When Idealism Enables Evil


Reporting from Jerusalem on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the political theorist Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” Roger Berkowitz explains what she really meant:

The insight of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is not that Eichmann was just following orders, but that Eichmann was a “joiner.” In his own words, Eichmann feared “to live a leaderless and difficult individual life,” in which “I would receive no directives from anybody.” Arendt insisted that Eichmann’s professed fidelity to the Nazi cause “did not mean merely to stress the extent to which he was under orders, and ready to obey them; he meant to show what an ‘idealist’ he had always been.” An “idealist,” as she used the word, is an ideologue, someone who will sacrifice his own moral convictions when they come in conflict with the “idea” of the movement that gives life meaning. Evil was transformed from a Satanic temptation into a test of self-sacrifice, and Eichmann justified the evil he knowingly committed as a heroic burden demanded by his idealism.

“What stuck in the minds” of men like Eichmann, Arendt wrote, was not a rational or coherent ideology. It was “simply the notion of being involved in something historic, grandiose, unique.” Eichmann described how difficult it was for him to participate in the Final Solution, but took pride in having done so. He added: “if I had known then the horrors that would later happen to the Germans, it would have been easier for me to watch the Jewish executions. At heart I am a very sensitive man.” In a terrifying act of self-deception, Eichmann believed his inhuman acts were marks of virtue.

Recent Dish on Arendt here, here, and here.

(Photo: Eichmann walking in the yard of his cell in the Ayalon Prison, Ramla, Israel, circa 1961, via Wikimedia Commons)