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The Banality of Evil

The banality of evil is a saying that has been made famous by 20th century philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Ever since then it has been used by many people for their own purposes. But as with every term that gets thrown around loosely (like fascism for example), it is hard to pinpoint what it exactly means.

            When I look up ‘banal’ on Google, the definition it gives me is this: so lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring. So, the banality of evil would mean the evil that has been performed from somewhere lacking in originality and is thus boring. Using this saying for Adolf Eichmann, the man who was mutually responsible for the killing of millions of Jews during the ëndlosung or the holocaust, might seem strange. Could we say that the concentration camps of Nazi-Germany were unoriginal and boring? They were camps that industrialized death. So, certainly Arendt would mean something different.

            It is not that the answer to the Judenfrage was unoriginal or boring. Rather, it was the person who orchestrated the mass killings who was unoriginal and boring. Eichmann himself is the banality of evil.

            Eichmann was tasked during the reign of the Nazi regime in Germany with the logistics of the mass deportations and mass killings of the Jews during World War II. During his trial in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt attended the hearing to write about the trial in the New York Times. There she evaluated Eichmann and came to the conclusion that Eichmann wasn’t a monster like everyone tried to paint him to be. Instead, he was just an ordinary small person who followed his orders to the letter. But that’s precisely why he was able to commit the atrocities he committed.

            Something that is quite clear to me from reading books about the history of Nazi-Germany or about fascism in general, it’s that everyone would have been a Nazi in the right circumstances. To actually resist against that regime would be an extreme act of courage, something not a lot of people are capable of. It is here that the banality of evil lies. The most common people are capable of the most horrible atrocities.

            When we talk about dictators or murderers, it’s easy to paint them as monsters who have no soul or what not. It is harder however to realize that we are capable of being Nazis. Even worse, if it was us in Nazi-Germany, the idea that we would be one of the few people who would be able to resist the regime, is a naïve one. We are all decent human beings, and surely, we wouldn’t be able to perform such atrocities. Right?

            Evil can come from the most average, most normal, most banal person that exists. Because just like every ordinary person is capable of doing good and moral things, the same person is capable of evil. All it takes is a reason and a context whereinto one can perform the act. If the situation presents itself, we are all capable of atrocities similar to what the Nazis performed. Why? Because we’re human.

            I believe that Arendt wanted to show this side of evil. That we shouldn’t always make a performance of the monsters of history, but rather realize that they were human just like us. Even though capable of horrific actions, they were still more like us than we are sometimes comfortable with. Saying that people like Eichmann are monsters who cannot exist in our society would be a naïve thought. Even worse, it would be dangerous. We need to be on the lookout for people like Eichmann in our society. Only then we can stop them before it is too late. But more importantly, we need to be on the lookout for the Eichmann in ourselves, so we can stop him before it is too late.

By elenchusphilosophy

I'm a Philosophy student in Belgium, trying to talk and write about ideas of all kinds of sorts.

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