Maybe what makes Hannah Arendt‘s writing about Adolf Eichmann so disturbing that she received death threats is not (only) her observation about evil-doers but also its implication on our ordinary lives.
As Margarethe von Trotta shows in her latest movie, Hannah Arendt was disturbed by Eichmann’s insistence of his innocence, not just because such a claim seems cold-hearted in the face of the death of millions of people but because she saw his point. He only was responsible for ensuring that the trains ran smoothly – the trains that happened to take millions of people to their deaths. That latter part did not enter Eichmann’s consciousness – and Arendt wanted to understand why. Her struggle with that question resulted in her view that evil is at bottom banal. It is not perpetrated by monsters. In fact, it was the result of actions that seemed innocent and small – and were not thought through to their brutal consequences.
What, according to the movie, brought Arendt the most hatred (an interesting side-analysis could be how her treatment after the publication of her articles in the New Yorker fits into her claims about evil…) was her position about the role of the Jewish leadership during the Holocaust. She saw them as partly responsible because they, too, enabled the killing machine rather than resisting it.
Overall, she was accused of defending Eichmann, of blaming the victims, of hating Jews (despite being Jewish herself). Her work was dismissed, though, not because the accusations are correct but because she pointed out something that we don’t want to hear: Evil is banal, i.e., it lacks originality, it is ordinary. This means not only that the perpetrators of evil aren’t unusual, it also means that our ordinary lives contribute to evil.
As the video clips from the Eichmann trial embedded in von Trotta’s movie show, Eichmann was ordinary. As Arendt points out, at the beginning of the trial he had a cold. Although he seems (disturbingly) unmoved by the witness accounts of horrors, it is clear that he is unmoved because he does not – cannot – see how his actions contributed to these horrors. Not only was he “just following orders,” he also saw it as part of his duty not to reflect on those orders. He was simply pushing papers, ensuring that the bureaucratic death machine worked.
On my way home, a note in an article in Yes Magazine brought home the implication. The investors who had expected that Apple products would be flying off the shelves were correct – consumers had not been deterred by the mass suicides in Apple plants. They might have been outraged about how workers are treated in those plants – and failed to understand their own impact on this treatment through the purchase of a new gadget. Banality of evil. Living our ordinary lives, without thinking of the consequences of our actions, implicates us in the evil of the world: We are contributing to exploitation and destruction, ultimately of the human habitat, by our simple actions of ordinary living. While, as Lisa Tessman points out, it might be impossible to live an ethically grounded life in a world filled with injustice, Arendt does not allow us to hide our responsibility behind that fact. Just as evil is banal, the ordinary is evil. And that is what we don’t want to hear, thus we rather accuse the messenger of, well, evil.
Here is an interesting Opinionator piece in the New York Times that makes similar points: The Banality of Systemic Evil