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The banality of evil according to Hannah Arendt

Where does evil come from? Why are people capable of doing terrible things? Are these people different from others? When Hannah Arendt left Germany, the Nazis had not yet launched ′the final solution′ to exterminate the Jews. When the person responsible for transport to the camps was captured in Argentina, Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish thinker wanted to see that criminal face to face, attending his trial in Israel.

Article by José de Segovia from Madrid on Sunday, January 13th 2019 ·.·★ Reading takes 9 minutes or 1871 words.

Von Trotta′s film reconstructs that trip, since the author of ′The Origins of Totalitarianism′ is offered to the prestigious New Yorker The New Yorker - still considered by many to be the best magazine in the world - to the controversy they caused the five articles that appeared in 1963 - which later form the book entitled ′Eichmann in Jerusalem: a study on the banality of evil′ -. That changed Arendt′s life. As we read in the text that closes the film, ′until the time of his death, he struggled with the problem of evil.′

When the Jewish thinker observes the Nazi officer considered one of the ′Holocaust architects,′ she is astonished to see someone ′completely normal -′ more normal in any way than me, after examining him, ′says a psychiatrist in the trial - Hannah is stunned to discover that one of those responsible for the greatest crime of humanity ′was not a monster, but a clown.′ It was someone gray and mediocre, a pathetic bureaucrat.

The SS colonel had escaped from Nuremberg with a Red Cross passport, which he obtained through an Austrian bishop - according to the movie, the Vatican, although this is still denied by many Catholics. Eichmann was found in Buenos Aires, by a blind German Jew, who was his neighbor - the name of the street made Mossad call Operation, Garibaldi. The Israeli agent who arrested him, Peter Malkin, describes him as ′a soft little man,′ who ′did not look as if he had killed millions of us.′


Although agnostic, Hannah was of Jewish origin and German nationality. He had studied with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who joins the Nazi party by being elected rector of the University of Freiburg. As we see in some flashbacks, Hannah had a romantic relationship with him, but she married one of her disciples, who was also Jewish. When questioned by the Gestapo, he flees to Paris, where, already divorced, he meets an old communist who had opposed Stalinism. With the collaborative regime of Vichy, she is admitted to a camp in Gurs, until her new husband manages to go to the United States, thanks to a false diplomatic visa.

After the war, Arendt collaborates with the Zionist cause, but as Heidegger told him, ′thinking is a lonely occupation.′ Von Trotta has the ability to make a movie about a woman who thinks. How does that show on the screen? Not for his intelligent dialogues, but for his reflective image, smoking one cigarette after another, in silence. Actress Barbara Sukowa plays an extraordinary, very content role in that regard. He also shows her with his dark side of pride. Since without his pride and arrogance his insistence cannot be explained, in front of so many friends that he lost because of these articles and the book that was published later.

The film is true to what happened, although it gives the false impression that she had no Jewish friends to support her in the discussion. The visit of his Zionist friend Siegfried Moses, in Switzerland, also turns the film into a threatening ambush, which seems to suggest pressure from the state of Israel. It is true that he went to see her, to ask him not to publish the book in his country, but it was an arranged appointment, not a surprise encounter. Words written by Gershom Scholem - the well-known student of Jewish mysticism, friend of Arendt - are also put on the lips of another of his friends, Kurt Blumenfeld in Jerusalem - who breaks up with her, and also Hans Jonas -, although both appealed equally to his love for the Jewish people.

What hurt many Jews from Arendt′s articles was the denunciation of the collaborating role of the Jewish councils in the deportation that the Holocaust produced. She wrote that, without her organization, ′there would have been chaos and much misery, but the number of victims would have been four and a half million, instead of six.′ This is why the thinker was described as ′Jewish who hates herself,′ the Anti-Defamation League encouraged the rabbis to denounce her at Jewish holidays and Jewish organizations paid investigators to discover errors in their book. Many of her friends, in fact, stopped talking to her.


The Spanish Jewish philosopher Gabriel Albiac also believes that ′Eichmann was not a monster′. The Nazis were ′men, men who kill.′ The tragic thing, for him, is that ′Eichmann can be anyone.′ As writer Javier Cercas has said, ′It would be wonderful if Hitler and his paranoid clique were aliens, because we would be saved.′ What happens is that ′evil was not in Germany, it was in the soul,′ as a post-war poet said.

Discovering this in Eichmann′s trial meant a double process for Hannah Arendt - as we see in the film -: the one who condemns the radicalism of evil - which we see in Nazi totalitarianism - and the one who refuses to accept its banality - Arendt realizes that ′the instinct to evil is, perhaps, inherent in man′ -. It is true that the wounds were still very recent, but the misunderstanding she suffers comes not only because of the Jewish sensitivity to the Holocaust, but because it touches one of the untouchable dogmas of the Enlightenment: the innate goodness of man.

The idea that man is good, although the evidence shows otherwise, is one of the presuppositions that nobody dares to question in modern society. Although she was not a Christian, the Jewish thinker had studied Protestant theology in Marburg and did her doctoral thesis in Heidelberg on Augustine. From his ′City of God,′ he takes the idea of birth as the central category of ′The human condition,′ but he knows from the Bible that ′in evil we have been formed′ (Psalm 51: 5). Since original sin is not a Catholic invention.

Although the expression is not biblical, its teaching is in Scripture. It is not an idea of Augustine. The apostle Paul develops this doctrine in his Epistle to the Romans (5:12, 18) and his first letter to the Corinthians (15:22). For authors like Chesterton it is incomprehensible that there are Christian theologians who deny this idea. For him, ′it is the only part of Christian theology that can be demonstrated.′ A non-Christian philosopher of science, like Darwinist Michael Ruse, wonders: ′How can anyone think otherwise? When the most civilized and advanced people in the world (the people of Beethoven, Goethe and Kant), hugged the filthy Hitler and participated in the Holocaust. ′


Arendt discovered in Jerusalem that there are many like Eichmann, that ′they are not perverse, nor sadistic, but terribly and terribly human.′ Auschwitz′s survivor, Elie Wiesel, wrote that ′deep down, man is not just an executioner, or a victim, or a mere spectator: he is all three at once.′ Another writer who survived Auschwitz, Primo Levi, says that ′we must remember that these faithful followers, diligent executors of human orders, were not born as torturers, nor were (with few exceptions) monsters, but normal people.′

Whether we like it or not, the diagnosis of the Bible cannot be more obvious. Humanity is affected by a basic problem, which Scripture calls sin. It is a radical evil, which is at the very root of our existence, but we deny by justifying ourselves and thinking that we are better than we are. This distorts our vision of life and makes us forget our condition as creatures.

If we continue to divide people into good and bad, we will clash again and again with reality. These categories further foster our feeling of superiority, making us believe that we are better than others, when ′there is no one who does good, there is not even one′ (Romans 3:12). We are all sinners, in need of God′s salvation, which is by his own grace.


The message of the Gospel is that we are saved by the work of Christ, not ours. Many believe, however, that Christianity thinks, like any other religion, that one is saved by leading a good life and avoiding doing evil. If there is so much rejection of the word sin, it is because it sounds like the condemnation that comes from a proper justice.

An ′evan-gel′ was news of a great historical event, such as victory in a war, or the rise to the throne of a king, which changed the condition of the listener and required a response from him. Thus the Gospel is the good news of what God has done for us. It is not advice on how to reach God.

God has come into the world in Jesus Christ to bring a salvation that we cannot achieve for ourselves. He has done everything in our place (Isaiah 53: 4-10; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Mark 10:45). That news transforms people and forms a new humanity, making this world, finally, a new creation. This changes our heart, our life and society. It saves us from the banality of evil.

This is an short translation of the original article published in Spanish by Entrelíneas: Revista de Arte as Hannah Arendt: La banalidad del mal

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