The Banality of Evil: The Demise of a Legend

Wolin, Richard. Jewish Review of Books, Fall 2014.


There have been few phrases that have proved as controversial as the famous subtitle Hannah Arendt chose to sum up her account of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. From the moment the articles that eventually comprised her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil were published in The New Yorker, the idea that the execution of the Nazis’ diabolical plans for an Endlösung to the “Jewish Question” could be considered “banal” offended many readers. In addition, Arendt took what seemed to be a gratuitous swipe at the conduct of the Jewish councils, which, operating under conditions of extreme duress, were forced to bargain with their Nazi overseers in the desperate hope of buying time, sacrificing some Jewish lives in the hope of saving others. Only with the benefit of hindsight do we realize that their efforts were largely futile. In her rush to judgment, Arendt made it seem as though it was the Jews themselves, rather than their Nazi persecutors, who were responsible for their own destruction. Thus, with a few careless rhetorical flourishes, she established an historical paradigm that managed simultaneously to downplay the executioners’ criminal liability, which she viewed as “banal” and bureaucratic, and to exaggerate the culpability of their Jewish victims.

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