The Banality of Evil Within A Totalitarian System — Hannah Arendt

ww2 May 5, 2021

In 1960, Israeli agents kidnapped the head of Nazi Germany, Adolf Eichmann, who fled to Argentina, and transported him back to Israel.

The public trial of Eichmann caused a great response in the west, especially among the Jews who had survived Nazi Germany and had gone into exile around the world. Many of their families and relatives died in Nazi concentration camps, and Eichmann was one of the organizers and executors of the Nazi genocide. The trial of Eichmann was an act of justice for the six million Jews who were slaughtered.

The famous philosopher, Hannah Arendt, once known for her work on The Origins of Totalitarianism had settled in the United States and became a well-respected professor. She applied to The New Yorker magazine to travel to Jerusalem as a special correspondent to cover the trial process However, the publication of her story stirred up as much controversy as the trial itself. Arendt came under such heavy attacks by the public, that many of her close friends had to cut her off.

The film Hannah Arendt was produced  55 years later to retell this story. The concept of the Banality of Evil that Arendt presented in her report not only suggested that the impact of the Nazi system on individuals should be viewed from a different perspective but more importantly, it provided us with an in-depth understanding of all the totalitarian systems in the world today, such as the former Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party today.

Just as described in the film, to Arendt’s surprise, Eichmann in the public dock appeared very ordinary. This once overwhelmingly powerful Nazi leader was clumsy in his defense and kept wiping his nose. He denied the murder charges against him and instead emphasized that he was simply carrying out the orders. He swore an oath of loyalty to his country and worked diligently. The Nazi government put him in charge of transporting the Jews to the concentration camps. In this process, he was responsible for dispatching the trains, rather than the gas chambers. Many victims of the Holocaust testified in court, but their testimonies were incapable of proving directly that Eichmann took immediate responsibility for the Holocaust.

Upon returning to the United States, Arendt scrutinized the court records thoroughly. She became more aware that Eichmann was indeed not a criminal in the traditional sense who committed every conceivable crime. What he had shown in court was a staff working conscientiously for the bureaucracy. He had not shown hatred against the Jews, neither had he had a clear anti-human tendency or the bloodlust and fanaticism of a psychopathic killer. He could have blamed the Nazi system for all crimes and even labeled himself as a good citizen of the Nazi Reich.

The well-known scene in the film was that Arendt stopped writing, contemplating on the sofa while ignoring the prompts from the magazine editors who rushed for publications. Arendt concluded that Eichmann was willing to work for the evil Nazi system and to execute orders unreservedly because he had no ability to think, refused to distinguish right from wrong, and his banal nature led him to obey evil.

For the first time in the history of human thought, Arendt introduced the concept of the Banality of Evil to explain the tens of thousands of ordinary people who serve the totalitarian system. They just joined a huge system for their livelihood needs. Their work is only a link in the modern bureaucracy. They can completely ignore or pretend not to know the ultimate purpose of the entire system. On the surface, each person is a screw who is faithful to his duty and is even respected in society for his or her decency and compliance with the law. However, it was countless such small potatoes that created such a highly efficient killing system for the Nazis, whose diligence was the best lubricant for this massacre machine,  which committed the most horrific genocide in human history within a few years.

This was not only their own tragedy but also the tragedy of all mankind. Moreover, such tragedies were recurring in the subsequent totalitarian systems. From the Soviet Empire under Stalin to the so-called “republic” of 1.4 billion Chinese people under the control of the Chinese Communist Party today, all have taken advantage of the ignorance and numbness of ordinary people’s refusal to think,  in order to run the state administrative machinery to maintain their rule.

But some people think Arendt is defending Eichmann. She described an executioner with blood on his hands as an ordinary person who carried out his task passively. This is an insult to innocent victims. Although Arendt explained her views in a public lecture, it did not alleviate people’s misunderstanding of her. Arendt, as a philosopher,  had a philosophical perspective on the universal dilemma of humanity. But many persecuted Jews could not detach themselves from their own painful experiences and viewed the “Eichmann phenomenon” in abstract terms.

To make matters worse, Arendt learned during the trial that it was with the help of the “Jewish Committee” that Eichmann could effectively send a large number of Jews on the train to the concentration camp. Arendt believes that the role played by these Jewish leaders “is undoubtedly the darkest chapter in the entire dark story.” This statement angered many Jews,  for they thought Arendt slandered the Jewish people. They thought they were victims themselves, and yet Arendt was accusing some of their leaders as accomplices of the Nazis. Arendt explained to the friends who condemned her, saying that she had never loved any group but only her friends. However, her friends did not forgive her for this statement.

To give your love, you first need to have a basic understanding of the person that you love. There are tens of millions of people in a group. When one says he loves a group, what does he mean? Arendt is not referring to a huge and vague concept, but a concrete living person. This is her understanding of love. That is why she has spoken her mind. She does not believe that everyone in a group of thousands of people is innocent.

However, more evidence later showed that Eichmann was not as “banal” as Arendt thought. He was an extreme racist who did not passively execute the massacre but had a clear goal of his own. Eichmann’s intentional disguise in court deceived Arendt.

But the concept of the Banality of Evil that Arendt proposed is a landmark concept. Although controversial, this concept has been gradually accepted by the public. The modern bureaucracy indeed could become an excuse for people to evade moral responsibility, especially in the contest between justice and evil.  It remains a difficult question in a civilized society that how we prompt average citizens to ponder the meaning of good and evil while making their daily choices.

By Irene


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