EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Thought-Defying Evil

This is the prepared text for a lecture given at a conference at Wesleyan University dedicated to celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem held on September 25-26, 2013.

In the summer of 1945 Melvin Lasky, who was stationed in Germany with the American occupation forces, visited Karl Jaspers. Lasky, a correspondent for the Partisan review, mentioned the name of Hannah Arendt. Jaspers had lost contact with Arendt since 1938 and was stunned to discover that she was still alive. He asked Lasky if he could write to her through the American military post. This was the beginning of a renewed a correspondence that had begun in 1926 when Hannah was Jaspers’ student. Their friendship deepened over the years with many personal visits. Their correspondence, which lasted until 1969, reads like an epistolary novel where the full humanity and the intellectual vigor of each is intimately revealed. The correspondence ultimately included exchanges with their spouses, Gertude Jaspers and Hienrich Blücher. One of the most charming letters is dated November 18, 1945 where Hannah, who started sending food packages to the Jaspers, instructed Gertude about how to fry American bacon. “Put the slices in a moderately hot pan and fry over a low flame. Keep pouring the fat until the slices are crisp. Then nothing can go wrong with either the fat or the bacon” (Arendt and Jasper 1992: 24). But from the beginning Jaspers and Arendt exchanged their views on much more weighty topics. Commenting on Jaspers Influential Die Schuldfrage (The Question of German Guilt), she wrote in a letter dated August 17, 1946:

Your definition of Nazi policy as a crime (“criminal guilt”) strikes me as questionable. The Nazi crimes, it seems to me, explode the limits of law: and that is precisely what constitutes their monstrousness. For these crimes, no punishment is severe enough . … We are simply not equipped to deal, on a human, political level, with a guilt that is beyond crime and an innocence that is beyond goodness or virtue. (Arendt and Jaspers 1992: 54)

In response Jaspers wrote:

I’m not altogether comfortable with your view, because a guilt that goes beyond all criminal guilt inevitably takes on a streak of “greatness” — of satanic greatness — which is, for me, as inappropriate for the Nazis as all the talk of the “demonic” element in Hitler and so forth. It seems to me that we have to see these things in their total banality, in their prosaic triviality, because that’s what truly characterizes them. Bacteria can cause epidemics that wipe out nations, but they remain merely bacteria. I regard any hint of myth and legend with horror. … (Arendt and Jaspers 1992: 62 )

Shortly after receiving Jaspers’ letter, Arendt acknowledged his point.

I found what you say about my thoughts on “beyond crime and innocence” in what the Nazis did half convincing; that is, I realize completely that in the way I’ve expressed this up to now I come dangerously close to that “satanic greatness” that I, like you, totally reject. But still there is a difference between a man who sets out to murder his old aunt and people who without considering the economic usefulness of their actions at all (the deportations were very damaging to the war effort) built factories to produce corpses. One thing is certain: We have to combat all impulses to mythologize the horrible and to the extent that I can’t avoid such formulations, I haven’t understood what actually went on. Perhaps what is behind it all is only that individual human beings did not kill other individual human beings for human reasons, but an organized attempt was made to eradicate the concept of a human being. (Arendt and Jaspers 1992: 69).

This exchange took place in 1946, seventeen years before Arendt herself used the phrase “the banality of evil” in her report on the Eichmann trial. These letters even preceded The Origins of Totalitarianism where Arendt speaks of “radical evil.” I want to suggest that the seeds of Arendt’s reflections on radical evil and the banality of evil are anticipated in this exchange. They highlight issues with which Arendt struggled for the rest of her life — problems concerning the character of Nazi crimes, how they are to be judged, whether the traditions of criminal law are adequate to deal with what she claimed to be a new type of crime. But before attempting to show this I want to say something about Arendt as a thinker. If we read her carefully, we discover that Arendt was always concerned with the character of thinking — even in her earliest publications. Like Lessing she was a Selbstdenker (an independent thinker) who returned over and over again to thinking and rethinking the same or similar questions from different perspectives. She was constantly in dialogue with herself — the two-in-one dialogue that she took to be the essential feature of thinking. There is restlessness in her thought trains. Sometimes they reinforce each other, sometimes they conflict with each other, and sometimes they even contradict each other. Following her thought trains means attempting to sort out the various threads in the Penelope’s web that she weaves and unravels. I emphasize this in order to avoid what I take to be a misleading way of approaching Arendt — that she is proposing “theories” that are intended to reveal the essence of evil. There is no such essence although the task of the thinker is to try to understand the meaning(s) of evil as it appears in the world — especially the contemporary world.

Let me return to Arendt’s statement that “there is a difference between a man who sets out to murder his old aunt and people who without considering the economic usefulness of their actions at all. … built factories to produce corpses.” What precisely is this difference? I want to suggest that one way of reading The Origins — especially the section entitled “Total Domination” — is to read it as confronting this question. Here is where she explicitly introduces the notion of “radical evil.” She begins “Total Domination” by declaring that “the concentration and extermination camps of totalitarian regimes serve as laboratories in which the fundamental belief of totalitarianism that everything is possible is being verified” (Arendt 1976: 437). Despite Arendt’s limited knowledge at the time about what actually took place in the camps (which many of her critics have noted) she shows remarkable insight in presenting an analytical model of the “logic” of total domination.

Total domination, which strives to organize the infinite plurality and differentiation of human beings as if all humanity were just one individual, is possible only if each and every person can be reduced to a never-changing identity of reactions, so that each of these bundles of reactions can be exchanged at random for any other. … The camps are meant not only to exterminate people and degrade human beings, but to also serve the ghastly experiment of eliminating under scientifically controlled conditions, spontaneity itself as an expression of human behavior and of transforming the human personality into a mere thing, into something that even animals are not . … (Arendt 1976: 438)

But how does this “project” of total domination function? Arendt introduces a three step analytical model. “The first essential step on the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man” (Arendt 1976: 447). Arendt is referring to the systematic and relentless drive by the Nazis to denationalize categories of people — especially Jews — putting them outside the protection of the law and denying them any legal or civil rights whatsoever. “The destruction of a man’s rights, the killing of the juridical person in him is the prerequisite for dominating him entirely” (Arendt 1976: 451). And in the concentration camps no one has any rights at all. “The next decisive step” Arendt tells us “in the preparation of living corpses is the murder of the moral person in man. This is done in the main by making martyrdom, for the first time in history, impossible” (Arendt 1976: 451). The attack on the moral person might still have been opposed by a man’s conscience. But even this is stymied.

Totalitarian terror achieved its most terrible triumph when it succeeded it cutting the moral person off from the individualist escape and in making decisions of conscience absolutely questionable and equivocal. When a man is faced with the alternative of betraying and murdering his friends or of sending his wife and children, for whom he is in every sense responsible, to their death; when even suicide would mean the immediate murder of his own family — how is he to decide? The alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder. Who could solve the moral dilemma of the Greek mother, who was allowed by the Nazis to choose which of her three children should be killed? (Arendt 1976: 452)

But, this is still not the worst. It is the third stage — the attempt to destroy any vestige of human individuality and spontaneity that Arendt finds so horrifying. “For to destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something that cannot be explained on the basis to reactions to an environment and events” (Arendt 1976: 455). It is this final stage in the totalitarian attempt to make humans beings as human superfluous that she labels “radical evil.” The ultimate horror for Arendt was not only the attempt to destroy an entire people but the systematic attempt to make them superfluous — to make them into something that is not human. Returning to 1946 exchange with Jaspers, this is what Arendt means by a new type of crime. This is the sort of crime “which men can neither punish nor forgive.” She certainly does not mean that these criminals should go unpunished but rather than our traditional categories and justifications for punishment need to be rethought. This last stage of this process of total domination is what in her 1946 correspondence she described as “the eradication of the concept of a human being.”

When the impossible was made possible it became unpunishable, unforgivable absolute evil which could no longer be understood and explained by evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power, and cowardice; and which therefore anger could not revenge, love could not endure, friendship could not forgive. Just as the victims in the death factories or the holes of oblivion are no longer “human” in the eyes of their executioners, so this newest species of criminals is beyond the pale of even of solidarity of human sinfulness. (Arendt 1976: 459)

This is how she tentatively characterizes “radical evil”:

It is inherent in our entire philosophical tradition that we cannot conceive of a “radical evil,” and this is true both for Christian theology, which conceded even the Devil himself a celestial origin, as well as for Kant, the only philosopher who, in the word he coined for it, at least must have suspected the existence of this evil even though he immediately rationalized it in the concept of a “perverted ill will” that could be explained by comprehensible motives. Therefore, we actually have nothing to fall back on in order to understand a phenomenon that confronts us with its overpowering reality and breaks down all standards that we know. There is only one thing that seems discernible: we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become superfluous. (Arendt 1976: 459)

Her discussion of total domination ends with a warning that has unfortunately become almost prophetic. “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, and economic misery in a manner worthy of man” (Arendt 1976: 459).

In early 1951 before The Origins appeared in bookstores, Arendt sent a copy to Jaspers so that he would receive it for his birthday. Delighted with this gift from his former student who used a quotation from his own writings as an epigraph, he immediately acknowledged receiving it. After a first reading of the preface and the conclusion he added a note with the following cryptic question: “Hasn’t Jahwe faded too far out of sight?” (Arendt and Jaspers 1992: 165). In her next letter to him, Arendt wrote that his question “has been on my mind for weeks now without my being able to come up with an answer to it.” But Jaspers’ question did provoke Arendt’s following reflection on radical evil.

Evil has proved to be more radical than expected. In objective terms, modern crimes are not provided for in the Ten Commandments. Or: the Western Tradition is suffering from the preconception that the most evil things human beings can arise from the vice of selfishness. Yet we know that the greatest evils or radical evil has nothing to do anymore with such humanly understandable, sinful motives. What radical evil really is I don’t know, but it seems to me it somehow has to do with the following phenomenon: making human beings as human beings superfluous (not using them as a means to an end, which leaves their essence as humans untouched and impinges only on their human dignity; rather, making them superfluous as human beings.) This happens as soon as all unpredictability — which in human beings, is the equivalent of spontaneity — is eliminated. And all this in turn arises from — or better, goes along with—the delusion of the omnipotence (not simply the lust for power) of an individual man. If an individual man qua man were omnipotent, then there is in fact no reason why men in the plural should exist at all — just as in monotheism it is only God’s omnipotence that makes him ONE. So, in this same way the omnipotence of an individual man would make men superfluous. (Arendt and Jaspers 1992: 166)

Arendt’s focus on the production of “living corpses,” eliminating human individuality, spontaneity and plurality; systematically transforming human beings into beings who are not quite human calls to mind the phenomenon of the Musselmann , although she doesn’t use this term. And even here her thinking is tentative — “what radical evil is I do not know.” But there is a basic agreement with Primo Levi, who writing about Auschwitz has this to say about the Musselmann.

Their life is short, but their number is endless, they the Musselmänner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labor in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living; one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.

They crowd my memory with their faceless presence, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen ( Levi 2013: 56)

I have discussed Arendt’s reflections on radical evil for several reasons. She is extraordinarily insightful about “logic” of total domination — the attempt to make humans into something that is not quite human. I agree with Arendt when she describes the concentration and extermination camps as “laboratories where changes in human nature are tested, and their shamefulness therefore is not just the business of their inmates and those who run them according to strictly ‘scientific’ standards: it is the concern of all men” (Arendt 1976: 458). I also think that if we want to understand Arendt’s life-long passionate concern with politics, action, empowerment, spontaneity, natality, freedom, plurality , then with have to start with her understanding of radical evil. It was by “dwelling on the horrors “of totalitarianism that she came to appreciate what is at stake in our humanity. Contrary to a prevalent belief that her concern with politics begins with a nostalgia for an idealized Greek polis that never existed, I firmly believe that it was by looking into the abyss of what totalitarianism attempted to destroy that she sought to retrieve the meaning and dignity of human plurality, politics and freedom. But I also want to challenge the entrenched myth that Arendt somehow rejected her early analysis of the radical evil of total domination and substituted for it the “banality of evil.” Now it is certainly true that in her famous reply to Gershom Scholem’s critique of Eichmann in Jerusalem, she acknowledged that she had changed her mind and no longer speaks of “radical evil.” But this does not mean that she repudiated her analysis of totalitarian domination. What she rejects is characterizing it as “radical evil.” She says it is better described evil as extreme, not radical. Let me quote her precise words in her reply to Scholem.

In conclusion, let me come to the only matter where you have not misunderstood me, and where indeed I am glad that you raised the point. You are quite right: I changed my mind and do no longer speak of “radical evil” . … It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth not any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defyng” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality” (Arendt 2006: 470-71).

I doubt if Arendt was fully aware that she was virtually repeating what Jaspers had written to her in his 1946 letter. Where he spoke of bacteria, she speaks of fungus. Recall what he wrote about Nazi crimes. “It seems to me that we have to see these things in their total banality, in their prosaic triviality, because that is what characterizes them. Bacteria can cause epidemics that wipe out nations, but they remain merely bacteria.” When Arendt uses the term “radical” she — who was extraordinarily sensitive to language — has in mind the Latin root radix — roots. “Radical” suggests that there is some depth to these roots. She is not rejecting what she early described as the evil to total domination, she is rejecting calling it “radical” because the expression suggests that there are deep roots to this evil. She came to believe (like Jaspers) that Nazi evil does not possess depth or demonic dimension. It is thought-defying. She makes this point even more forcefully in her reply to a question asked by the journalist Samuel Grafton.

I meant that evil is not radical, going to the roots (radix), that it has no depth, and that for this very reason it is so terribly difficult to think about, since thinking, by definition, wants to reach the roots. Evil is a surface phenomenon, and instead of being radical, it is merely extreme. We resist evil by not being swept away by the surface of things, by stopping ourselves and beginning to think… (Arendt 2006: 479)

But what about the controversial phrase “the banality of evil”? Let’s first clarify the facts about the use of this expression in Eichmann in Jerusalem. The expression appears only once in her text in the final sentence of the chapter that precedes her epilogue. Arendt is describing how Eichmann went to the gallows and cites what were presumably his final words: “After a short while gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” And then Arendt comments:

In the face of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows, his memory played him the last trick; he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral. It was though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course of human wickedness had taught us — the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil. (Arendt 1964: 252)

That’s it! This is the only time she use the expression in her text. Indeed when her original five part article appeared in the New Yorker, the phrase did not appear in the title of the articles. Only when her articles were published as a book did she include the subtitle: “A Report on the Banality of Evil.” So what does the expression mean? In the Postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem written after the initial publication of her report she wrote (keep in mind the earlier exchange with Jaspers):

[W]hen I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.” Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. … He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. It was precisely this lack of imagination which enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted… He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. (Arendt 1964: 287-88. I have emphasized the last phrase in this quotation.)

Now certainly the charge that Arendt was exonerating Eichmann “one of the greatest criminals of that period” is entirely false. Although the appropriateness of the legal proceedings in Jerusalem were widely debated, especially because the state of Israel did not exist at the time that Eichmann committed his crimes, Arendt strongly defended the legitimacy of a trial by an Israeli court. She even defended the Israeli kidnapping of Eichmann from Argentina. She not only endorsed the judgment of the court, but — against many who opposed the death penalty — argued that Eichmann deserved to be hanged. Throughout her report she argued that Eichmann was responsible for the crimes he committed. Although she was critical — even scornful — of what she took to be the melodramatic performance of the chief prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, she expressed the highest admiration for the three judges who tried Eichmann. She completely endorsed their judgment concerning Eichmann’s responsibility. She wrote: “What the judgment had to say on this point was more than correct, it was the truth.” And she cited the following passage from their judgment:

[I]n such an enormous and complicated crime as the one we are now considering, wherein many people participated, on various levels and in various modes of activity — the planners, the organizers, and those executing the deeds, according to various ranks — there is not much point in using ordinary concepts of counseling and soliciting to commit a crime. For these crimes were committed en masse, not only in regard to the number of victims, but also in regard to the numbers of those who perpetuated the crime, and the extent to which any one of the many criminals was close to or remote from the actual killer of the victim means nothing, as far as the measure of his responsibility is concerned. On the contrary, in general the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands (Arendt 1964: 246-47; Arendt’s emphasis).

Arendt totally rejected any appeal to what she called the “cog-theory” — the idea that Eichmann was only a cog in a bureaucratic machine and therefore should not be held accountable for his deeds. In her critique of the “cog-theory” she says that in a court it is an individual person not a system who is accused of a crime.

In every bureaucratic system the shifting responsibilities is a matter of daily routine, and if one wishes to define bureaucracy in terms of political science, that is, as a form of government — the rule of offices, as contrasted to the rule of men, of one man, or the few, or the many — bureaucracy unhappily is the rule of nobody and for this very reason perhaps the least human and most cruel form of rulership. But in the courtroom, these definitions are of no avail. For to the answer: “Not I but the system did it in which I was a cog,” the court immediately raises the next question: “And why, if you please, did you become a cog or continue to be a cog under such circumstances. … The Eichmann trial, like all such trials, would have been devoid of all interest if it had not transformed the cog or “referent” of Section IV B4 in the Reich Security Head Office into a man. Only because this operation was achieved before the trial started could the question of personal responsibility, and hence legal guilt, arise at all. (Arendt 2003: 31-32)

One of the clearest statements of what Arendt means by the banality of evil appears in the lecture that she gave at the New School, “Thinking and Moral Considerations.”

Some years ago reporting the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, I spoke of “the banality of evil” and meant with this no theory or doctrine but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps extraordinary shallowness. However monstrous the deeds, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite inability to think He functioned in the role of a prominent war criminal as well as he had under the Nazi regime: he had not the slightest difficulty in accepting an entirely different set of rules. He knew that what he had once considered his duty was now called a crime, and he accepted this new code of judgment as though it were nothing but another language rule. (Arendt 1971: 417)

I want to comment on several aspects of this revealing passage. Arendt claims that in speaking of “the banality of evil” she meant “something quite factual.” Frankly, I find this ingenuous and misleading. Arendt is not simply describing a straightforward factual matter. On the contrary she is — to use her own terminology — making a controversial judgment that requires justification. And we can ask is it really an accurate historical judgment of Adolf Eichmann. Is it really true that his deeds could not be traced to any “ideological conviction”? This is an issue that has been widely debated by historians and we certainly know a great deal more about Eichmann today than Arendt knew at the time of the trial. But ironically, Arendt herself provides some of the best evidence for showing that Eichmann was much more motivated by ideological conviction than she acknowledges. I am referring to Eichmann’s activity in Hungary in March 1944. By that time it was clear even to the Germans that they were losing the war, but none the less the liquidation of the Jews had to go on. The last great concentration of Jews in Europe was in Hungary. Eichmann arrived in Budapest with his entire staff in the spring of 1944 and quickly and efficiently organized a Jewish Council. Here is Arendt’s own description of what happened:

Everything went “like a dream,” as he (Eichmann] repeated whenever he recalled this episode; there were no difficulties whatsoever. . . . (Eichmann’s “dream” was an incredible nightmare for the Jews): nowhere else were so many people deported and exterminated in such a brief span of time. In less than two months, 147 trains, carrying 434,351 people in sealed freight cars, a hundred persons a car, left the country and the gas chambers of Auschwitz were hardly able to cope with this multitude.) (Arendt 1964: 140).

Arendt even tells us how Eichmann managed to outsmart the Hungarian leader, Horthy. In July 1944 Horthy who was under great international pressure gave the order to stop the deportations to Auschwitz. Arendt reports that “one of the most damning pieces of evidence against Eichmann was the rather obvious fact that he had not obeyed ‘the old fool’s’ order but, in mid-July, deported another fifteen hundred Jews who were at hand in a concentration camp near Budapest (Arendt 1964: 201). He even prevented Horthy from discovering what he did until the train had left Hungarian territory. These actions — and there are others — indicate that Eichmann was far more fanatical and ideologically motivated that Arendt suggests.[1] I find it hard to reconcile these actions with the claim that Eichmann lacked “ideological conviction.”

One might think that if Arendt was mistaken in her historical judgment about Eichmann — then however banal and cliché ridden he might have appeared in the Jerusalem court, he was actually much more fanatical and ideologically motivated when he committed his crimes, this puts an end to the matter. But I do not think so. On contrary, there is something extremely important about the idea of the banality of evil — and that when properly understood it has significant relevance for us today. Perhaps if Arendt had used a phrase like the “routinization of evil” or even the “banality of the evil doer” she might have provoked less criticism. I don’t think so. Many of her critics did — and still do think — that the phrase “the banality of evil” trivializes the horrors of the Shoah. But I think that one of the reasons why her phrase provoked such a strong reaction is because she was calling into question a deeply entrenched way of thinking about evil — one that is psychologically appealing and frequently becomes dominant in times of perceived political crisis. We tend to think of good and evil in a sharp binary fashion. There are villains and victims. If one commits “monstrous deeds” as Eichmann did, then the man himself must be a monster. He must have sadistic, monstrous anti-Semitic intentions and motives — or be pathological. He must be like the great villains portrayed in literature or even like the vicious villains portrayed in popular films and culture. There is something so entrenched about this way of thinking that to call it into question is extremely disturbing. It is not easy to face up to “the sad truth” that “most evil is done by people who never made up their mind to be either good or bad” (Arendt 971:438). To suggest that perfectly normal people can commit evil deeds for banal reasons seems to suggest that one is exonerating the evil doer. But this certainly was not Arendt’s point. On the contrary, although she did think that Eichmann was banal and even comical, she also thought that he was one of the greatest criminals in the Nazi regime and that he was fully responsible for the deeds he committed — so much so that he deserved to hang. In her Epilogue to Eichmann in Jerusalem she constructed a speech that the judges might have addressed to Eichmann to explain why he was condemned to death.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations — as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world — we find that no one. That is, no member of the human race can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang. (Arendt 1964: 279).

After the horrors of Nazi totalitarianism we can no longer rely on traditional ways of thinking about evil but have to think about evil in new ways. We have to understand how perfectly normal people without vicious motives or intentions can commit and be held responsible for the most horrendous deeds. And frankly this phenomenon seems to be becoming more and more prevalent and dangerous in our political life. Increasingly we seem to be living is a bureaucratic world of the rule by nobodies where evil things can and do happen — and yet nobody is held accountable or responsible.

In judging that Eichmann as a “desk murderer” was banal, Arendt certainly was not suggesting that this was true for all Nazis. She knew that there was plenty of sadistic viciousness. She wrote about the blind bestiality of the SA and their deep hatred. And she claimed that the real horror of the camps began “when the SS took over the administration of the camps. The old spontaneous bestiality gave way to an absolutely cold and systematic destruction of human bodies, calculated to destroy human dignity. … The camps were no longer parks for beasts in human form, that is for men who belonged in mental institutions and prisons: the reverse became true: they were turned into ‘drill grounds,’ on which perfectly normal men were trained to be full-fledged members of the SS.” (Arendt 1976: 454)

In reporting on the Eichmann trial, Arendt was primarily concerned with characterizing Eichmann’s criminality. She was not particularly sympathetic with the extensive testimony of the Jewish victims of Nazi totalitarianism because she felt that such testimony was not relevant to the specific legal issue of Eichmann’s guilt for the crimes he committed. She has been criticized for not being sufficiently sensitive to the importance of testimony of survivors of concentration camps. At times her rhetoric is extremely offensive and she makes some outrageous claims with no justification. She can be faulted for taking an extremely narrow view of the trial, but throughout her report she focused on the legal guilt of the individual (Adolf Eichmann) being tried. She did not hesitate to claim that he was one of the greatest criminals of his time and deserve to be hanged. Throughout there is a deep tension in her report. On the one hand she did not think that any existing juridical system provided an adequate basis for judging this new type of criminal. Already in The Origins of Totalitarianism she wrote: “We attempt to classify as criminal a thing which, as we all feel, no such category was ever intended to cover” (Arendt 1976: 441). But on the other hand, once the decision had been made to hold a criminal trial by an Israeli court then the sole issue was Eichmann’s legal guilt not the story of the suffering of the Jews. The only question relevant in a court of law (for Arendt) was whether the individual was guilty or not of the charges brought against him.

But what can we say about the victims — those who suffered such excruciating pain, humiliation, and death because of the actions of Eichmann and those like him. How do the categories of good and evil apply to them — especially those who directly experienced life in the concentration camps and extermination camps? I have been arguing that Arendt’s reflections both on radical evil and the banality of evil compel us to rethink the meaning of evil “after Auschwitz.” How does our knowledge of what happened in these camps alter our thinking about good and evil? Here I think that Primo Levi is far more illuminating than Arendt — although I believe that what he says is compatible with Arendt. His discussion of “the gray zone” in The Drowned and the Saved is a profound reflection of the complexity of judging good and evil in the camps — and more generally in the world today. Like Arendt, he also challenges the tendency to divide the world into black and white, evil and good. “[P]erhaps for reasons that go back to our social origins, the need to divide the field into ‘we’ and ‘they’ is so strong that this pattern, this bipartition — friend and enemy — prevails over all others. Popular history, and also the history taught in schools, is influenced by this Manichean tendency, which shuns half-tints and complexities. …” Although Levi is speaking about the victims and not the perpetrators, Arendt would certainly agree with the following statement. “Although the desire for simplification may be justified, the same does not apply to the simplification itself” (Levi 1989: 36-37).

[T]he network of human relationship inside the Lagers was not simple: it could not be reduced to the blocs of victims and persecutors. Anyone who today reads (or writes) the history of the Lager reveals the tendency, indeed the need, to separate evil from good, to be able to take sides, to emulate Christ’s gesture on Judgment Day: here the righteous, over there the reprobates.(Levi 1989:37)

But this dichotomous way of thinking distorts the reality of the Lager — what hunger, starvation, sickness and the utter contingency of sheer brutality can do to human beings. “It is naïve, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims: on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself… (Levi 1989: 40). Arendt would certainly endorse this claim. Levi gives an extraordinarily subtle phenomenological account of what he calls “the privileged prisoner” — those singled out by the Nazis to perform special tasks in the Lagers. Although they were a minority in the Lager, “nevertheless they represent a potent majority among the survivors.” Obtaining extra nourishment — the extra piece of bread or bowl of soup — was essential to avoid starvation. Survival frequently required privilege. And Levi then considers the various forms and types of privilege. At the lowest level were low ranking functionaries like sweepers, kettle washers and bed smoothers who worked full time like everyone else but were willing to carry out their duties for an extra half liter of soup. Kapos, whose primary function was to police the inmates and frequently had to demonstrate how cruel and ruthless they could be. Levi then considers the Sonnderkommandos who were charged with running the gas chambers and the crematoriums. They received the best rations and were treated relatively well as long as they managed to survive. For after performing their gruesome duties for a short time they too were regularly murdered by their Nazi superiors. He concludes his chapter on the gray zone with a discussion of the infamous Chaim Rumkoski, the Jewish head of the Lodz Ghetto — the Jewish leader obsessed with power and delusions of his own grandeur. In Eichmann in Jerusalem Arendt had mentioned Chaim Rumkowski in the notorious few pages where she discusses the leadership of the Jewish Councils.

We know the physiognomies of the Jewish leaders during the Nazi period very well; they ranged all the way from Chaim Rumkowski, Eldest of the Jews in Lodz, called Chaim I, who issued currency notes bearing his signature and postage stamps engraved with his portrait, and who rode around in a broken-down horse-drawn carriage; through Leo Baeck, scholarly, mild-mannered, highly educated, who believed that Jewish policemen would be “more gentle and helpful” and would “make the ordeal easier” (whereas in fact they were, of course, more brutal and less corruptible, since so much more was at stake for them); to finally, a few who committed suicide — like Adam Czerniakow, chairman of the Warsaw Jewish Council, who was not a rabbi but an unbeliever, a Polish-speaking Jewish engineer, but who must still have remembered the rabbinical saying: “Let them kill you, but don’t cross the line” (Arendt 1964: 119)

But Primo Levi warns us that even with a terrible scoundrel like Rumkowski we must be wary of simplistic moral judgments. Levi makes it clear that we certainly cannot exonerate Rumkowski who repressed any Jewish resistance in the ghetto and even supervised the drawing up of lists of those to be sent to death camps. The point of Levi’s discussion is not to forestall judgment, not to say that we cannot or should not judge what these people did; rather he wants to make us sensitive to the complexity of making judgments in the gray zone. And here too I think Arendt would welcome the sensitive way in which he deals with the problem of judgment. This what Levi writes about Rumkowski.

But there are extenuating circumstances: an infernal order such as National Socialism exercises a frightful power of corruption, against which it is difficult to guard oneself. It degrades its victims and makes them similar to itself, because it needs both great and small complicities. To resist requires a truly solid armature, and the one available to Chaim Rumkowski, the Lodz merchant, together with his entire generation was fragile. (Levi 1989:68).

After this passage, Levi raises a most disturbing question. “How would each of us behave if driven by necessity and at the same time by seduction?” I can’t resist quoting the moving and beautiful conclusion of “The Gray Zone.”

[W]e are all mirrored in Rumkowski. His ambiguity is ours, it is our second nature, we hybrids molded from clay and spirit. His fever is ours, the fever of our Western Civilization that “descends into hell with trumpets and drums” and its miserable adornments are the distorting mage of our symbols of social prestige. His folly is that of presumptuous and moral Man as he is described by Isabella in Measure for Measure, the Man who,


Dressed in a little authority,

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured.

His glassy essence, like an angry ape

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As makes angels weep


Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility. Willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train in waiting (Levi 1989: 69)

Just as Arendt is not exonerating Eichmann so Levi is certainly not exonerating Rumkowski or the “privileged prisoners” in the Lagers. Like Arendt, Levi believes we cannot and should not avoid making judgments. But in the gray zone (which is not limited to the Lagers) we cannot rely on simplistic dichotomies of good and evil. We need to be sensitive to the complexities of particular situations in making judging and we must not “to forget our essential fragility.” All judging involves (or ought to involve) make careful discriminations of particular situations. And as Arendt herself emphasized there are no fixed rules or algorithms for making such judgments. All judgments are risky.

I began this essay by suggesting that Arendt was not interested in proposing “theories” of evil. Rather from the time of her own experience with Nazi totalitarianism she kept thinking and rethinking the meaning of evil. She came to believe that the most striking characteristic of Eichmann was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think. He lacked what Kant had called an “enlarged mentality” (eine erweitierte Denkeungsart) where one is able to “think in the place of everybody else” (Arendt 2006: 220). This is a type of thinking that every individual can exercise. Arendt sharply distinguishes between thinking and knowing. Thinking is not the prerogative of the few but the ever present faculty of everybody. The inability to think is also the “ever present possibility for everybody” (Arendt 1971: 41). And she thought that in moments of crisis, this ability to stop and think ceases to be a marginal affair in political matters “When everybody is swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes in” then thinking becomes a kind of action. In her posthumously published Life of the Mind she suggests that thinking liberates another faculty, the faculty of judgment — the “most political of man’s mental abilities,” the faculty of judging particulars without subsuming them under general rules. We know that she died just as she began to write the third part of The Life of the Mind — the part dedicated to judging. But she did leave us with the thought that judging is the by-product of the liberating effect of thinking. “The manifestation of the wind of thought is no knowledge; it is the ability to tell right from wrong. … And this indeed may prevent catastrophes, at least for myself, in the rare moments when the chips are down” There are many unanswered questions concerning thinking and judging and how this is related to preventing evil that Arendt never had the opportunity to explore. She left us with many perplexities.[2] But this is what thinking, as she characterized it, always does. Nevertheless in her own reflections about the distinctive evil of Nazi total domination where an attempt was made to eradicate “the concept of a human being” and in arguing that monstrous deeds can be committed by persons who have the most banal motives and intentions, she infects us with her own perplexities. And she thereby helps us in the ongoing task of coming to grips with understanding and resisting the evil that we encounter in of our contemporary world. We need to keep in mind her frightful warning that is unfortunately so relevant in our time: “Totalitarian solutions may survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.”


[1] Eichmann’s actions in Hungary were even more nefarious than the one’s mention for Arendt. For a fuller description of what Eichmann did when he was in Budapest, see Lipstadt 2011: 91-106.

[2] I have raised some critical questions about the adequacy of Arendt’s claims about the relation of thinking, judging and evil in Bernstein 2000.


Arendt, Hannah (1964) Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Penguin Books.

_____________ (1971) “Thinking and Moral Considerations.” Social Research

_____________ (1976) The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

_____________ (2007) The Jewish Writings. New York: Shocken Books.

Arendt, Hannah/ Jaspers, Karl (1992) Correspondence 1926-1969. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Bernstein, Richard J. (2000) “Arendt on Thinking” in The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levi, Primo (1989) The Drowned and the Saved. New York: Vintage

________ (2013) Survival in Auschwitz.

Lipstadt, Deborah E. (2011) The Eichmann Trial. New York: nextbook, Schocken Books

Also for you:

Richard J. Bernstein

Previous post

Against the Education Uncertainty Principle

Next post

John Dewey in China