SS: “Banality of Evil”

Women in German history series

Women in German history series (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Nation has an excellent review of several books on Adolf Eichmann and the murder of Jews during the Nazi reign in Germany. The review is online here.

Hannah Arendt’s five articles on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann by the state of Israel appeared in The New Yorker in February and March 1963. They were published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil later that year. The book immediately set off a controversy that a half-century later shows no signs of abating. Just this past fall, the intellectual historian Richard Wolin (a colleague of mine at the CUNY Graduate Center) and the Yale political theorist Seyla Benhabib fought bitterly over Eichmann in the pages of The New York Times and the Jewish Review of Books. The book has become the event, eclipsing the trial itself.

2 thoughts on “SS: “Banality of Evil”

  1. This is a challenging Sunday sermon, and not just because of the controversy surrounding Arendt’s book on Eichmann, her interpretation of his personality and motives, and her apparent stance towards some of the victims. Not an easy read!

    I was mulling over the article in The Nation in the back of my mind when I happened across the following excerpt in an article in the German magazine Der Spiegel. The article is about the recently released Bin Laden documents which were found in his house in Abbottabad after his assassination:

    Die banal-bürokratischen Strukturen des Bösen illustriert ein Aufnahmeformular für den Dschihad in Afghanistan und Pakistan. Man möge es, so die Anweisung, falls nicht auf Arabisch dann in der Sprache ausfüllen, die man beherrsche. Neben Name, Alter, Beruf, Hobbys, Sprachkenntnissen wird gefragt, wie viel vom Koran man auswendig rezitieren könne. “Arbeitet jemand aus Ihrer Familie oder aus Ihrem Freundeskreis für die Regierung [gemeint ist vermutlich die pakistanische; Anm. d. Red.]? Wenn ja, wäre er/sie bereit zu kooperieren oder zu helfen?” Und dann: “Sind Sie bereit, ein Selbstmordattentat auszuführen?” Der Interessent muss am Ende noch angeben, ob er irgendwelche Erbkrankheiten hat und wer im Falle seines Märtyrertodes benachrichtigt werden soll: Adresse, Telefonnummer.

    Translated into English:

    The banal-bureaucratic structure of evil is illustrated by an application form for the jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One might, as per the instructions, fill out the form if not in Arabic then in a language one commands. Besides name, age, occupation, hobbies, languages it asks how much of the Quran one can recite from memory. “Does anyone in your family or in your circle of friends work for the government [presumably the Pakistani one is meant–Ed.] If yes, would he/she be willing to cooperate or to help?” And then: “Are you prepared to commit a suicide attack?” The applicant also has to indicate at the end whether he has any hereditary diseases and who should be notified in case of his martyrdom: Address, phone number.

    Maybe my perception is tinted by reading too much about Hannah Arendt these past couple of days, but there seems to be a connection, a close family resemblance, between her work and how this article presents the recruitment process for partaking in the jihad as … evil turned bureaucratically boring. Evil, so the article goes, has an application form which trivializes the intended deed by asking you for information about who should be notified after your martyrdom. Eichmann helped deliver jews to concentration camps, among other things; this form helps classify and deliver willing future mujahideen with efficiency.


    • The comparison you make is right on! The gap between words and deeds is amazing.
      “evil turned bureaucratically boring” – the best way to sell a “product”?


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