Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340

The Ordinariness of Evil As the subtitle of the book suggests, Arendt's main theme is that evil is often banal or ordinary. Eichmann, a bureaucrat skilled at solving problems in logical, methodical, and cost-effective ways, was not a raving sociopath who enjoyed inflicting suffering and death on the Jews. He...

(The entire section contains 580 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The Ordinariness of Evil

As the subtitle of the book suggests, Arendt's main theme is that evil is often banal or ordinary. Eichmann, a bureaucrat skilled at solving problems in logical, methodical, and cost-effective ways, was not a raving sociopath who enjoyed inflicting suffering and death on the Jews. He was simply, as he argued in his trial, doing his job and following orders. If his job had been to efficiently ship widgets to Poland for processing and recycling, he would have been exemplary at it. It just happened that he was tasked with organizing and facilitating orderly genocide.

Arendt's argument, thus, is that evil can be—and most often is—mundane. It is performed by dull, unimaginative people who don't question the moral implications of the task they are charged with fulfilling. It emerges when everyday people put a paycheck, their own safety, or simply doing their job ahead of conscience. Eichmann was not a monster, and he didn't even necessarily want to exterminate the Jews (he had earlier come up with a plan to send them to Madagascar) but nevertheless became an instrument of evil.

Moral Responsibility

A second and connected theme that Arendt explores is moral responsibility. Eichmann might have been a dull bureaucrat lacking in imagination, and he might have been merely following orders, but he nevertheless had a moral duty to do the right thing. A person of average intelligence can clearly grasp that the systematic murder of innocent people is wrong and must therefore work to resist it. For example, Arendt compares Eichmann and his ilk to Danish citizens who refused to cooperate with the Holocaust. She writes:

One is tempted to recommend the story [of Danish resistance] as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence.

Arendt argues that the example set by Danish resisters infected even the German occupiers, who lost the will to perpetrate the Holocaust there.

Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 240

The Meaning of Evil
Eichmann in Jerusalem
was written by Hannah Arendt and first published as a series in the New Yorker magazine in 1961. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was published as a book in 1963.

Although the book gives Arendt a bigger audience than the narrow one she has enjoyed in academia, the opinions she expresses in the book attract a lot of controversy. The very term—"the banality of evil"—is itself problematic for some people. By this phrase, Arendt means that most wrongs and evil deeds are committed by ordinary people, not monsters. So someone like Adolf Eichmann is just one of these "normal" people who followed orders and was more interested in maintaining his allegiance to the Nazi regime than to causing a fuss.

This definition of the banality of evil has caused a lot of strife, mainly with Jewish leaders who have seen this as a way to let Eichmann off the hook for his misdeeds. Some critics also believed that this was a way to not so subtly blame Jewish victims, especially those who were forced by the Nazis to coordinate mass deportations of their own people. Adolf Eichmann was one the leading architects of the Holocaust. Once Germany lost the war, he fled to Argentina. At the time of this trial, he was charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was ultimately found guilty and executed by hanging.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Eichmann in Jerusalem Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Summary

Next

Characters