The Banality of Evil

The philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-75), exploring the idea of the ‘evil’ person as a ‘monster’, following the trial of Adolph Eichmann, described the “banality of evil”. She saw Eichmann as an unimaginative bureaucrat, a ‘self-less’ cog-in-a-machine, mindlessly carrying out his assigned duties without question. Getting railway wagons from A to B mattered, not whether they contained wartime freight, or Jewish men, women and children on their way to being murdered. 

Research shows, however, that Eichmann was intensely proud of his SS status and service, which he regarded as an essential part of his nation’s defence against the imagined threat posed by those of a ‘degenerate blood line’ who, collectively, were conspiring to undermine the nations of the world before taking them over. He wasn’t a mindless paper pusher, but a dedicated, energetically creative contributor to the desired triumph of Nazism over the ‘malignancy’ of Judaism.

A better exemplar for Arendt is Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz. Here indeed was a ‘self-less’ man, whose life found its meaning in, on the surface, admirable qualities – duty, loyalty, helpfulness, diligence in doing all required of him. He showed neither satisfaction or pleasure, nor concern or embarrassment, in the face of the immensity of suffering and slaughter going on around him. Asked at his trial if he thought the inmates of Auschwitz deserved such a fate, he said that he “had never really wasted much thought” about this! 

He was a person living in a very small box, never giving any any serious thought to all that was happening around it. He had a brain, but its activity was entirely restricted to required and ‘acceptable’ thoughts, and if he had a heart capable of feelings, these were similarly restricted and ignored. So he really was a “banal” mindless, heartless cog-in-a-machine, unthinkingly, unfeelingly, mechanically facilitating its murderous function. 

Another philosopher, Socrates, said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. How important it is that you and I think out of the box, that we break free from bubbles of the like-minded. How important that we don’t dismiss, and disengage from, people who see things differently from ourselves. They could be right, and we could be wrong, but how will we ever know, if we don’t engage, listen, think and feel?

How vital it is that we question everything, no matter how ‘authoritative’ a political, social or religious leadership, regime, tradition, person or book claims to be. How necessary it is that we continually think, and keep questioning our own thinking, as well as that of other people, and that we pay attention to our gut feelings, especially if these two sources of information are at variance.

There is a ‘secular trinity’ of ‘I think, I feel, I act’. Let’s not be a Höss. Let’s be a Socrates. Let’s keep examining our thoughts, feelings and actions. If all three are active and in line, we may not be right, but at least we’ll be authentic, and not a cog in any machine.

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