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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

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In the Third Reich evil lost its distinctive characteristic by which most people had until then recognized it. The Nazis redefined it as a civil norm.

The Nazis took an essentially religious understanding of evil and secularized it. It became an everyday norm, a crucial element in the operation of the Nazi system. This is one of many respects in which evil during the Third Reich became commonplace—became utterly banal.

Of these, only the last, the crime against humanity, was new and unprecedented. Aggressive warfare is at least as old as recorded history, and while it has been denounced as "criminal" many times before, it has never been recognized as such in any formal sense.

The trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, as with those of other Nazis at Nuremberg, represented a novel recognition of the formal criminality of wartime atrocities. Such actions had always taken place throughout history; they'd always been described as morally wrong; they'd even been called criminal. But for the first time in history they were now recognized as criminal in the formal, legalistic sense. And that was a genuine landmark.

But this was a moral question, and the answer to it may not have been legally relevant.

Although acknowledging the previous point, Arendt is keen for us to recognize that the question of Nazi atrocities is still primarily a moral one. An overtly legalistic account of their crimes risks overlooking its most salient aspects, those specific elements that make the Holocaust such a unique crime in the annals of history.

and if he suffers, he must suffer for what he has done, not for what he has caused others to suffer.

In evaluating Eichmann's crimes we must focus on the acts themselves rather than their consequences. In arguing this point, Arendt is advocating what's called a deontological system of ethics, one that sees morality as residing in specific acts. According to such a theory, an act is good or bad in itself, irrespective of the consequences. This is the theory that Arendt applies to the crimes carried out by Eichmann and other Nazis.

Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet—and this is its horror—it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think.

Arendt also reveals a debt to Socrates in her moral philosophy. Evil for her is not a positive force in the world but a lack of something, in this case a lack of thinking. The word "radical" comes from the Latin for "root." Arendt does not believe that evil has roots in the human personality; it has no depth. Hence it cannot be radical in this particular sense of the word. If it really were, then it wouldn't be able to spread so quickly.

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted or sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.

In the final analysis, this is what was so frightening about Eichmann. He was an ordinary looking man, a desk-bound bureaucrat, albeit one who sent innocent men, women, and children to their deaths. If he hadn't been transporting Jews to the concentration camps he would've been a minor functionary in some obscure government department, handling paperwork, stamping documents. In examining the case of Eichmann, Arendt provides us with a warning that evil comes in many guises but mainly in the form of the everyday, the mundane, the banal.