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The Banality of Evil’

In response to:

Mean Spirits from the November 22, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

Elie Kedourie begins his article “Mean Spirits” (NYR, November 22) with an attack on Hannah Arendt: “In a well-known work on the Eichmann trial Hannah Arendt perversely floated the notion of the banality of evil. What seems to lie behind this idea is that Eichmann was no more than a dim little man whose crimes were simply a byproduct of the daily official routine to which it was his duty as a bureaucrat to attend. But bureaucrats are also human beings, and part of what makes a human being is the capacity to make choices, and specifically moral ones.” The attack is oddly irrelevant, because Arendt pretty explicitly rejects the “bureaucrat defense” and emphasizes that Eichmann was responsible for his actions and was justly condemned to death: “We heard the protestations of the defense that Eichmann was after all only a ‘tiny cog’ in the machinery of the Final Solution, and of the prosecution, which believed it had discovered in Eichmann the actual motor. I myself attributed no more importance to both theories than did the Jerusalem court, since the whole cog theory is legally pointless and therefore it does not matter at all what order of magnitude is assigned to the ‘cog’ named Eichmann. In its judgment the court naturally conceded that such a crime could be committed only by a giant bureaucracy using the resources of government. But in so far as it remains a crime—and that, of course, is the premise for a trial—all the cogs in the machinery, no matter how insignificant, are in court transformed back into perpetrators, that is to say, into human beings” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 289).

Perhaps Kedourie’s outrage is due to his belief that “the banality of evil” means that the consequences of evil are always trivial; he says, “Contrary to Miss Arendt’s glib phrase, choices of this kind can never be banal. If they were, we would not, every time we hear or read about the Nazi treatment of the Jews, feel intimately and profoundly devastated.” Again the attack is oddly irrelevant; for Arendt clearly felt the same sense of horror and expresses it in her very use of the offending phrase: “the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us—the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” (ibid., p. 252).

Kedourie seems to think that the commission of uncommonly horrible crimes requires uncommonly horrible men, in the sense of being monsters. But that is not the case. Kedourie’s own litany of the peoples that cooperated with the Nazis—Poles, Hungarians, Rumanians, etc.—belies it; his own article justifies the addition of the English and Americans. The potential for being horrible criminals is in all, or at least in very many, of us; but, as Arendt pointed out, only actual criminals ought to feel guilty and deserve punishment; as she said in her recommended sentence against Eichmann: “guilt and innocence before the law are of an objective nature, and even if eighty million Germans had done as you did, this would not have been an excuse for you” (ibid., p. 278).

A.P. Martinich

Department of Philosophy

The University of Texas at Austin

Austin, Texas

Elie Kedourie replies:

I did not write and did not imply that the commission of uncommonly horrible crimes requires the existence of monsters. I find the phrase “the banality of evil” somewhat puzzling. It is quite obscure what is achieved by qualifying evil as banal. The qualification in no way elucidates the essential character of evil, or helps us to recognize evil actions, or to compare their relative heinousness. One could as well speak of the banality of goodness, and one would remain similarly unenlightened.

But obscure as the notion remains in Miss Arendt’s book—she certainly offers no formal explication or discussion—yet she seems to have regarded it as enormously important. She included it in the subtitle which declares Eichmann in Jerusalem to be A Report on the Banality of Evil, and she ended her penultimate chapter with a passage (quoted by Professor Martinich) which speaks with sibylline portentousness of “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

A careful reading of the book suggests that what Miss Arendt may have meant was that Eichmann did what he did simply because he was a limited, rather stupid man, who spoke in clichés, and who somehow persuaded himself that it was his duty to commit the crimes he was ordered to commit, and to go about his work strictly and conscientiously—that he was, in other words, some kind of vulgar Kantian. The evidence produced in court does not, however, tally with Miss Arendt’s thesis. It shows him to have been insolent, foul-mouthed, and malicious and to have revelled in his power to humiliate and destroy people whom he resented because he looked upon them as being his betters.

What the qualification banal seems to me in the end to do is, precisely, to banalize evil, to make it not something in which choice is central, but rather the outcome of the inability to avoid clichés and the like. This I find unsustainable and objectionable—as objectionable as Miss Arendt’s railings, in the same work, against “respectable society,” and as unsustainable as her assertion in the Epilogue that Eichmann was “terribly, terrifyingly normal,” and that it was “well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.”

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