Arendt was so preoccupied with proving that Eichmann was an unfanatical bureaucrat that she refused to take seriously the speech he gave before he went to the gallows, in which he made it clear that he still believed in the glories of Hitler's fallen Third Reich.
Describing Eichmann's final speech, she says: "He began by stating emphatically that he was a , to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death." In other words, he was still a good Nazi who believed in the Germanic gods; he was not a Christian. Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty for telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?
In 1945, she wrote that "the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe." She knew something of the "problem" from personal experience, having fled Germany for Paris when the Nazis came to power in 1933, then taking refuge in the United States in 1941.
A student of the philosophers Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger during her years in Germany, she eventually made her way onto the faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City.
She was only writing about the nature of Eichmann, whom she regarded as a banal man--banal insofar as he was an ordinary bureaucrat who "except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement . As she wrote to Mc Carthy, "One sees that Eichmann was much less influenced by ideology than I assumed in the book on totalitarianism." Was Arendt right about Eichmann?
She was right to say that it made no sense to call Eichmann, as the Israeli prosecutor would have it, "a perverted sadist." And she was right to say that "with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann" (though no serious thinker has suggested that evil people are necessarily diabolic or demonic).The killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia have kept the question--and Arendt's answer--very much alive."We have a sense of evil," Susan Sontag has said, but we no longer have "the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil." Arendt's thesis about Eichmann was attacked in the popular press and questioned by historians of the Nazi era, but many intellectuals have staunchly supported her. that greeted Arendt's thesis when applied to Adolf Eichmann indicates the depth of our need to think of that bureaucrat as different from ourselves, to respond to him, indeed, as a typical character in Holocaust fiction--a beast, a pervert, a monster." Epstein's point is that modern bureaucratic man, unthinkingly going about his daily routine, whatever it is, is always a potential Eichmann.The novelist Mary Mc Carthy told her that their mutual friend Nicolo Chiaramonte "thinks he agrees with what you are saying but he is not sure he has understood you." And Karl Jaspers suggested that she needed to make clear that she was referring to the evil acts committed by the Nazis: "The point is that this evil, not evil per se, is banal." was a curious word choice. It applies more to ideas, as Flaubert used it, than to deeds.One could perhaps speak of the banality of an evil act if one were engaged in the dubious task of judging how inventive a particular evil deed was, as Thomas De Quincey jokingly pretends to do in his 1854 essay "Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." Were the murderous deeds committed by the Nazis banal? Evil acts, it seems clear, are neither banal nor not banal.The novelist Leslie Epstein, writing in 1987, argued that "the outrage . While the controversy over Arendt's idea has continued, the phrase has slipped easily into the language, becoming a commonplace, almost a banality itself.Journalists and others freely apply it as an all-purpose explanation--for the racist treatment of African Americans, the terror of Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq, and even, in the case of one theater critic, the betrayal of Sir Thomas More in .In the intellectual world, it remains an idea of consequence. has made evil, like other things, a collective enterprise." It is remarkable how much enthusiasm has been aroused by an idea that is so deeply flawed.Bernard Williams, Britain's pre-eminent moral philosopher, cites Arendt in declaring that "the modern world . referred to land or property held in common, or property that feudal tenants were required to use, such as a "bannal-mill." By the 1830s, the neutral word signifying what was held in common had become a pejorative signifying ideas--often concerning scientific and commercial progress--that were popular with the rising middle class.Then she quotes Eichmann as saying: "After a short while, gentlemen, ." Arendt dismisses these remarks as so much "grotesque silliness." They are not completely coherent, but the main point is clear: Eichmann is paying homage to the "ideal" Germany of Hitler; he is looking back nostalgically to the glorious days when men like himself were in power. " Given the roll call of "thoughtful" people who have supported evil regimes, it seems odd to blame "thoughtlessness." One of them--at least during the early days of Hitler's triumph--was Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Arendt's mentor (and onetime-lover), who declared in 1933 that "the FŸhrer alone personifies German reality and German laws, now and in the future." Heidegger can hardly be called "thoughtless," unless we say that anyone who has a foolish political idea is thoughtless.Perhaps Arendt was so insistent that Eichmann was an ordinary bureaucrat because she thought the key to the evils of the modern world was the increasing power of bureaucracies. Heidegger found in Nazism an antidote to the evils of modernity--bureaucraticization, industrialism, materialism, scientism--which, in his view, deprived human beings of their authenticity, and cost them a loss of Being.