Ref. HRA 1998/3
©Human Rights Awareness


Eichmann in Jerusalem : 
A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

The perpetrators of human rights abuses are often “other- oriented individuals” who need the support and the consensus of others to feel well adjusted with themselves. The personality profile of a perhaps typical perpetrator has been masterfully traced by Annah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: An Essay on the Banality of Evil. Arendt chronicles the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a German SS officer who supervised the deportation of Jews during W. W. II from several countries occupied by the Germans. 

Hannah Arendt's analysis is extremely deep and insightful, and helps dispel several common-places on the Holocaust and on the ultimate human rights catastrophes: war and genocide. First,  the notion that human rights violations are due to “extraordinarily evil” persons is strongly challenged. The banality of evil is largely due to the fact that Eichmann was a plain, in many ways mean and mediocre bureaucrat that was never involved personally in brutal actions. He did what he was expected to do by everyone else around him, and may have spent his life unnoticed, had he not been instrumental to the deportation and murder of millions of persons. Second, it appears that reaction against Nazis was never ineffectual: when Nazis were met with a strong opposition against deportation of the Jews, especially by pro-Nazi governments of occupied countries, they renounced the plans of deportation. Both points emphasize, in different contexts, the role of social and peer pressure in the worst violations of human rights. 

There is the need to have individuals that are culturally prepared to break out from the frame in which they are embedded – whenever their actions retains their banality but become intrinsically evil. And there is no such cultural attitude now. Even highly emotional movies like Schindler's List perpetuate the image of the lone monster.   Take away the Untensturmführer of Schindler's List, and concentration camps will disappear. It is, unfortunately, not so. In the role of Eichmann's there could have been millions of other Germans. Everyone should be prepared to see her- or himself as a potential human rights victim, but also as a potential perpetrator. Someone said, badly misinterpreting Arendt's words, that Arendt herself justified Eichmann. Nothing could be farther from truth. She illustrated how everyone could be, or better could play the role of Eichmann, if framed in the proper social context. Why didn't Eichmann simply say “no”? One may consider that he grew up and was educated in an environment where Jews were a distinct reality, despised, denigrated, pictured as working against the values and even attempting at the survival of Germans. Jews were even considered ridiculous or aesthetically repellent. That the Jews were seen under dis-humanizing stereotypes is very important, but just half of the story. Perhaps more relevant is that this view was socially shared, and helping the Jews was something that would bear only the promises of shameful consequence. It is not too far fetched to say that, for many, it would have been similar to help a transvestite prostitute  today.  It is symptomatic that it was a person like Schindler who helped the Jews. He was somehow outside the border of commonplace morality since he was a profiteer whose activities were barely legal. Had Eichmann refused to obey orders, he probably would not been accused or incarcerated or formally punished, as Arendt suggests, but he would have damaged his career, been held as a vile persons, discredited by his own peers. Social disapprobation and ostracism are among the most difficult thing a lone man or woman could face without an adequate source of inner strength. Eichmann apparently lacked such strength. Most people would never face the risk of becoming social out-casts. We should consider that, in most issues, and for almost everyone of us, true and good is what is socially accepted. To break out of this pattern a widespread, socially shared awareness of the universality of basic human rights is needed. Such awareness did obviously not exist then and does not exist today. 

Today? Tv, video cameras, and other technological advances have somehow removed our physical being from many places.  Police monitoring and surveillance are similarly remotely controlled. Even torturing devices, or other illegal practices, like sleep deprivation, can be remotely controlled. Thus evil is even more banal today -- as banal as switching on a remotely controlled device.

Contributed by Paola Marziani