Posted: February 15th, 2023
The ‘banality of evil’ is a term used by Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, written after attending the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The phrase has become an oft-quoted idiom that describes something which appears mundane but ultimately proves to be morally wrong or oppressive. Arendt argues that individuals can be capable of immense evil acts, while still being ordinary people who lack any particular malice or hatred towards their victims; rather they simply follow orders and do what they are told. Her argument is based largely on the belief that it takes more than hate and violence to perpetrate mass crimes against humanity, because many perpetrators are not necessarily consumed by hate or anger. Instead, she claims it is obedience to authority and a self-imposed moral blindness that allows such atrocities to occur without any meaningful opposition from those committing them.
Arendt believes Adolph Eichmann was a perfect example of this form of evil; he had been devotedly carrying out orders from his superiors without feeling any real personal animosity for his victims, believing himself justified and even righteous in doing so. Despite his significant role in orchestrating the Holocaust, she viewed him as nothing more than an banal bureaucrat who followed orders passively with no sense of guilt or remorse for what he had done. In her opinion, his very ordinariness was evidence enough for how easily human beings can commit horrendous acts when driven by ideological pressure and peer conformity instead of individual conscience.
I agree with Arendt’s analysis of evil as being deeply rooted within societal norms rather than intentional malevolence at its core; it is our willingness to obey whoever we perceive as having authority over us that allows powerful entities such as governments to manipulate people into committing violent acts against innocent people without feeling personally responsible for their actions. I believe Adolph Eichmann perfectly exemplifies this concept – a man who committed horrific crimes but did so mindlessly out of obedience rather than malicious intent – though I would argue there were other factors involved in driving him towards such extreme behaviour including anti-Semitism which likely played some part too.
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