In 1963 Hannah Arendt published “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, in which she introduced the concept of the banality of evil. She argued that Adolph Eichmann, a senior Nazi and one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, was neither sociopathic nor a particularly fanatical anti-Semite. Instead, she concluded, that he was a rather ordinary, if capable, bureaucrat, concerned more with his career advancement than killing Jews.
Eichmann obeyed the law, followed orders, and was good at his job. He was, in other words, banal. But given the purpose of his job, the banality was evil.
The book sparked immediate controversy in much the same way that Richard Fausset’s “A Voice of Hate In America’s Heartland” has recently done. Arendt was accused of legitimating Eichmann’s behaviour and parroting the legal defence he put forward in Jerusalem (that he had done nothing illegal). Indeed, his portrayal as a rather average individual did not comport with the magnitude of his crimes.
But the work stands as a testament to the ever present human capacity for evil. Arendt’s argument wasn’t merely Burkean (“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”), but alluded to something much more insidious. There is evil lurking within each of us.
Evil occurs, Arendt argued, when people obey and when they do so uncritically, without thinking, as Eichmann claimed to have done. But the crimes of the Nazi regime were not committed by the small numbers of officers tried in Nuremberg or Jerusalem alone. Their crimes were made possible by the millions and millions of Germans who, like Eichmann, became complicit in the killing by paying their taxes, doing their jobs, and going about their daily lives. Evil is conformity and it is quotidian. It is not simply standing silent when others do wrong.
One Eichmann is abhorrent, but millions of likeminded people a Holocaust makes.
Critics have called out the New York Times for normalizing Tony Hovater, the Nazi sympathizer interviewed by Fausset. The portrayal of a largely familiar life — planning weddings and dining at Applebee’s — anger those that insist that Hovater’s beliefs and his behaviour are abnormal.
But it is precisely Hovater’s normal appearance that makes him and his ilk particularly dangerous. Indeed, we are currently playing witness to the mainstreaming of white nationalism and Nazism in America. Those that make up the ranks of the so-called “alt-right” have pursued normalcy as a tactic because it promises to lend them respectability.
For too long it was easy to dismiss vile hatred as an aberration or to forgive ugly rhetoric as if it wasn’t the evil it purported to be. Allowing it to become mainstream, to become part of everyday life, is our complicity and our responsibility.
In this way, there is a bit of Eichmann in all of us. And a bit of Hovater.
Jamie Levin is an Israel Institute Post Doctoral Fellow at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, the Walrus, Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, the Toronto Star, and the National Post.