Kaj’s Considerations: The Banality of Evil

Words by Kaj Svartfors

Do you publish opinions? ‘ he asked.

Of course! ‘ I said.

And here it is, the third column by Kaj Svartfors for CC:TKU. In his column Kaj will do what he always does: ‘I analyse and philosophise.‘ He expresses his personal view of the world as it unfolds to him: no offence intended, and none taken.

I am currently attending a course at the University of Turku which delves into Hannah Arendt’s thinking. I wanted partake in this course the very instant I saw it: I wanted to know more. I have read three of her books before, and gained a lot insight from them. And here I am now (somewhere in the past’s present future by the time you read this) embarking on a provocative thought experiment.

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem – the Banality of Evil, published in 1963, Arendt writes a fascinating take on the trial of Adolf Eichmann – a Nazi SS officer who was captured by Israeli agents in Argentina in May 1960. He was brought to Israel and was ultimately hanged. What makes the book even more insightful, and made it controversial at the time, is that Hannah Arendt claims that Eichmann was simply unable to think for himself; therefore, his role in the destruction of European Jews was not as demonic as the Israeli court made it out to be. According to Arendt, Eichmann was a fool that was just doing his job- organising the trains to the concentration camps. Basically, Eichmann was a white collar worker of the SS; he only saw papers, and numbers on those papers. Eichmann never killed anyone with his own hands. Arendt’s views were extremely brave at the time, given that she was herself a German Jew, and she was criticising a court case that took place in the newly formed state of Israel.

To Hannah Arendt, evil is thoughtlessness. To elaborate a little, here are Arendt’s comments on her own take of the Eichmann trial, from her book The Life of the Mind:

“In my report of it I spoke of ‘the banality of evil.’ Behind that phrase, I held no thesis or doctrine, although I was dimly aware of the fact that it went counter to our tradition of thought . . . about the phenomenon of evil. Evil, we have learned, is something demonic . . . “

So the first point she makes is that evil is not something mythical. She goes on to connect this notion of evil to the idea of thoughtlessness, which is the “ . . . absence of thinking – which is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time . . . to stop and think . . . ” In other words, you do not use your own faculty to think in order to know what you are actually doing on an everyday basis. And what makes this kind of evil partly possible is bureaucracy, distancing all of the actors from each other. No face to face contact. Those walls cover all the realities that go into making the evil both possible and invisible.

Here I want to emphasize that I completely agree with Arendt on the notion that Eichmann was not able to think for himself – if we consider that he was unable to think of the possibility to resign from his job. For example, (although I am not a notorious Nazi) I used to work at a clothing store that also exists here in Turku (which I for obvious reasons won’t give any free advertisement) and, although I liked it a lot, I really did not enjoy being pushed to sell items to customers that were produced in horrible conditions, in countries that had appalling human rights records. Well, in reality I was a really bad employee because I always came last whenever we had competitions for who sold the most socks and all that nonsense. I just could not, out of principle, treat other human beings as simply customers, as if it would be ok to trick people to buy more than they came for (I felt most of them were tricked even just being there). But, most importantly, I definitely lacked the constitution to resign from the job, even though I knew that I should, because I liked it there a lot at the time, and the money was sufficient.

Now, the banality of evil starts to become visible. Perhaps even in a very obvious way. But does evil have to be so obvious that we need a picture of a Nazi to see it? If we use Arendt’s logic, to what extent is an advertising agent responsible for their inability to think? What about us as consumers? We are all a little bit like Adolf Eichmann, unable to think; thus, we are participating in the destruction of this planet – mostly for short term gains. We might not be as obviously a part of a genocide as Eichmann was, but nonetheless we have been committing one for decades. Of course, we all have our justifications for the evils of everyday life, but the question remains to haunt us: when are we able to think for ourselves? What has to happen for us to genuinely begin to think?

As for speculating why we might find ourselves in this crisis of thoughtlessness, I want to argue something rather obvious: advancements in technology are changing the dynamics of society once again- this happens always in constant motion but is felt periodically. However, I also want to claim that values are always rooted in the past, and technology is always in the future, leaving the present moment always trying to adapt to the new situation. In other words, some of our current values are still hangovers from the years of the industrial revolution, and it is increasingly harder to make those values function at this stage of our technological developments. What I am trying to get at here is that our value system is still based, primarily on the concept of work. This becomes clear as it is only through labour that we are able to receive positive recognition from the overall logic of the society. But to this logic, any work is good work, even if it is detrimental and plain lethal to humanity and the environment.

Now if we place work and the ideology of perpetual growth against the global threat that is looming climate change, we can finally start to see that we have not really been thinking that clearly for ourselves. To return to Hannah Arendt’s thinking, an interesting question arises, was Eichmann or the system of the Third Reich more culpable for the Nazi crimes? And, turning back to our own situation in society today, is it your lack of recycling or the system’s (ideo)logic more responsible for the current environmental crisis?

Well, that is a question for another time and the end of my little thought experiment. I hope you enjoyed the ride.

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