If Hannah Arendt—the great political theorist, critic of totalitarianism, and sometime lover of Martin Heidegger—had not died from a heart attack on 4th December 1975, today would have been her 105th birthday.
Arendt would doubtless have had mixed feelings about 2011. This year marked a half-century since the trial of Adolph Eichmann, one of the architects of the Final Solution. Reporting on the trial from Jerusalem, she developed the ideas for her most influential book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality Of Evil. And 2011 is, of course, both the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and the year in which Bin Laden met his end at the hands of American commandos.
To point out that the phrase “the banality of evil” is often overused is itself somewhat banal. Whenever a high-profile tyrant is brought to justice, headlines groan with the phrase. The New York Times used it in connection with Saddam; TIME magazine used it about Bin Laden; and when Gaddafi gets his comeuppance, it will almost certainly be used about him, too.
Or rather, misused. As Elisabeth Young-Bruehl points out in her excellent Why Arendt Matters (Yale University Press, 2006), the phrase is “predictably and reverently invoked—and completely misunderstood.” It doesn’t simply refer to an evildoer’s lack of charisma. It neither absolves criminal responsibility, nor suggests that we would all do the same under the circumstances. Rather, it expresses a complex reading of how murderous ideologies can take root. The best way of understanding the term is to look at the example of Eichmann.
According to Arendt’s interpretation, Eichmann’s keenness to climb the greasy pole of the party loosened his grip on morality. He was persuaded by Himmler’s argument that genocide was a dirty job for a greater good; he was never exposed to any critical questioning; and he simply got used to the presence of death. This, combined with a lack of backbone, resulted in an evil that was “banal,” a willingness to become a cog in a genocidal machine. He became, to use another of Arendt’s terms, “thoughtless.”
By contrast, Arendt’s book also looks at Denmark’s astonishing resistance under Nazi occupation, a case which she wryly suggests should be “required reading in political science.” The Danish government and king flatly refused to…