Book review: “The Banality of Evil”

I have been meaning to read Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil for a while now, and I was excited to finally have the chance to open it. I stumbled upon Arendt’s name originally while reading The Existentialist Cafe. Her name was mentioned next to a few other German philosophers of the day, Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger. Arendt was a Jewish philosopher-turned journalist after her escape from Nazi Germany. The Banality of Evil originated as a series of articles in The New Yorker documenting the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the officer in charge of organizing the transporting of Jews to the death camps in Nazi Germany. The trial occurred in the sixties in the still fairly new state of Israel, after the Israeli secret service kidnapped Eichmann who had escaped to Argentina under a pseudonym after the war.

The book is so gripping, because if the moral questions with which it wrestles– questions that are still relevant to this day. The book was very controversial in its day– and perhaps still so. The basic premise of the book, as indicated by the title, is that evil need not be done by horrible monsters who have no soul. As stated in the introduction:

Evil need not be committed only by demonic monsters but– with disastrous effect– by morons and imbeciles as well, especially if, as we see in our own day, their deeds are sanctioned by religious authority.

and

Nearly everybody who attended the trials of mass killers after the war, came away with the disconcerting impression that the killers looked pretty much like you and me.

Religious authority in mentioned in the first quote, because Arendt holds the Jewish leadership in Germany complicit in the deaths of the millions of Jews. The Nazi killing machine wouldn’t be nearly as effective as it was if it didn’t have the support of the Jewish leadership, who helped to plan and organize the deportation of their own people to the death camps. It wasn’t that they didn’t know where they were sending them; they did. But they did it anyway in hopes of saving a few. If the Jewish leadership hadn’t been so efficient at carrying out orders from the Nazis, if they had chosen to resist, the Nazis wouldn’t have had the manpower to carry out the Final Solution by force. Arendt was criticized as a “self-hating Jew” in her own day, because she took such a hard line against the Jews in Germany.

Adolf Eichmann: Paper-pushing Bureaucrat

The star of the show in Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann wasn’t a Hitler type. He didn’t seem evil from the outside. In fact, he seemed utterly boring, at least the way Arendt tells it. He showed up to his office every day– he was just doing his job. And that was his main defense– could he be held responsible for just carrying out orders? He didn’t even hate Jews, the way he told it.

This theme throughout the book, what happens when your conscience conflicts with the directives of your superiors. What do you do in this space? What is morally right? Can you be held responsible, or is the blame only carried by those giving the orders? If that was the case, then Germany wasn’t really at fault at all, right? Hitler and a few close associates were the ones driving the machine. But that is a dangerous line of thought. Each individual is responsible for his own actions.

Eichmann uses an apt term for this brand of blind obedience, Kadavergehorsam, which is directly translated as “the obedience of corpses.” He viewed it as a virtue. Just contemplating being without orders gave him an existential crisis: I sensed I would have to live a leaderless and difficult individual life, I would receive no directives from anybody, no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me, no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult– in brief, a life never known lay before me. He said that he was always careful to be “covered” by orders. I can’t be blamed, if I’m just doing what I’m told to do.

This is frightening, because morality as is taught in a religious setting, is reduced to just following orders. There are individuals in my own faith community who would follow their leaders regardless of what they are asked to do. I could see that leading to horrible places given the right set of circumstances. But religious folks aren’t the only ones I’m worried about. It’s reducing to morality to legality– if something is legal, then it is OK, right? And when we make it taboo to talk about moral questions in the public sphere, we train people to turn their consciences off. We need to talk about things like this more often.

Banality of Evil

Evil need not be committed only by demonic monsters but– with disastrous effect– by morons and imbeciles as well, especially if, as we see in our own day, their deeds are sanctioned by religious authority.

Nearly everybody who attended the trials of mass killers after the war, came away with the disconcerting impression that the killers looked pretty much like you and me.

Didn’t hate Jews

He went to considerable lengths to prove his point: he had never harbored ill feelings against his victims, and, what is more, he had never made a secret of the fact.

Just Following Orders

He remembered perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do– to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and the most meticulous care.

His quote: I sensed I would have to live a leaderless and difficult individual life, I would receive no directives from anybody, no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me, no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult– in brief, a life never known lay before me.

had never made a decision on his own, who was extremely careful always to be “covered” by orders.

Kadavergehorsam, the obedience of corpses, for blind obedience

“Objectivity”

“Absorptive capacity” of killing installations.

This “objective” attitude– talking about concentration camps in terms of “administration” and about extermination camps in terms of “economy”– was typical of the S.S. mentality, and something Eichmann, at the trial, was still very proud of. By it’s “objectivity” the S.S. dissociated itself from such “emotional” types as Streicher.

Trial quote from the defense: “Dr. Servatius, I assume you made a slip of the tongue when you said that killing by gas was a medical matter.” to which Servatius replied: “It was indeed a medical matter, since it was prepared by physicians; it was a matter of killing, and killing, too, is a medical matter.”

Conscience

If it was of small legal relevance, it was of great political interest to know how long it takes an average person to overcome his innate repugnance toward crime, and what exactly happens to him once he has reached that point.

The problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around, as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!

When Eichmann was invited attend a meeting of the higher-ups in the government, not a single person quibbled with the proposed final solution. And this was the moment when Eichmann felt fully justified: “At that moment, I sensed a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling, for I felt free of all guilt.” Who was he to judge? Who was he “to have his own thoughts in this matter”?… As Eichmann told it, the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience was the simply fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solution.

A counter to that is the story of the Danes:

When the Germans approached [the Danes] rather cautiously about introducing the yellow badge, they were simply told that the King would be the first to wear it, and the Danish government officials were careful to point out that anti-Jewish measures of any sort would cause their own immediate resignation.

He did not need to “close his ears to the voice of conscience,” as the judgment has it, not because he has none, but because his conscience spoke with a “respectable voice,” with the voice of respectable society around him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: