A Truly Pernicious Book: Revisiting Hannah Arendt


A Report on the Banality of Evil
By Hannah Arendt
312 pages. Penguin Classics. $15.00.

The ascription screams calumny, hyperbole surely, yet I aver: this book has arguably wreaked more lasting moral havoc that any other of the last fifty years.

Let me hasten to explain my criteria for this unwelcome laurel. By “pernicious” I don’t mean “wicked.” Wicked are books such as Mein Kampf and its endless procession of clones; Eichmann in Jerusalem is certainly not loathsome in that sense, neither in its intention nor product. But where Hitler’s execrable screed had but marginal effect—its publication a burning match flicked into an already blazing inferno of fascist hatred—Arendt’s book, and in particular, the thesis of its subtitle, “A Report on the Banality of Evil,” has provided intellectual cover for what has become a dominant approach to evil. An approach, I submit, that is philosophically insupportable, psychologically hollow, morally invidious, and politically menacing.

But let’s first clear away the many beckoning asides. This lament is not about Hannah Arendt. These past months, numerous articles have appeared celebrating the 100th anniversary of her birth… and deservedly so. Arendt was a provocative political thinker whose analysis of totalitarianism remains influential, original, and prescient. There are, of course, too, the well-known blotches in her personal life, especially the amorous relationship with her mentor, Martin Heidegger, with whom she renewed friendly contact after the war despite his unrepentant Nazi affiliations. More demanding of our attention, though not the present point either, is the chorus of infelicities regarding Arendt’s Eichmanntext itself. The book’s provenance began as “reportage” on the 1961 Eichmann trial for the New Yorker magazine, and its publication as a book in 1963 sparked immediate and longstanding controversy. Historians railed about Arendt’s many misrepresentations—her “somewhat cavalier attitude toward the facts,” as Walter Laqueur politely complained. Jurists argued with Arendt’s persistent cavil with regard to Israel’s legal standing to hear the case and the court’s subsequent procedures. But the most vociferous anger was directed at Arendt’s portrayal of Jewish leadership and, in particular, her claim that the Judenrat was morally complicit with the German authorities. Her judgmental tone struck many as so lacking in compassion as to border on cruelty; Arendt’s erstwhile friend Gershom Sholem famously wrote to her that, at root, she lacked ahavat yisroel, a love of her fellow Jews. On rereading Eichmann in Jerusalem, one is driven to agree: for Jews, this is an ugly book. But, ugly, too, is not necessarily pernicious.

However, the concept of evil as a banality is pernicious. In insisting that Eichmann was mentally and moral normal, your everyday Hans, Arendt posited a view of evil that cohered with her larger theory about the mechanization of modern technologies. The perpetrators of destruction, she suggested, are but thoughtless cogs in the institutional churning. Evil has become routinized, not personal, and individual intentionality is no longer salient in establishing blame. This conception has now been distilled into commonplace platitudes: “There’s a Nazi lurking in all of us.” Or, “Given the relevant circumstances, we are all capable of participating in mass murder.” Why would a billionaire order his minions to fly planes into tall buildings? Suicide bombers blow up children in mosques? Jihadists slice the throats of infidels? Corporate pirates steal millions? According to the current cliché, it’s because they’re all “caught up” in some system. And so we are permitted to proffer what underlying explanation we will—poverty, injustice, humiliation, bad parenting—any hypothesis whatsoever, but never the straightforward notion of a genuine human choice to commit evil.

But evil is a choice. And it is personal. And intentions do count—including the decision to work for malevolent institutions. And we aren’t all latent torturers or mindless bureaucrats—“little Eichmanns,” as one asinine academic called the victims in the Twin Towers. Indeed, the facts about Eichmann chronicled by his serious biographers reveal someone far from the commonplace corporate climber that Arendt presents. Even before Hitler had arrived on the scene, Eichmann had joined a fascist, anti-Semitic organization and his subsequent career was studded with a relentless eagerness to expedite the annihilation of the Jews. He was not ordinary, but extraordinarily malicious throughout his adulthood. To Arendt, Eichmann’s oft-repeated assertion that he’d “jump laughing into his grave because he had the death of five million Jews on his conscience,” was the mere boasting of a thoughtless, ambitious apparatchik, but all the evidence suggest he certainly meant what he said.

The cliché about the banality of evil is often reinforced with a reference to the renowned Milgram experiments which demonstrated how easy it was to get people to administer “supposed” shocks when ordered to do so. But the breathless extrapolation one learns in psych classes from the willingness to follow a Yale professor’s exhortation to a willingness to serve as a commandant at Auschwitz is ludicrous. (Note that the subjects of these experiments were always assured that these shocks would produce no lasting harm and when the experiment was replicated outside the confines of the university, the majority of subjects refused to comply.)

Columns of determinist schemas have paraded down the centuries attempting to “explain away” evil as something other than individual choice. We’ve had appeals to misaligned stars and incarnations of the devil, to more recent references to imbalances in economies and class. To this list, we can add Arendt’s speculations about technological totalitarianism. On the horizon is the emerging field of “neuroethics,” which locates moral decisions in the hardwiring of the brain. Showing just why all these reductionist moves confuse cause and effect is a complex philosophical challenge. In the end, individual ethical choice will remain on center stage.

Why are so many now drawn to this idea of evil as banal? For one thing, evil’s perpetrators do seem like regular folk—we’re always surprised when that nice next-door neighbor turns out to be the serial pederast. But what do we expect the Eichmanns of the world to look like? Monsters with gnarled claws and blood dripping down their fangs? Conversely, heroes too walk our streets without telltale halos hovering above them. It is, after all, otherwise ordinary people who commit acts of exceptional horror or exceptional good. But that hardly renders as banal either their actions or their moral character.

Hannah Arendt, let me repeat, was a subtle writer who thought hard about the existence of evil, and she certainly is not wholly responsible for the widespread attitude about evil which traces to her controversial book (though she’s not entirely innocent here either). But whatever the prompt, we desperately need to cease promoting these catechisms that proclaim moral equivalency everywhere, this systemic flattening of moral differences. The nobility of the human enterprise entails the recognition that each of us is capable of outstanding good or bad. Alas, reciting the easy mantra about “the banality of evil” has itself become an evil banality.