Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), born in Hanover, was an influential political philosopher whose commitment to upholding fundamental human rights, absolutely without reservation, exposed her to condemnation and personal angst. She preferred being known as a political theorist.
She was once a student of the great existentialist German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Arendt was a Jew, and Heidegger exhibited sympathies for National Socialism, praising Hitler and joining the Nazi Party. Later, as his thinking changed, Heidegger withdrew his support from the regime, but this early involvement with the Nazis affected his career.
The two philosophers had a brief, but a passionate affair during their time together and remained friends.
Totalitarianism and Nazi Terror
A totalitarian state is a one-party state that is dictatorial, and that regulates every aspect of life. The Nazis banned Arendt as a young activist from teaching in Germany and she fled from her country to escape persecution.
As soon as the Germans invaded France, the French interred Arendt in Gurs, a concentration camp. Many women remained incarcerated, but Arendt managed to escape.
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After this experience, and her knowledge of the terrors of Stalin in Soviet Russia, Arendt believed that these totalitarian regimes were pure political evil, and that terror was no longer a means to an end, but an end in itself.
The New Yorker commissioned Hannah Arendt to write a series of articles covering Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity. The articles and her subsequent book exposed her to accusations of betraying the Jews – her own people.
Can ‘Thinking’ Condition us Against Doing Evil?
In her assessment of the character of Adolf Eichmann, Arendt concluded that he was not capable of self-judgement and he was unaware of the nature of his deeds. He simply did not think about it, but obeyed orders, considering it his duty to obey orders above all other things.
Judith Butler of the guardian.co says: “Her argument was that Eichmann may well have lacked ‘intentions’ insofar as he failed to think about the crime he was committing. She did not think he acted without conscious activity, but she insisted that the term “thinking” had to be reserved for a more reflective mode of rationality.”
Is it mitigation for his crime to claim that Eichmann didn’t think? He was ordinary. He was a bureaucrat. He maintained he had no argument with the Jews, that he was not anti-semitic. He was merely carrying out his duty to the Reich.
The Fine Line Between Resistance and Cooperation
Arendt asks searching and difficult questions. She maintains, “Thinking and reason are not mutually exclusive. People believe reason and passion are opposites… What about passionate thinking? There can be such a thing as passionate thinking.”
She points out that in the Eichmann case, history itself was not being tried, but the deeds of just one man.
Non-Thinking is Banal, Even Though the Deed is Shocking
Judith Butler says: “To have ‘intentions’ in her view was to think reflectively about one’s own action as a political being, whose own life and thinking is bound up with the life and thinking of others… she feared that what had become ‘banal’ was non-thinking itself. This fact was not banal at all, but unprecedented, shocking, and wrong.”
Arendt was not even campaigning against the death penalty for Eichmann. She firmly believed he should hang, that it was his due. This did not seem a contradiction to her in view of her assessment of this infamous war criminal.
However, this was not just a crime against the Jews, explains Judith Butler.
Arendt needed to “…understand a crime against humanity, one that would acknowledge the destruction of Jews, Gypsies, gay people, communists, the disabled and the ill… [the] destruction and displacement of whole populations was an attack not only on those specific groups, but on humanity itself… the crime had become for the criminals accepted, routinised, and implemented without moral revulsion and political indignation and resistance.”
Arendt became the subject of much criticism, even abuse, for her theories about Eichmann. Many roundly rejected her reasoning, while others acknowledged the concept – that evil could, indeed, be banal – but that Eichmann’s case was a poor example.
The Jewish Magazine Responds to Arendt’s Theory of Banality
Laurence Rosenberg presents us with an alternative concept of banality. (although this particular example might seem more an argument stemming from ignorance, since a small child could know nothing of the actual consequences of his action.)
“An analogy – a poor one at that – might be that of a six year-old boy pushing buttons on a brightly colored console that launches nuclear weapons. The human damage would be great but the act really could not be considered an evil one.”
Rosenberg maintains that Arendt’s assessment of Eichmann’s inability to understand the consequences of his actions is naïve.
“Here was a man who climbed very high…in the government; he must have possessed… political savvy to have engineered such a feat… who walked into the offices of the European emperors and prime ministers and asked them to deport their loyal, taxpaying citizens; he would have seemed quite a fool if he truly had no idea where they were going and conveyed that ignorance. My guess is that he was playing a role in that Jerusalem courtroom; he was acting the innocent – and yes, perhaps, the buffoon – as if to thumb his nose at the Jews and their system of justice.”
Holocaust Same as Everyday Life except in Scale
Rosenberg insists Eichmann expressed no regret because he had none, that he was a clever man with low self-esteem. Thoughtlessness is not needed to prove the validity of banality. “Thoughtlessness is just one cause of evil behaviour.”
Acts of the holocaust, says Rosenberg, are the same as those in everyday life. “What made the holocaust distinct was its scale and genocidal intent; it was different in degree but not in kind from the everyday, human phenomena of evil actions. Moreover, if one were able to recreate similar conditions, something similar could happen again.”
The Worst Evil is a Senseless Existence
Arendt, however, maintains that the worst evil is not selfishness.
The worst evil is senselessness, when people feel there is no meaning to their life. It is about making humans unnecessary. It is when work produces no results. It is senseless activity, so that life and self-worth mean nothing.
She also examines why people were so easily taken in by Totalitarianism and concludes, “…it offered a single clear and unambiguous idea to a disenchanted and disaffected people that accounted for their present woes and promised them a future free from danger and insecurity.”
Butler, Judith. Hannah Arendt’s challenge to Adolf Eichmann. (2011). The Guardian. Accessed December 3, 2013.
Katz, Pamela. Hannah Arendt. (2012). Margarethe von Trotta; Director. Duke of York PIcturehouse, Brighton, UK. Accessed November 27, 2013.
Rosenberg, Laurence. Exploring the Holocaust through Hannah Arendt’s “Banality of Evil.” (2009). The Jewish Magazine.
Harwood, Jeremy. “Hannah Arendt.” (2010). Philosophy. 100 Great Thinkers. Quercus.