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.