Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil recounts the 1961 trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, who worked in the S.S.’s Gestapo division coordinating the trains that forcibly transported Jews to the Third Reich’s extermination camps in Eastern Europe. While it may be comfortable to believe that evil people are aberrations of human nature, the most troubling part of Eichmann’s story is that he did unspeakable, horrific evil but did not seem to be an evil man. He was, in Arendt’s telling, simply an unoriginal and predictable bureaucrat, incapable of thinking for himself or seeing the evil that he committed: he was, in a word, banal. Arendt’s horrifying portrait of Eichmann as an unexceptional man guilty of exceptional crimes forces readers to revise conventional, storybook conceptions of evil. By suggesting that the capacity for evil is altogether mundane, Arendt’s goal is not to minimize Eichmann’s actions, but rather to demonstrate how thinking from the perspective of others—including those one takes as enemies—is a necessary component of a moral life. And her unpopular and uncomfortable portrait of Eichmann, which runs contrary to the prosecutor’s insistence that he was a bloodthirsty psychopath, stems precisely from her insistence on this kind of radical empathy.
Eichmann was not evil per se, in any conventional sense: astonishingly, he helped perpetrate the Holocaust despite never truly wanting to kill anyone. Psychiatrists who evaluated Eichmann considered him “normal” and found that he took no discernible pleasure from knowing his job was to ship millions of Jews to their deaths; instead, he was merely proud to have done his job well and impressed his superiors, and he simply ignored the moral consequences of his work. He originally joined the Nazi Party for the sake of a job and social status, without reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf or even the party’s platform. He was a social climber, not an ideologue.
Astonishingly, Arendt does not even believe that Eichmann was an anti-Semite. In fact, throughout World War Two’s early years, he was an enthusiastic Zionist who hoped to find land for a Jewish nation-state—precisely like the Israelis who ultimately captured and executed him. Further, Eichmann was originally devastated to hear that Hitler had ordered the mass murder of Europe’s Jews and horrified when he observed burials firsthand—he even insisted that he was “incapable of killing,” at least for a few weeks. Of course, he abandoned his moral opposition once he saw his superiors enthusiastically defend their “Final Solution” at the Wannsee Conference.
Arendt’s work argues that Eichmann failed to see that he was tasked with doing evil because he was unable to imagine the perspective of anyone else—that is, he acted not out of malice but because “he merely [...] never realized what he was doing.” The strongest evidence of his thoughtlessness was his inability to speak for himself; he undertook a “heroic fight with the German language, which invariably defeat[ed] him.” He only spoke “Officialese” and repeated the same meaningless clichés over and over. He could not even remember basic dates and facts about his administration—only details about his career, for he worried endlessly about getting promoted and appeasing his bosses. He was delighted to see Heydrich’s “more human side” and felt honored when the (Nazi-controlled) Slovakian government invited him to Bratislava; he saw his superiors as superhuman but could not bring himself to see his victims as human at all.
He repeatedly incriminated himself while immersed in pride or self-pity, as when he emphasized how much he wanted a higher role in the S.S. or declared himself proud to have five million murders on his conscience (but then emphasized how many Jewish lives he saved and declared his delight at the prospect of “making peace” with his “enemies”). He insisted that he deserved execution and would not repent before delivering a handwritten letter asking precisely for mercy. His contradictions and canned remorse prove that he never grasped the gravity of his actions and only ever said what he believed would please his audience and make him feel “elated” because he appeared to be having an appropriate emotional reaction.
Eichmann’s case shows how thoughtlessness can be as dangerous as evil intentions. In one sense, the “banality” of Eichmann’s “terribly and terrifyingly normal” character suggests that everyone is a potential Eichmann—but Arendt emphasizes that she was there to understand “the guilt or innocence of one person” rather than take Eichmann as a scapegoat for all Nazis or even all human evil. Eichmann’s banality does not alleviate him of moral responsibility for his actions, as finding an “Eichmann in every one of us” would make “every one of us” horrendously guilty. After all, Arendt thinks most people have enough of a moral conscience to recognize the evil in mass murder—at least, they do under ordinary situations; Arendt believes most of Germany suffered from the same thoughtlessness as Eichmann during the war and even after it, when Nazi leaders continued their lives without punishment and Nazi judges even remained on the bench. (The difference between their guilt and Eichmann’s was that they merely failed to resist the Third Reich, while Eichmann actively advanced its genocidal campaign.)
By choosing to conveniently declare Eichmann an “abnormal monster” without looking at the facts, however, the prosecutor Gideon Hausner actually committed the same error as his defendant: he refused to see the (uncomfortable, troubling, even terrifying) humanity in another. While taking on this perspective is not morally equivalent to undertaking evil actions, it is a prerequisite for doing so and reflects the insistent denial of Nazi Germany’s citizens.
Through Eichmann’s case, Arendt shows that the capacity for evil, particularly under a totalitarian government, is often as connected to thoughtlessness, gullibility, and a lack of empathy as it is to sadistic malice. She does not mean to suggest that all evil results from thoughtlessness, nor does she try to weigh these kinds of evil against one another; she insists that she is more concerned with Eichmann’s case than with grand theories. Nevertheless, Eichmann’s apparent innocuousness suggests that people must actively insist on moral thought—must reflect on their actions and their consequences, and particularly consider the experiences and suffering of others—lest they become unwitting agents of evil.
The Banality of Evil ThemeTracker
The Banality of Evil Quotes in Eichmann in Jerusalem
Justice demands that the accused be prosecuted, defended, and judged, and that all the other questions of seemingly greater import—of “How could it happen?” and “Why did it happen?,” of “Why the Jews?” and “Why the Germans?,” of “What was the role of other nations?” and “What was the extent of co-responsibility on the side of the Allies?,” of “How could the Jews through their own leaders cooperate in their own destruction?” and “Why did they go to their death like lambs to the slaughter?”—be left in abeyance. Justice insists on the importance of Adolf Eichmann, son of Karl Adolf Eichmann, the man in the glass booth built for his protection: medium-sized, slender, middle-aged, with receding hair, ill-fitting teeth, and nearsighted eyes, who throughout the trial keeps craning his scraggy neck toward the bench (not once does he face the audience), and who desperately and for the most part successfully maintains his self-control despite the nervous tic to which his mouth must have become subject long before this trial started. On trial are his deeds, not the sufferings of the Jews, not the German people or mankind, not even anti Semitism and racism.
Alas, nobody believed him. The prosecutor did not believe him, because that was not his job. Counsel for the defense paid no attention because he, unlike Eichmann, was, to all appearances, not interested in questions of conscience. And the judges did not believe him, because they were too good, and perhaps also too conscious of the very foundations of their profession, to admit that an average, “normal” person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong. They preferred to conclude from occasional lies that he was a liar—and missed the greatest moral and even legal challenge of the whole case. Their case rested on the assumption that the defendant, like all “normal persons,” must have been aware of the criminal nature of his acts, and Eichmann was indeed normal insofar as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime.” However, under the conditions of the Third Reich only “exceptions” could be expected to react “normally.” This simple truth of the matter created a dilemma for the judges which they could neither resolve nor escape.
From a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement that always kept moving and in which somebody like him—already a failure in the eyes of his social class, of his family, and hence in his own eyes as well—could start from scratch and still make a career.
This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés, (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him […] The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.
In his mind, there was no contradiction between “I will jump into my grave laughing,” appropriate for the end of the war, and “I shall gladly hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth,” which now, under vastly different circumstances, fulfilled exactly the same function of giving him a lift.
What for Hitler, the sole, lonely plotter of the Final Solution (never had a conspiracy, if such it was, needed fewer conspirators and more executors), was among the war’s main objectives, with its implementation given top priority, regardless of economic and military considerations, and what for Eichmann was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world.
“I, the undersigned, Adolf Eichmann, hereby declare out of my own free will that since now my true identity has been revealed, I see clearly that it is useless to try and escape judgment any longer. I hereby express my readiness to travel to Israel to face a court of judgment, an authorized court of law. It is clear and understood that I shall be given legal advice [thus far, he probably copied], and I shall try to write down the facts of my last years of public activities in Germany, without any embellishments, in order that future generations will have a true picture. This declaration I declare out of my own free will, not for promises given and not because of threats. I wish to be at peace with myself at last. Since I cannot remember all the details, and since I seem to mix up facts, I request assistance by putting at my disposal documents and affidavits to help me in my effort to seek the truth.” Signed: “Adolf Eichmann, Buenos Aires, May 1960.”
Adolf Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity. He had asked for a bottle of red wine and had drunk half of it. He refused the help of the Protestant minister, the Reverend William Hull, who offered to read the Bible with him: he had only two more hours to live, and therefore no “time to waste.” He walked the fifty yards from his cell to the execution chamber calm and erect, with his hands bound behind him. When the guards tied his ankles and knees, he asked them to loosen the bonds so that he could stand straight. “I don’t need that,” he said when the black hood was offered him. He was in complete command of himself, nay, he was more: he was completely himself. Nothing could have demonstrated this more convincingly than the grotesque silliness of his last words. He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläubiger, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” In the face of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows, his memory played him the last trick; he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral.
It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us—the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.
Just as a murderer is prosecuted because he has violated the law of the community, and not because he has deprived the Smith family of its husband, father, and breadwinner, so these modern, state-employed mass murderers must be prosecuted because they violated the order of mankind, and not because they killed millions of people. Nothing is more pernicious to an understanding of these new crimes, or stands more in the way of the emergence of an international penal code that could take care of them, than the common illusion that the crime of murder and the crime of genocide are essentially the same, and that the latter therefore is “no new crime properly speaking.” The point of the latter is that an altogether different order is broken and an altogether different community is violated.
“You yourself claimed not the actuality but only the potentiality of equal guilt on the part of all who lived in a state whose main political purpose had become the commission of unheard-of crimes. And no matter through what accidents of exterior or interior circumstances you were pushed onto the road of becoming a criminal, there is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done. We are concerned here only with what you did, and not with the possible noncriminal nature of your inner life and of your motives or with the criminal potentialities of those around you. You told your story in terms of a hard-luck story, and, knowing the circumstances, we are, up to a point, willing to grant you that under more favorable circumstances it is highly unlikely that you would ever have come before us or before any other criminal court. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”