The Banality of Evil

In Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, she explores the idea that someone can commit heinous atrocities without the heinous intentions behind them. She notes on several occasions on how ordinary Eichmann seemed on the stand, far from the antisemitic monster that the prosecution wished to paint him as. Yet, throughout the trial’s proceedings, Arendt truly defines what the “banality of evil” is.

The crimes committed by Eichmann and his compatriots may not have stemmed from anti-Semitic feelings, but that did not change the nature of the crime itself. Arendt describes this as a “…new type of criminal…” whose social circumstances and their removal from the reality of the situation make it nearly impossible for them to know the true atrocity of their actions, and this defines the true nature of a crime against humanity. Eichmann’s normalcy is what struck Arendt the most and what underscores her analysis of his guilt. His role in the Nazi’s Final Solution undoubtedly sent countless innocents to the gas chambers and yet he claimed to harbor no hatred for the Jewish people. His claim that any German could have taken his place was his main defense to the charges raised against him. Arendt counters the idea of “where all, or almost all are guilty, nobody is” by bringing up the case of Sodom and Gomorrah as well as the modern concept of collective guilt to emphasize the inexcusable nature of Eichmann’s actions. The judgement is ultimately not founded on the intentions of the criminal but on objectively what crime they committed and this is what the “banality of evil” truly is. The ability to commit evil deeds without evil intentions. She sees the circumstances surrounding Eichmann as irrelevant to the actions he objectively committed and thus he is condemned to death, not because he himself killed anybody but “no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the Earth with you.” due to the heinous nature of the deeds carried out upon his order.

One thought on “The Banality of Evil”

  1. You pick out some really evocative textual quotations to showcase here. I’m really interested in the *newness* of Eichmann, as Arendt seems in other ways to be so deeply skeptical of arguments about the exceptionality of the Holocaust (one of the aspects of her work that tends to garner the most criticism is her refusal to put much stock in thinking about Jews as having a singular history in relation to suffering). Would be interested to hear more of your thoughts about that idea of the newness of Eichmann’s crime.

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