Is Radical Evil Banal?

  “Man is cruelest animal” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Hannah Arendt’s five articles on the trial 1961 of Adolf Eichmann by the state of Israel appeared in The New Yorker in February and March 1963, then shortly after the book was published: EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM, A report On the Banality of Evilness.Before any judgment about the nature of the book’s title and serious conclusions, book should be read. However, the question always will be actual for all human beings:” If Eichmann was ‘Banal’, then it was no evil” and if the Holocaust wasn’t evil, well, what we do have left?  

Arendt consistently use the word thoughtless, to explicate Eichmann banality. He could recite moral rules; he could even recite Kant’s famous categorical imperative on the court in Jerusalem. But for him all rules referenced “the Führer’s will”, they were all the Führer’s commandments. Eichmann could neither ask himself nor think through the question that Arendt considered essential to moral experience, one that she (very challengingly) held was not at all a matter of following rules or serving any leader’s will: “Could I live with myself if I did this deed?”

She was prompted to a question by Eichmann’s careerism and his thoughtless conformity: can banal motives block or stifle human fellow feeling and make a person inhumanly thoughtless, that is, unable to think? In her trial report, Arendt was laying the factual foundation for a psychological exploration of this question.

Eichmann’s execution was carried long ago in the state of Israel on June 1962. However, it was still the news, when Arendt’s book was published, which provoked a series of contradictory of reactions. The death sentence was justified but the concept of his own banality defined by Hannah Arendt was questionable as philosophical, political and human question.  What has Arendt confessed privately what she would publicly deny: Eichmann in Jerusalem was not simply a report on a trial “but an approach toward ‘the groundwork for creating new political morals”. She wrote to her friend Mary McCarthy, “namely I wrote this book in a curious state of euphoria. The writing helped give her relief from heavy burden as delayed cure of a pain that weighedupon her as a Jew, former Zionist, and former German.” Question is will Arendt ever get out from magic forest of German philosophy even though she denied being a philosopher. 

So we are now on this position that events have the last world. Journalist report about them, historians contextualize them,and philosophers interpret them. If we could say so Hannah Arendt wasn’t historian so her book was much more report about one man on trial. It was also work on political theory. How can we understand Arendt’s approach in the context “Banality of Evilness’? We know that she has published on 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism.

In this earlier work, Hannah had argued that totalitarian ideologies conjured a world a perpetual motion the movement of history, in the case of Soviet communism; the rhythms of nature, in case of Nazism. Men and women were reduced on Pavlov minimal per se, offering no resistance to the forces of nature or the wheels of the history. Whether they hunter or hunted, predator or prey, they were repurposed to serve as the pliant materials to those regimes. The highest rang and lowest rang have to serve to regime without reasonable question about good either wrong / evil deeds. “What totalitarian rule needs to guide the behaviour of its subjects is a preparation to fit each of them equally well for the role ofexecutionerand the role of victim.” – says Hannah Arendt…

In Origins ofTotalitarianismshe still held on the Kant notion, concept of radical evil that under Nazis, corrupted the basis of the moral law, exploded legal categories, and distorted human judgment. On the contrary in Eichmann in Jerusalem, she insists that only good had any depth. Good could be radical; evil can never be radical; it could be only extreme. What about of Question of Job,raised in Bible? There is nor any demonic dimensions yet between of walls in Auschwitz while the man wants to be biggest angel, he becomes the biggest beast as Pascal says. Because in the hell of concentration camps just in the one moment another man could become your own personal hell in the face of kapo, another prisoner either officer. Did Hannah Arendt ever thought about sense of guilt of the survivors from these camps, how did they live each day on this grey yards. Where is there place for justification from the argument that everything Nazi ideology was distorted, deviation of moral, ethical postulates. In the Third Reich evil lost its distinctive character by which most people had until then recognized it. The Nazi redefined moral, ethics, legality as civil norm. But as Spinoza would say so the goodness or evilness is just in eye of beholder. In this context we could ask same question about that each ideology in sense of totalitarian way of thinking, concluding redefines concepts of goodness, evilness, etc.  But never forget one of most known Kantian categorical imperative, sometimes called the principle of universalizability:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

— Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals[


But the case with Eichmann is probably different by Arendt’s opinion since she thoughts that role of ideology is overrated by raising the wall between anti – Semitism as motive for execution of the Holocaust as a “Impotence of intention”. Did her witnessing from court in Jerusalem offered a version of the Holocaust played minor role? However, the question nailed by Hannah Arendt was whether Eichmann contribution to the genocide of the Jews was motivated, could be motivated by “his fanatism, his boundless hatred of Jews. “ On one side we have murderous, monstruous deeds, explained by him that are done according with duty is duty from another side we have state of mind, ability of thinking, evil comes from a failure to think. Actually, Eschmann was brainlessness while Arendt by accusation in open…. letter of her former friend Gershom Scholem was that she is heartlessness.

In Hannah Arendt’s replay to Scholem she says:

“It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never radical, that is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and laywaste the wholeworld precisely because it spreads like fungus on the surface. It is though – defining, as I said thought tries to reach same depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concernsitself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is banality. Only the good has depth and can be radical. “


Maybe, Eichmann was stupid but so called Sassen transcripts, a voluminous record of conversations between Eichmann in Argentina on the 1950s with Dutch journalist William Sassen on year is 1957 in Argentina, where Eichmann fled after the war and lived under an assumed name, Ricardo Klement. He was captured by the Mossad in 1960 and brought to Jerusalem for trial and execution. Before he faced justice at the hands of the young Jewish state, Eichmann reflected on the war. He told Sassen, “I regret nothing. I have no desire to say that we did something wrong,” before going on to express regret for not completing the work of extermination. Over 70 hours, Eichmann and Sassen discussed the war against the Jews with such startling bluntness that another Nazi, gathered around Eichmann and Sessen, remarked, ​“It can’t be done, it can’t be.” Eichmann confessed, “It is a difficult thing to say and I know I will be judged for it, but this is the truth.” He told Sassen not to share the recordings until after his death. Haaretz reported that portions of the contents of the tapes were published in a 1964 Life magazine article titled, “I Transported Them to the Butche

“If we had killed 10.3 million Jews I would say with satisfaction, ‘Good, we destroyed an enemy.’ Then we would have fulfilled our mission. And thus, to my regret, it was not to be.”


By those Sassen transcripts it seems that Hannah never grasped a depth of Eichmann anti – Semitism. There is growing again question about his shallowness, believing in Nazism and his dishonesty afront the Judges and prosecutors in Jerusalem court. On that time, considering the atmosphere Hannah Arendt showed courage to write about prosecution beyond her historical ignorance about some facts, aware of same facts that she does not know enough. But however, there is no way to justify evilness as banal. In that case ethical categorical commitment would be judged as postulate with relativity according with ideology, politics either as in medieval times as religious commitment however tied with certain intentions and would be turned in hypothetical. On the SassenFinal transcripts, Eichmann showed either guilt o remorse on his role in Final Solution. No, it was very well rationaljustification about his deeds, thoughts about genocide, carried out on his ideal Nazi party: fanatical warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood. Which is mybirth right…

Eternal question: “Who has birth right to kill somebody?” – according with sentence “Man is cruellest animal” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Judith Butler says: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/complitstudies.48.3.0280

“In her treatise on the banality of evil, Arendt demanded a rethink of established ideas about moral responsibility.”Covering the trial Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil”, a phrase that has since become something of an intellectual cliche. But what did she really mean?

One thing Arendt certainly did not mean was that evil had become ordinary, or that Eichmann and his Nazi cohorts had committed an unexceptional crime. Indeed, she thought the crime was exceptional, if not unprecedented, and that as a result it demanded a new approach to legal judgment itself.

Well Jewish society, particularly victims of Nazi regime and their descendants would not agree till today with some of concepts of Hannah Arendt.   

From the time when Arendt’s reports appear publicly till today there is history about the conflict how we read the book, how did we understood and argue. Beyond the report is one most difficult, non-acceptable period in history so called Nazism either ideology of National – Socialism which includes not just Lebensraum but genocide of all population in Eastern Europe. Could we accuse victims which has been prosecuted, killed and burned in middle of Europe?

But always stays this note that it is fact of history that these ideas from National – Socialism were embraced by many normal people. The Nazi found their support between lot of educated, respectable people…Historians regarded Nazi ideology as a species of sub intellectual rather than intellectual history. “- George Moss, The Crisis of German Ideology

A great deal of Mosse’s work over the next three decades can be understood as an effort to give these “subintellectual” ideas a place in the writing of intellectual and cultural history of fascism and Nazism. He did not recast the field with dogmatic, idealist assertions to replace earlier materialist dogmas; rather, he demonstrated that such ideas existed, that they found institutional support, were diffused to wider publics, and shaped decision-making when the fascists and Nazis took power.

Still, we have letters of Hannah Arendt to her husband Blucher, her former mentor and friend Karl Jaspers, friend Mary McCarthy about Eichmann: “he was like a ‘ghost in a spiritualist sauce’’’. So, her sarcasm was self-defeating but provoked public opinion in Israel. 

“The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.” It was a sentence for which she would never be forgiven.

Caligula: “Men die; and they are not happy.” – Albert Camus 

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem fails on its explanation about metaphysical concept of evil as a secular phenomenon.  Arendt’s surprisingly consistent view of evil is based on a quasi-ontological understanding of the human condition that allowed her to negate Eichmann’s humanity. Jaspers’s interpretation of Kant offers a way to defend the idea of secular evil and judge Eichmann on the basis of his thoughtlessness.


However, we should be grateful for such book beyond the all objections which she provokes. Eichmann in Jerusalem, Banality of Evilness, shows one consistent view about crime against humanity done by one man. From first to the last sentence, it leads before the court of Nuremberg trials a crime done by Nazis could not be find in lawbooks either history of crimes in law history, such deeds has been unknown to society.”Thepresent reportdeals with nothing but to which the court in Jerusalem succeeded in demanding of justice.”– Hannah Arendt

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: