Is Evil Banal? Part 1

19 Jun

Strangely enough, nobody else seemed too eager to join me to see the new movie Hannah Arendt. Go to a movie about a philosopher’s musings on the nature of evil? What a laff riot! And action! Can’t wait for the special effects! But it was one of the best movies I have ever seen. It was dramatic, lively, and so full of ideas that I found myself writing down sentences in the darkness of the theater.

Jewish-German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” when she covered the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for the New Yorker and later a book. I was very curious about this idea. As a card-carrying member of the Formerly Bullied Club, I have experienced my own small measure of evil, and from my point of view, “banality” doesn’t cover the sheer spiteful glee my tormentors used toward me. I made it out of the leafy suburb where I was bullied alive and well, and although I don’t think bullying =Holocaust, it’s important to remember that the cruelty of bullying can be fatal. A few days ago, a 12-year-old beauty, Gabrielle Molina, hanged herself on a ceiling fan at home in Queens, New York, after months of harassment.

Therefore I was very interested in—and somewhat dismissive of—the idea of how Hannah Arendt could find the idea of evil as banal. But it was much more complex than that. It was complex because much of her thought was formed by philosopher Martin Heidegger, her teacher and lover, who became an active member of the Nazi Party and never publically renounced his connection to it. But was the part of him that allowed him to become of the 20th century’s most influential philosophers the same part of him that allowed him become a Nazi? Can brilliant people also be stupid in other areas of their lives? I ask that question sincerely because I don’t yet understand enough of Heidegger to make a judgment on that point. Would Arendt—who had suffered as a prisoner in a Nazi camp herself—be compromised by that association, or would there be a part of his thinking that could form a useful substructure or framework for thinking for his most brilliant students, such as Hannah Arendt?

The film shows Arendt’s happy life in New York, rich in friends, love, and work. However, the substance of the movie is about Arendt’s coverage of the famous trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann managed many of the logistical elements of how to send Jews to concentration camps, and had escaped to Argentina after World War II, until he was captured by Mossad operatives and brought to trial in Jerusalem in 1960. The film shows real footage of the trial interspersed with Arendt’s (as played by brilliant German actress Barbara Sukowa) reactions to it. In conversation and thought she wrestles with the idea of how a mediocre man such as Eichmann, who would readily admit to making bureaucratic decisions about (I believe) the number or schedule of trains that were being sent off to death camps, but who would take no responsibility for where they went—“That was another department.” And, as he had pointed out,he had taken an oath to follow Hitler and “an oath is an oath.” Furthermore, as in the Nuremberg Trials, he had not broken any laws—at least, the laws of his own nation at the time. In fact, he had followed the law with enthusiasm. What right, he asserted, did Israel have to try him?

For more, see part 2.

Writing Prompt: Do you think it’s fair to try people for war crimes if they were legal at the time? And how do you think a truly brilliant thinker could be caught up in Nazism?

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