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In 1945, she wrote that "the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe." She knew something of the "problem" from personal experience, having fled Germany for Paris when the Nazis came to power in 1933, then taking refuge in the United States in 1941.A student of the philosophers Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger during her years in Germany, she eventually made her way onto the faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City.The killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia have kept the question--and Arendt's answer--very much alive.
"As I see it," she said to Mc Carthy, "there are no 'ideas' in this Report, there are only facts with a few conclusions. "My 'basic notion' of the ordinariness of Eichmann is much less a notion than a faithful description of a phenomenon.
I am sure that there can be drawn many conclusions from this phenomenon and the most general I drew is indicated: 'banality of evil.' I may sometime want to write about this, and then I would write about the nature of evil." According to Arendt, then, she wasn't writing about the nature of evil when she spoke of the banality of evil. had no motives at all." Her point is that Eichmann, though a high-level Nazi official, was not strongly influenced by Nazi ideas.
The pseudoscientific categorization of millions of people as less than human and therefore worthy of extermination is a repulsive idea, but it is not a banal or "commonplace" idea. My point would be that what the whole furor is about are facts, and neither theories nor ideas." In a postscript written for the paperback edition, she makes a similar point: "When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial." Indeed, the book's subtitle is But the banality of evil cannot be regarded as a fact.
As historian Saul Friedlander says in (1997), "Nazi persecutions and exterminations were perpetrated by ordinary people who lived and acted within a modern society not unlike our own; the goals of these actions, however, were formulated by a regime, an ideology, and a political culture that were anything but commonplace." Angered by the attacks on , Arendt claimed that her book had nothing to do with ideas. Even Arendt implied as much in a letter to Mc Carthy: "The very phrase, 'the banality of evil,' stands in contrast to the phrase I used in the totalitarianism book , 'radical evil.' This is too difficult a subject to be dealt with here, but it is important." In another letter to Mc Carthy, she seems to admit that she has conflated two different questions: the nature of evil and the nature of the man who committed the evil.
Arendt was so preoccupied with proving that Eichmann was an unfanatical bureaucrat that she refused to take seriously the speech he gave before he went to the gallows, in which he made it clear that he still believed in the glories of Hitler's fallen Third Reich.
Describing Eichmann's final speech, she says: "He began by stating emphatically that he was a , to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death." In other words, he was still a good Nazi who believed in the Germanic gods; he was not a Christian. Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty for telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?
The novelist Leslie Epstein, writing in 1987, argued that "the outrage . While the controversy over Arendt's idea has continued, the phrase has slipped easily into the language, becoming a commonplace, almost a banality itself.
Journalists and others freely apply it as an all-purpose explanation--for the racist treatment of African Americans, the terror of Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq, and even, in the case of one theater critic, the betrayal of Sir Thomas More in .
If Hannah Arendt (1906-75) leaves no other intellectual legacy, her notion of "the banality of evil" seems certain to ensure her a place in the history of Western thought.
The idea, emblazoned in the subtitle of her controversial 1963 book, , impressed many people as a fundamental insight into a new and distinctly modern kind of evil.