Adolf Eichmann: No Exemplar of the Banality of Evil, After All?
Photograph by Bettmann/Corbis
The New York Review of Books
Sohn Min-ho, in "The 'banality of evil' in Ahn's case" (JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 19, Page 31), compares Eichmann as banal bureaucrat to the Korean sports officials who inadvertently pushed Viktor Ahn (Ahn Hyo-soo) into the welcoming arms of Russia, for which he recently won an Olympic gold medal. As John Milton would say, this is "to compare great things with small" (Paradise Lost 2.921-922), but I won't get deeply into that particular issue; rather, I want to look briefly at Sohn's view of Eichmann, which is based on Hannah Arendt's depiction of the man:
Arendt, a German-American political theorist, came up with the concept of the "banality of evil" after observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a German Nazi war criminal. Eichmann, one of the major architects of the Holocaust, argued he had only followed orders, and Arendt concluded that great evil could be executed by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and, therefore, participated with the view that their actions were normal. She concluded that evil was not the actions by fanatics or sociopaths, but ordinary people who simply followed orders.Whatever the truth of Arendt's general point about the banality of evil, this turns out not to have been true of Eichmann specifically, as reported by Mark Lilla, "Arendt and Eichmann: The New Truth" (The New York Review of Books, November 13, 2021), who quotes Eichmann:
The cautious bureaucrat, yeah, that was me . . . . But joined to this cautious bureaucrat was a fanatical fighter for the freedom of the Blut I descend from . . . . What's good for my Volk is for me a holy command and holy law . . . . I must honestly tell you that had we . . . killed 10.3 million Jews I would be satisfied and would say, good, we've exterminated the enemy . . . . We would have completed the task for our Blut and our Volk and the freedom of nations had we exterminated the most cunning people in the world . . . . I'm also to blame that . . . the idea of a real, total elimination could not be fulfilled . . . . I was an inadequate man put in a position where, really, I could have and should have done more.Eichmann's own words convict him of conscious evil, not the banal mindlessness of a mere bureaucrat following orders! I'm indebted to my friend Kent Davy, who Wednesday evening informed me and two other drinking buddies -- Kim Seung-Tae and Kevin Shepard -- of this article by Lilla, among various other fascinating topics of conversation.