The Banality of Evil
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The Banality of Evil

When discussing Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, two of the ideas that the work puts forth come up the most. The first is Arendt’s explanation of why Eichmann had to die: By believing themselves separate from humanity and attacking a segment of the human community (i.e. those deemed to be non-Aryan) the Nazis attacked humanity itself (which by its nature is nothing but a shared community) and through this severing act forfeited all right to be a part of humanity. Thus, they must die. The other more controversial idea is that the Jews collaborated in and are to some degree for the Holocaust. The first has been praised for its insight on dealing with crimes against humanity, the second has been awkwardly ignored or angrily rebutted. However, an interesting question arise when one puts both statements together: Are the Jews just as guilty as the German? Arendt, for her part, does not distinguish between levels of guilt; she merely shows the undeniable evidence of Jewish collaboration. We can however use the four types of mindsets Arendt charges Eichmann with as well as the actions he did for the Nazi regime and preform a kind of judicial review (a recounting of Arendt’s argument to see if it’s conclusion is valid) to compare the extent of Eichmann’s guilt with that of the Jews that.

While it may seem minor or redundant, I think it is important to note that both Eichmann his collaborators did the same job, that is the gathering of information necessary for the rounding up and transporting Jews to death camps. After all, if both parties were preforming the same function they could fall prey to the same mindsets and it is ultimately the mindsets which Arendt is concerned with. Arendt charges Eichmann with four flaws. Firstly ,a reliance on clichés, which seems to be merely a vice at first until it becomes clear that a constant reliance on cliché is what renders Eichmann unable to think independently, Connected to this, is Eichmann’s inability to be empathetic , which Arendt illustrates with an example of how Eichmann assumed that merely givinga Jewish functionary an easier job in a concentration camp would be enough to assure his safetyor that he considered this invention both the most he could do in this situation anda glowing example of his character. Likewise, those rare times he was empathetic towards the plight of his victims, such as when he sent his first mass deportation to the ghetto of Lodz rather than to the occupied Russian territories where they would have been shot on sight it was because “His conscience rebelled not at the idea of murder but the idea of German Jews being murdered “ (emphasis mine). That is to say, he only objected to the mistreatment of categories of people.Finally, and perhaps most crucially is what Arendt refers to as “a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling”. All his superiors and colleagues thought the extermination of Jews as morally unobjectionable and not something to worry over so” Who washe to judge?”. While the court at Jerusalem spends, much energy attempting to prove that, no, Eichmann did in fact have people around him that suggested to him that this was something for him to judge Arendt seems to think that the very notion of needing one’s social group to serve as one’s conscience perfidious. While it can be argued that the main motivator in all four of these categories is the refusal to asset one’s conscience, I would argue that each is subtly distinct enough to merit differentiation: The failure to assert one’s conscience in intellectual matters and emotional matters. To do so universally (as opposed to categorically) and independently (as opposed to socially). What is more is that Arendt furnishes examples of Eichmann’s Jewish collaborators falling into the same patterns of thought.

While Arendt never said that Jewish collaborators were as guilty as the Nazis, careful reading shows the have the same flaws that she ascribes to Eichmann. The same fatal tendency to think in clichés to distract from the horrors they caused. One need only look at the words of Leo Baeck who endorsed the Jewish policeman adding that would” more gentle and helpful. [and would] make the ordeal easier.” in contradiction to the reality of the situation.Their lack of empathy becomes apparent in the example Arendt citesabout how it was decided which Jews were listed for deportation.” Those” who had worked all their lives for the…community” meaning the Jewish officials and those like them. Parallels can be seen betweenthis trend and Eichmann’s attempt to “help” the Jewish prisoner he knew (both attempted to preform favors to those they were close to) and that “help” not being enough to keep him from dying. (Just as what the Jewish officials did was not enough to protect the Jewish community.). Neither action is a shining example of their perpetrator’s character.As for the use of categories to distance guilt, Arendt mentions how the German Jews were less uneasy when it was only Polish Jews being deported. Lastly, while Arendt does not explain the motivations of the collaborators as she does Eichmann, one cannot help get a similar Pontius Pilate image when Arendt describes how, with seeming calm, The Jewish Council of Elders compiled the lists of both which Jews were to be deported and what property they had to be sized.While Arendt says, anything regarding how guilty the Jews that collaborated with the Nazis (implicitly or explicitly) are for the Holocaust, she does point out that they engaged in the same thought processes Eichmann did as they went about their work.

So, what do we make of this? Do we try the masses of Jews who collaborated with the Nazis in some degree (even if that collaboration amounted to not taking a stand against the Nazis)? No. Instead Arendt attempts to show how people without much thought, who’s only goal was to “make the ordeal easier” help regimes commit terrible crimes. That is what Arendt means by the “banality of evil”.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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