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Delve Seminar Summary: Hannah Arendt ‘A Report on the Banality of Evil’

[by Monica Vilhauer]

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
Guide: Satya Byock


On the night of our first rain in Portland in three months, I made my way over to Literary Arts downtown, wondering to myself about my company for the evening.  Who uses their free time to read a difficult text about Holocaust war crimes? Who commits to Sunday night discussions about the philosophy of evil? Would anyone show up to this thing? I’d been a philosophy professor for about a decade, and had struggled to find students interested in reading and discussing difficult texts.  Worn out on pulling teeth, yet still in love with philosophy, I set my sights beyond the academy for intellectual stimulation and a community of interested readers, thinkers, and dialoguers. In just four weeks time, I found myself in the midst of a transformative process with my fellow “Delvers,” in which I was coming to understand that in times of tragedy and injustice, in feelings of powerlessness and frustration, and in the middle of an overwhelming desire to hide . . . there is reason to stay awake and aware. There is an obligation to speak up. There is a way to push back.


A Community of Thinkers

As I waited for my first Delve seminar to begin in the lovely conversation room in the heart of the city, folks started to trickle in and soon it was a full house.  We squeezed in around our table, introducing ourselves, cracking open our books filled with underlined passages, and ready to dive in. So, who comes to a seminar on the banality of evil, you ask? People still plagued with questions about the rise of Nazism, asking “how could it happen?”  People nervous it could happen again, and wanting to understand the human psychology and historical steps behind it.  Children of families involved in the war, who had suffered great losses.  Retired lawyers prepared to follow every step of Eichmann’s trial with a fine-toothed comb.  Graduates of the New School, where Hannah Arendt is a legend.  History buffs quick to recall the details of WW II and memories of watching Eichmann’s trial on TV.  And, of course, loyalists of seminars led by Satya Byock!  As we introduced ourselves and told our stories about why we had come, the depth of intellectual, emotional, and ethical-political interest surrounding this text was clear.  I knew I was in the right place.

To help us dive in, Satya proposed two questions for us to consider. Was Eichmann anti-Semitic? And, in what way was Zionism a component of his work?  We struggled through the question of how one of the major organizers of the Holocaust might notbe anti-Semitic.  And yet, “hatred” was not exactly a character trait we were finding in Arendt’s report of Eichmann. What was going on with this guy? We found Eichmann, early on in his efforts to deal with the so-called “Jewish question,” to be strictly concerned with moving Jews out of the country.  In as far as Zionists had the same goal, they found modes of pragmatic cooperation.  Eichmann’s solution to the “Jewish question” was “putting firm soil under their feet so that they would have a place of their own, soil of their own” (56). Eichmann even believed he was “helping” Jews by organizing their departure.  But it became clear, in Arendt’s report, that Eichmann’s “collaboration” with Zionists wasn’t out of some goodness in his heart. It was out of a desire to make successful career moves. 

We found ourselves fascinated by Arendt’s description of Eichmann as someone who seemed to have no core principles or ideologies.  He was mostly an unthinking “joiner,” a follower of orders, and a careerist, in her report.  We started to get a taste of what we wondered might be the point of the book, given its subtitle – that evil need not be grounded in deep thought, deep hatred, or deep . . . anything. What we find so monstrous might be . . . empty.  I felt my stomach sink. 

New questions quickly sprang up.  What if evil is easy, ordinary, even normal? What if it comes from a lack of thought and choice – and what if that’s the most ordinary thing? Is acting as a moral agent, then, an extraordinary thing?  If evil is banal, is goodness then extraordinary? How do you resist evil, if it is such an empty and ordinary thing? We weren’t ready to formulate answers, but I was thankful to have found a group that felt the weight and urgency of the questions.


Conscience, Morality, and Law

One of the most fascinating reports by Arendt was on the shape-shifting language used by the Nazi regime.  Code words and rigid language rules proliferated.  Deportation was referred to as “resettlement,” or “labor in the East.” Killing by gas was referred to as a “medical matter.” The extermination of masses of human beings, as is well known, was called the “Final Solution.” A whole apparatus was in place for shielding participants from reality, and those in the ranks fluent in the code language were called “bearers of secrets.”

The effort at deception and self-deception raised a good question about whether conscience among the Nazis was alive or dead. To have to utilize a language that creates a mental division between what you are doing and what you know about murder suggests a recognition, on some level, of the horrors in which you are involved.  This made us wonder: Did Eichmann have a conscience?

We found all the instances in which Eichmann recoiled at the physical extermination of Jews.  When he first heard about the “Final Solution” he said he “lost all joy” in his work, and confessed that poisoning Jews with gas was “monstrous.” He said he was not “tough enough” for it and it all upset him too much. Yet, one suspects that what Eichmann regretted was not so much that the events took place, but that he had to hear about it or see it.  Poor Eichmann did not like the hardship of bearing witness.

Arendt’s judgment was that Eichmann had a regularly operating conscience for exactly four weeks.  But what made it fail? Eichmann had his own story to tell about morality and conscience – a story about what they had once meant to him, and what they had become.  Morality had been a matter of following a rule and not making any exceptions. It was about being tough enough to resist any inclinations that might tempt one away from following the rule. Eichmann proclaimed that he had lived his whole life according to Kant’s moral precepts and definition of duty (and even produced a reasonable formulation of the categorical imperative during his trial!).

But, Eichmann confessed, the moment he had been charged with carrying out the Final Solution, he ceased living according to Kantian principles.  The moral law (the one he could will as a universal law) was replaced with the Fuhrer’s law, which was now state law.  Eichmann was a practiced rule follower – and he followed his new rule without compromise.  He adapted the Kantian formula to read:  Act as if the principle of your actions were at the same time that of the legislator or the law of the land.  In other words, do as Hitler would do. Do it without exception. Do it even when your inclinations tell you not to.  He said he knew, at this point, that he was no longer his own master.  But at least he was a law-abiding citizen, and he seemed proud of that.

Eichmann reported that his turn of conscience happened at the Wansee Conference, when he saw the “extraordinary enthusiasm” for the Final Solution by all present. He said: “At that moment, I sensed a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling, for I felt free of all guilt” (114).  He saw no one speak against the Final Solution. The good, respectable people of his society all sang a chorus of acceptance for it.  This soothed his conscience and set it at rest.  Arendt, with her sarcastic, yet sad tone, comments: “Who was he to judge?”

Furthermore, Eichmann was enamored with Hitler’s “success.”  Eichmann had a kind of wild admiration for someone who could climb the ladder of his career so quickly and so well.  Eichmann saw Hitler’s professional achievements as proof of his authority, and as further support for why Eichmann should submit to his word.

At this point, you could feel the chill in the room.  Descriptions of our own culture’s tendency to worship wealthy, successful businessmen, and to so easily follow “winners” of power, money, and fame, began to circulate. Worry rose up in the room for the way we ride the wave of popular opinion, and avoid being the one to stand out and go against the tide.  And that all-too-familiar phrase from those who believe they are apolitical, or ultra-tolerant — “Who am I to judge”—was unnerving. We began to answer: “You are a human being responsible for taking a moral stand, and responsible for this world that you are helping to create (whether you recognize it or not), that’s who!”

The discussion turned to the importance of deciding where you take your stand, the importance of staying informed about what is going on in the world, and saying, doing, living your “no” in the small and big moments of your life.  We talked about taking a knee. We talked about speaking up against institutional racism.  We talked about reporting sexual harassment.  We talked about the deep problems involved in insisting there’s “nothing we can do” about mass shootings or about climate change. I, myself, felt deeply disturbed about the ways in which we educate for obedience and simple rule-following in our country, creating students who listen for the formula that will deliver the grade, and the recipe that will make them money. This kind of education has become so prevalent, that one often senses resentment when one asks a student, to read, investigate, deliberate, critique, create, and take individual responsibility for their work and ideas.   By our next session, all these troubling thoughts and conversations had seeped into our daily lives. Testimonies of difficult choices, tensions with family members, and risky moments of speaking up in one’s professional life were becoming prevalent. We all agreed: This text changes you.



One of Arendt’s most controversial claims in the book was that the moral collapse of the time period was so widespread that it included not just the perpetrators of violence, but also the victims. Arendt argued that even the Jewish leaders cooperated in the destruction of their own people and called them “voluntary bearers of secrets”. She recounted their aid in compiling lists of Jews and their property, distributing badges, rounding up Jews, and putting them on trains.  In their attempt to save some people and plead that “exceptions” be made, she saw a disastrous and implicit acceptance of the “rule,” which spelled death for the bulk of Jews.

This was a really difficult issue for the group.  We wondered: Can you blame the Jewish leaders for trying to save some people when the whole ship was going down? How do you negotiate with your murderers? Perhaps only by trying to agree with them on some point in order to get them to spare some of your people? Or, should you never try to negotiate at all? This led us into an extended conversation about what productive resistance looks like.

It was in Denmark that Arendt found a model for resistance like no other.  It marked “the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent actions and resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence” (171). When the Nazis told the Danes to use the yellow badge, they responded that the King would wear it first.  The Danish government officials declared that they would resign at the first sight of anti-Jewish measures.  The Danes would not accept any Nazi attempt to distinguish between native Danes and Danes of Jewish origin.  They declared that since the Jews living in Denmark were no longer German citizens, that the Nazis had no claim on them. In other words, they were prepared to protect Jewish refugees.  And so, as Arendt says, “none of the preparatory moves, so important for the bureaucracy of murder, could be carried out, and operations were postponed until the fall of 1943” (172).  And when Nazi plans for raids began, the Danish government officials informed the Jewish leaders, who communicated with their community to go into hiding. Danish citizens took in their neighbors, ready to protect them.  Citizens refused to open their doors during raids. Wealthy Danish citizens paid for transportation to safety in Sweden for those who could not afford it.  Dock workers refused to repair German ships. Resistance was a united front throughout Denmark, from the ranks of the leadership to the average citizen.

And the results of open, organized resistance? The results of strong leaders that defended their people? The results of an unwillingness to divide up human beings into hierarchical classes? Arendt reported that the Germans exposed to this resistance began to change their minds!  They started to question the Final Solution and “their ‘toughness’ had melted like butter in the sun.” It had been “nothing but a myth of self-deception, concealing a ruthless desire for conformity at any price” (175).

Arendt reminded us of a truth we knew from the playground.  The bully is insecure and backs down when you stand up to him. She also reminded us that it is essential to organize and not to let in the forces that would distinguish between those deserving and not deserving of equal rights. Arendt’s message was an empowering one: A counter-tide in opinion can change minds.  We may be subject to influences of power, but we can be the spark of counter-power as well.


(Delve 2017/18)


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