The Banality of Evil: Looking Back 60 Years

Roger Berkowitz – Bard College

Hannah Arendt went to Jerusalem to attend the trial of Adolf Eichmann because, as she said, she wanted to see one of the great perpetrators of genocide “in the flesh.” What she perceived and wrote about, however, was a normal bourgeois man, someone who chose to actively participate in mass murder and racial extermination not out of ideological extremism, but rather because of a basic willingness to “go along with the system.” Rather than a monster, Eichmann was banal—he was thoughtless and empty. He could not think for himself, but simply carried out the orders of an evil government. While Eichmann was evil (and Arendt insisted he must be hung and extinguished from the earth) he represents the kind of banal, thoughtless, and self-less evil that enables the mass crimes of modern states and organizations. The incredible resonance of Arendt’s account of Eichmann is connected to the rise of impersonal systems of governmental, corporate, and academic bureaucracy. In this class, we will seek to understand what Hannah Arendt means by the banality of evil and, also, how she comes to see the only remedy for such evil to be the nurturing and teaching of critical thinking and thoughtfulness.