banality, not blindness

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Thomas White's look at Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil discusses, of course, her 1961 reportage for The New Yorker on Adolph Eichmann's war crimes trial:

Arendt found Eichmann an ordinary, rather bland, bureaucrat, who in her words, was 'neither perverted nor sadistic', but 'terrifyingly normal'. He acted without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy. Eichmann was not an amoral monster, she concluded in her study of the case, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Instead, he performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his 'thoughtlessness', a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. Eichmann 'never realised what he was doing' due to an 'inability... to think from the standpoint of somebody else'. Lacking this particular cognitive ability, he 'commit[ted] crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong'.

Arendt dubbed these collective characteristics of Eichmann 'the banality of evil': he was not inherently evil, but merely shallow and clueless, a 'joiner', in the words of one contemporary interpreter of Arendt's thesis: he was a man who drifted into the Nazi Party, in search of purpose and direction, not out of deep ideological belief.

Arendt wrote in 1971 that "The deeds were monstrous, but the doer - at least the very effective one now on trial - was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous." Alan Wolfe, in Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (2011), criticised Arendt for 'psychologising,' and historian Deborah Lipstadt, in The Eichmann Trial (2011), remarked that Arendt's use of the term 'banal' was flawed. Arendt is criticized by others, as well:

In Eichmann Before Jerusalem (2014), the German historian Bettina Stangneth reveals another side to him besides the banal, seemingly apolitical man, who was just acting like any other 'ordinary' career-oriented bureaucrat. Drawing on audiotapes of interviews with Eichmann by the Nazi journalist William Sassen, Stangneth shows Eichmann as a self-avowed, aggressive Nazi ideologue strongly committed to Nazi beliefs, who showed no remorse or guilt for his role in the Final Solution - a radically evil Third Reich operative living inside the deceptively normal shell of a bland bureaucrat. Far from being 'thoughtless', Eichmann had plenty of thoughts - thoughts of genocide, carried out on behalf of his beloved Nazi Party. On the tapes, Eichmann admitted to a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde dualism:
I, '[t]he cautious bureaucrat,' that was me, yes indeed. But ... this cautious bureaucrat was attended by a ... a fanatical [Nazi] warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood, which is my birthright...

Arendt completely missed this radically evil side of Eichmann when she wrote 10 years after the trial that there was 'no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives'. This only underscores the banality - and falsity - of the banality-of-evil thesis. And though Arendt never said that Eichmann was just an innocent 'cog' in the Nazi bureaucracy, nor defended Eichmann as 'just following orders' - both common misunderstandings of her findings on Eichmann - her critics, including Wolfe and Lipstadt, remain unsatisfied.

White provides more context:

By declaring in her pre-Eichmann trial writings that absolute evil, exemplified by the Nazis, was driven by an audacious, monstrous intention to abolish humanity itself, Arendt was echoing the spirit of philosophers such as F W J Schelling and Plato, who did not shy away from investigating the deeper, more demonic aspects of evil. But this view changed when Arendt met Eichmann, whose bureaucratic emptiness suggested no such diabolical profundity, but only prosaic careerism and the 'inability to think'. [...]

Nevertheless, Arendt never downplayed Eichmann's guilt, repeatedly described him as a war criminal, and concurred with his death sentence as handed down by the Israeli court. Though Eichmann's motives were, for her, obscure and thought-defying, his genocidal acts were not. In the final analysis, Arendt did see the true horror of Eichmann's evil.

Arendt describing Eichmann as banal does not imply that she was blind to his butchery.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on April 23, 2018 9:12 AM.

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