[This item first appeared as a guest post at A Fistful of Euros in February 2004. It hasn't previously appeared on normblog.]
Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in 1961. In doing so she popularized the phrase 'the banality of evil', applying it to Adolf Eichmann in particular. Arendt referred to...
... the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us - the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil. [All quotations from Eichmann in Jerusalem, except as otherwise indicated.]A certain amount of misunderstanding has been generated by Arendt's use of this phrase. That is in part because it was inapt to her intended meaning; in part perhaps also because it may have been inapt to its principal object - Eichmann.
The dictionary gives, for 'banal': 'commonplace', 'trivial'. But it would be wrong to infer that Arendt thought the evil itself that she was talking about, and for which Eichmann was responsible, was commonplace or trivial. How could she have? To the contrary, she wrote of the 'unspeakable horror of the deeds', and called them, also, 'monstrous'. Neither was there any intent on her part, by use of the given phrase, to exculpate the perpetrators or lessen their degree of responsibility. I shall come back to this point.
Arendt's main thought was not in fact the banality of the evil, but rather the banality of the perpetrators of it. With reference to Eichmann, she spoke of the 'ludicrousness of the man'; she said that, like most others implicated in the crimes, he was 'neither perverted nor sadistic… [but] terribly and terrifyingly normal', and without 'any diabolical or demonic profundity'; what characterized him was 'sheer thoughtlessness' - or, as she put it in another piece ('Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture', Social Research 38, 1971), 'extraordinary shallowness' and a 'quite authentic inability to think'.
Was this all true of Eichmann? Perhaps not. When Arendt saw him on trial in Jerusalem, he was no longer the animator and organizer of the 'Final Solution', but a man with no shred left of the power he had once wielded, now facing judgement before the world. The image he presented might not have been a reliable guide to the person he had been before. In any event, the work of Raul Hilberg, Christopher Browning and others confirms Arendt's more general point. This was that, by and large, the perpetrators of the Nazi genocide were 'normal' people, ordinary human beings. We have to understand what they did precisely as a fact about the evil human beings can do. Not only were they not devils or monsters psychologically speaking; for the most part they were not even abnormally sadistic or inherently brutal, or killers 'by nature', and so forth.
Other work - by Sigmund Bauman, Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo - ties in with Arendt's thesis. The participants in, executants of, the 'Final Solution' represented an ordinary cross section of people, most of whom would have passed successfully through any standard set of psychological screening tests. That is the bad news we have to come to terms with, those of us who haven't already. As it has been expressed in a more dramatic way by Elie Wiesel:
Yes, it is possible to defile life and creation and feel no remorse. To tend one's garden and water one's flowers but two steps away from barbed wire... To go on vacation, be enthralled by the beauty of a landscape, make children laugh - and still fulfil regularly, day in and day out, the duties of [a] killer.I shall express one or two reservations about Arendt's thesis, nonetheless. First, unless my own reading in the literature of the Judeocide is atypical - and it isn't - the 'banality of evil' thesis, like the companion modernity thesis (of Bauman et al.), seems to me to understate the amount of sheer sadism and cruelty there in fact was in the implementation of that horror. Correspondingly, the accent put by both of those theses on social and administrative structures in easing the path of human conscience towards barbarity gives insufficient weight to - where it does not altogether deny - those human-natural impulses of cruelty, the actual enjoyment of the misfortunes of others, regularly unleashed when the usual restraining circumstances allow them to be.
I also have a wider theoretical misgiving about the emphasis on perpetrator normality: this is that it runs the risk of permitting the sociology and psychology which is involved in trying to understand what happened to displace the ethical perspective. Let us return to Arendt's writing. On the face of it she was unambiguous about Eichmann having to bear the moral responsibility for his deeds. From a moral point of view she dismissed the notion that, in similar circumstances, others might have acted similarly to him. As though addressing the man himself, Arendt declared:
there is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done.But in explaining Eichmann, his mentality, his normality, Arendt also speaks of his committing crimes...
under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.If it is well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel it, though, mustn't this at least mitigate the degree of his moral responsibility?
From an interpretative point of view I think we are bound to stick with Arendt's assignment of full responsibility to Eichmann, since she is so clear and emphatic about it. On the other hand, I believe that all the talk, in the relevant literature, of the normality of the perpetrators carries a danger of encouraging us to think: well, because of these psychological pressures, these social mechanisms or administrative structures, those patterns of internal rationalization and so on, what the perpetrators did is 'understandable'. But isn't there a sense in which, as Primo Levi wrote, one must refuse to understand? Or one must say: each and all of the factors - social, psychological or whatever - that tempted or pressured you, they are understandable; still, you made a choice or choices which you should not have made and which others did not make - you crossed the line.
Normality has an ethical meaning as well as social and psychological meanings. To participate in the mass murder and the torture of other human beings is, ethically, not normal but monstrous. What better definition of an abnormally cruel person than that he or she presided over or participated in abnormal cruelties?