}

The Banality of Evil

eichmann“The banality of evil” is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem. Adolph Eichmann was a German bureaucrat and during WWII, the chief architect and executioner of Hitler’s genocidal “final solution” of the “Jewish problem.” Arendt’s somewhat controversial thesis centered around her observation that Eichmann was an otherwise innocuous individual who wasn’t motivated by an all consuming hatred of Jews, but was rather a man simply doing his job, without any thought to the horrific consequences of his action. Thus evil, for the most part, is not perpetrated by villainous characters out of comic books, but rather by unassuming, uninteresting people who exhibit a failure of thinking and judgment. Contrary to popular belief, evil isn’t exciting. Darkness isn’t mysterious. They’re actually kind of dull.

That’s certainly reflective of how I’ve been feeling lately. The city my mother was born in, Casablanca, was recently the site of a suicide bombing attack against the US consulate and a cultural center. The JCC I went to with my Dad, where I learnt to swim and play basketball and appreciate deli food, was the site of some crappy bomb detonation (two suspects have been arrested, both Muslims), the hospital where my sisters were born just had to shell out $15,000 to two ambulance drivers who were prevented from eating their unkosher brown-bag lunches in the hospital’s kosher cafeteria (I’m going to McDonalds with my kosher lunch and see how they feel about me sitting there and eating in their restaurant – I know it’s not exactly evil but $15,000?? That’s pretty shitty). Every day it seems we read about a new outrage and in fact, this year saw anti-Semitic attacks around the world increase by 50% and 37% of Israeli youths surveyed feared another Holocaust.

And yet… I’m tired of Ahmadinejad’s incessant boasts that Iran will wipe Israel off the face of the earth. I’m tired of all the stupid graffiti and the swastikas and the hateful books and lies and on it goes. If I wanted to, Jewlicious could be the ALL HATE BLOG, coming at you live, 24/7! Indulging you in all the morbid anti-Semitism that you so crave!

But, like Hannah Arendt implied, it’s banal. It’s boring. I can’t do it, even when it strikes close to home.

I mean, focusing on anti-Semitism and hatred is dark and depressing at times, but it allows you to possess all powerful righteous indignation, and talking about the Holocaust and building museums and being hyper sensitive to the slightest hint of Jew hatred is a lot easier than actually figuring out what this Judaism thing is all about and, you know, living by its strictures. Given the choice between death worship at the altar of 6 million dead Jews, or meaningless worship at the altar of your parents’ lifeless temple, is it any wonder so many young Jews just opt out entirely? Banal is banal and whether it’s pure evil or uninspired worship, insipid leadership and just plain ignorance.

But today is Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Memorial day. Today is one of those days where honoring the memory of the 6 million Jews is to be encouraged, regardless of whether or not the Vatican comes to the party. Today’s the day we try to make sense of the unthinkable and try to at least walk away with some kind of lesson.

Evil is banal. It happens most often when people lack empathy for their fellow human beings. It happens when people do not exercise their faculties of thought and judgment. These are lessons that extend beyond just genocide.

Have a thoughtful day.

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ck

Publisher at Jewlicious
Founder of Jewlicious? Publisher? Man I hate titles. I coined the name Jewlicious and I slave over the site. I live in Jerusalem and I need to get some breakfast.
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9 Comments

  1. Matt

    4/15/2007 at 10:08 pm

    ck, and others, what do you think of Jordan’s plan for a proposed “peaceful” nuclear plan? Of all the Arab countries, Jordan seems the most amenable to peace with Israel, the shared resources coming from the Jordan river seems to encourage cooperation and some protection of the environment, and its difficult to imagine a distant future where nuclear knowledge is still restricted to a select few.

    On the other hand, its intangibly ominous.

  2. Jaded Topaz

    4/15/2007 at 10:26 pm

    Thoroughly profound perspectives on Banal/Evil/Empathy and stuff.

    Hum drum/pre-programmed/rote/robotic and banal are the root of alot of evil and also the inner core of dysfunction and despair among other fun bottom rung emotions.When the default settings on the neuronal circuitry system, like the infinitely inane/pre-programmed purpose/ muddily mundane/hyper- happy happenstancings just go hum drum/ banal and start flat lining ,the rest of the rust resistent resolutions eventually go rusty.And empathy/sympathy/ altruism go lost in that nebulous cloud of cold /aimless /banal roboticism, running rampant like wayward raindrops shortcircuiting their way along on the neuronal circuitry routes and paths . Kind of like one ecstacy/adderall/liqour cocktail too many.
    Thanks for the empasis on empathy lesson of the day.Its so easy to forget how powerful empathy really is.

  3. ck

    4/16/2007 at 4:09 am

    Powerful and at the end of the day, far more compelling than darkness. Thanks for your comments Jaded Topaz. I love that your blog links to ABC Carpet and Home!

  4. Esther Sosis

    4/16/2007 at 1:50 pm

    Hmm interesting book to cite from. I have a difficult time accepting Arendt due to the simple fact she blames Jews for the massive number of Jews that were murdered during the Holocaust (as well as being the lover of a known Nazi).
    Also, an analysis of Eichmann’s history would show that he was an anti-semite from a young age – Arendt’s arguement doesn’t really hold up to the facts.
    Indeed, she wrote the book on her agenda that Jews were to blame for the holocaust (i.e., that Jews were the ones to give names, etc. to the Nazis). She came to the trial only for a few days and then wrote her book – without really knowing all the facts.
    Eichmann was in the Nazi party since the beginning and came from an anti-semitic family. These anti-semitic ideas were ingrained in his mind from a young age (I believe the book Becoming Eichman discusses this.)
    Eichmann did come off as a loser/wimp/nerd and hence Arendt’s arguement “banality of evil.” But he was truly a murder with evil intent – he hated Jews and wanted them gone.
    So, Arendt’s argument is incorrect in terms of Eichmann – he was no mere paper pusher.

  5. ck

    4/16/2007 at 2:43 pm

    Well… wasn’t anti-Semitism really common? I mean the Nazis eventually gaining power in Germany on a clearly anti-Semitic platform implied that such thoughts and beliefs were firmly ingrained within the German people. I don’t think Hitler would have been as successful had he decided to turn on another group of German citizens, like say the residents of Bavaria. That having been said, Eichmann’s being an anti-Semite makes him all the more banal – another anti-Semite in a sea of anti-Semites. That he was a murderer is not at issue. What is at issue is what sort of circumstances would be required to turn an otherwise unremarkable person into a direct accomplice and facilitator of unparalleled mass murder.

  6. Esther Sosis

    4/17/2007 at 12:37 am

    Here’s an excerpt to my thesis paper I wrote in college about Eichmann. I don’t think you feel like reading 17+ pages at this point on the issue.
    You’re correct that he lived in an anti-semitic community/country – but I disagree that his behavior is “banal.” He went above and beyond the call of duty. He didn’t merely do what he was told – he found new inventive ways to make the massacre of jews a faster and more efficient process.
    I guess we can argue about how to approach banality until we’re both blue in the face… 🙂

    P.S. You are correct on Hitler’s success to a degree – he was actually extremely successful from the beginning because he was cleaning the streets of scum and was funded by the biggest businesses in the country. He was feeding/clothing/training an army of his own – this was due to the awful depression in germany after WWI when the allies destroyed germany in retaliation for the war. Corporations were grateful that trash was getting off the streets and the trash was grateful that they had order/discipline/purpose in life. Hitler gave their lives meaning… killing jews was just an outlet for him. He also murdered gypsies/gays/handicapped people… jews were not the only victims.

    “In my opinion there is some validity to Arendt’s argument; however, I believe that Eichmann was inherently evil and driven by anti-Semitism. Arendt found Eichmann to be banal. She believed he was driven by bureaucracy and business and not any personal ideology against Jews. Arendt is correct up to her perspective on Eichmann’s supposed missing anti-Semitism. It is my opinion that he was a banal personality. His success as a salesman, his love for paperwork and bureaucratic success were mundane and simplistic. His position as the organizer for transportation of Jews during the Holocaust was completed through meticulous paperwork and organization. Eichmann was a paper pusher. Indeed, he was sickened when he visited Minsk in order to report how the Jews were being killed there (Arendt 88). Eichmann later recounted on his visit to Lwów. “[I saw] another horrible sight. A gushing from the earth, a spring of blood like a fountain…I had enough of my commission” (89). From Eichmann’s reaction it is logical to conclude that he was not a violent man who derived pleasure from death. Eichmann was not a sadist.
    Even though Eichmann didn’t necessarily derive pleasure from watching the pain of others, he was still clearly an anti-Semite. On April 1, 1932 he officially became a member of the Nazi party, but he was reading official party newspapers by the late 1920s. Moreover, “Eichmann grew up in a Protestant, German-Austrian nationalist milieu in which social relationships, business dealings, and right-wing politics were happily intermingled” (Cesarani 27). A perfect example is the relationship between Eichmann and his father. Adolf Karl, Eichmann’s father, surrounded himself with right-wing activists who were heavily influenced by Nationalist ideals. In the early 1920’s Eichmann had a friend by the name of Friedrich von Schmidt who encouraged him to join the German-Austrian Young Veterans Association. This association was against ‘Jewish Marxism’ and ‘Jewish Bolsheviks’ and was the youth chapter of the German nationalist association of war veterans. Colonel Hermann von Hiltl, the leader of the organization, espoused anti-Jewish rhetoric and argued that Jews should be stripped of all rights in Germany because they were the reason the Hapsburg Empire collapsed (Cesarani 28). His rhetoric mirrored social thought after World War I. In order to be nationalistic after the war, an individual had to reject anything that wasn’t German. These nationalists firmly believed that Jews were not German because they were the reason the Germans lost the first war. Eichmann was an inherent anti-Semite. He grew up in a culture that disliked Jews.
    Eichmann’s inherent anti-Semitism is the reason that he was able to work for Jews, work to deport Jews, and save two Jews at the bequest of his uncle without any problem. Eichmann had no personal issue with Jews. He was not anti-Semitic because a Jew had done anything malicious towards him, his anti-Semitism stemmed from social pressure. As a result, Eichmann’s lack of personal hatred for Jews allowed him to qualify some Jews as good people despite their Jewish blood. For example, during a police examination Eichmann told them how he had a Jewish acquaintance, Kommerzialrat Storfer of Vienna, who was a representative of a Jewish community that was caught trying to escape and sent to a concentration camp. He stated that the Jewish man had “always behaved well, that is worth my while” and decided to go visit him within the concentration camp (Arendt 51). Eichmann explains how he had a “normal, human encounter” with Storfer and listened to his “grief and sorrow” (Arendt 51). Since the law did not permit any Jew to be taken out of a concentration camp, Eichmann helped Storfer by having him do a simple task that permitted him to occasionally rest. Eichmann helped Storfer because he saw him as a human and worked with him for several years. He actually expressed surprise that Storfer had attempted to hide from the Germans because he was immune from deportation as a Jewish functionary (Arendt 51).
    From the police examination, it is evident that Eichmann did not reject the idea that Jews belonged to concentration camps. He believed that was where Jews belonged; mass extermination of Jews within concentration camps was the Final Solution after the unsuccessful attempt of deportation of Jews to Madagascar (Arendt 77). Indeed Eichmann stated in Court that once he realized Madagascar would not work, he realized that only mass exterminations would fulfill the “final aim” (Arendt 77). It is hardly possible that such a conclusion would be made by a man indifferent to the existence of Jews. It is highly improbable that his conclusion was driven by bureaucratic expectations. His anti-Semitism was visible by his very indifference to the Final Solution and the methods employed for the final aim. He inherently believed that Jews were worthless and after a futile attempt of deporting them, he decided that only mass extermination would solve the problem. He was not a rabid anti-Semite seeking out violence and blood from the Jews. He was the worst possible kind of anti-Semite, a man driven by his social upbringing to have complete indifference to Jews and their existence. Eichmann is an anti-Semite by the very fact that the Jews he saw murdered affected him negatively because of the blood that spilled from their veins, not the lives that they lost. He dehumanized the Jews to the point where he could not identify them as being actual people. The blood of the Jews was physically human. This went against what Eichmann felt as an inherent anti-Semite. Because he felt Jews were subhuman in reality, it was very upsetting for Eichmann to look at organs and blood. In his own words, Eichmann stated that “[he] couldn’t have become a doctor” (Arendt 87). Eichmann was not sickened by the death of Jews whom he had dehumanized; he was sickened by human body parts. This was not merely a man driven by bureaucracy and the law; he was an anti-Semite at the core.”

  7. VJ

    4/17/2007 at 2:00 am

    I think Ms. Sosis is missing the forest for the trees. Arendt’s analysis of the “banality of evil” holds true for the entire Nazi bureaucracy. Sure it was rife & suffused from day one with hatreds of all sorts of people, an entire catalog of them actually. The through going bureaucratic nature of their project is what struck many. The efficiency the mass slaughter on an industrial scale while extracting every bit of value from their victims, first as newly classed criminals then as slave laborers, and finally as raw material after their murders. This is what made the Holocaust different, it was an entirely different organization to mass killing. It deeply depended not on just one madman, or even a family or a ruling class of madmen, but an entire state bureaucracy given over to this one project.

    Eichmann was proud of his part in this project. He never apologized for it. For him, the world would be a better place w/o the Jews & Gypsies etc. He claimed he was doing the world a favor with this genocidal ‘cleansing’. That’s the banality of evil. It’s state functionaries at every level dedicated to the bureaucratic efficiency of first extracting all the wealth, goods & property you could from the Jews, then exterminating them as cheaply and efficiently as possible in specially designed concentration camps. Mere common hatred would have killed them long before the transports.

    And please Ms. Sosis, our entire OSS & the nascent CIA were absolutely in love with ex-Nazi’s. We hired them by the dozens. See ‘Operation Paperclip’, and the infamous ‘ratline’ we ran for ex-Nazi’s of every stripe well into the 1960’s. After WW11, we thought their ‘special expertise’ was need to fight the Russians in the new ‘Cold War’. And yes, our Space program, (NASA) was lousy with very proficient ex-Nazi scientists for decades. Some of whom helped to run slave labor camps themselves (at Peenemünde & elsewhere). It’s what gave us a leg up in the space race with those same Russians, we claimed to have the ‘better Germans’.

    Me, I want to know how a simple photograph of Eichmann has now been so copied all to hell, over & over again, that he now looks almost sweet, instead of coolly menacing in his famous Nazi passport photo! Cheers, ‘VJ’

  8. paul maleski

    5/30/2010 at 1:21 pm

    Eichmann was but a lightweight mass murderer.
    The jew ran the Gulags, they butchered the Romanovs, the vile filth looted post 90’s Mother Russia; in post 1917 Holy Russia, countless millions of innocent Christians were massacred by the vile jew; sadly; they do not feature in jewish Spielberg’s Hollywood propaganda. Want to see a brilliant jewless wartime film, watch ‘Come and see’ or on a bit of lighter tone ‘Ballad of a Soldier’.

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