The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought

Evil: The Crime against Humanity
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University


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From letter to Scholem, July 24, 1963. The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

When Eichmann was taken captive in Argentina by agents of the Israeli government and brought to trial in Jerusalem, Arendt saw an opportunity, unusual for philosophers, to confront the "realm of human affairs and human deeds . . . directly." (see "Concern with Politics in Recent European Philosophical Thought") She reported on the trial for The New Yorker magazine and shortly after Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was published in 1963, prompted by questions submitted by a journalist, she reflected on why she, "a writer and teacher of political philosophy . . . had . . . undertaken a reporter's job." It was, she said, because the trial offered her the opportunity to encounter "in the flesh" a notorious Nazi criminal, and she was eager to grasp, if possible, his individual guilt, why he had done what he did, which, she added, was "not relevant" to her more theoretical considerations in The Origins of Totalitarianism. In the earlier work she had dealt with the "type" of totalitarian criminals, but now she sought to know "Who was Eichmann?" and "What were his deeds, not insofar as his crimes were part and parcel of the Nazi system" but insofar as he was a distinct human being? She had, she said, "the wish to expose myself--not to the deeds which, after all, were well known--but to the evildoer himself." That was "the most powerful motive in my decision to go to Jerusalem."3 (see Grafton document)

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Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1960s.
Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Trust.
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Mary McCarthy with Hannah Arendt, Aberdeen, Scotland, ca. 1974.
Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Trust.
There are ways in which Eichmann in Jerusalem recalls the last sections of The Origins of Totalitarianism, but there are also important respects in which it differs. Arendt laid considerable emphasis on these differences in a number of letters. To Mary McCarthy she mentioned three of them. She wrote first that she no longer believed in "holes of oblivion" because "there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible." Secondly, she realized that "Eichmann was much less influenced by ideology" than she would have assumed before attending the trial. What had become clear to her was that "extermination per se" did not depend on ideology. Thirdly, and this was by far the most important difference, the phrase banality of evil "stands in contrast to . . . 'radical evil.'" This last distinction is developed in more detail in a letter to Gershom Scholem (see letter to Scholem, July 24, 1963). There she wrote: "It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never 'radical,' that it is only extreme." "Thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated." That there is nothing in evil for thought to latch onto is what Arendt meant by the banality of evil. Not the murderous deeds but the evildoer she faced in Jerusalem and the massiveness of the evil he inflicted on the world are banal in that sense.4 The realization that the most extreme evil has no meaning that the human mind can reveal, that it is not only senseless in its own terms but meaningless in any terms, was momentous; to say the least it afforded Arendt relief from a burden she had borne for many years.

In a later letter to McCarthy, who had written of the moral exhilaration that reading Eichmann in Jerusalem afforded her, Arendt noted: "you were the only reader to understand what otherwise I have never admitted--namely that I wrote this book in a state of euphoria." In a letter to a German correspondent (see letter to Meier Cronemeyer, July 18th, 1963) she said that twenty years after she had learned of the existence of Auschwitz she experienced a cura posterior, i.e., a healing of her inability to think through to its root the evil of totalitarian criminality. In style Eichmann in Jerusalem is unlike anything else in the corpus of Arendt's writings. As the account of a trial of criminal action it is dramatic. In an interview Arendt said: "That the tone of voice is predominantly ironic is completely true," adding that "the tone of voice in this case is really the person," i.e., herself, the dramatist. She might have remained silent and not written the book at all, she said, but she could never have written it "differently." The posterior or later cure is important in another sense, for here, in a trial whose only purpose was to mete out justice, the terrible injury inflicted on the Jewish people would, at least in her judgment, at long last be vindicated as a crime against humanity.


3. The entire Eichmann file is among the most important components of the collection of Arendt's papers in the Library of Congress. It is a treasure of documents, including notes by Eichmann, transcriptions, and accounts of the proceedings. There are many letters both pro and contra Arendt which testify to the depth and the bitterness of the controversy that sprang up immediately after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem.

4. From the first the notion of the banality of evil proved highly contentious and it is still a stumbling block for some of the most astute and sympathetic expositors of Arendt's thought.


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The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought