The Banality of Evil – The Eichmanns Among Us

When Hannah Arendt published her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil fifty years ago, it caused a great scandal. Her critics thought that she was belittling the Holocaust. However, Arendt was not speaking about the Holocaust, which she believed to be just as horrific as her critics did, but about one of its perpetrators and the way he was involved in this terrible genocide.

Eichmann had been a desk-murderer, organizing and ordering the transportation of Jews to the gas-chambers; he was present at the famous Wannsee-Conference where the “Final Solution” was set into motion at the order of Hitler. Yet, when seeing the slender, stooped, rather insignificant figure of Eichmann with his lower middle-class mannerisms, his incapacity to use anything but hackneyed phrases and rise above the “officialeeze” of the Nazi Party, it is difficult to imagine him having the blood of millions of Jews on his hands. As Arendt wrote, “everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster’, but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.”

Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962)

Yet Eichmann had done monstrous things. But they did not strike him as such, since they presented themselves in such a commonplace way. He simply executed orders, and since these orders were not something that gave him pleasure (he was not a psychopathic sadist), they had the trappings of duty. “Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it – the quality of temptation,” Arendt stated. “Many Germans and many Nazis … must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom … But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.” We are used to experiencing evil as alluring, something that promises us intense pleasure, yet evil presented itself suddenly as a moral obligation.

Was Eichmann therefore innocent? No, and Arendt certainly did not think so. He made choices on the way, which led to this moral blindness, and there were turning-points when he could have realized that something was tremendously wrong. For example, at one point he witnessed the grisly murdering of people in some mobile killing units on the Eastern Front. Instead of turning against such monstrous evil, he decided against ever seeing such massacres again since they made him feel sick.

In the 20th century, evil has taken on the garb of banality: be it under totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. The slaughter of the innocent hardly raised any eyebrows. Western intellectuals embraced Communism despite dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn or Tatjana Goritchewa who spoke about the horrors of the Gulag and severe human rights abuses.

For a long time even the Allies closed their eyes to the reality of concentration camps, despite the report, for example, of the Polish resistance-fighter, Jan Karski (his excellent account Story of a Secret State is well worth a read) who witnessed the extermination procedures and got to tell the English and American leaders about it in 1943. However, once the Allies saw the inside of the camps at their liberation, they were rightly horrified and so were many Germans.

We can shake our heads at such moral obtuseness, but we should be careful to throw stones for fear of being in a glass-house ourselves. Christ accused the Pharisees of building monuments to the prophets their ancestors had killed, while doing the same things themselves.

We too suffer from the moral blindness which comes almost inevitably with the human condition; however, matters are worse in our times, since evil no longer presents itself merely as an obligation (as it did to Eichmann et al.), but as a deed of mercy. Out of compassion we are led to agree to the killing of the unborn, the sick, elderly, and handicapped – and who can resist the argument of compassion?

Who does not want to help the jobless, pregnant woman who’s in danger of being dumped by her boy-friend, if she keeps the child? Who wants to inflict such suffering on an “unwanted” baby, who might beraised in a broken home where alcoholism and violence are rampant? Why let the suffering of the elderly continue on their downward spiral toward dementia or the painful agony of cancer, when a painless death could be given to them so easily?

Compassion leads many to rally for abortion and euthanasia; Abby Johnson’s case, as described in her book Unplanned, proves the point. She became the director of an abortion clinic in order to help women. Only when she realized that Planned Parenthood was more interested in money than in truly helping women and she witnessed an abortion on ultrasound, did she grasp the horror of the abortion industry and of what she was doing. It was a turning-point for her, and she had the courage (unlike Eichmann) when confronted with her deeds, to see them for what they were.

For what appears like compassion is in reality its terrible counterfeit. Fake compassion is a mere sentiment, looking for an easy-fix, and shirking from the personal investment that real love demands. It is much easier to drive one’s daughter, girl-friend or colleague to an abortion-clinic, rather than help her raise the child or go through an adoption-process. It is easier to counsel a woman to get an abortion, than help get her out of an abusive situation, deal with her alcoholism, and assist her with getting a job. It is easier to kill the child, than address a difficult family-situation. And it is easier to give a lethal injection than to accompany somebody on their last journey, and help them to find meaning in it.

The true face of false compassion is despair and murder. Women who’ve had abortions often say they didn’t have a choice, but were forced by their families and friends to have abortions; they suffer from anguish and depression, and mourn the child they killed. Siblings of aborted children also carry wounds: the pain of missing a brother or sister, and knowing that they could have been the one to die with the kind of insecurity this breeds.

Old and sick people in Switzerland, Holland and Belgium no longer feel safe, and move to countries where euthanasia is not legal. For who can trust a doctor who might bump you off? And how can one resist the pressure to get euthanized, when already suffering and feeling like a burden to one’s loved ones? However, those who help the patient instead of killing him and those who help the pregnant mother as opposed to killing the child in her womb are showing true compassion. The victims can easily tell the difference between genuine and fake compassion: the one is good and the other is evil.

Marie Meaney, Ph.D. is the author of the booklet “Embracing the Cross of Infertility” which has also come out in Spanish, Hungarian, Croatian and German.  She is furthermore a specialist on the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, and her book Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature: Her Christological Interpretations of Ancient Greek Texts appeared with OUP in 2007. She was an Arthur J. Ennis teaching fellow at the University of Villanova in Philadelphia before moving to Italy due to her husband’s work in 2010. Dr. Meaney received her doctorate and an M. Phil. in Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. She also obtained an M. Phil. in philosophy from the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein and a D.E.U.G. from the Sorbonne in Paris.
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