Revising the Banality of Evil

It is more than twenty years ago that I first read Arendts Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. Since that time I have regularly referred to the work in classes, and further pondered the consequences of her research into the role Adolf Eichmann played in the murder of millions of European Jews. What remained with me most was her view on the problematic side effects of bureIMG_3703aucracy. The positive goal of bureaucracy can be described as the equal treatment of citizens, and the efficient delivery of goods delivered by state and non-state organizations. Its negative side effect is that it offers the possibility for individuals to wash their hands from their complicity in malfunctioning and even evil procedures. Eichmann the bureaucrat, as he could be seen in the Jerusalem court after his capture in 1960, showed, according to Arendt, an incapacity to think, to put himself in someone else’s shoes, to see a human being as having a right to its own life.

When the political atmosphere in Europe became more xenophobic over the last ten years, and organizations simultaneously relied more and more on bureaucratic procedures to optimize their functioning, I read Arendt’s view on the banality of evil as offering a model to understand present times. I saw the disappearance of individual responsibility of managers and administrator, of teachers, police, scientists and doctors behind protocol as a moral danger for society.  I didn’t realize, however, that for evil to happen, it is not enough that someone with evil intent, or just a morally weak character, can hide behind procedures. Because a well-functioning bureacracy, with well-described responsibilities, and procedures for complaint, still contains obstacles to abuse, which protect the rights of individuals affected.

What the new historical research of Stangneth, which I am currently reading, shows, is that Eichmann and his complicits not just surfed on the possibilities of normal bureaucratic structures, but that, under the guise of being very well organized, Nazi rule actually internally destroyed certain essential elements of bureaucracy, especially official hierarchies of responsibility. I speak here of something different from what, in a recent post, I called ‘freedom to act’. Freedom to act essentially exists for every individual, in those pockets where bureaucratic and legal systems fail to reach. To put it simply: at all times any individual can try to go around the system, calling on an original freedom to act as a human being. What Stangneth shows to have happened in Nazi rule is something else: it is the selective taking more power than ‘the system’ allows by certain individuals, under the protection of the ‘highest power’, the ideological leader of the movement (the ‘Führer’), a highest power which promises its loyal servants to back them up by unlimited violence.

So this new study on Eichmann ‘before Jerusalem’ makes clear how Eichmann actually had much more power than he claimed to have had when he defended his actions in court. He did not have a high rank, but this was not very important in Nazi dealings. It was even beneficial, in order to carry out things that should remain hidden from the public. Being “on the Führer’s special mission”, Eichmann did not need to call on hierarchical responsibilities to get things done: ‘in a regime governed by relationships, only personal access to someone in power carried any real influence.’ (Stangneth, p. 40) Stangneth further analyzes many sources which were not available to Arendt (especially the so called Sassen interviews, held while Eichmann lived in Argentina), but also departs from a quite different anthropology. While for Arendt an evil person is one who lacks the potential to live the idea of Aristotelean practical reason, someone who goes along with a system that ignores humanity, for Stangneth an evil person is a responsible agent, who is perhaps not highly intelligent, but who shows talent in using a psychology of fear to rule others. ‘”Much more power… was attributed to me than I actually had”, Eichmann explained. And “this fear” of his presumed power meant that “everyone felt he was being watched.”‘ (Stangneth, p. 26)

Now, through this new book, we can see how ambitious, to the point of megalomania, Eichmann was. Still, Stangneth’s analysis doesn’t fall back on the simple and dangerous idea that there are just certain evil persons who are to blame for the worst crimes of history. While restoring full responsibility to the criminal, she also maintains the importance, shown by thinkers like Arendt and Foucault, of scrutinizing structures of power to explain what happened. What is new, however, in her work, is that her analysis of how those structures work is more rich, more complex – dissecting the different workings of journalism, state violence, the psychology of fear, and the effects of symbolism on human thinking  – to provide a more real and a less naive understanding of how evil in the midst of ‘modern civilization’ can be organized and carried out. Like Raul Hilberg she follows the view, not of the victim, but of the perpetrator, to understand the workings of what was done.

As to Eichmann, she makes clear that he was a great actor, putting forward a different image of himself as circumstances required. What he did was make use of people’s unreflected ideas about humanity. Thus it could happen, Stangneth writes, that ‘even someone of average intelligence (Eichmann, AR) can induce a highly intelligent person (Arendt, AR) to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.’ (Stangneth, p. xxv) Why this book fascinates, is, therefore, because it shows how a new kind of writing history is necessary for a philosophical understanding of humanity. A writing of history that investigates the psychological, moral, and cultural epistemic frameworks that guide common understanding – to prevent following them naively, and to make sure to count with the possibility that, apart from their already inherent distortions, they may also be used to consciously mislead. Such a historiography warns philosophical anthropology to not take its own idealism as its unreflected point of departure, but to scrutinize its own hopes, dreams, judgments, i.e. all of its normative frameworks, as a potential heel of Achilles.

Citations are taken from Regina Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem. The unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. London: Penguin Random House, 2014.

  1. David Turnbull said:

    This is a fascinating comparison: between the perspective of the victims and that of the perpetrator. For Arendt no doubt, hers was a victim’s perspective. But how does one get a perpetrator’s perspective? There is a paradox here.

    If evil carries within itself the intention to mask its own truth, then if one has that perspective, one is always in the mode of masking the truth. And so it is impossible to reveal the perspective of the perpetrator. It must always be hidden.

    Coming back to the banality of evil. From reading Arendt’s wider corpus, we know that she regarded evil as an absence, having no essential qualities, particularly lacking thought. This contrasts with the traditional Christian conception of evil as having an evil will (with intention to act badly as an essential characteristic).

    What many have regarded as problematic in Arendt’s analysis is that she equates intention with thought, and where she diagnoses thoughtlessness, she then seemingly diagnoses a lack of intention. And this seems to provide Eichmann with an alibi.

    So Arendt’s account needs to be supplemented with an account of an evil will. Suppose however that thoughtlessness also has this consequence: that the evil person does not think that they have evil intentions. Thoughtlessness masks even the intention to act badly.

    We are then back with Arendt. The basic problem is thoughtlessness.

    • That’s a good argument. I must say I didn’t read Stangneth’s book in its entirety yet. At least she provides all the new historical material Arendt didn’t have. And about the evil will, I am not yet completely certain about it. I guess I would like to combine the two perspectives you discern. The ‘innocence’ of the perpetrator is evil also. He may not have willed to be so, but is still ‘taken over’ by evil and going along with it.

      About the perpetrator perspective – Hilberg and Stangneth are both historians, aiming to find causal explanations for historical events. Stangneth takes up the deceiving nature of the evil doer as one element in this causality. I am not sure the researcher will necessarily be caught up in the lies and deceit that were meant for that situation.

      Anyway, if one couldn’t see through them, resistance would also not be possible. So I don’t agree here.

  2. David Turnbull said:

    Yes I agree that the two perspectives are needed. I can imagine a scenario (not necessarily that of Eichmann) where a bureaucrat joins a service and gets quite used to not thinking about the job beyond the technicalities. Then a whole lot of bad stuff comes through for them to process and the bureaucrat is already a slave to the machinery of the job. The bureaucrat is already habituated to thoughtlessness and so has no reason to think any more about the job than they did previously.

    I think that Arendt’s whole point depends on this sort of possibility. There isn’t an evil will as such (just a lack of personal integrity or moral courage) and there isn’t any thinking directed towards the moral dimension.

    I’ve met a lot of bureaucrats like this and I think of them that the only reason they aren’t an Eichmann is that the opportunity has not arisen. They are effectively slaves to a process and have become moronically habituated.

    • David Turnbull said:

      In more general terms, Angela, answering the question you are posing depends a great deal on what is meant by ‘intentionality’. Coming via the influence of Brentano and Husserl, intentionality is regarded as the ability of a mind to form representations of things, such as mental images, as well as having feelings, desires and so forth about them. Such representations and projections are called ‘intentional objects’ the inquiry into which is the aim of phenomenology.

      Now if Arendt’s application of the term ‘thoughtless’ to Eichmann is interpreted this way, then lacking thought is merely a fact about Eichmann, no different to it being a fact about the chair on which he sat. And one would not imagine executing the chair for crimes against humanity.

      My reading of Arendt is that she was no mere phenomenologist, and when she spoke out against thoughtlessness she was politically motivated by a different vision. Her political vision was moral at core. Thoughtlessness for her was a moral issue, and not a merely a matter of reporting on facts.

      Now, it seems that Arendt has been systematically interpreted as reporting on what she saw as facts. This is because her interpreters themselves lacked the moral frameworks to understand what she was saying. (Interesting that such interpreters were typically American.)

      What is needed, inspired by reading Arendt through a moral lens, is a thorough rethinking of what it meant by the term ‘intentionality’. It has to include the element of volition. Eichmann’s thoughtlessness was wilful, and this is what made what he did a crime.

      Coming back now to my original response. If we consider Eichmann as having an evil will, this must mean that he willed himself not to think about what he was doing, beyond the technicalities of the bureaucratic process. The object of his will was self preservation.

      The only way out of that, would have been for himself to become a victim. And the only way to become such a victim, is to will against the will to power.

      Any account of intentionality that fails to consider the will is horribly deficient.

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