Hannah Arendt’s Idea Of The Banality Of Evil

The terrors of Nazi Germany, the Japanese Occupation and the Soviet Union rule have provided a new dilemma in which traditional nor philosophical language could not explain the essence of evil. In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Study in the Banality of Evil, philosopher Hannah Arendt does not attempt to clarify this, but her account raises questions on the nature of totalitarian regimes. She examines Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of the Nazi regime’s Final Solution, as a prime subject in approaching the factors that were unprecedented in the Nazi genocide that allowed for the destruction of over 6 million Jews and others. In her analysis, she notices that Eichmann seems to lack any immoral intentions and was startingly oblivious to the monstrosity of his actions. To Arendt, he exhibits this sense of ‘thoughtlessness’ where he failed to be critical of the laws and policies that were imposed on him; acting obediently towards the Nazi plans with no inner dialogue over right and wrong. She goes on to dub Eichmann’s character as a ‘banality of evil’: inability to think, lack of conscience and failure to make judgments. Consequently, this widens to an ethical critique of the social psychology of totalitarian regimes and how the nature of the regime effortlessly attributes to this choice of thoughtlessness; how is it possible that these crimes against humanity are able to occur on a perplexingly large scale?

To Arendt, the ideology of totalitarian regimes and their bureaucratic structure have contributed to this “remoteness from reality” which has led to “millions of ordinary Germans to set aside their instinctual sense of responsibility”. This lack of critical analysis is a key condition for mass violence as it dehumanizes victims in the eyes of perpetrators who participate in such atrocities. Clearly, Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann goes beyond the Nazi regime’s annihilation of a race and instead dwells in the totalitarian perversions of the moral and legal order; shows the dangerous impact of a regime operating on a corrupt bureaucracy can have on its society.

Thus, this paper aims to analyze the significance of Arendt’s thesis for our understanding of crimes of totalitarian regimes. The banality of evil is not only compatible with the radical evil of making human beings superfluous but also enables us to understand how machines like Eichmann do this with such efficiency. This paper concludes that Arendt’s banality of evil thesis illustrates that the success of totalitarian atrocities lies within the regime’s ability to manipulate the human conscience to overcome an innate aversion to human suffering. Her writings also suggest that the crimes of totalitarianism could be avoided by being actively involved in political engagement and retaining our freedom to think and judge.

The context of this paper is organized into three sections. The first section aims to describe Arendt’s typology of thought and how she conditions ‘thoughtlessness’ to “the banality of evil’. Using her text of Eichmann in Jerusalem, the second section examines the nature of the totalitarian regimes and how it contributes effortlessly to the choice of thoughtlessness. Lastly, I will discuss the vagueness in the explanation of her thesis which leads to misinterpretation.

Firstly, before discussing how totalitarian regimes effectively produces this sense of banal evil, there is a need to understand Arendt’s idea of thoughtlessness. In her work, she coincides with thinking to the conscience. She argued that by thinking, it enables us to critically analyze our actions and situations so as to prevent evil; our conscience is our act of judgment which gives us the ability to tell the right from the wrong and prevent acts of mass violence. This aligns with Kant’s idea of moral feelings where thinking creates reasons and hence it becomes an indispensable element to our moral being. Thoughtlessness is then not merely ignorance but the failure of the conscious; lack of consideration of our actions and their impact towards others. Like the other Nuremberg defendants, Arendt notices that Eichmann seems to portray this characteristic of thoughtlessness; they perceived their crimes as ordinary acts or in other words, they did not see them as acts of crime. She explains:

“He (Eichmann) was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann… such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man – that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem.”

Eichmann seems to have lost a sense of reactiveness; losing a sense of thought which allows individuals to commit atrocities without a sense of moral responsibility as there is no rationalizing process. Eichmann acted not because of the wickedness in his heart but because he did what was told of him without questioning it; his thoughtlessness allowed evil actions to flourish. This phenomenon according to Arendt was the ‘banality of evil’ which she wrote was, “the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction.” From this, her thesis, the ‘banality of evil’ refers to the lack of rationalizing our actions- and those around us- that we end up normalizing evil where everyone does it unquestioningly; our actions are just everyday activities. This is evident in Eichmann in Jerusalem where Arendt’s main argument was that amid the atmosphere in Nazi Germany, Eichmann- or any Germans sympathetic to the Nazi cause- could not have been able to differentiate between good and bad but continued to carry out those acts.

According to Bergen, this ‘banality of evil’ creates this notion that there is an Eichmann in all of us, and with the right conditions, it can be activated. Totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union seem to have perfected that formula in influencing millions of people who had the ability not to participate in the atrocities of the regime but chose to regardless. This will be discussed in the next paragraph on how totalitarian regimes effectively removed this human element of thought and establish a systematic and mechanized way of committing crimes of mass violence and murder.

During his trial, as he stood before the court in Jerusalem, Arendt had expected Eichmann to be a monster. As Arendt writes, it would have been easier to accept Eichmann’s crimes by believing “that Eichmann was a monster.” Instead, what stood in the glass door was a regular man which bothered Arendt as she concludes, “the trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal” This analysis by Arendt was confirmed by Michael Mann’s 2000 analysis of 1581 Nazi War which showed that the German perpetrators were ordinary people that knew the difference between right and wrong; they were unlikely criminal candidates. This then beckons the question on how then did the Nazi regime make it possible for ordinary German citizens to act with indifference to the horror of the regime? To answer this, there is a need to explore the nature of the totalitarian regime which incapacitates the human ability to exercise personal judgment.

One characteristic of totalitarian regimes that made crimes against humanity possible is its bureaucratic structure. Whether in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, a system of governance has the ability to impact the way people behave. The way the state organizes them can change the individual’s perception of themselves and of others, which then presents an incentive on whether to act ethically or not. To Arendt, the bureaucracy was a weaponized tool of totalitarianism as they “make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and this to dehumanize them.” This characterization of a bureaucratic individual aligns with Weber’s specific nature of bureaucracy where he said, “the more perfectly the bureaucracy is dehumanized, the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation. This is the specific nature of bureaucracy and it is appraised as its special virtue.” This is the banality of evil that Arendt was referring to where the individual becomes superfluous and meaningless; it encouraged blind obedience and the inability for moral actions. Bernstein argues that the people within the bureaucracy were “committed to a movement that transcends the life or death of any individual” and were therefore blindly devoted to the regimes’ program. The structure of the state made evil banal as everyone was following the law of the regime that it became normal to be evil. Therefore, Arendt’s thesis of banality helps us to resist the temptation to mythologize the evils of totalitarian regimes but instead opens up the possibility of understanding how the structure of regimes can easily influence the society that their violent actions were legitimate.

Another characteristic that socialized ordinary people into the perpetration of genocide is their practice of total ideology onto the will of the people. In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, ideology plays a major tenet in radicalizing individuals under the regime. As Arendt writes, ideology is the logic of an idea. This means that statements made by the state or the ruler would be the truth or positive law; universal laws that explain everything. This would suggest that non-totalitarian regimes do also radicalize their citizens since they too have ideologies. But, according to Arendt, what separates totalitarianism from the others is its’ commitment to consistency which is key in driving totalitarian law as prophecy. The goals of the regime actions were constantly forced to the public to a point that it creates a fictitious world and the individual is divorced from reality: they were so far removed from the rest of the world that Hitler’s rhetoric was seen as fact and they were not able to see the detriments of their aggression. Arendt’s thesis of the banality of evil helps us in understanding this as, from an outsider’s perspective, the regime’s rhetoric would sound unbelievable and radical, but from the citizen standpoint, this was normalcy- there is no escaping the regime’s messages that it changes your perception over time (Arendt 1973, 368). Her discussion shows us how when our views are constrained within the ideology’s prism, we too would follow in the footsteps of Eichmann. Eichmann’s thoughtlessness is a prime example of the possibility of evil that can occur when individuals are unable to resist the logic of ideologies and wholeheartedly accept procedures provided by society. This personality characterization is not unique to the Nazi regimes as it is also evident in Stalin’s Soviet Union where mediocrity and ideological blindness pervades every aspect of the people’s life. Therefore, Arendt’s theory connects the relationship between theory and practice. She shows how totalitarian regime employs logical coercion to bring their people under control as they concede their ability to think and judge to the regime’s violent plans.

Arendt’s thesis offers real but complicates insights on the brutality of totalitarian regimes. On one hand, her thesis swayed from the Jewish rhetoric of the Nazi’s brutality and instead offered a universal view on the conduct of violence in totalitarian regimes. By doing so, this secular approach informs us that the atrocities in Nazi Germany were not one-off and that it could happen to any type of government as long as its rule dehumanizes its people. However, her usage of the word banal to associate with the monstrosities of the Nazi regime evoked severe backlash from the international community. Yisrael Gutman even argues that “The horrors of the crime were not shown in the generalizations that concerned the perpetrators’ bureaucratic apparatuses…Hannah Arendt…made it her goal to shape Eichmann according to her own conception and avoided the abyss of human misery to present an ‘Arendt-style’ Eichmann.” What further perpetuate this misrepresentation of her thesis is the lack of a cohesive explanation of this term. The term, ‘banality of evil’ only appears in the Epilogue of Eichmann in Jerusalem once which offers no real explanation to term. She does attempt to explain in the later years but died before she could finish The Life of the Mind where she would explore the ability to exercise judgment against evil. While we cannot fault her for dying, others have conducted empirical studies that justify her thesis of how ordinary individuals can become brutal killers. Empirical studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiments and the Milgram Experiment verifies this nature of evil Arendt was trying to illustrate. Whether we agree with Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann or the banality of evil, her perspectives offer a new dimension to our understanding of evil.

In short, Arendt’s thesis on the banality of evil reveals that the crimes of totalitarian regimes relied heavily on ideology and its enforcing structure to deprive society of their individuality and spontaneity. By doing so, it divorces individuals from reality and hence fails to confront the evil essence of their actions. This paper has argued that the disintegration of the human condition to rationalize is a crucial precondition to state induced mass murder and extreme violence. By building on Arendt’s account of Eichmann whom Arendt characterizes as a banality of evil, the totalitarian regime has effectively forced structure and suppresses reactive attitudes to create Eichmann-like machines. In other words, Arendt has shown that in crimes of totalitarian regimes, having wicked thoughts or intentions is not a necessary precondition to their violence. Her thesis has shown us that morally indifference within the institutional structure and ideology is an essential dimension for compliance and perpetrating crimes against humanity. Her work provides an alternative to the victim rhetoric and presents a phenomenon of forces that influences the perpetrators’ decision and actions without thinking about it. While it may be incomprehensible to imagine the violence and discrimination committed by bloodthirsty killers, Arendt admits that “without it, we might never have known the truly radical nature of Evil.” As repugnant as these crimes may be, critical knowledge of these violence gives us the understanding and hope that such atrocities do not happen again today or in the future. 

16 December 2021
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