, facing execution if convicted, might actually lie on the stand about his crimes and his motives. She actually took Eichmann at his word. What did she expect him to say to the Israeli court that had life and death power over him: “Yes, I really hated Jews and loved killing them”?

But when Eichmann took the stand and testified that he really didn’t harbor any special animosity toward Jews, that when it came to this little business of exterminating the Jews, he was just a harried bureaucrat, a paper shuffler “just following orders” from above, Arendt took him at his word. She treated Eichmann’s lies as if they were a kind of philosophical position paper, a text to analyze rather than a cowardly alibi by a genocidal murderer.

She was completely conned by Eichmann, by his mild-mannered demeanor on the stand during his trial; she bought his act of being a nebbishy schnook. Arendt then proceeded to make Eichmann’s disingenuous self-portrait the basis for a sweeping generalization about the nature of evil whose unfounded assumptions one still finds tossed off as sophisticated aperçus today.

A generalization which suggests that conscious, willful, knowing evil is irrelevant or virtually nonexistent: that the form evil most often assumes, the form evil took in Hitler’s Germany, is that of faceless little men following evil orders, that this is a more intellectual, more interesting evil, anyway-old-fashioned evil being the stuff of childish fairy tales, something intellectual sophisticates feel too refined to acknowledge. Either that or too sheltered to have glimpsed.

Of course, there are a few problems with this analysis, a few holes in her theory. Even if it were true about Eichmann, for instance, that he was a schnook with no strong feelings just following orders, someone had to be giving the orders. Orders have to come from somewhere rather than nowhere before they can be followed, more importantly from someone, from a person. If that person’s orders are the extermination of a people, that is not an instance of banality. Eichmann’s orders came from Reinhard Heydrich, for instance, who was relaying with enormous (non-banal) enthusiasm the exterminationist orders of Adolf Hitler. It hardly needs to be said that Hitler and Heydrich’s hatred was not in any way banal. It is closer to what Ms. Arendt herself once called “radical evil.” In her classic work The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she wrote of the existence of an “absolute evil” that could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power and cowardice, a “radical evil … difficult to conceive of even in the face of its factual evidence.” (italics mine)

There was, in Ms. Arendt’s initial response to the death camps, a kind of philosophic humility: Nazi evil was so radical, it could not be understood or explained, certainly not easily; it was difficult even “to conceive of.” But as Richard J. Bernstein, professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, points out in Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question (M.I.T. Press), one of the best accounts of this issue, by 1963, Ms. Arendt thought she had the answer, a complete reversal: “Evil is never radical,” she wrote to Karl Jaspers, it’s not inexplicable, it can be understood, defined by the phrase “the banality of evil.” It’s interesting that those intellectuals who profess to revere Arendt for The Origins of Totalitarianism still uncomprehendingly drop the phrase “banality of evil” with reverence, not realizing that the latter cliché is a repudiation of the former work-a complete contradiction!

But why has the phrase “banality of evil” had such an appeal over the years, and not just for intellectuals? One of the things that I found fascinating about doing a lot of radio talk shows, from NPR stations to morning drive-time on my book tour for Explaining Hitler, was the way it was almost guaranteed that one caller on every show would cite “the banality of evil” as if it were a wise and dispositive pronouncement on the subject of Hitler and the Holocaust. That settles that. We’ve got that all figured out. No need to trouble ourselves further. It’s all about “the banality of evil.” The banality of evil has itself become one of the most egregious instances of genuine banality in our culture.

One response I’d give to callers who cited it was that although I have some problems with the single-pointedness of Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, one valuable service Mr. Goldhagen’s book performs is to put to rest for all time the notion that the Holocaust was in any significant way the product of passive banality. Hitler’s willing executioners, hundreds of thousands of them, from Eichmann on down to the men who stoked the ovens, exhibited eagerness and enthusiasm, love for the job of genocide rather than just-following-orders sullenness. (The latter sort undoubtedly could be found, the former were more characteristic.)

But, to return to the question of why : Why is it that the banality of evil has become such an unquestioned unthinking response-aside from the superficial appeal to pseuds of its aura of philosophic sophistication? I think an answer might be suggested by an observation about the origins of Arendt’s own rejection of “radical evil” and her subsequent embrace of “banality,” literally and figuratively.

Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, offers a telling remark, cited by Mr. Bernstein: “Arendt rejected the concepts she had used in The Origins of Totalitarianism to point at the incomprehensible nature of the Nazis-’radical evil.’ As she did this she freed herself of a long nightmare ; she no longer had to live with the idea that monsters and demons had engineered the murders of millions.” I think Ms. Young-Bruehl is right on the mark in pointing up the consolatory, the comfort value of abandoning the “nightmare” of radical evil for the notion of banality, although I’d take exception a bit to the way Ms. Young-Bruehl characterized Arendt’s “nightmare.” The nightmare was not that monsters and demons in any supernatural sense had perpetrated the crimes of the Nazis, but that human beings were capable of acting like monsters and demons. (Ms. Young-Bruehl may have meant this and was merely using shorthand to convey it.) It was a crime committed by fully responsible, fully engaged human beings, not unthinking bureaucratic automatons shuffling paper, unaware of the horror they were perpetrating, merely carrying out orders to maintain regularity and discipline, as “the banality of evil” school has it. Human beings capable of making monstrous choices and consciously choosing radical evil.

To deny this, as Ms. Arendt does in Eichmann’s own case, is to deny “the face of [the] factual evidence,” as she herself once characterized it. Even Mr. Bernstein, who attempts a scrupulous, skeptical defense of Ms. Arendt’s reversal and rejection of radical evil for “banality,” concedes that “the evidence suggests Eichmann was far more fanatical in carrying out his duties.” He reminds us in an important footnote that Eichmann made repeated trips to Hungary to speed up the last-minute murder of nearly a million Jews, until then spared from shipment to the death camps. Not the act of the colorless paper shuffler, but of a fanatically eager exterminationist.

This is the nightmare Ms. Arendt fled from, the factual face of the perpetrators of the final solution, one that gives the lie to their self-serving statements on the witness stand facing execution.

And that is why so many are unthinkingly attracted to “the banality of evil” formula. Not because they want to let the perpetrators off the hook (although it certainly does that) but because Arendt’s nightmare suggests far more terrifying depths to which “normal” human nature can fall. Fall without a net. “It breaks the reinsurance on human hope,” George Steiner characterized it when I interviewed him for my book. Meaning it removes the safety net, the limit to the depths to which we can imagine human nature can plunge. It is this terrifying vision, this reality Arendt fled from facing. Fled into banality.

Let’s hope that the occasion of the surfacing of the new self-exculpatory “diaries” of Eichmann (actually the same old fraudulent alibi that Ms. Arendt’s bad reporting gave a fig leaf of legitimacy to) can be the occasion to bury, or at least dispense with forever, the false consolation of that foolish cliché about the banality of evil.