On Thinking and Evil: Hannah Arendt’s, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil


I must admit, in 2018 I feel less safe in the world. We seem to be in the middle of a revolution, a civil war, world war, a coup, a holy war, and whatever other awful upheaval human beings can do to destroy one another.  The “for examples” are endless: the turning our backs on our neighbors at our borders; the sacking of our own Country from the inside in the form of a tax cut that will only give more to the super-rich; the overt racism and unfettered mocking of everything sacred, the absolute belief that we have the right in these United States to determine whether or not entire ethnic populations and those of specific religions get to live on the earth… the list is endless and not so much frightening as it is heartbreaking.  I want to know how so much evil can be perpetrated on a daily basis from otherwise normal, and most likely, nice people. And I do believe what has been happening, while it might not have started with the current administration, is certainly the complete and utter manifestation of evil. I think it is evil to push forward while knowing your acts will certainly cause others pain and even death. I think it is evil to launch an all out power-grab without care or concern for humanity. I think it is evil to work for evil. It is as evil as hell. Now, while I know I am in the midst of evil; nevertheless, I do not quite understand its brand. For this reason I decided to read Hannah Arendt’s, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  I thought it might shed some light on the current moment.

The book I read is the 2006 edition with an introduction by Amos Elon, an Israeli-ex-pat-intellectual living in Italy until his death in 2009. It is by Penguin books and is the 1964 revised edition, with post-script by Hannah Arendt, which addresses criticism received from the first publication in 1963. Arendt went to Jerusalem for the Eichmann trial in 1961 as a reporter for The New Yorker. Her thoughts and analysis were originally published as essays for the magazine and later appeared in book form.

As I was reading Eichmann I kept thinking Arendt’s writing style seemed intensely German in the way it filled the page and left hardly any space from one thought to another, as German words do when they stretch across almost an entire line to express the name of just one thing. For those who have read Arendt I think her writing in Eichmann would be somewhat of a shock. I was used to more of a legato style from Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem gave me the sense that Arendt, who was in Jerusalem reporting on the trial, already a citizen of the United States, was, psychologically back in Germany, writing to understand, but really writing as sort of a return. Perhaps, such trauma is why the book is so filled with thoughts that were in need of being worked out further, and, to some extent they formed the foundation, according to Arendt scholars, of her later writing.

Arendt begins her ‘Report’… by giving some descriptions and a little background on the Israeli court and on Eichmann. She does not hold back from criticizing the court and its political motive for the trial. Much of the criticism she received came from her own critical stance of the trial and her highly critical views of the Jewish councils during the Third Reich. But while her criticism must have seemed stunning at the time it was written; it does not reduce the holocaust, the pain and brutality faced by Jewish people across Europe. At least, when I read it I could hear frustration in Arendt’s words, not because of the highly organized Jewish councils, but because so many people were brutally murdered.

Putting aside the Jewish councils and the political motives behind the trial, there is the center of Arendt’s reporting; the center of her analysis: Eichmann and the citizens of Germany. Arendt tries to piece together the German world through the mind of Eichmann. His inability to think, she concludes, was supported by a German nation that turned all language into clichés, all horrible acts into law, and culture into respectable society.

It is easy to see, however, why her critics might be weary of Arendt’s conclusions. After all, it sounds as if she were saying he was a victim of his culture or the laws at the time or even his own susceptibility to be fooled by an elite who condoned and congratulated brutal behavior. But, she is not saying that his incapability was a direct result of the Third Reich, even though the state apparatus encouraged his not thinking. To be clear, Arendt was not offering excuses, but rather, she was pointing to an evil that had arisen through normal and legitimate channels; an evil that was not only a part of Eichmann, but of all who willingly participated in the Third Reich.  This evil did not come from the outside. Germany was not being sacked by anyone other than its own. It is an evil that lurks within all men who are incapable of thinking. It is evil because they put money, greed, power, fame, whatever it may be first, and they are somehow incapable of seeing why it might be wrong to do so. But this inability is the same inability that gets one sent to jail. It is not too stupid; it is too greedy, or too power hungry — which makes thinking onerous to you. Inability to think means you can be held responsible.

Arendt makes it clear that Eichmann is not stupid. Neither is he a man who has some sort of mental illness. While it might seem his acts were the acts of a mad man, or that he was totally susceptible to clichés and therefor, stupid, still, it is not where Arendt is leading the reader. There is no escape from responsibility for Eichmann. And, here is where it is most penetrating and worth thinking because Arendt is trying to figure out how such monstrous behavior can be sustained by ordinary people like Eichmann.

What was impressed upon Arendt’s soul when she observed Eichmann was how his unimpressive nature was all there was to this man. Not a giant; not eloquent of speech or even of manner.  What Arendt observes is horrific as it means the danger to man is even more dangerous because it is masked in banality. This is to say, not that Eichmann was hiding some sort of brilliance under the veil of banality, but that banality itself, the man unable to have a thought unto himself was dangerous because who could recognize such evil until it is too late? According to Arendt, Eichmann was unalterable, even as he sat in Jerusalem and was confronted with story after story of the most heinous crimes against humanity from survivors sitting on the stand. She glimpses the face of evil of modern man and she cannot get over how the Third Reich had managed to make evil acts seem okay to perform. She looks at this man and wonders, How could an entire country become morally bankrupt? What were they thinking?

Arendt concludes they were not thinking:

“To be sure, the judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was ‘empty talk’ — except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such” (49).

But, her conclusions are not exactly obvious, even when she does tell the reader early in her Report that Eichmann “…was incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché” (48). For what does it mean to not be able to think for someone like Eichmann who obviously was quite good at his job? Arendt tries to explain when she states, “to think from the standpoint of somebody else,” (49); she gives an example of Eichmann complaining to the Jewish policeman who had examined him that he had worked hard, and indeed it was not his fault that he did not rise higher in the S.S. (49). Eichmann is no dummy, but he is also not an evil genius. According to Arendt, who has been sitting and listening to him, and reading testimony, Eichmann is connected to his clichés and they seem to “give him a lift” (54). The inability to think serves a purpose, which, according to Arendt is that of “elation” (53).

So, the state apparatus served to give Eichmann a big high. He too could rise upward and become somebody — although, his efforts seemed to be thwarted by an elite that did not want much to do with him. But he could climb; he could take part; and he could cheer alongside his countryman. Before the Third Reich, Eichmann was not much of anything. He could not graduate from High School, and worked for his father and eventually for a company, through his father’s connections, as an oil salesman. He was bored with his job after awhile, and was eventually let go; then came the rush of the Third Reich and evil disguised as opportunity.

Once evil is disguised as opportunity,  it was not hard to come up with a legal code to sustain it.

Arendt points out that in Germany everything was turned into a law and then written up as if it were legal:

“And just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ even though man’s natural desires and inclinations may at times be murderous, so the law of Hitler’s land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: ‘Thou shalt kill,’ although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people. Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it — the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation” (150).

This is a powerful statement by Arendt, suggesting that the legal system, which has its foundation in Judeo-Christian religion could easily be upended so that resisting temptation could be manipulated in such a way that killing could be made acceptable to an entire country. Not far-fetched considering how it is easy for some citizens of the United States to agree to abuse, separate, and in many cases cause death, to anyone who crosses our borders illegally. Apparently, if it is codified in law then, and here is what Arendt is pointing to as the banality of evil, then we do not have to think about whether or not is is right or wrong.

There are some who fear for their lives, and that can never be overlooked when judging a crime, but clearly Eichmann was not fearful, and in fact, boasted about his role in the Third Reich and Final Solution. So, Arendt is not talking about fear of the law, here, as much as she is pointing out a very delicate spot in the human mind that will obey laws — whatever they are! — because we are formed through education, and through religious education to do just that. Obviously, we need to obey laws, but what is dangerous is when the laws are written to support evil acts. They are disguised, so to speak, and then it becomes all the more difficult to tell the good ones from the bad ones, especially when thinking becomes something you must do on your own.

Although Arendt looks at the German propaganda machine and recognizes its vast reach and powerful grip on society, she does not allow this to become an excuse for inhumane behavior. She holds the German people, especially those in the military and state police force responsible for what was done.


Beyond evil, the question, then, in Eichmann in Jerusalem is, what is thinking and how does one continue thinking in the face of evil, especially when the evil looks legit, decked out in opportunity and law?

As I read Arendt I wondered how much, if anything, her work is taking up Heidegger’s philosophy, in particular, Heidegger’s thoughts about thinking in What is Called Thinking? written as a series of lectures by Heidegger in 1951 and 52. For Heidegger, thinking is related to thanking, giving thanks. Thinking in this way demands the thinker to acknowledge somebody else, to acknowledge being, to allow somebody else to be, something which Eichmann, and the whole of Germany had an inability to do. For both Heidegger and Arendt, thinking is clearly something more than an intelligent quotient. Thinking is more than the ability to feel for someone too. Certainly, Arendt is not saying Eichmann or most of Germany could not feel for somebody else. She is not saying they lacked empathy. For to think and to thank are closer to the sacred.

Arendt writes, “to think from the standpoint of somebody else,” and does not mean it in our popular understanding of empathy, to understand how someone else feels, which is usually how one defines empathy. It is not about trying to share a feeling, for this would still allow the crime to be committed. Furthermore, what if I could not imagine how someone else felt? Does that mean it is okay to commit a crime? Certainly not. We must think beyond law; beyond culture and beyond what the self could imagine feeling in a rigid sense. As I read Hannah Arendt I began to think about her use of thinking as discernment. To have the ability to think or to discern would mean one has access to an inner voice. Arendt writes there is no interior dialog as well as exterior dialog with Eichmann. There is no questioning, listening, pausing, or anything else that goes along with thinking.

For Eichmann, not thinking was the ideal. He had organizational skills and was perfectly content to apply them to any situation. It was easy for him not to think. Nazi Germany made it easy and then still easier for him not to think. They called murder, mercy killing, and death camps, relocation camps. Even so, Eichmann saw with his own eyes, and still he accepted it all. So, along with this vast emptiness, this inability to think, to see all existence as sacred, there is a complete giving up of his own soul, his own self in order to purchase the meager wages and title that enabled him to live comfortably. He looked around, and instead of seeing death all around him, he saw success:

“What he fervently believed in up to the end was success, the chief standard of ‘good society’ as he knew it. Typical was his last word on the subject of Hitler… [‘Hitler,’ he said, ‘may have been wrong all down the line, but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up from lance corporal in the German army to Führer of a people of almost eighty million. . . . His success alone proved to me that I should subordinate myself to this man.’] (126)

What is compelling here is how Arendt links not thinking to “respectable society”. Note, she does not say, community. “Respectable society’”is something vastly different; something outside, as it were, of the reality of life. It is, in fact, in community where the story has a chance of being different. She writes about one German sergeant who did give help to members of the Jewish underground (230), and how hearing this story

“a single thought stood out clearly, irrefutably, beyond question — how utterly different everything would be today in this courtroom, in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told” (231).

But, respectable society does not tell stories; they project an image, which always casts a long shadow. They do not live in community with one another; they reside above all community. They do not sacrifice their lives for another as they are driven by success as defined as upward mobility — the antithesis of community.

Where there is thinking, however — not everyone will comply — there is light that penetrates the darkness; where there is community — Denmark, where it did not happen — there is light that penetrates the darkness. She ends with a profound and undeniable truth when thinking on totalitarian regimes and their ability to make a human body disappear into oblivion:

“Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be ‘practically useless,’ at least, not in the long run.
[…] Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation” (232-233).

I find this argument of Hannah Arendt to spring from the sacred. Not a religious sacred as such, but from life, from all life that is sacred.  “Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible” — these are words to live by.  Reading Hannah Arendt has given me, not hope that all will be well in 2018 and the short-run; but rather, a reason to keep thinking about what is right and what is wrong. Thinking is our responsibility.  We must judge and seek to understand what is justice, and from there we must find the courage to do what is right, even if it seems it will be swallowed-up by darkness. We must do it for the long run as our actions will alter a future not necessarily meant for us to see. This is the light can never be annihilated by darkness.


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