Essay: The Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

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  • Subject area(s): Religious studies and Theology essays
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  • Published on: January 17, 2020
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  • The Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
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“The Banality of Evil” is a concept originated by German-Jewish Journalist Hannah Arendt in the early 1960’s. These four words express a deep truth about human nature; that is, that the normalization of unspeakable atrocities can lead any person, no matter how sane, to great sin. It is the function of a country’s media and government to normalize such dangerous thought, particularly during a war time or another such time of chaos. Some excellent examples of “banal evil” include casual racism and segregation, which were considered routine until the mid 20th century, as well as slavery, which some argued was morally superior to freedom for black people. Hannah Arendt derived the idea of ‘the banality of evil’ from the trials of Adolph Eichmann, a nazi war criminal, and architect of “the final solution” for the extermination of the Jewish people. During the wartimes, it was not an individual who executed this “final solution”, but a large group of men, all of whom made their own small contributions to the war effort. This division of labour (between soldiers and bureaucrats) allowed those involved in the holocaust to detach themselves from their evils, and to be deliberately ignorant to the true nature of the war. The bureaucrats would plan, while another group of men carried out the murder and torture, and yet another group produced the weapons with which the killings were carried out. There were always companies willing to produce such weapons of mass destruction, there were always men willing to maim and murder, and there were always government employees willing to construct memos and plans that would command all of the formerly mentioned acts. To all of the participants, the war was simply “work”. Despite the abominable nature of his actions, it is true that Adolph Eichmann did as he was told by the German government, according to the law at the time – which happened to be predicated on prejudiced thought.
In his poem “All There is to Know About Adolph Eichmann”, Leonard Cohen attempts to convey the concept of banal evil. To accomplish this, Cohen paints a portrait of Adolph Eichmann. Though he was the very portrait of evil, Eichmann appeared ordinary. As described by Cohen, he was of “medium” height, weight, build, and general attractiveness. He had a wife and children, all of whom loved and were loved by him; all of whom saw Eichmann as a doting father, husband, and brother. To Adolph Eichmann, his government position was a job, and planning the extermination of the Semitic population of Europe was a part of said work. Using his pen as his weapon, Eichmann sent millions of human beings to their deaths. Not because he believed that they were deserved of torture, starvation, or death, and not because he had embraced the Nazi manifesto, but because he had accepted the stance of the elected party, and continued to participate in government activities because he was hired to do so. Eichmann was not a fanatic, nor did he have “talons” or “oversized incisors”. Eichmann was a banal man, who had the unfortunate job of facilitating the death of six million European Jews, and carried out this job without question. While this was an act of unspeakable evil, the true message of both the poem and the concept of ‘banal evil’ is that wickedness can spring forth from even the most mundane of people, and that every person has it within them to commit atrocities if properly persuaded.

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