Arendt Speculates on the Banality of Evil Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem offered a controversial new interpretation of the nature of evil as perpetrated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Arendt argued that evil could result from the unthinking actions of ordinary people, an idea that first provoked widespread condemnation and debate but eventually won general support.

Summary of Event

In 1963, political theorist Hannah Arendt stunned the intellectual world with her account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official who had been responsible for transporting Jews to death camps during World War II. Arendt suggested that far from being a monster, Eichmann was instead “terrifyingly normal.” Eichmann in Jerusalem (Arendt) War crimes;World War II Holocaust;Adolf Eichmann[Eichmann] Holocaust;Hannah Arendt[Arendt] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];postwar trials World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];war crimes [kw]Arendt Speculates on the Banality of Evil (1963) [kw]Banality of Evil, Arendt Speculates on the (1963) [kw]Evil, Arendt Speculates on the Banality of (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem (Arendt) War crimes;World War II Holocaust;Adolf Eichmann[Eichmann] Holocaust;Hannah Arendt[Arendt] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];postwar trials World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];war crimes [g]North America;1963: Arendt Speculates on the Banality of Evil[07420] [g]United States;1963: Arendt Speculates on the Banality of Evil[07420] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1963: Arendt Speculates on the Banality of Evil[07420] [c]Philosophy;1963: Arendt Speculates on the Banality of Evil[07420] [c]Literature;1963: Arendt Speculates on the Banality of Evil[07420] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;1963: Arendt Speculates on the Banality of Evil[07420] [c]World War II;1963: Arendt Speculates on the Banality of Evil[07420] Arendt, Hannah Eichmann, Adolf Himmler, Heinrich Scholem, Gershom Robinson, Jacob McCarthy, Mary

Arendt first published a series of articles in The New Yorker New Yorker, The (periodical) magazine in February and March, 1963, and then published the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil the same year, igniting a great deal of controversy. She argued that Eichmann was an ordinary, even silly man with a head full of clichés and stock phrases who could hardly think for himself, though he claimed to be an idealist. Especially among Jews, Arendt’s views provoked harsh criticism. Scholar Gershom Scholem and lawyer Jacob Robinson argued that Arendt had minimized the horrors of the Holocaust and excused Eichmann’s role in the extermination and imprisonment of Jews. Scholem and Robinson also condemned her statements that Jewish lives were lost in part because of the actions of Jewish leaders, who thought they could negotiate with Eichmann and the Nazis.

Arendt’s supporters, including American writer Mary McCarthy, argued that far from minimizing the horrors of the Holocaust, Arendt believed that it was possible that “ordinary” persons could perpetrate the Holocaust, thereby making it even more horrifying than if it had been the work of sadistic monsters. One supporter even argued that Arendt had shown that there exists an Eichmann in every person, but Arendt disavowed this claim in the postscript to the revised edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964).

Arendt does not argue that every person has the potential to act like Eichmann but that those who do not think for themselves are in danger of becoming accomplices to evil acts in times of disordered morality, as when a country’s leaders are dedicated to evil. Drawing on the work she had done for her acclaimed study of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, The Origins of Totalitarianism Origins of Totalitarianism, The (Arendt) (1951), Arendt depicts Eichmann’s world as one of total moral collapse, in which right had become wrong and wrong had become right. Under the Nazis in Germany, mass murder had become the law, and its evil had become hard to recognize. The Eichmann she depicts, a thoughtless, self-absorbed person who was mainly concerned with career advancement, was unable to recognize the evil in the law. In his defense at trial after the war, Eichmann said that no one had protested what was being done; no one ever came to him and said it was wrong to exterminate Jews. Arendt’s point here is that in conditions of totalitarian rule in which the moral order has been turned upside down, one needs to invoke independent moral judgment to avoid becoming an accomplice to evil. She argues that such independent moral judgment was beyond Eichmann’s capabilities.

The Eichmann that Arendt characterizes was an ordinary man who had to scramble to make his way as a sales representative until he was invited to join the Nazis. In Arendt’s account, Eichmann was not an ideological or fanatical Nazi; he did not have strong views about Jews. Arendt’s Eichmann was also a joiner and a follower. He apparently liked to follow orders, although as Arendt shows, he would not follow just anyone’s orders. At the end of the war, when Heinrich Himmler, Eichmann’s superior, issued orders to curtail the extermination program, Eichmann resisted on the grounds that Himmler was going against the wishes of a higher authority, Adolf Hitler Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;Holocaust himself. Eichmann similarly opposed those who tried to sell freedom to the Jews; he saw such actions as corrupt. His conscience told him to do his duty in accordance with Hitler’s orders. In this he saw himself as an idealist rejecting personal advantage and following the law of the land, which he identified with the orders issued by Hitler. Himmler’s orders, to the extent that they contradicted Hitler’s, were illegal and thus, in Eichmann’s view, not to be followed.

In distinguishing between Hitler and Himmler, one could argue that Eichmann was developing individual judgment, but to Arendt, he was primarily caught up in following the law of the land without questioning the morality of that law. Similarly, Arendt criticizes the Jewish leaders of the time for, in effect, accepting the morality of Nazi law by agreeing to negotiate within the framework of that law. Jewish leaders, in Arendt’s account, helped the Nazis by drawing up lists of Jews for deportation, hoping to save some by sacrificing others and hoping that they could negotiate exceptions. However, by pursuing exceptions, Arendt argues, they were accepting Nazi rule.

Arendt believed that the collapse of morality in Nazi Germany affected both Nazis and Jews—victimizers and victims—alike. The unprecedented crime of the Nazis, she writes, could only have been carried out in an atmosphere of moral inversion in which few people questioned the inversion. When people did question it, lives were saved. She points to the example of German soldier Anton Schmidt and also to the actions of the Danish, one of the few European peoples who effectively worked to save their Jewish population.

Arendt did not set out to “excuse” Eichmann or to minimize the horrors of the Holocaust, nor did she mean to lessen or redirect responsibility for the Holocaust by attributing blame to Jewish leadership. Her aim was to understand what kind of a Germany it took to produce the Holocaust. She concluded that moral collapse and a lack of opposition to a new, immoral order allowed for the Holocaust.


Despite the firestorm of criticism that Eichmann in Jerusalem provoked, by the end of the twentieth century its argument about the nature of evil had become much admired. By the end of the century, “the banality of evil” had become a catchphrase, a part of everyday language. The idea that it does not take monsters to commit evil became a commonplace, and that commonplace was supported by psychological experiments such as those by Stanley Milgram Milgram, Stanley , who showed in 1974 that ordinary people would inflict pain on another person if told to do so by a person in authority. Milgram said that his experiment illustrated the idea of the banality of evil.

Arendt and her work on the Holocaust had long been shunned in Israel, but many Israelis had a change of heart; a conference on her work was held in Jerusalem in 1997. She was so praised at this conference that one of the participants worried she was being canonized. In the short term, Eichmann in Jerusalem stimulated further investigation of the Holocaust at a time when Holocaust studies were just beginning. In the long term, the work helped redefine the nature of evil. Eichmann in Jerusalem (Arendt) War crimes;World War II Holocaust;Adolf Eichmann[Eichmann] Holocaust;Hannah Arendt[Arendt] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];postwar trials World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];war crimes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking, 1963. Arendt’s classic work on Eichmann as an “ordinary” man. Based on details revealed at his trial in Jerusalem for war crimes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ascheim, Steven E., ed. Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. A collection of papers presented at the 1997 Arendt conference in Jerusalem, including one paper on the early responses to Eichmann in Jerusalem and others analyzing Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnouw, Dagmar. Visible Spaces: Hannah Arendt and the German-Jewish Experience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Discusses Eichmann in Jerusalem and accompanying controversy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Richard J. Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1996. Discusses the connections between Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Origins of Totalitarianism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">May, Derwent. Hannah Arendt. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1986. A brief but good biography of Arendt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharpe, Barry. Modesty and Arrogance in Judgment: Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999. Discusses Stanley Milgram’s psychology experiments and other later reactions to the Eichmann book, including Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. Detailed biography that included a long chapter on Eichmann in Jerusalem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Why Arendt Matters. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006. Arendt’s major biographer argues for the continued relevance of Arendt’s work and calls for moving beyond the “banality of evil” label affixed to her work’s legacy.

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Categories: History