|Adolf Eichmann on trial|
Arendt, herself a Jewish refugee from Germany before the War, subtitled her book 'A Report on the Banality of Evil', focusing on the fact that Adolf Eichmann seemed to have committed his crimes not because he was a psychopath or anti-semitic, but because he was an unimaginative, ambitious careerist who justified his acts as "legal" under the laws of Nazi Germany and refused (or was perhaps unable) to confront the appalling moral consequences of his own actions. For Arendt, it is his very "averageness" that makes Eichmann so terrifying and so emblematic, "the uncomfortable but hardly deniable possibility that similar crimes may be committed in the future" by similarly "normal" men and women:
"Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified (Eichmann) as "normal" --- "More normal, at any rate, than I am having examined him," one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another had found that his whole psychological outlook, his attitude towards his wife and children, mother and father, brothers, sisters and friends, was "not only normal but most desirable." . . . He himself said that "Officialese is my only language", but the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliche (was it these cliches that the psychiatrists thought so "normal" and "desirable"?).
. . . Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all . . . He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness --- something by no means identical with stupidity --- that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period . . . If, with the best will in the world, one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace . . . That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man --- that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem.
. . . The essence of totalitarian government and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men and thus to dehumanize them . . this new type of criminal commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.
What we have demanded in these trials, where the defendants had committed "legal" crimes (i.e. followed the laws of the Nazi state), is that human beings be capable of telling right from wrong, even when all they have to guide them is their own judgement, which, moreover, happens to be completely at odds with what they must regard as the unanimous opinion of those around them . . . The argument that we cannot judge if we were not present and involved ourselves seems to convince everyone everywhere, although it seems obvious that if it were true, neither the administration of justice nor the writing of history would ever be possible.
. . . the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that "it could happen" in most places, but it did not happen everywhere**. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation."
From: Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963)
* Eichmann was captured by Israeli agents while in hiding in Argentina, in 1960, and taken to Israel, where, in 1962, he was put on trial in Jerusalem for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was found guilty and hanged.
** The emblematic example of resistance (and, therefore, moral agency) cited by Arendt is Denmark, where, despite Nazi occupation, over 99% of the Jewish population was saved from deportation to the death camps through the actions of individual Danish citizens and Danish government officials.