The banality of evil

I’ve just finished reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. It’s an account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. It’s well written. I think I’d expected – both from the title and the from articles I’d read – that there’d be more on the sub-title. That is, the question of the banality of evil; in this case, how a horrific genocide can be perpetrated by a system, a bureaucracy, of people who in many ways do not seem obviously horrendously and horrifically in the same way that their crimes are. As Arendt writes in her epilogue:

… it would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmann was a monster … The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the may were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgement, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied-as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels-that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani [enemy of mankind], commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-night impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. 

That issue, to me, is a central one I’m still thinking about (and what the implications of different conclusions are). There are several books on my list of things I’d like to read that I think will help unpack the issue a little more. But most of Arendt’s book focuses on the mechanics of what Eichmann was accused of, and of the trial. So it was well-written, but not focussed in the area’s I’d expected. 


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