Economy · August 6, 2022

Hannah Arendt’s Chilling Thesis on Evil

Reprinted by the Foundation for Economic Education

Nine months after the death of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann at the end of a noose in Israel, a controversial but thoughtful commentary on his trial appeared in The New Yorker. The public reaction stunned its author, the famous political theorist and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). It was February 1963.

Eichmann’s assessment by an eyewitness of Arendt as “terribly Other terrifying normal ”took the world by surprise. His phrase, “the banality of evil,” has entered the lexicon of the social sciences, probably forever. It was taken for granted that Eichmann, despite his quiet, avuncular demeanor, must be a monster of epic proportions to play such an important role in one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century.

“I was just following orders,” he said in the plain, colorless way of a typical bureaucrat. The world thought his performance was a devilishly deceptive spectacle, but Hannah Arendt concluded that Eichmann was indeed a rather “ordinary” and “non-thinking” functional.

How numb he is! A betrayal of the Jewish people himself! How can a caring person dismiss Eichmann so casually ?! Arendt’s critics criticized her with such accusations mercilessly, but they didn’t get the point. You have neither forgiven nor excused Eichmann’s complicity in the Holocaust. You have witnessed firsthand the horrors of National Socialism, having fled Germany in 1933 after a brief stint in a Gestapo prison for “anti-state propaganda”. She did not claim that Eichmann was innocent, only that the crimes she was guilty of did not require a “monster” to commit them.

How many times have you noticed that people behave antisocial because of the hope of camouflage, the desire to avoid isolation as a recalcitrant and non-compliant individual? Have you ever seen someone hurt because “everyone else was doing it”? The fact that we have all observed these things, and that any of the culprits could easily, under the right circumstances, become an Adolf Eichmann, is a chilling realization.

As Arendt explained, “getting along with the rest and saying ‘we’ was enough to make the greatest of all crimes possible.”

Eichmann was a “superficial” and “clueless” carpenter, someone whose thoughts never ventured deeper than becoming a cog in the great, historic Nazi machine. In a way, he was an instrument of evil more than evil itself.

Commenting on Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil”, the philosopher Thomas White writes: “Eichmann reminds us of the protagonist of the novel by Albert Camus The stranger (1942), who casually and casually kills a man, but then later feels no remorse. There was no particular intention or obvious evil motive: the act simply ‘happened’. “

Perhaps Hannah Arendt underestimated Eichmann. After all, he attempted to hide the evidence and cover up his tracks long before the Israelis captured him in Argentina in 1960, facts which suggest that he actually understood the seriousness of his crimes. It is undeniable, however, that “normal” people are capable of horrific crimes when possessed by power or the desire to obtain it, especially if it helps them “fit in” to the gang that already wields it.

The big lesson of his thesis, I think, is this: if Evil is called, don’t expect him to be stupid enough to advertise himself as evil. He is much more likely to look like your favorite uncle or sweet grandmother. He may simply be hiding in grandiloquent clichés like “equality”, “social justice” and “the common good”. He could also be a prominent member of Parliament or Congress.

Maximilien Robespierre and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, I suggested in a recent essay, were peas in the same pod as Eichmann: ordinary people who committed extraordinarily heinous acts.

Hannah Arendt is recognized as one of the leading political thinkers of the 20th century. She was very prolific and her books are still good sellers almost half a century after her death. He also remains eminently quotable, writing concise lines such as “Political issues are too serious to be left to politicians”, “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution” and “The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who have never decided to be either evil or good ”.

Some of Arendt’s friends on the left have swallowed the myth that Hitler and Stalin occupied opposite ends of the political spectrum. He knew best. Both were evil collectivists and enemies of the individual (see list of suggested readings below). “Hitler never intended to defend the West from Bolshevism,” he wrote in his 1951 book. The origins of totalitarianism“but he was always ready to join the ‘reds’ for the destruction of the West, even in the midst of the struggle against Soviet Russia”.

To appreciate Hannah Arendt more fully, I offer here some additional examples of her writings:

When we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes the rule of a totalitarian dictatorship or any other dictatorship possible is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everyone is always lying to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that no one believes anything anymore. This is because lies, by their very nature, must be changed and a lying government must constantly rewrite its history. From the receiving end you not only get a lie – a lie that you could continue for the rest of your days – but you get a large number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people who can no longer believe in anything can not make up their own minds, they are deprived not only of their capacity to act, but also of their capacity to think and judge. And with such people you can do whatever you want.

The ideal subject of totalitarian government is not the convinced one Nazi or the convinced Communistbut people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie the standards of thought) no longer exist.

The essence of totalitarian governmentand perhaps the nature of any bureaucracy is to make men functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machine, and thus dehumanize them.

The trouble with Eichmann was that so many were like him, and that many were neither perverse nor sadistic, who were, and still are, terribly and terribly normal. From the point of view of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was far more terrifying than all the atrocities combined, as it implied – as was repeatedly asserted in Nuremberg by the defendants and their lawyers – that this new type as a criminal, who in reality is hostis generis humani, he commits his crimes in circumstances that make it almost impossible for him to know or feel that he is wrong.

Totalitarianism begins with contempt for what you have. The second step is the notion: “Things have to change, no matter how. Everything is better than what we have. “Totalitarian rulers organize this kind of mass sentiment, and by organizing it they articulate it, and by articulating it they make people love it somehow. It has been said before, you will not kill; and they have not killed. Now they have been told that you will kill; and even though they think it is very difficult to kill, they do it because it is now part of the code of conduct.

The argument that we cannot judge if we were not present and involved seems to convince everyone everywhere, even though it seems obvious that if it were true, neither the administration of justice nor the writing of history would ever be possible.

Lawrence W Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed is the President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty at the Foundation for Economic Education.

He holds a BA in Economics from Grove City College (1975) and a Masters in History from Slippery Rock State University (1978), both in Pennsylvania. He holds two honorary degrees, one from Central Michigan University (public administration, 1993) and Northwood University (read, 2008).

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