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Mainstreaming evil


Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt'Personally, I have nothing against Jews,' claimed Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi 'desk-murderer', responsible for organising the destruction of European Jewry between 1936 and 1945. This is the same Eichmann who said: 'I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.'

This year marks 50 years since Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem. The trial was reported for the New Yorker by political philosopher and journalist Hannah Arendt.

When her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was published two years later, it precipitated a veritable 'civil war' among intellectuals across the world. Most of the disapprobation arose from her comments on the lack of resistance on the part of the Jewish leadership, as well as what some saw as the 'sympathetic' portrayal of Eichmann as 'victim'.

The book has its flaws, but Arendt's insights into the nature of evil remain compelling. Her thesis is relatively straightforward: that what made Eichmann truly 'monstrous' was his banality. Far from being an evil, plotting megalomaniac, he was in fact an unthinking, pathetically limited individual; a 'clown' who was full of vacuous clichés with no capacity for real thought or moral judgement.

What is genuinely unsettling about Arendt's character assessment is that the reader can identify with Eichmann. How horrible that a man who committed such crimes was an 'ordinary' human being. Eichmann had simply followed orders and did what he was expected to do — the ultimate obedient servant of the totalitarian regime.

In doing what the regime demanded, he uncoupled himself from his moral compass. This allowed him to commit the most heinous crimes with neither malice nor guilt. It was not that he didn't have a conscience; as Arendt observes, human beings in Nazi Germany did not have to 'close their ears to the voice of conscience', because their conscience spoke with the 'respectable voice' of society.

Eichmann's conscience became so distorted that he was capable of committing deplorable crimes while convincing himself he was acting in a noble and virtuous manner. He said at his trial that he would have shot his own father if he was ordered to.

And 'as for his conscience', writes Arendt, 'he remembered perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to — to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and the most meticulous care'.

Eichmann was no aberration. There were millions of Germans who thought just like him. Legions of lawyers, engineers, doctors, churchgoers and teachers shared the same mentality. The brutal crimes against Jews and other 'undesirables' were committed by some of the most respectable members of society, many of whom lived wholesome family lives, attended church and spent their leisure time reading Goethe and listening to Bach. This, for Arendt was the true horror of the holocaust.

Now it seems incomprehensible that a person could think and act in such a way and not see they were doing wrong. But when a whole society experiences a total and pervasive moral collapse it becomes possible for the individual to rationalise and justify murder. As Arendt observes, in Nazi Germany 'the practice of self-deception had become so common, almost a moral prerequisite for survival'.

The regime demanded total dedication and total loyalty to the project of the state. That was the social contract: 'It is thus necessary that the individual should finally come to realise that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of the nation' (Adolf Hitler).

At his trial Eichmann said, 'I regard ... the extermination of the Jews as one of the worst crimes in the history of humankind'. Yet he to participate in this was his 'duty'. He not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law. So the holocaust wasn't his fault, as far as he was concerned.

His ethical framework did not question the inhumanity of this 'duty'. His ethics extended only as far as getting the trains to run on time. If a train was late, he considered it 'a disgrace'. Never mind that those trains were carrying a cargo of starving, terrified human beings destined to be murdered.

If all this is not disturbing enough, Arendt reminds us that during the proceedings, Eichmann was declared sane: 'half a dozen psychiatrists certified him as normal'; another found his psychological outlook, his attitude toward his wife and children, mother and father as 'not only normal but most desirable'; a minister who visited him regularly declared him to be 'a man with very positive ideas'.

There are many lessons to be learnt from Arendt's controversial analysis. Chief among them is the disturbing truth that just because we believe (or rationalise) that we are doing something good, does not mean that we are in fact doing something good.

When we surrender our own capacity for intelligent, compassionate, reasonable and responsible judgement and rely instead on some ideology or external 'authority' for the formation of our moral conscience, we run the grave danger of participating in acts that have evil consequences.

She reminds us too that if we are to live in a just, peaceful and harmonious society, the growth in humanity of each individual is paramount. We need to pay great attention, particularly in our educational institutions, to the moral development of every person, so that each has the capacity to discern and distinguish humane thinking and judgement from destructive and inhumane ones.

Finally, Arendt's observations on Eichmann beg a few confronting questions for us today: in what ways might the 'Eichmann effect' be operative in our own lives right now? To paraphrase the Nazi resister Dietrich Bonheoffer, could we be 'silent witnesses to evil deeds' in our society?

As the Nobel laureate and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel reminds us, 'the civilised world kept silent. I remember. And I am afraid.'

Michael LoughnaneMichael Loughnane is Director of Religious Education at Guilford Young College in Hobart and holds a Ph.D. in Practical Theology from the Melbourne College of Divinity. 

Topic tags: Michael Loughnane, Eichmann, Nazi germany, Holocaust, problem of evil



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Existing comments

Hello Patrick, this article seems to be relevant to your talk yesterday, re swimming against the popular community current. Regards David

Patrick Cole | 11 November 2011  

No one can know the mind of people amid the millions of stories told about these events. Many lies and scandals lay still hidden with all the propaganda undertaken on all sides.

One of the greatest acts of evil is present today but societies accepts it and makes legal the mass murder of unborn children. The number of children murdered legally by societies and nations is staggering!

More children have been murdered than the all the genocides by Mao, Stalin and all the other murderous dictators of the past. The United States alone has made the murder of over 55 million babies happen, since they made the killing of babies "legal"

Talk about a society that gives up their conscience as a group and allows great evil to emanate from the state: Well this is one of the greatest evils ever in our "civilised" world that would allow one innocent child's life be taken let alone the millions and millions of children being slaughtered in their mothers' wombs every day in our "enlightened" culture.

"Thou shalt not kill" is a Commandment from God Himself, yet people put their puny minds together and legally allow the killing of so many millions and millions of children without any conscience whatsoever.

The Evil goes on today and the results are terrifying.

Trent | 11 November 2011  

Sadly, even scandalously in fact, the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ has become part of the language and is trotted out by many writers and thinkers who do not want to go further in trying to explain evil. (I do not include the above writer in that group, by the way.) The phrase has become a clicheé, an easy way of avoiding asking harder questions.

This view is only corroborated by the publisher Penguin, who now puts the phrase on the cover of its latest imprint of Hannah Arendt’s infamous work, another proof of its established usage. One of Arendt’s observations is that people will do anything and justify the most disgraceful, corrupt and destructive personal behaviour on the grounds that they are just doing their job. We see this everywhere in our own society, people who would otherwise be outraged by immoral actions, and regard themselves as morally righteous before the world, will actually do the same immoral things just because it is part of the job. They will say they had no choice in the matter. It’s dirty work, but someone has to do it.

Also, I am not the first person to note that Arendt was a snob and used the word ‘banal’ to describe Eichmann precisely because he could never be a person of high standing like Arendt herself. Arendt and her friends were trained to be the next generation of German leaders and thinkers, but the Nazis took over, thus ruining that ambition. She had to emigrate to America. Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann has been read as a form of payback. When she talks about the ‘banality of evil’ she is not just engaging in theodicy but in personal vendetta. No one, for example, would dream of calling Hannah banal.

PHILIP HARVEY | 11 November 2011  

It's hard to compare Nazi 'solutions' to other events but the pact between the Coalition and the ALP is one such crime, on the matter of refugees.

Another is the emtire economic system we all support so loudly and greedily, without question, and yet, oh dear, the whole enterprise is once again about to collapse and guess what, it will be no ones fault, again.

The CEOs who regard themselves as hard-done-by and rip off sqillions while denying a pay rise to a plonker on $20.40 an hour, a meagre enough wage anyway but hardly an 'overpayment' such as the one Joyce gets.

The dispute is not Joyce's fault at all, nor his boards. They are doing the unquestioned thing, looking after the shareholder for whom the company exists, right?

Most acts go unquestioned in our society, and I see no evidence that those who think they have a 'moral compass' via their religious faith are any different to those who do not share that faith.

But their 'faith' does allow them to carry on without ever questioning what they do.

Harry Wilson | 11 November 2011  

This article has terrible implications for us. It shows that we can never be complacent or confident any of us has the high moral ground. Some deeply ethical problems may seem remote from us because we do not encounter the hard edge of them, and so they can remain academic questions. Abortion, death penalties, boat refugees may be some of these for some or real crises for others but there are many more. The suffering and hardship of people without family, friends, work, home, food and so on.

It seems that it is only when we come face to face with the issue and crisis and its threat or effect on ourselves that our conscience is compelled to do some work. And then we might fail, or succumb or compromise. What is justice and compassion at these moments and how can and will I show it? Or what am I prepared to do to stop the pain? It's then that it counts. Michael's point about how easy it is to mould our conscience to the pressures of social convention/respectability is key. I guess we each have to ask ourselves every day, can I do more, or differently? Thanks, Michael.

Stephen Kellett | 11 November 2011  

Ergo the Stolen and the Forgotten generations!

Sambista | 11 November 2011  

‘Deliver us from evil’ contains within it the possibility that evil exists and that it can and will possibly happen in the future. The prayer is saying that all we can ask for is to be kept free of evil, but it doesn’t promise that this will happen, indeed states that it could still happen. The prayer states that evil is a real possibility, not an illusion. Like everything else in the prayer, it is not adjectival, does not say that evil is this or that, exciting or banal, only that real evil is something we would want to be delivered from. Deliverance itself is interesting as it reminds us that evil can be bondage of the kind suffered by Israel in Egypt, and in that situation all you want is to be out of there. The prayer is making us vigilant.

It is also reminding us that evil is not just something around us, something to which we may fall victim, but can also and even especially be something that we ourselves can enact. We have to be delivered from the evil we are capable of, whether we are aware of this or not. The potential for any of us to commit evil is real, which is also what the prayer is saying. But how we overcome that temptation is something that must be asked for outside ourselves, not just within ourselves as a form of personal triumph or therapy. Real evil is something we wish to be delivered from, we know when it’s happening.

Desiderius Erasmus | 11 November 2011  

Good article, and I agree with Stephen Kellett's comment. The trouble is that it's so hard - to do what's right, rather than what's easy!

Russell | 11 November 2011  

Hitler was able to do what he did because of “political correctness” at the time in Germany. The times from when the first shot was fired in the First Wold War until the end of World War 2, churches were compliant in mass murder. Churches remained silent when the mass murder on the Western Front started and they did remain silent during the mass murder in concentration camps. Mass murder had many faces. The mass murder in concentration camps by Nazi or Soviet forces and the mass extermination by Mussolini of hundreds of thousands in Ethiopia are condemned as crimes against humanity. On the other hand, carpet bombing of cities of civilians in Britain, Germany, Russia, Japan, China etc. was accepted as an ordinary “act of war”.

Beat Odermatt | 11 November 2011  

Sorry Beat, Hitler was able to do what he did not just because of what you call “political correctness” but because if you didn’t go along with the regime you were socially ostracised, could be sent to a concentration camp, or just killed outright. There was an organisation called the Gestapo that encouraged citizens to spy on each other and report any kind of variance from the established reign of control. We in Australia cannot begin to imagine what that must have been like. People lived in fear for their lives, never mind “political correctness”. It is also quite dishonest to state so absolutely that in the First and Second World Wars (same war, with a break in the middle) churches were compliant in mass murder. Compliant? What kind of a word is that? Most of those involved on the Western Front took years to come to terms with the nature of the warfare they were enacting. There were church people on all sides of those conflicts who protested or were peace activists, but in war time those sort of people can be deemed a danger to the state and the war effort and morale. If you want to know what some of the English bishops thought of the carpet bombing of cities in Germany read George Bell. It is his outspokenness that cost him the see of Canterbury, they say, though in the larger scheme of things that was probably one of Bell’s least concerns. What the churches did to help the wounded and traumatised in those conflicts is beyond imagining and, of course, goes largely undocumented. War is hell, so what are you going to do next?

PHILIP HARVEY | 11 November 2011  

Quite a number of other social researchers, in their various disciplines, have recognised the dangers of Obedience to Authority.

We are all implicit in our leaders' political decisions that are unethical. This includes not considering the consequences of their decisions and remaining absolutely passive about them.

Should we have gone to Afghanistan, should we continue to remain there are questions we should seriously ask ourselves and find out as much information about as we possibly can. Should we care about asylum seekers who arrive by boat? What information do we have about the issue? What about corporate greed and poverty, especially poverty in Third World countries and our own indigenous people, which continues to ensure many children never reach adulthood?

Obedience to authority, even the authority of the Church, can be unconscionable. As the article advises, we should not surrender our own conscience to that of any external authority. It is imperative, though, that our conscience supports the values that Christ taught us.

Maureen Strazzari | 12 November 2011  

Now this is pure evil. A 14 year old kid jailed for years based on a useless x-ray taken by a gastoenterologist, a test that was never valid.

No apology for his years of trauma, no compensation, no nothing, just sent home like a dog after more than 2 years in jail because of a government cock up.


Marilyn Shepherd | 12 November 2011  

A perfectly valid and well written piece.

Don't forget that this is the site which proclaims loudly and long that Tony Abbott has no "moral core".

So the slightly casual E.S. reader will equate Mr Tony Abbott with Adolf Eichmann.

But ... perhaps that's intentional (though not on your part)?

HH | 12 November 2011  

Silence is deafening in Family Law and children continue to be abused. Who will champion the urgent need to put the rights, wellbeing, protection and welfare of children above parent’s rights in Family Law processes and judicial decision-making. Too many children are being cruelly separated from their protective parent – usually the primary carer they have known since birth. Instead of investigating allegations from the child protection point of view, the courts (often via single experts and ICL’s advice) label the protective parent ‘delusional’ or worse. The courts remove the child from that parent’s care and place them in an abusive situation with no review or follow-up to check on their welfare. Children are being removed or forced into coerced shared parenting arrangements which are inflicting permanent emotional, psychological, physical and sometimes sexual damage on them.
Children must be taken out of the adversarial system. Their Family law matters should be heard by a special tribunal staffed by experts in child development as well as child abuse and family violence and dynamics.

A Royal Commission must be set up with coercive and investigative powers to examine the harm being done to children by cruel and inhumane court decisions and processes.

Ariel Marguin | 14 November 2011  

Trent's response was very predictable, and very right.

Gavan | 14 November 2011  

Trent, some Christian people become fixated on the very sad issue of abortion and there is a tendency for them to become very judgemental and self-righteous.

There are many other evils in this world that, unfortunately, some Christians fail to see as relevant to them and thereby deny their complicity in them.

Maureen Strazzari | 14 November 2011  

Maureen you are stating the obvious and Trent, I 'm sure, would agree with you, but you are not,I hope, trying to belittle his argument. For some reason Catholics seem unwilling to raise this matter any more.It is odd that Australians seem more worried about beached whales than 100,000 abortions a year. Surely this must disturb even the most superficial.

grebo | 15 November 2011  

Grebo, I don't believe I am a superficial person and yes, I do worry that we seem to care more about animals' welfare than we do about humans (although I believe we should not deliberately cause pain to any of God's creatures). This was particularly noticeable when there was the furore about the slaughtering of exported animals without humanely stunning them first (and by the way, there remains, in Australia, the slaughtering of animals without stunning, for religious reasons) while little was said about our planning to export human asylum seekers.

Trent is discussing a tragic issue but unfortunately I find that some conservative Christians care enormously about this one issue at the expense of other equally tragic problems. I am equally appalled at our involvement in wars which kill thousands of civilians and leave thousands maimed for the rest of their lives, by the fact that there are about 20,000 global citizens who have no country to call home, by the amount of real poverty in the world, by the number of children, born, but who do survve past their childhood, about corporate greed, about the self-righteousness of the United States as it spends trillions of dollars on sophisticated weapons of mass destruction and provokes peoples to hatred.

Abortion is one of today's many social evils, all of which are tragic, extremely complex and will not easily be eradicated.

Maureen Strazzari | 15 November 2011  

Lest we forget

graham patison | 11 December 2011  

Good article. Too bad the same thing is happening right now in our own societies, especially in Israel. Of course I don't put Israel's actions on the same level with what happened in Germany for 12 years but the same mindset is there. And the USA? I was a child in Germany during WWII but oild enough to know what was going on. People did have a guilty conscience and I heard some say that awful things are going on in the concentration camps, so awful that we better not know what it is. Some where convinced that they were doing a service to their country when they killed countless "Untermenschen" in eastern Europe to make room for the "Master race". Anbd in a way they too, just like Eichmann, were victims. Were it not for the Nazi dictatorship, most would have led ordinary lives and never hurt anybody. The Germans are not by nature an especially violent people. And despite the pressure and danger, many did resist and give help and comfort to the victims. To the Germans ever lasting shame, there were not enough.

RHSchumann | 02 January 2012  

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