It might be the most chilling single phrase in the English language. It came irresistibly to Hannah Arendt as she observed Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1962. Arendt had been an early fugitive from National Socialist Germany, having been taken in for questioning by the Gestapo in 1933 for researching antisemitism, and very wisely getting out of the country the moment they released her. Her wanderings brought her, years later, to New York, where she would write and publish her masterpiece, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Ten years later, given the chance by The New Yorker magazine to observe a top Nazi at close quarters, she wanted to see if her theories could explain a man like Eichmann, one of the principle administrators of the Final Solution.
“The greatest evil perpetrated is the evil committed by nobodies.”
— HANNAH ARENDT, EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM, A REPORT ON THE BANALITY OF EVIL (1963)
What she found was disconcerting: Eichmann seemed ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal.’ She didn’t see radical evil, fanaticism, indoctrination, Sadism or even a personal anti-Semitism, but a blinkered ‘desk murderer’ who would have accommodated himself to any system; a man without imagination, a bureaucratic functionary with a clichéd mind and a crippling lack of communication skills; a conventional man. Eichmann had always been a ‘joiner’. As a youth he had been a member of the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Wandervogel, and the Jungfrontkämpferverband. In 1933, he was rejected by the Freemasonic Schlaraffia, at which point a family friend encouraged him to join the SS. He seemed to have no identity of his own, and to be incapable of defining himself outside the structure of an organisation; he actually could not think for himself. Under normal circumstances one might feel sorry for such a man.
And so a four-word phrase that perfectly captured that paradox gave Arendt her title, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and permanently entered the English language, its impact magnified by the controversy that greeted the book’s publication. Critics misunderstood the implications of her characterisation, as if she was trying in some manner to diminish the horror of those events. She was not denying evil, of course; but she was curious, and curiosity is dangerous. Eichmann seemed never to have experienced it at all. He was abnormal only in his extreme normality. No doubt there were many like him; in 1940 Hitler had been described as the ‘charismatic leader of a bureaucratic party’, by Hans Gerth (‘The Nazi Party’, American Journal of Sociology, 1940, quoted by Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism). But now Arendt was attacked as if she were some kind of apologist for the Nazi phenomenon.
They were missing the point, of course. A man who could neither define himself nor think for himself outside the groupthink of an organisation had proved capable of great evil. In court Eichmann had even laid claim to various atrocities for which he could not possibly have been responsible, as if he were courting his own execution. Based on his own words, it has been speculated that he preferred to die than be free to make his own decisions in a leaderless world. At the end of the war, “it dawned on him that thenceforward he would have to live without being a member of something or other” (Arendt, p32–3). In his own words: “I sensed I would have to live a leaderless and difficult individual life, I would receive no directives from anybody, no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me, no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult—in brief, a life never known before lay ahead of me.”
There is pathos in these words, but Arendt does not quote them to humanise or exonerate the perpetrator. The implications, for all those who have told themselves ‘it could never happen here’, are devastating. Eichmann is everywhere; not Everyman but Nowhere Man, someone we have all come across in our lives. You may know people like him; I certainly do. For Arendt it was his bland normality that made him so terrifying. But the bland normality of the perpetrator is mirrored by the normalcy-bias of the public. What is normal, especially in our era, is a state of denial of the mechanisms of monstrosity, self-censoring and mocking in others the very idea of spiritual wickedness in high places; it is fashionable even to deny that ‘evil’ exists at all. Arendt understands this symmetry; and this is what makes it such an eery experience to read her in the Covid era.
The banality of evil is protected by the bias of normalcy, and Eichmann’s lack of imagination mirrored by our own, if we deny the possibility of a resurgent totalitarianism, with technological capabilities to make it permanent — the ‘ultimate revolution‘, in Aldous Huxley’s phrase. In our own times most are handicapped by a profound de-patterning of the historical sense — history being at least some guide to what is possible, and the most cursory familiarity with the history of the twentieth century tells us that almost anything is. That’s what Arendt was driving at: the most important wisdom we must learn is what is possible. But we baulk at the thought that evokes the mundanity of hell on earth, and our moral cowardice means we therefore remain vulnerable to the ordinariness of monsters and the monstrosity of bureaucrats. To my mind, and to Arendt’s, the sense of evil is increased, not diminished, by the paradox of Eichmann.
’The banality of evil’ — the most chilling phrase in the English language? Perhaps. If there’s another more chilling, it comes from the same author. More than ten years earlier Arendt had used an even briefer formulation to evoke the unlimited worst that lay hidden at the centre of German totalitarianism’s concentric circles of domination; a phrase that takes on extraordinarily sinister overtones over the final chapter of her 1951 masterpiece.
Two words: ‘the possible‘.