The Banality of Evil
Did Eichmann Think?

A new book on Eichmann supposedly proves Arendt was wrong when she spoke about the “banality of evil”. But it turns out, that phrase of Arendt’s itself is greatly misunderstood.

Published on: September 7, 2014
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  • John Tyler

    The last paragraph of this article is a perfect summary of what Eric Hoffer wrote in “THE TRUE BELIEVER.”
    By the way, you will note that there are literally no books that “explain” or “rationalize” the mass exterminations (about 20 to 30 million murdered) committed by Stalin or of the 70 million murdered by Mao.
    Why?? Well, very simple. Mao and Stalin were communists, and communists can do whatever they please and they will NEVER, EVER, be held accountable. You see, most historians are lefties and they will never criticize anybody – regardless of the magnitude of their crimes – that is a fellow ideological traveler.
    Further, if Stalin has not singled out Hitler as the “enemy,” but as a fellow traveler, an ideological brother, you would see precious few books or movies or TV shows about the holocaust. It simply would be ignored; just as Stalin’s and Mao’s crimes are ignored.

  • Fat_Man


  • Anthony

    “…modern evil has its source in the embrace of movements and causes, precisely the kind of commitments embraced by activists on both the left and the right.” A point alluded to by previous commenter and definitely something to ruminate on. Did Eichmann think.

  • Curious Mayhem

    Hoffer’s True Believer is a touchstone. It says briefly what many academics and intellectuals take far too long to say.

  • wigwag

    “They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.”

    For a minute, I thought Professor Berkowitz was referring to university faculty. Of course, most of them are not violent. Many would be if they were brave enough; fortunately a very large number are cowards.

  • Jeff R.

    I believe the “lonely, bored, middling clerk” interpretation of Eichmann and Nazism more generally has an element of truth to it, but I this essay somewhat overstates it. Think of what preceded the rise of Nazism: Germany’s defeat and capitulation in WWI, the loss of her colonies, the abdication of the Kaiser and the creation of the Weimar Republic, the imposition of war reparations and the subsequent hyperinflation and economic calamity, the threat of a communist uprising such as befell Russia…this was a period of chaos and upheaval, in other words.

    With that in mind, I don’t believe these people were looking for “higher meaning” at all. I think they were looking for solutions to practical problems: namely, that the militaristic German people had suffered a humiliating defeat in a great war and were now being unfairly punished by the victors. Thus, if you’re a militarist, the only way to right these wrongs was to redouble the militarism and purge the body politic of those who were unfit to fight or whose loyalty and willingness to sacrifice was questionable (ie, Jews and Gypsies).

    Ideologues? Yes. And the dangers of ideology are well-known and certainly quite applicable here. But I don’t think it makes sense to think of these people as “looking for meaning” in ideology. You look for meaning when you’re comfortable and bored. I do not think there were many such people in Germany in the interwar years.

  • steelraptor from Saturn

    Thank you Berkowitz for this review. It is amazing how Arendt remains so misunderstood on Eichmann, I wonder if her critics even read her properly. They constantly attack straw mans, and clearly misunderstand what she was getting at re Eichmann. Yes Arendt made mistakes and sometimes wrote things including in EiJ that lack sensitivity, and make me wince. Even so… I think one of the reasons, is that it is frightening to acknowledge the banality of evil, and evil that does not fit into a neat and stereotypical demonic scenario. What is going on in the world today re anti-Semitism alone, and I mean in the West and anti-Semitism as anti-Israelism, vindicates in large part Arendt’s worldview and in fact gives her EiJ a prophetic edge.

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