The capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann was one of the most dramatic, emotional, and consequential events in modern Jewish history. Fewer than two decades had passed since the destruction of European Jewry, and now a sovereign Jewish state was trying one of the Holocaust’s most notorious war criminals. Yet, when Hannah Arendt, herself a German Jewish refugee, was dispatched to Israel to cover the trial, all she could see was “the banality of evil.” For Arendt, Eichmann was not so much an evil man as a boring one, less an embodiment of Nazi cruelty than a product of “mass society.”
Arendt’s coverage of the trial provoked a severe backlash, and no one was more strident in his condemnation that Norman Podhoretz. Arendt’s writing showed him that even the Holocaust was not save from pernicious moral revisionism, and he was moved to issue in response a blistering critique of Arendt’s perverse brilliance and clarion call for moral clarity.
The brilliance of Miss Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann could hardly be disputed by any disinterested reader. But at the same time, there could hardly be a more telling example than this section of her book of the intellectual perversity that can result from the pursuit of brilliance by a mind infatuated with its own agility and bent on generating dazzle. The man around the corner who makes ugly cracks about the Jews is an anti-Semite, but not Adolf Eichmann who sent several million Jews to their death: that would be uninteresting and would tell us nothing about the Nature of Totalitarianism. Similarly, the behavior of the Jewish leaders under the Nazis was “extraordinary,” but Adolf Eichmann was ordinary, even unto banality; otherwise, he tells us nothing about the Nature of Totalitarianism. Did he have no conscience? Of course he had a conscience, the conscience of an inverted Kantian idealist; otherwise he tells us nothing about the Nature of Totalitarianism. But what about his famous statement that he would die happy because he had sent five million “enemies of the Reich” to their graves? “Sheer rodomontade,” sheer braggery—to believe it is to learn nothing about the Nature of Totalitarianism. And his decision to carry on with the deportations from Hungary in direct defiance of Himmler’s order that they be stopped? A perfect example of the very idealism that teaches us so much about the Nature of Totalitarianism.
No. It finally refuses to wash; it finally violates everything we know about the Nature of Man, and therefore the Nature of Totalitarianism must go hang. For uninteresting though it may be to say so, no person could have joined the Nazi party, let alone the S.S., who was not at the very least a vicious anti-Semite; to believe otherwise is to learn nothing about the nature of anti-Semitism. Uninteresting though it may be to say so, no person of conscience could have participated knowingly in mass murder: to believe otherwise is to learn nothing about the nature of conscience. And uninteresting though it may be to say so, no banality of a man could have done so hugely evil a job so well; to believe otherwise is to learn nothing about the nature of evil.