irving howe on arendt


The Eichmann about whom Arendt wrote was the Eichmann on display at the Jerusalem trial. There he seemed—as Simone de Beauvoir had said of the French collaborator Pierre Laval at his trial—commonplace and inconsequential, an unimaginative and feeble little fellow. (Hence the well-remembered phrase about “the banality of evil”—the killers, it seems, looked pretty much like you and me.) But even this Eichmann showed astonishing qualities, never breaking under pressure, never begging forgiveness for his crimes. Eichmann had once said, “I would jump into my grave laughing because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction”; Hannah Arendt dismissed this remark as mere “boasting,” the big talk of a small man. But, asked Lionel Abel in a powerful reply to Arendt, “How many people have ever boasted of having killed five million people?” That kind of boast was hardly the talk of a featureless cog in a bureaucratic machine! As for the single-mindedness with which Eichmann had pursued the goal of mass extermination, surely some profound depravity of intention or monstrousness of thought had to be at its root. No merely banal creature could have conceived or executed so horrible a crime; some version of “radical evil,” far from commonplace, had to be invoked here, and once invoked, it shattered Arendt’s view of Eichmann. Far more persuasive was a remark by Saul Bellow that “banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience.”

more from Irving Howe at Dissent here.