The second chapter of Leo Tolstoy’s short story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” begins with the following sentence: “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” I first read this story as a teenager and I can remember being more than a little struck by it; what is this “therefore”? Some years later I read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, the famous subtitle of which is A Report on the Banality of Evil. Since the book’s publication in 1963 this phrase has enjoyed wide currency: evil is banal or, as Tolstoy would say, simple and ordinary. What does this mean? The word “evil” today most often has a religious connotation, but Arendt wasn’t using it in this way. What was she getting at?
The book itself was Arendt’s account of the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. In it she was highly critical of the prosecution’s efforts to portray Eichmann as a moral monster, a kind of criminal mastermind who orchestrated the holocaust or a good part of it. Arendt’s point was that he was no such thing—and this is precisely what is interesting about him. One could say of his life precisely that it “had been most simple and most ordinary.” He was an ordinary, average man—a civil servant who was unremarkable both in terms of his actions during the Nazi period and in his inner life as well. He was not a bloodthirsty ghoul, nor was he anything like Hitler. What makes him interesting is that in an important sense he is us. If he had been living not under Nazi rule but in ordinary circumstances, he would have been little different than most of us. When we examine the psychology behind his crimes, the reasons and motivations that led to them, we see that his motivations are our motivations and his whole way of thinking is not much different than ours. He was inauthentic, as the existentialists would say, but that’s about it. Indeed he personified the inauthentic life, but what he was not is bloodthirsty or even malicious. He didn’t hate Jews, he wasn’t an Aryan nationalist or a Nazi believer. He was an ordinary man taking orders, a functionary in the Nazi machinery and nothing more. He had no imagination and a faulty memory but was neither unusually intelligent nor stupid. His qualities were entirely ordinary, and so were his vices.
It became important to Arendt to understand what exactly were Eichmann’s failings. This is the primary question of the book and we find her struggling to find an answer. The man who showed up at the trial was not at all what we expected to see, and he wasn’t what the prosecution had promised. We expected a Hitler-clone, a raving lunatic, or at least a racist, and he didn’t seem to be any of these things. What made him tick, and why did he do what he did? These are the same questions we ask today after some violent crime: what could have brought someone to do this? We want to believe the perpetrator is in some basic way unlike us: he is insane, psychotic, a terrorist, or at least a drug addict. We don’t want to hear that he is exactly like us: he comes from where we come from, believes what we believe, is not a religious fanatic, and is no crazier than we are. The aim of the trial and of the book is to render justice, so what was this man’s crime? Eichmann was one of the most infamous men of his times, and this was to be a show trial. His crime was not that he was a major orchestrator of the holocaust, or not single-handedly anyway. He was not a leading figure in Nazi politics; indeed he was neither a leader nor an orchestrator of anything. He was by temperament a follower his whole life. He never had the imagination or the originality to be a leader. The holocaust wasn’t his idea; he favored deportation over genocide. It’s not that he amassed power for himself ruthlessly and then abused it. His power was actually fairly limited, and his role was clearly defined within a large and complex bureaucracy. He didn’t abuse his power. For the most part, he was a mid-level bureaucrat doing his job and trying to climb the ladder—except that his job happened to be arranging for the transportation of masses of people to their certain deaths with full knowledge of what he was doing and of where they were going. He was even good at his job, a regular model of efficiency.
He was not a psychopath. His crimes must be different than what the prosecution claimed, and to see what they are we need to look deeper than they did and into the soul of the man. Arendt’s judgment of Eichmann is that he was soulless. He was more than merely inauthentic; he was that too, but he embodied inauthenticity in its purest form. He was even more terrifying than the moral monster: he was a completely ordinary man, one so caught up in the mundane that he lost both the capacity and the inclination to be aware of what he was doing or to tell right from wrong. His real crime, she thought, was a certain thoughtlessness, a willful obliviousness to what was going on around him and his part in it. Thoughtlessness was his most salient characteristic. The man just didn’t think. He did what he was hold, and his mind was dominated by daily demands, deadlines, orders from superiors, and so on, leaving him oblivious to the possibility that something could be terribly wrong or that things don’t have to be this way. This was a failure of reflection, and this is also what made him ordinary: we’re not much more thoughtful than Eichmann was, so Arendt maintained. The main difference between him and us is that we don’t find ourselves in his circumstances.
This is the banality of evil. Evil is commonplace. In the forms that we mostly encounter it, it consists in neither sadistic malevolence nor madness but of ordinary, everyday thoughtlessness and inauthenticity. It is, or can be, ordinary people doing their jobs, but doing it unthinkingly. She calls it a “lack of imagination,” a refusal of attention and empathy. As she put it, “when I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial…. Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all…. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing…. 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…. 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.” Arendt’s goal in writing this was to understand the horror that Nazi Germany represented, in the person of Eichmann. To understand it from the root, we must study the psychology of this man and the banality of evil. By doing this, we can finally come to terms with one of the most terrible events of history. Totalitarianism in general produces a crisis that transcends politics to one of consciousness. What makes it possible is a thoughtlessness that is with us still. Eichmann remains a sign of the times, and so long as this is so, history may well repeat itself. Understanding an historical event like the holocaust is not merely something that we do out of curiosity but is what makes it possible for us to make ourselves at home in the world and to understand the world differently—as not having to be this way. This is even an ontological necessity: we exist in the world by understanding it, including what can often seem to defy understanding itself.
If the concept of evil is to have a place in a secular moral vocabulary, it is likely this one. Simple thoughtlessness can range from an everyday turning away from the plight of the stranger to what Eichmann was guilty of. The circumstances differ while the psychology may not.
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