Troubling new revelations about Arendt and Heidegger.

Scrutinizing culture.
Oct. 30 2009 12:37 PM

The Evil of Banality

Troubling new revelations about Arendt and Heidegger.

Hannah Arendt.
Hannah Arendt

Will we ever be able to think of Hannah Arendt in the same way again? Two new and damning critiques, one of Arendt and one of her longtime Nazi-sycophant lover, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, were published within 10 days of each other last month. The pieces cast further doubt on the overinflated, underexamined reputations of both figures and shed new light on their intellectually toxic relationship.

My hope is that these revelations will encourage a further discrediting of the most overused, misused, abused pseudo-intellectual phrase in our language: the banality of evil. The banality of the banality of evil, the fatuousness of it, has long been fathomless, but perhaps now it will be consigned to the realm of the deceitful and disingenuous as well.

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The first of the two new reports—and the one most overlooked here in America, perhaps because it's not online—appeared in the sober pages of London's Times Literary Supplement on Oct. 9. It was titled "Blame the Victim—Hannah Arendt Among the Nazis: the Historian and Her Sources." Arendt—the German-born refugee intellectual, author of the influential The Origins of Totalitarianism and the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil—has come under fire before for "blaming the victim" in her Eichmann trial book, but the author of the TLS piece, the distinguished British scholar Bernard Wasserstein, breaks new ground here with material I found shocking.

In a long, carefully documented essay, Wasserstein (who's now at the University of Chicago), cites Arendt's scandalous use of quotes from anti-Semitic and Nazi "authorities" on Jews in her Totalitarianism book.

Wasserstein concludes that her use of these sources was "more than a methodological error: it was symptomatic of a perverse world-view contaminated by over-exposure to the discourse of collective contempt and stigmatization that formed the object of her study"—that object being anti-Semitism. In other words, he contends, Arendt internalized the values of the anti-Semitic literature she read in her study of anti-Semitism, at least to a certain extent. Wasserstein's conjecture will reignite the debate over Arendt's contemptuous remarks on certain Jews who were victims of Hitler in her Eichmann book and in her letters.

Could these revelations help banish the robotic reiteration of the phrase the banality of evil as an explanation for everything bad that human beings do? Arendt may not have intended that the phrase be used this way, but one of its pernicious effects has been to make it seem as though the search for an explanation of the mystery of evil done by "ordinary men" is over. As though by naming it somehow explains it and even solves the problem. It's a phrase that sounds meaningful and lets us off the hook, allows us to avoid facing the difficult question.

It was the banality phrase—and the purported profundity of it in the popular mind—that elevated Arendt above the ranks of her fellow exile intellectuals in America and made her a proto-Sontag figure, a cerebral star of sorts and a revered icon in cultural-studies departments throughout America. It was the phrase that launched a thousand theses.

To my mind, the use of the phrase banality of evil is an almost infallible sign of shallow thinkers attempting to seem intellectually sophisticated. Come on, people: It's a bankrupt phrase, a subprime phrase, a Dr. Phil-level phrase masquerading as a profound contrarianism. Oooh, so daring! Evil comes not only in the form of mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash types, but in the form of paper pushers who followed evil orders. And when applied—as she originally did to Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's eager executioner, responsible for the logistics of the Final Solution—the phrase was utterly fraudulent.

Adolf Eichmann was, of course, in no way a banal bureaucrat: He just portrayed himself as one while on trial for his life. Eichmann was a vicious and loathsome Jew-hater and -hunter who, among other things, personally intervened after the war was effectively lost, to insist on and ensure the mass murder of the last intact Jewish group in Europe, those of Hungary. So the phrase was wrong in its origin, as applied to Eichmann, and wrong in almost all subsequent cases when applied generally. Wrong and self-contradictory, linguistically, philosophically, and metaphorically. Either one knows what one is doing is evil or one does not. If one knows and does it anyway, one is evil, not some special subcategory of evil. If one doesn't know, one is ignorant, and not evil. But genuine ignorance is rare when evil is going on.

Arendt should have stuck with her original formulation for the Nazi crimes, "radical evil." Not an easy concept to define, but, you might say, you know it when you see it. Certainly one with more validity than banality. (Wasserstein dryly notes that "her epigones have tried valiantly to reconcile the two positions, she herself recognized the inconsistency"—between radical and banal evil—"but never satisfactorily resolved the fundamental self-contradiction.") But Arendt fled from radical evil into banality in more ways than one.

Where the Wasserstein article breaks new ground is in his citation of some of the anti-Semitic sources Arendt used for what is considered her major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Of course, Arendt has been called hostile to Jews, particularly those who lack the Germanic acculturation she was so proud of.

But The Origins of Totalitarianism has not, until now, come under fire on these grounds. And I must say that even though it's a book massively bloated by irrelevant show-your-work history, it serves as ballast for an important theoretical insight: that the similarities among police-state surveillance regimes are more important than the differences, that the similarities can be summed up by a single word—totalitarianism—that applies to dictatorships of the left and right, of any ideology and by extension any theocratic regime or movement.

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