Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
Highly controversial when first published in 1963, Eichmann in Jerusalem draws the picture of a man reduced to an automaton; a being whose refusal to think led him to embrace – by default – the laws of a murderous state, abdicating in the process his autonomy of choice.
Portraying Adolf Eichmann as a white-collar criminal rather than a fanatical psychopath or sociopath – driven not so much by anti-Semitism as by a sense of obedience to the powers that be (regardless of moral considerations) – Mrs Arendt denuded the regime’s minions and showed them to be rather unremarkable people.
However, for Mrs Arendt it does not follow that ordinary people may commit heinous crimes given the right incentives. She maintains that the individual moral choice remains even in a totalitarian setting and carries political consequences even though the chooser may be but a cog in the machine and as such powerless to affect change.
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) studied philosophy at the University of Marburg with Martin Heidegger – a philosopher not altogether unsympathetic to the Nazi regime – with whom she maintained a turbulent amorous relationship before fleeing to France, and ultimately the US, to avoid arrest by the Gestapo – the German secret police. During the post-war denazification process, Mrs Arendt testified in defence of Heidegger. In the end, the rather hapless philosopher received a six-year teaching ban.
Often misunderstood and only recently more appreciated, Mrs Arendt’s impressive body of work – replete with multiple levels of insight into the human condition – constitutes a collection of must-reads for all those interested in the nature of power and how people respond to authority.
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