The Banality of Evil

I saw Hannah Arendt over the weekend. It’s a very good film directed by Margaretha von Trotta with Barbara Sukowa in the title role (The two have collaborated often before, most recently in the bio-pic of Hildegard of Bingen Vision).

I was as excited when I heard about this movie as I had been when I heard about Vision. There was a period in my life when I was very engaged with the history, religion, and culture of Germany of the first half of the twentieth century. Long ago I had read Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. I was also familiar with the biography and thought of Martin Heidegger who appears in the film and with Karl Jaspers who directed Arendt’s dissertation.

I’m interested in the nature of evil, both intellectually and as a pastor and was curious to see how von Trotta and Sukowa would tell the story.

Hannah Arendt was the Jewish-German-American philosopher and political theorist who coined the phrase “banality of evil” in her work Eichmann in Jerusalem. The movie gives us a little bit of background about Arendt, including her relationship as a student with Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, but its focus is on the trial of Adolf Eichmann and on Arendt’s efforts to make sense of the evil of the Holocaust and the evil of Eichmann.

It’s a movie about thinking, a theme Arendt first brings up with Heidegger as a gangly student. She wants him to teach her to think. Throughout the film, we see her thinking, almost always with a cigarette in her hand. She may be staring out the window, staring at her typewriter, or lying on her day bed avoiding the calls from William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker who had contracted with her for a series of articles about the trial.

We also learn about the controversy her articles and then book unleashed. Her interpretation of Eichmann was widely condemned in Israel and in the US for letting him off the hook. Even more controversial was her charge that Jewish officials in the Third Reich (die Judenräte) collaborated with the Nazis.

Von Trotta made the decision to use footage from the trial in her film. Although a number of reviewers have criticized her for it, I found the scenes from the trial especially powerful and unsettling. Eichmann is shown to be a little man, perfectly ordinary, just as Arendt described, on display in a glass cage. He doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on around him and the fact that he had a cold during the proceedings makes him seem even more pathetic.

It’s sometimes said that Arendt got the philosophy right but history wrong–in other words that she was correct in claiming that the horrors of the Holocaust were often perpetrated by ordinary people following orders, but that in the case of Eichmann, he was in fact a committed Nazi and Anti-Semite. There’s evidence on both sides of this issue though I find Roger Berkowitz’s defense of Arendt in the New York Times convincing:

Arendt concluded that evil in the modern world is done neither by monsters nor by bureaucrats, but by joiners.

That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.

Fr. Robert Barron points out the Augustinian background of Arendt’s position. He quotes her:

In a text written during the heat of bitter controversy surrounding her book, Arendt tried to explain in greater detail what she meant by calling evil banal: “Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension, yet — and this is its horror! — it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world.”

Arendt’s dissertation was on the concept of love in Augustine. Augustine finally began to move toward Christianity when he came to understand that evil is non-existent, in-substantial. Arendt’s contrast between radical and extreme could be traced back to Augustine.

The film left me with some unsettled questions, specifically about the relevance of Arendt’s analysis to the present. We have seen some horrific deeds in the last decade or a little more. The images from Abu Ghraib, the revelations that the CIA and other US agencies used torture, the ongoing use of drones, and most recently the examples of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Peter Ludlow makes the connections between them and “the banality of evil” here.

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