Political Education

The Banality of Evil

In 1932 vacuum cleaner salesman Adolf Eichmann joined the Nazi Party and then the Schutzstaffel, better known as the SS. Eichmann worked his way up to Lieutenant Colonel in the Nazi hierarchy. In 1941, Eichmann participated in the Wannsee Conference, in which he helped plan and then carry out Hitler’s “Final Solution”-the annihilation of European Jews.

At the end of World War Two, Eichmann escaped to Argentina. In 1960, Israeli intelligence positively identified, located, and kidnapped Eichmann. He was then transported to Jerusalem to stand trial for war crimes.

Historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt covered part of the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker magazine. Arendt was curious to see what type of person could commit such incredible acts of cruelty. Would Eichmann be a raving monster? Arendt’s controversial observation was that Eichmann, who had committed horrifying atrocities, was “neither perverted nor sadistic”, but rather “terrifyingly normal”.

“For when I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain.’ Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all… He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing… It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. That 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.”

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’. Arendt thought that it was an absence of critical thinking that allowed the Eichmanns of the Nazi regime to carry out their evil while rationalizing their actions as ‘acts of state.’ Eichmann claimed no specific ideological beliefs; he saw it as his duty to obey and carry out such acts. Eichmann had committed atrocities with a clear conscience.

The ‘banality of evil’ exists today. No evil deed compares to the Holocaust, but cruelty exists in today’s politics. Some advocate extremism, such as hanging Mike Pence, stringing razor wire across the Rio Grande, sending Dr. Fauci to Gitmo, or denying needed medical treatment to Katie Cox. Such people may or may not be, in their day-to-day lives, gruesome raving monsters, but, like Eichmann, they are capable of advocating or committing acts of terrible cruelty with a clear conscience.

Eichmann was hanged for his war crimes in 1962. Arendt said, “… I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a buffoon.” Today’s MAGA are, like Arendt’s Eichmann, dangerous buffoons. As history has shown, “terrifyingly normal” buffoons can be capable of great cruelty.


Thanks and a tip of the hat to https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Photographie_prise_%C3%A0_Solah%C3%BCtte_en_juillet_1944_-_collections_USHMM_-_34585A.jpg for the image of Auschwitz SS guards enjoying themselves on vacation.

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