The Relevance of the Banality of Evil

Adolf Eichmann’s name may conjure memories of Ward Churchill’s highly controversial essay regarding the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 in which he described government employees at the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns.” Churchill used this term to illustrate people who are unknowingly complicit in oppressive systems. The subsequent use of the term in a 2005 South Park episode made Eichmann’s name a somewhat trivial expression. Adolf Eichmann’s name and legacy, however, is that of a Nazi war criminal.

After joining the Nazi party in 1932, Eichmann was eventually appointed to the head of Gestapo Section IV B4 of the new Reich Main Security Office. His job was simple. He had to coordinate the logistics of instigating the mass murder of Jews. Eichmann figured out that building concentration camps in relation to railroads would streamline the transport of Jews to their deaths. He decided that recruiting Volkswagen to provide additional transportation would not only make the killing faster, but would also stimulate the German economy. He discovered that building gas chambers to give prisoners carbon monoxide poisoning would be cheaper than shooting them one by one and would also be quicker and cleaner. He determined that Zyklon-B gas was the most effective chemical for this process. Perhaps most notably, according to his testimony, he coined the term “Final Solution” when the Nazi regime decided to murder as many Jews as possible toward the end of the war.

Adolf Eichmann, Getty Images

One might assume that Eichmann was similar to Hitler in that he was a manic, aggressively anti-semitic, hateful person. He wasn’t. During his time in Hitler’s regime, he lived with his wife and three children in a regular house in a regular neighborhood. He played the violin and was a gentle husband and father. After the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945, Eichmann escaped to Argentina where he continued to live with his family and have another child. He found work as a department head at Mercedes Benz and took the bus to his job every day. He was eventually captured in 1960 in an elaborate scheme complete with Israeli Nazi hunters, tranquilizer darts, unmarked vehicles, and captors disguised as flight attendants. Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb goes into even greater detail about the theatrics of his capture.

Eichmann’s trial began in 1961. It was particularly popular compared to other Nazi trials because people were astounded that he was able to hide in plain sight for so long, and the commonality of personal TV sets and radios allowed his trial to be broadcast all over the world. Hannah Arendt, one of the most famous and important philosophers and political theorists of the 20th century, solicited The New Yorker to sponsor her to cover Eichmann’s trial. She wanted to test her theories about the oppressiveness of dictatorships such as Nazi Germany and detailed her thinking in the 1951 work The Origin of Totalitarianism. She was surprised to find, however, that not only was Eichmann the opposite of a sociopath, but his ease of instigating mass murder was driven by his woefully ordinary stupidity. Arendt describes that he failed both high school and vocational training and was only able to find his first job as a result of nepotism. He could barely form an original thought, instead stringing simple sentences together mostly using clichés. Arendt notes:

“What he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.”

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
Eichmann on trial, Getty Images

Arendt describes this phenomenon as “the banality of evil.” Eichmann was evil, yes, but in a way that is even more frightening than that of Hitler precisely because it is ordinary. Six psychologists tested Eichmann for sociopathy and found no trace of mental illness. Eichmann merely lacked the ability to examine his actions and followed orders in order to advance his professional life, not his personal ideologies. It was his unexceptional indifference, his banality, that made him capable of mass murder.

It is a terrifying concept that evil is not solely a result of calculated hatred, but precisely the opposite, a result of thoughtlessness. Eichmann lived in a place and time that enabled his banality to be exploited for the sake of mass murder. The banality of evil, however, manifests itself to a lesser degree all the time. Brett Kavanaugh’s assault of Christine Blasey Ford is an example of his implicit evil. His testimony full of forceful denial indicates a deeply held belief that he did nothing wrong. He has been conditioned to believe that sexually assaulting a woman is acceptable, and he lacks the reflective capacity to understand that he is wrong.

Michelle Obama articulates this concept well in her memoir Becoming. She states:

“I tried not to feel intimidated when classroom conversation was dominated by male students, which it often was. Hearing them, I realized that they weren’t smarter than the rest of us. They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different.”

Michelle Obama, Becoming
Brett Kavanaugh, Getty Images

Part of the banality of evil stems from a deeply ingrained system that enables white heterosexual men such as Eichmann and Kavanaugh to succeed professionally without questioning the institutions that allow them the privilege of ignorance. Even so, anyone is capable if embodying the banality of evil.

The concept that evil can result not just from cruelty and hatred but also from the impact of thoughtlessness is demonstrated in the recent, widely televised congressional hearing of Michael Cohen, former lawyer to Donald Trump.  House Republicans demonstrated a blatant unwillingness to question Mr. Cohen about what he might know about his former boss’s possible illegal actions. Instead they focused solely on accusing Mr. Cohen of being a liar and therefore not someone whose testimony could have merit.  Republicans in congress are not demonstrating independence of thought and in this way, currently embody the banality of evil.

Michael Cohen at his hearing, New York Daily News

It is difficult to define what it means to think for yourself. Some people choose to reject all mainstream sentiments and established institutions in the name of free thinking, however this universal rejection does not certify that someone is thinking for themselves. Thoughtfulness requires the ability to digest many different ideas and synthesize them into a philosophy that is informed yet open to change. It also requires the ability to trust modern science in tandem with the belief that modern science will continue to evolve. Government officials’ forceful denial of climate change may seem banal now, but their lack of action will soon have detrimental, irreversible consequences. Most importantly, thoughtfulness incorporates empathy, being able to think about how other people experience the world. In terms of the ever present threat and reality of a corrupt government, it is important to know that because you are alive, you are a participant in the society in which you live. Even complicity is an action that is a manifestation of banality. It requires self-awareness and bravery to embody integrity. To be extraordinary, you have to be thoughtful.   Your words and actions matter, so evaluate the roles you occupy and embody integrity and thoughtfulness in all that you do.

Unless otherwise stated, all information regarding Eichmann is from Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt


2 Replies to “The Relevance of the Banality of Evil”

  1. Betty Betz


    Very insightful article of the current time that our country is in as it relates to past history. I’ll admit that I had to get out my dictionary. Food for thought for each and everyone. Thank you.

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