The banality of the “Banality of evil”

Hannah Arendt

DVD

 

I admit that I was very disappointed with the 113 minute 2013 film about the unusual very controversial ideas of Hannah Arendt about Adolf Eichmann and the 1961 trial that found him guilty of his involvement in the mass murder of some six million Jews and others. Hannah Arendt’s reaction was “The Banality of Evil,” the idea that something simple causes evil. It seems to me that this is a simplistic idea.

I was in Israel in an Israeli bus in 1960 when an announcement was made over the bus loud speaker that Adolf Eichmann was captured by Israelis and was brought to Israel to stand trial. I saw the reactions of the Israelis, the tears, the cheers, and their quiet moments when the passengers recalled slain love ones. Hannah Arendt ignored the tragedy and focused instead on her unusual idea.

Hannah Arendt ((1906-1975) was a Jewish German “political theorist,” a title she gave herself who was able to escape being killed in Germany, and settled in the US and taught in various colleges. She was a disciple and apparently the long-time lover of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) who was a controversial figure because of his affiliation with Nazism. This relationship is acknowledged in the film, but the film has many scenes where she and her husband are expressing love of each other – with statements such as, how can you leave the house without a kiss – apparently to cover-over the Arendt-Heidegger affair. Although people, especially Jews, described her as a Jew-hater after she wrote her book about the “banality of evil,” where, among other things, she wrote that Jewish leaders were guilty of cooperating with the Nazis, there is no proof that she shared the Nazi beliefs.

She was hired by the New Yorker magazine to cover the story of the trial. The New Yorker issued several articles by her about the trial and she later published a book on the subject. While there were people who praised the book, most people felt her ideas were disturbing and wrong.

I disliked the film about these events for primarily two reasons. First and foremost, I think the film failed to fully explain her views. Second, I think the film spent too much time showing she had many friends before the book was published and lost a lot of them after its publication. I think this over-emphasis was an unnecessary attempt to make us identify with her and feel sorry for her. More of the 113 minutes of the film could have been better used to help us understand her views.

I think that Hannah Arendt trivialized the views of most people. She argued that Eichmann’s problem was that he did not think. Eichmann repeated frequently that he was only doing what he was told by the government to do. Had he thought about the evil that was being done, that he was involved in the murder of millions, he would have, according to Arendt, abandoned what he was doing. In essence, she wrote, evil is not satanic, it is bureaucratic, it is the failure to think about what one is doing. I have the impression that Eichmann’s claim of innocence was untrue and an invention of some lawyer in an attempt to save him from being executed; and I think Hannah Arendt accepted his claim as being true.

It seems to me that Arendt overly focused on her idea that evil occurs because of the failure to think and failed to realize that while it is true that the failure to think and realize the consequences of our acts is one cause of evil, most of the evil that is caused by others is “satanic,” to use her word. There are people who are evil and have ideas and do things that others consider wrong, such as the sociopath who kills cats and dogs simply because it gives him pleasure. One cannot say Hitler did what he did because he did not think about the outcome.

I do not understand why Hannah Arendt stressed the one point and not the other. In fact, had she spoken about the various causes of evil, I do not think her ideas would have been controversial.

One further word. Arendt has not convinced me that Eichmann was simply a bureaucrat. When his bosses told him to stop sending Jews to the concentration camps to be killed, he continued to send them, and he did other acts which show that, contrary to Arendt, he did think, he knew what he was doing, that he was sending people to their death.

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