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Exploring the Holocaust Through Hannah Arendt's "Banality of Evil"
By Laurence Rosenberg
For the Jewish people, whose history is marked by tragedy and persecution, the holocaust represents perhaps our greatest tragedy. A third of the Jewish people were exterminated, along with one of the world's unique and rich cutures. For the historian, however, the holocaust still remains something of a historical puzzle. How could Germany, a nation so advanced, allow itself sink so low ? How could this national cradle of scientific of intellectual progress, this beacon of musical and literary brilliance, become the home of such atrocities?
In order to understand the holocaust, I believe we must begin by understanding the motivations of those who commited, facilitated and supported the crimes. For me, Hannah Arendt's banality of evil concept provides an important key; her theory points us towards the social and psychological forces present in the hearts, minds, and the environment of these individuals. Now, there are aspects of her theory that I find puzzling and frankly inaccurate, but overall her banality concept provides a good framework for explanation. Accordingly, in this essay I plan to do the following: (1) briefly present her theory; (2) consider some objections to and problems with her banality notion; (3) present a view of the banality of evil that is both more intuitive and comprehensive, yet consistent with her basic idea; (4) use that definition to explore the motivations of the perpetrators ; and (5) conclude with some observations.
THE BANALITY OF EVIL
In Eichmann in Jerusulem Hannah Arendt, one of the 20th century's great political thinkers, noted during his trial that Adolf Eichmann, arch criminal and architect of genocide, seemed, contrary to expectation, more like an ordinary person than the obsessed, hate - spewing persona we associate with Hitler and his acolytes. In fact, Eichmann seemed like a normal individual, albeit puzzlingly intellectually superficial. Quoting Arendt:
his was obviously also no case of insane hatred of Jews or fanatical antisemitism or indoctrintaion of any kind
half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as normal ..one of them was said to have exclaimed
that his whole psychological outlook , his additude toward his wife and children, mother and father, brothers, sisters, and friends was not only normal but desirable.. (p26)
After several months of observing him, Arendt concludes that, despite his intelligence, Eichmann seemed not to fully understand the implications of his fateful administrative decisions. When asked about his role in sending people to their death, Eichmann answered in cliches and stock phrases, reflecting the thoughts of a profoundly shallow and mediocre thinker. It is this inability to think, she feels, that lay behind his lethal actions in the holocaust:
Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or the court , what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think
Despite all efforts of the prosecution everybody could see that this man was not a monster, but it was difficult not to suspect that he was not a clown (p.54)
She ends Eichmann in Jerusalem , an uneven but fairily comprehensive discussion of the Jeruasalem trial, with the following statement, which contained the phrase that would go on to become a figure of speech:
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. (p.252)
She does not give us a definition or clear explanation of what she means by the banality of evil. In fact, she waits until the end of the book to introduce the phrase, and never directly address the concept anywhere else in the book. Nevertheless, we can get a pretty good sense of what she means by reflecting on her portrait of Eichmann.
Her banality of evil thesis disturbed a lot of people, including a lot of serious, intelligent people well versed in Jewish history and Jewish current events. Two reasons that those individuals were disturbed are as follows:
- By thoughtlessness Arendt meant that, "he (Eichmann), to put matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing." (p.286). And so, the argument goes, if he didn't realize what he was doing, then he didn't intend to harm anyone, and so can not really be said to have been guilty of mass murder. An analogy a poor one at that - might be that of a six year old boy pushing buttons on a brightly colored console that launches nuclear weapons. The human damage would be great but the act really could not be considered an evil one. Now, clearly, to argue or to even suggest that this criminal of criminals was not guilty is to provoke a certain and serious response, banality or no banality.
- To describe the evil perpetrated in the holocaust as a commonplace event seems to, in effect, to say it was nothing special; it is to diminish the unique magnitude of this horror, to minimize or marginalize this ultimate of Jewish tragedies. It is almost as though someone were saying" yes, you suffered during the war, but so did we
suffering is nothing special."
Let me now present two of my own criticisms of Arendt's banality of evil concept:
- I don't especially agree with her assessment of Eichmann; I think her picture of him is naive at best. For one thing, her portrait of him as a basically unthinking man insofar as his ability to understand the consequences of actions are concerned - doesn't square with his endeavors. Here was a man who climbed very high and remained very high in the government; he must have possessed a reasonable amount of organizational skill and political saavy to have engineered such a feat. Here was also a man who walked into the offices of the European emperors and prime ministers and asked them to deport their loyal, taxpaying citizens ; he would have seemed quite a fool if he truly had no idea where they were going and conveyed that ignorance. My guess is that he was playing a role in that Jerusalem courtroom; he was acting the innocent- and yes, perhaps, the bufoon- as if to thumb his nose at the Jews and their system of Justice. His fate never in question, the cliches were just a means of passing time. Unlike some of his fellow Nazis he had no intention of pouring his heart out, of asking for mercy, of showing remorse. He expressed no regret not because he was ignorant of the evil acts he set into motion; he expressed no regret because he had no regret. He was a true blue Nazi through and through, a clever man with low self esteem who identified so strongly with his SS brothers that he, upon his death, upheld that identity. These Nazis not his family were what meant most in his life, as his farewell words would signify.
- I don't think one needs to invoke thoughtlessness for the banality idea to be a valid theory. True, Arendt does emphasize that Eichman's evil had its origin in thoughtlessness, and she does discuss this " strange interdependence of thoughlessness and evil" (p.288). But thoughtlessness is just one cause of evil behavior; it is not the only means by which such acts are committed. Thoughtlesness is one subset of a larger set of drivers of evil; There are also, to quote Arendt, the " evil instincts..inherent in man" (p.288). However, Arendt focuses almost exclusively thoughlessness, and never discusses the other ingredients in the banality of evil concept. I take this to be a significant criticism not of her theory but of of her discussion of the topic. It's a little like discussing physics without referring to the findings of Newton and Einstein. Having proposed a most insightful way of viewing the holocaust, she should have developed the idea further. Of course, for whatever reason, she may not have wanted to.
Let me then try to propose a definition of the banality of evil that is broader than the one implied by the sole example of Eichmann. For me , the banality of evil concept is a workable, intuitively sensible explanation if you frame it as follows:
The motives, character, and acts of the holocaust were no different in kind from those in everyday life. If you understand the common acts of human cruelty you will get a sense of how people could have accomplished this program of destruction, and how people continue to do so. What made the holocaust distinct was its scale and genocidal intent; it was different in degree but not in kind from the everyday, human phenomena of evil actions. Moreover, if one were able to recreate similar conditions, something similar could happen again.
The concept of the banality of evil as described here implies a program or undertaking; it implies a research project to try and understand under what conditions ordinary people can be led to do these horrible things. It is this program that led psychologists such as Milgram and Zimbardo to do their experiments.
What makes Arendts theory so attractive? Why does it generate such discussion to this day? The reason is that her notion addresses the incomprehensibility of the holocaust. What perplexes us about the holocaust is not only the level of cruelty and the unprecedented magnitude of the murder, but that it took place in a country among people and a time similar to ours. That a twentieth century government of educated people should adopt an official policy to murder its own citizens, and to have the whole country comply with that plan, just baffles us.
Accordingly, people try to explain the holocaust by looking outside the range of normal , human explanation; some suggest that the actors were somehow monsters not really human; others posit grand theories of evil. But to mytholigize the holocaust in this way, to posit some new metaphysical force (such as radical evil), to propose some new change in human behavior, to suggest that we need to appeal to some reality that breaches the boundary of human nature is wrong; for to choose such an approach is to depersonalize the perpetrators, in so doing, takes from them their culpability and responsibility for their very human actions.
For the holocaust to have taken place, there had to be three broad elements: an infrastructure- by which I mean buildings, equipment, policies, transportation mechanisms, etc.; agents to accomplish the task; and a compliant population. The agents- from the lowest Nazi guard to the top government officials- are the individuals who the banality concept focuses on, but I believe that supporters among the general population were of a similar mind and importance as well. With the banality concept in mind, let us turn our attention these agents and see if we can discover what led them to do this evil day after day. I will begin by making few general observations about evil and evildoers.
First, most of these perpetrators were males, young and middle aged, and, as such, were impelled by the same human elements that impel male egos everywhere- competition, conquest, impressing one's peers, impressing females, etc. But these males lived in a twisted world, choices were limited in a lethal fashion, their energies directed toward darker goals.
Second, evil acts, those acts which one causes another to suffer or die, are usually performed for some purpose. Sometimes the goal is primarily to harm the other person; most of the time the goal is something else, but harm is a necessary by-product. Our recent financial rogues were motivated by their desire for material things. The financial ruin they caused many people took place because that desire. But money was the object, not to cause suffering. I am sure they would have been just as happy to take the cash without causing the pain.
Third, when we look at the act of evil, or a pattern of evil behavior, it is useful to distinguish the impulse to act from the feeling that inhibits it. It is usually the fear of punishment or reprisal keeps us from doing bad things; guilt is the other roadblock. Let us take each of these in turn:
- The Will to Power- The desire to exert power over other human beings has been the most significant driving force of historical change, from Alexander to Charlemagne to Mao. Imagine you are an officer or SS commandant in a concentration camp, and you are the one to determine who will get to live and who will be sent to die. How powerful that must make you feel! Imagine further that your victims go forth, following orders, knowing they will die; and even further, that march forward without protesting, abiding out of pure obedience then and multiply this by tens of thousands. What power!
- Social status. On one level, to become member of the SS would hold a tremendous attraction for a young man. Not are you only feared and respected by the member of any country you conquer, but you are feared and respected at home. Incidentally, this is why many young men become policemen. The desire to be an authority figure must be all the more powerful in a historically patriarchal society with a tradition of discipline and obedience. But there is a deeper reason to want to be a member of the SS. In countries that are both legally skewed towards the ruling party and morally corrupt, the need to be in favor with the ruling party becomes everything. Unlike a meritocracy, personal advancement in life depends on the party. Similarly, security depends on your status with the party. The SS had a special status in the third Reich; they were the ultimate " in " crowd. Young Germans could not imagine that the thousand- year Reich would ever end, and so ambitious young men probably felt their future was well served by getting a position with the SS.
- Conformity and hate. Activities that reinforce one's identity as a member of a group are the strongest behavioral motivator for boys and remain a strong influence throughout life. The peer group serves as a way of connecting people and as a means of security in a world that is frightening. To lose ones' membership or stature in a group can be psychologically painful. Both of these psychological realities lie behind the desire to of young boys and men conform to the group's values and behavior. One of the most powerful and common instances of conformity are expressions and acts against a common enemy. This phenomenon, in my experience, lies at the heart of racial hatred.
So, if you are able to manipulate the behavioral norms of the group determine what is cool - you determine behavior, because you are able to leverage the conformity impulse. Advertisers understand this sort of thing quite well, as did the Nazis. Goebbels used the modern media to shape the attitudes and behavior, and it's effect was most pronounced on the male youth.
Let us now consider the inhibitory aspect of these evil acts. The question arises here are: How could these educated young men- many with families of their own- have done these deeds? Didn't they have consciences? Didn't they feel guilty about what they did? The answer is yes; they did certainly did feel guilt and revulsion and hesitation, as Himmler was all too well aware. Fifteen centuries of Judeo Christian ethics made it quite clear what was wrong and right. So then, if, as the banality idea implies, the Nazi and their conspirators were people similar us, how did they deal psychologically and socially with these vicious acts they committed?
- Rationalization: although most of the folks I know certainly have not committed any crimes against humanity, it would be foolish and naïve to suppose that we are all saints and have not ever done anything wrong. Although we may know we are doing something wrong, the benefit of the desired outcome invariably drives us through the guilt. A policeman may feel bad about firing a stun gun or tackling an out-of-control psychiatric patient, but it is the right thing to do if others are in danger. When we do something wrong, the one thing we seem to need is something to justify our actions, especially to ourselves. We need to have some excuse to hang our hat on, no matter how farfetched it might be. For once you find an anchor for your misdeed you can construct an indefensible web of excuses to baffle even your most cunning internal prosecutor. Himmler and Goebbels realized that people charged with murder and cruel actions faced a moral dilemma, so they provided a justification: the Jew is a traitor, an enemy in our midst. Socially isolated and publicly banished, the Jews had no opportunity to counter this fiction, and so the fiction and it's credibility in the eyes of the populace grew.
- Displace the responsibility on one's superiors: When asked why they committed these crimes, a number of Nazis said, in one form or another, "I was just following orders. " This answer, at least in the very obedience-driven, patriarchal society of Germany, was ordinarily a mark of good citizenship. And, in a very narrow way, these Nazis were doing something admirable; they were serving their country, obeying orders, an making money to provide for their families. Of course the "just following orders" answer misses the bigger picture. The real question is, "once you realized what was involved, why did you continue to keep at this job murder or assist in murder instead of finding a different job?
- Denial: An essential psychological coping mechanism, denial lets us live with ourselves; it is a way of putting out of our immediate consciouness things that disturb us so that we can function. I must confess, however, that I cannot imagine that to murder hundreds of innocent human beings is something one can forget at the end of the day. I do think that denial took place on both a personal and on a societal level. On personal level, there must be a level of insensitivity that accompanies such acts of cruelty; it would be an emotional denial of sorts.
On a larger level, there was a public sort of denial which was paradoxical. Even though there was official condemnation of the Jews and public acknowledgement of their threat, there was no official discussion of a solution. You would think the government would want to get credit for ridding people of this existential menace, for helping to ensure the safety of their citizens. But they wanted to keep the impression of a Jewish threat alive, even as they erased the Jewish populace. They did this for two reasons: one, to perpetuate the notion of the Jew as villain and traitor, among us, as we discussed earlier; and two, to let the German citizens know that their freedoms could be taken away as easily as that of the Jews. One advantages of having Jews as the public enemy is that it allowed the Nazis to create an atmosphere of fear which kept population in check on their toes, if you will - without threatening the populace directly. Goebbels' strategy was to both enlist support for the Nazis as well as to create fear; in so doing, he met both of Machiavelli's conditions for compliance - to both loved and feared. Were the Jewish camps made official knowledge, there might have been more of a reaction, but have the camps known only through the grapevine made the world less defined, more ominous.
Arendt's idea that the inability to think is at the root of evil rests on the assumption that rationality, or reason, is the antidote to evil. Accordingly, if Eichmann were thinking seriously about what he did and realized the implications of his actions, he would not have done as he did. Rational thinking as an antidote to evil action reflects both her intellectual heritage as well as, perhaps, a bias towards reason as the basis of moral behavior. Assuming that she is correct, it is frightening to see how little power the force of reason had over the force of evil. Germany certainly had its share of intellectual resources, but the force of evil clearly prevailed. Perhaps there is a lesson here as we face the evils and irrationalities of our day.
Also, if in fact the holocaust was an product of normal, human, commonplace evil- an outsized example of that commonplace evil to be sure then one would expect to see, in the course of history, more examples of this behavior. And, in fact, we do. Looking at the long parade of Jewish history, in virtually every country beginning with the Diaspora in 70 C.E, the Jews have been persecuted, imprisoned and murdered. Of course, the magnitude of suffering during the holocaust was greater than anything that happened before, but there have been mini holocausts all along- in Spain for instance, or Russia. We don't ordinarily think of these events - the pogrom, the Inquisition - as mini- holocausts, but keep in mind that the holocaust was both closer to us in time and documented, making it seem more real. In fact, it would seem that, until this century, anti-Semitism was more the rule than the exception, that hatred for Jews was woven into the fabric of most societies; that it was really quite commonplace, quite banal.
* * * * *
The primary text I have used is: Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Books, 1963)
Other sources are as follows:
Bernstein, Richard J., "Are Arendt's Reflections on Evil Still Relevant?" The Review of Politics 70/1 (2008) p.64
Benhabib, Seyla, "Identity, Perspective and Narrative in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem" History and Memory 8/2 (1996) p. 35
Haslan, S. Alexander, and Reicher, Stephen D "Questioning the Banality of Evil" The Psychologist 21/1 (2007) p.16
Geddes, Jennifer "Banal Evil and Useless Knolwdge" Hyapatia 18/1 (2003) p.105
Magnus , Bernd "Holocaust Child: Reflections on the Banality of Evil" Philosophy Today 41/(1997) p.8
Guess, George "Rethinking the Banality of Evil" Public Administration Review 68/6 (2008) p. 1152. (A review of David Cesarini's Book Becoming Eichmann : Rethinking the Life,Times and Trial of a Desk Murderer Cambridge: Da Capo, 2004)
from the August 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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