Sunday, July 18, 2021

Meaning of Arednt's "Banality of Evil" Explained

The term banality of evil was coined by Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), philosopher and political theorist German of Jewish origin , one in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem , whose subtitle is A report on the banality of evil .


In 1961, in Israel , the trial of Adolf Eichmann for genocide against the Jewish people during World War II began . The trial was involved in great controversy and many controversies. Almost every newspaper in the world sent journalists to cover the sessions, which were held publicly by the Israeli government.

In addition to crimes against the Jewish people, Eichmann was charged with crimes against humanity and with belonging to a group organized for criminal purposes. Eichmann was convicted of all these crimes and hanged in 1962, in the vicinity of Tel Aviv .

One of the correspondents present at the trial, as an envoy from The New Yorker magazine , was Hannah Arendt.

Eichmann in Jerusalem

In 1963, based on his reports of the trial and especially his philosophical-political knowledge, Arendt wrote a book that he titled Eichmann in Jerusalem . In it, he describes not only the development of the sessions, but also makes an analysis of the "individual Eichmann."

According to Arendt, Adolf Eichmann did not possess an anti-Semitic background or characteristics and did not present the traits of a person with a devious character or mentally ill. He acted as he did simply out of a desire to advance in his professional career, and his actions were a result of following orders from superiors. He was a simple bureaucrat who followed orders without reflecting on their consequences. For Eichmann, everything was done with zeal and efficiency, and there was in him a feeling of "right" or "wrong" in his actions.

In these last minutes it was as if Eichmann himself was drawing the conclusion of the long lesson on human wickedness that we had attended - the conclusion of the terrible "banality of evil" before which the word fails and where thought fails.
It was as if in those last minutes [Eichmann] summed up the lesson that his long career of evil has taught us, the lesson of the terrible banality of evil , before which words and thought feel powerless.

The phrase 

For Arendt, Eichmann was not the "monster", the "well of evil" that was considered by most of the press. Eichmann's acts were not excusable, nor was he innocent, but these acts were not carried out because Eichmann was endowed with an immense capacity for cruelty, but because he was a bureaucrat, an operative within a system based on acts of extermination.

On this analysis Arendt coined the expression "banality of evil" to express that some individuals act within the rules of the system to which they belong without reflecting on their actions. They do not care about the consequences of their actions, only about the fulfillment of orders. Torture, the execution of human beings or the practice of "evil" acts are not considered from their effects or their final result, provided that the orders to execute them come from higher levels.

Hannah Arendt discusses the complexity of the human condition and warns that it is necessary to always be attentive to what she called the "banality of evil" and prevent it from happening.

Today the phrase "banality of evil" is used with a universal meaning to describe the behavior of some historical figures who committed acts of extreme cruelty and without any compassion for other human beings, for whom no traumas or any deviation of the personality have been found that would justify their acts. In short, they were "normal people," despite the acts they committed.