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"As I see it," she said to Mc Carthy, "there are no 'ideas' in this Report, there are only facts with a few conclusions. "My 'basic notion' of the ordinariness of Eichmann is much less a notion than a faithful description of a phenomenon.I am sure that there can be drawn many conclusions from this phenomenon and the most general I drew is indicated: 'banality of evil.' I may sometime want to write about this, and then I would write about the nature of evil." According to Arendt, then, she wasn't writing about the nature of evil when she spoke of the banality of evil. had no motives at all." Her point is that Eichmann, though a high-level Nazi official, was not strongly influenced by Nazi ideas.
Glimmerings of her banality thesis appeared in (1951), her first book, in which she argued that the rise of totalitarianism had pointed to the existence of a new kind of evil: "absolute evil," which, she says "could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, thirst for power, and cowardice." She often said that traditional understandings of evil were of no help in coming to grips with this modern variant, and she may have wanted to attend the Eichmann trial, which she covered for the , in order to confront it and clarify her ideas.
Arendt must have thought that the meaning of her phrase was obvious, since she did not explain it, but even some of her friends were puzzled.
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.
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.Eichmann was not a Nazi fanatic but a Hitler fanatic--a distinction without a difference, since Hitler was a fanatical anti-Semite.To be sure, if Hitler had changed his mind and said that all Jews should be given apartments on the Riviera, Eichmann would have zealously carried out those orders as well.It is a long way from Emma Bovary to Adolf Eichmann, but the Eichmann described by Arendt has one thing in common with Flaubert's protagonist: he was, she writes, "genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliche." Even on the day he was to be hanged, Eichmann spoke in cliches."It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us--the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying [emphasis in original]." This startling conclusion is given without further explanation, but Arendt had been brooding about the nature of evil for at least two decades.But she was wrong to conclude that because Eichmann was not a fanatical anti-Semite he therefore wasn't a fanatic.She herself admits that he was a fanatical believer in Hitler; she speaks of "his genuine, 'boundless and immoderate admiration for Hitler' (as one of the defense witnesses called it)," and she implies that he subscribed to the Nazi formulation of Kant's categorical imperative: "Act in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it." Eichmann's fanatical devotion to Hitler led him to reject Heinrich Himmler's orders in the last year of the war to stop the Final Solution.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.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.