Hannah Arendt’s frightening treatise on evil

Reprinted from the Foundation for Economic Education

Nine months after Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann died at the end of the gallows in Israel, a controversial but thoughtful comment emerged about his trial in Israel. New Yorker. The public reaction stunned the book’s writer, famous political theorist and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). That was in February 1963.

Arendt’s eyewitness assessment of Eichmann as “Terribly And the awfully ordinary” surprised the world. The phrase “the banality of evil” entered the lexicon of the social sciences, perhaps forever. It was recognized that Eichmann, despite his gentle and absurd behavior, would have to be a monster of epic proportions to play such an important role in one of the greatest Twentieth Century Crimes.

“I was just following orders,” he claimed in the colorless, realistic style of a typical bureaucrat. The world thought his performance was a somewhat disingenuous show, but Hannah Arendt concluded that Eichmann was indeed a “normal” and “no-brainer” employee.

What cruelty! Betrayal of the Jewish people! How can any reasonable person dismiss Eichmann with such arrogance?! Arendt’s critics attacked her with these accusations mercilessly, but they missed the point. It did not condone or justify Eichmann’s complicity in the Holocaust. She witnessed the horrors of National Socialism firsthand, having fled Germany in 1933 after a short stint in the Gestapo prison for “anti-state propaganda”. She did not claim that Eichmann was innocent, only that the crimes he committed did not require a “monster” to commit them.

How many times have you noticed that people act in antisocial ways out of hope for inclusion, and a desire to avoid isolation as a rebellious and nonconforming individual? Have you ever seen someone hurt because “everyone else was doing it”? The fact that we have all noticed such things, and that any of the perpetrators could easily become, under the right circumstances, Adolf Eichmann, is relax realization.

As Arendt explained, “Agreeing with the rest and wanting to say ‘we’ was enough to make the greatest crimes possible.”

Eichmann was a “superficial” and “ignorant” carpenter, someone whose ideas never ventured anything deeper than how to become a cog in the great and historical Nazi machine. In a sense, he was an instrument of evil rather than a villain himself.

Commenting on Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis, philosopher Thomas White wrote, “Eichmann reminds us of the hero in Albert Camus’ novel the stranger (1942), who randomly and accidentally kills a man, but then has no regrets. There was no particular intent or apparent sinister motive: the verb ‘happened’.

Hannah Arendt may have underestimated Eichmann. He had tried, after all, to conceal evidence and cover his tracks long before the Israelis arrested him in Argentina in 1960—facts that suggest he already realized the seriousness of his crimes. However, it is undeniable that “ordinary” people are capable of committing horrific crimes when they have the power or the desire to have it, especially if it helps them “fit in” with the gang in which it actually wields.

I think the biggest lesson of her thesis is: If evil comes calling, don’t expect it to be stupid enough to advertise itself as such. You will most likely look like your favorite uncle or sweet grandmother. He may gloss over himself with clichés such as “equality,” “social justice,” and “the common good.” He may even be a prominent member of Parliament or Congress.

Maximilian Robespierre and Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, as I suggested in a recent article, were peas in the same capsule as Eichmann – ordinary people who had committed unusually heinous acts.

Hannah Arendt is recognized as one of the preeminent political thinkers of the twentieth century. She was very prolific, and her books are still good sellers, almost half a century after her death. It remains quotable as well, having composed such eloquent lines as “Political questions are too dangerous to be left to politicians,” “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution,” and “The sad truth about what is important is that most Evil is perpetrated by people who have never decided to do evil or do good.”

Some of Arendt’s leftist friends swallowed the myth that Hitler and Stalin occupied opposite ends of the political spectrum. She knew better. Both were collective evil and enemies of the individual (see list of suggested readings below). In her 1951 book, she wrote: “Hitler never intended to defend the West against Bolshevism.” The origins of totalitarianism“But they were always ready to join the” Reds “in order to destroy the West, even in the midst of the struggle against Soviet Russia.”

To fully appreciate Hannah Arendt, I offer here some additional samples of her writing:

The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for any dictatorship or any other dictatorship is that people are uninformed; How do you have an opinion if you are not aware? If everyone has always lied to you, the result is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything anymore. This is because lies by their very nature have to change, and a false government has to constantly rewrite its history. On the receiving end, you don’t get just one lie – a lie that could go on for the rest of your days – but you get a slew of lies, depending on how the political winds blow. A people who can no longer believe anything cannot make up their mind. They are deprived not only of their ability to act but also of their ability to think and judge. And with such people you can do whatever you like.

The ideal subject of totalitarianism is not convinced Nazi or convinced Communistbut people who no longer have the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the truth of experience) and the distinction between right and wrong (i.e., standards of thought).

essence totalitarian governmentand, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make the staff and mere cogs in the administrative apparatus of men, thus dehumanizing them.

Eichmann’s problem was precisely that many were like him, that many were neither perverted nor sadistic, and that they were and are terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the point of view of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normal was far more terrifying than all the atrocities combined, for it meant – as was repeatedly said at Nuremberg by the accused and their lawyers – that this new type of criminal, who is actually hostis generis humani, He commits his crimes under circumstances that make it almost impossible for him to know or feel that he is making a mistake.

Totalitarianism begins with a disdain for what you have. The second step is the idea: “Things have to change – no matter how it happens. Everything is better than what we have.” Autocratic rulers regulate this kind of mass sentiment, and by organizing it they express it, and by expressing it they make people like it in some way. They were told by not to kill. And they weren’t killed. Now they are told you will be killed. And although they think it is very difficult to kill, they do so because it is now part of the code of conduct.

The argument that we cannot judge if we are not present and involved seems to convince everyone everywhere, though it seems clear that if it were true, neither the administration of justice nor the writing of history would ever be possible.

Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reid is President Emeritus and Senior Fellow of the Humphreys and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Freedom of the Foundation for Economic Education.

He holds a BA in Economics from Grove City College (1975) and a MA in History from Slippery Rock State University (1978), both in Pennsylvania. He holds two honorary doctorates, one from Central Michigan University (Public Administration, 1993) and Northwood University (Laws, 2008).

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