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Last Reviewed 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 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.

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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.


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Last Reviewed 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...

(The entire section contains 580 words.)

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