What is an analysis of Eichmann in Jerusalem?
Arendt's thesis that ordinary people can easily be turned to evil has often been compared to two experiments performed in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Both the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment appear to confirm her theory.
The Milgram experiment ran at the same time as the Eichmann trial and attempted to answer the question of how far people will go in obedience to authority. Individuals from all walks of life were selected to administer electric shocks to actors playing as test subjects. An authority figure in a white lab coat reassured those administering the shocks that they were helping the subjects to learn. A surprising number of ordinary people were willing to turn the electric shocks up to what would have, in reality, been a lethal dose, even when the test subjects screamed in agony. This experiment showed that people will put obedience to authority ahead of the dictates of their own consciences: evil, in fact, can be banal.
Likewise, in the 1971 the Stanford prison experiment, well-balanced people chosen to play prison guards quickly turned cruel and sadistic toward the "inmates," causing the experiment to be shut down in six days.
The two experiments, performed in a society supposedly dedicated to personal freedom and individuality, underscored the importance of people thinking carefully about the moral choices they make. The monster of evil we fear may be lurking inside all of us, not "out there" in a group of raving sociopaths that we can treat as "the Other." Arendt's book contains more than a grain of truth.
Some scholars, however, have pushed back on the characterization of Eichmann himself as a mere dull bureaucrat mindlessly following orders. Bettina Stangneth, for example, writes that Eichmann was an extraordinarily good actor who reinvented himself for the trial as a timid man simply doing what he was told. She argues that he wholly believed in and fervently supported the goals of the Third Reich. He was a loyal and anti-Semitic SS man who wanted the Holocaust to succeed. He was not merely a "tool" manipulated by evil men. Whether or not Eichmann was a mindless functionary, however, doesn't undermine the argument that mindless functionaries can and do perpetrate evil.
Whatever the true story about one evil man, Arendt's study raises provocative questions about how evil is perpetrated.