German Born American Political Theorist Hannah Arendt. Flickr

Journey into the Heart of Nothingness

Her expression "the banality of evil" carries more profound innuendo than one might think. What did Hannah Arendt really mean? Fifty years after her articles about Adolf Eichmann's trial, we rediscover what she saw in that man and in our own awareness.
Alessandra Stoppa

Even today, 50 years after its formulation, the expression "the banality of evil," which Hannah Arendt used to define what she saw in the 114 hearings of the trial in Jerusalem that led to the death sentence for Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann, is a catch phrase that implicates us in what we don't want to acknowledge: that the evil that frightens us has to do with us. Arendt saw something familiar in that thin, middle-aged, balding man "in the glass booth" where he spent the entire duration of the trial, "craning his scraggy neck toward the bench." But for her, it was not Eichmann's normality that was banal. In order to understand what she meant, we need only read the series of articles that the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, pupil of Heidegger and Jaspers, wrote as a correspondent for The New Yorker in Jerusalem, published in February and March of 1963. Her definition of evil is more profound than that of common understanding; more profound, as she investigates the core of evil–and doesn't find it.
Eichmann was born in the Austrian city of Solingen in 1906, the same year as Arendt. While she, a German Jew, emigrated to France and then to the United States in order to escape persecution, he ended up in the marching ranks under the flag of the Third Reich. At age 26, he lost his job in a petroleum company and enlisted. Shortly thereafter, "bored with military service," he entered the SS on the advice of an acquaintance. "It was like being swallowed up by the Party against all expectations and without previous decision. It happened so quickly and suddenly," he later said at his trial. Eichmann was put in charge of the "Jewish Affairs" section of the regime's Main Security Office. He had a key role: to oversee the transportation of Jews to concentration camps. On May 11, 1960, in the suburb of Buenos Aires where he had built a second life for himself after the war, he was captured by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and taken to Israel to stand trial before the Jerusalem District Court.

The shortcut. Eichmann's capture is the starting point of Margarethe von Trotta's film Hannah Arendt, recently released in Germany and dedicated to Arendt's experience during those four months of trial, facing an accused who shocked her because he "contradicts our theories concerning evil." He refutes her own theory first of all, that of "radical (rooted) evil," introduced in The Origins of Totalitarianism, where Nazism brings an "absolute" evil into history, never before seen and an end unto itself. While Eichmann's actions were "monstrous," he himself was "neither demoniac nor monstrous." He was not paranoid or mentally ill, a fact that was confirmed by half a dozen psychiatric diagnoses. He was "not Iago and not Macbeth," Arendt noted. He was ordinary; he had had no intention of doing evil. And, at the same time, he knew the consequences of his actions.
It was because of this abyss–the problem of awareness–that the Court continually looked for a shortcut, that is, to convince itself that he was lying.
Instead, however, Eichmann was telling the truth. He didn't hate Jews; on the contrary, he was the first to be "unhappy" about the "Final Solution." And yet, he had been one of the principal perpetrators of the Holocaust, and he could stare it in the face. He had hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children transported to their deaths, "with great zeal and the most meticulous care." For this he was hanged on May 31, 1962, guilty of "crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and war crimes." But, in the end, neither the Court nor the public believed that his evil was not rooted in either fanaticism or unawareness. To believe it meant to face a dilemma that seemed unsolvable. And here lay Arendt's novelty: she decided to take on that dilemma.

It's easy to misinterpret banality as the zeal of a man, a mere bureaucrat in a gigantic infernal mechanism. This was certainly also Eichmann's human vicissitude, and he made it his defense, stating and repeating that he was just obeying orders–or better, "actions of the State." But it was not for this that Arendt formulated her description of evil. There was something that she glimpsed in that man's capacity to gloat about empty, false things. He had not been indoctrinated–his adherence to the Party had lacked conviction, he wasn't familiar with its program, he had never read Mein Kampf. Of May 8, 1945, the official date of Germany's defeat, he said, "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 before me."

He had never tried to live. The investigating judge examined him for more than a month, recording 76 tapes of Eichmann telling the story of his life. They are full of stock phrases, and characterized by an almost complete incapacity to "think from the point of view of others," as Arendt noted. Eichmann found consolation in the memory of "small victories," inspired by good society or success; he was obsessed with boasting about things that, however, remained empty concepts–like his vapid last words: he declared himself a Gottgläubiger, the Nazi term for those who rejected the Christian religion and eternal life, then added, "Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them. After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men." Arendt saw in these words the summing up of all that she had perceived throughout the long trial: "the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil."
The evil of that man was banal like his memory, a mind that was brimming with trivial concepts while remembering facts with difficulty. Thought is meant to search for the roots of things, and when it deals with evil, "it is frustrated because there is nothing. Evil is banal because it has no root," wrote Arendt in response to the controversy that her account of the trial generated. Banality is, therefore, this "absence of thought." It was not that Eichmann was stupid. He was thoughtless, "something by no means identical to stupidity." The evil of which Arendt speaks is "distance from reality"–from oneself, first of all. It is a void of reason, caused by a lack of relationship with facts. Eichmann had the facts in front of him, he saw how people died in Minsk, Treblinka, and Lublin, he saw so well that he could no longer look: "It was too much. I was finished. I wanted to disappear." But it was not enough.

This caused Arendt to say, "I changed my mind and no longer speak of 'radical evil.' It is indeed my opinion that evil is never 'radical,' that it is only extreme." Extreme and superficial, like the systematic lie in which everyone around Eichmann lived: reality had been emptied even of its most evident connotations, by innocuous words–the methods of execution were "granting a mercy death," "medical questions." Moreover, Arendt elsewhere defined ideology like this: "It is not the naïve acceptance of the visible, but the intelligent cancellation of it."

And if reality becomes insignificant for thought, then evil can defy the limits of gravity, because it is not tied down to anything. "Nothingness becomes a full substitute for reality, because nothingness brings relief," she wrote in The Life of the Mind. "The relief, of course, is unreal; it is merely psychological, a soothing of anxiety and fear." It is the relief that Eichmann claimed to feel–never knowing and judging, and thus missing out on the human level of living. It was as if his life had never reached singularity. It had never truly been his.
"Arendt's insistence on facts is underrated. What is most acute in her is precisely the desire to comprehend reality. It hounded her from childhood," says Giorgio Torresetti, Professor of Philosophy of Law at the University of Macerata, in Italy. "The banality is man's getting out of the habit of thinking, as an incapacity to let himself be interrogated by the facts. Thought closes in on itself; it doesn't listen to reality. Man ceases to listen to himself first of all, as an interior dialogue"–as awareness.

The profundity of good. One of the things that struck Arendt the most was precisely the scarce "resistance" to Nazism, the rarity of men who were truly aware. It comes up often in her report, in Eichmann's memories ("I carried out my duties to the best of my abilities"), or in the deposition of a survivor, who told of a German sergeant, Anton Schmidt, who helped save him: "A deathly hush fell in the courtroom. In those two minutes, which were like a sudden ray of light in the midst of a dense, impenetrable darkness, a thought came to mind, clear, irrefutable, indisputable: how everything would have been different today if there had been more episodes like that." In another passage, she goes deeper: The regime "tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear. But the holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human can be erased. The majority submits to terror, but not the individual."

Arendt found hope in these exceptions, these rebirths of awareness–and in the fact that reality cannot be reduced to nothingness. The banality of evil reveals the profundity of good. As she wrote in a letter in July 1963, "Only good is radical."