Speaking of Nazis…

Speaking of Nazis….  I recently read Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil by Hannah Arendt for the first time. I had heard/read quite a lot about the book before reading it: I first heard of Hannah Arendt when reading about Heidegger – apparently she was Heidegger’s mistress in her university days (of particular interest because Heidegger was accused of anti-semitism and Nazi sympathies, and Hannah Arendt was of course Jewish), and Heidegger was an influence in Arendt’s own philosophy. I knew she was best known for coining the phase ‘the banality of evil’, and arguing that evil stems from mediocrity, only good is extraordinary. Her book on Eichmann/the Eichmann trial itself also prompted a very famous psychology experiment called Milgram’s experiment (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment) in which ordinary people are instructed by an authority figure to electrocute a subject  (and they normally do as they’re told. Although of all the demographics tested, Australian females are the least likely to be obedient apparently so that gives me comfort).

I had also seen the eponymous movie about her (well worth a watch). But, nevertheless, finally reading her book was a profound experience. Firstly, it is filled with immense detail about the processes and coordination of the transportation of the Jews to concentration camps and to their deaths. The attention to detail and Eichmann’s desire to ‘do his job well’ is deeply disturbing in its own right, in any retelling, yet also fascinating in the way that only evil can be I suppose. However, the message of book, so surrounded by controversy, was also so much more complex, more interesting than my earlier understanding lead me to believe. The possibilities and impossibilities of her ideas prompted far more questions than answers, particularly as her reflections were bound up in issues of ongoing anti-semitism, Zionism and the state of Israel (another interest of mine).  By no means do I have the time or expertise to give an account here but I recently came across a (very long) article about Hannah Arendt which covers much more of the complexity and controversy than I ever could.


One part of the discussion in this article particularly caught my eye, something that I had not thought about before. It’s in the context of critiques of Arendt’s claim that evil is not extraordinary. It’s along the lines that, as we seek a new foundation for morality in the postmodern world, the holocaust/genocide has become one of the few absolutes.  The article explains it better:

For Arendt’s harshest critics, however, no amount of Kantian references or arguments can buttress the thesis of the banality of evil. It threatens something too vital, too fundamental. It puts at risk one of the 20th century’s most precarious moral ideas: the notion that despite no longer having an objective or shared foundation for our sense of what is good or right or just, we do know what is evil. And because we know that, because there is no dispute that genocide is not merely an evil but the ultimate evil—the summum malum, as the political theorist Judith Shklar would have called it—we can build our politics and morals with some assurance that we are doing the right thing, or at least not the wrong thing. Since the 1970s, the idea of a negative foundation for morality has assumed an increasingly prominent place. Not just in academic political theory—where it is called, variously, “negative liberalism” or “political liberalism”—but in the larger world of politics and punditry.

The Holocaust, it’s clear, is Exhibit A for those who would make such an argument. As a Boston Globe columnist wrote in 1994, after the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC:

In an era of moral relativity, the Holocaust museum serves as a lodestone. Here there is no rationalization…. Here is an absolute. And in that absolute of Evil, maybe, the prospect of an absolute Good…. We live amid the ruins of “the modern”—the era in which Western man discarded age-old standards and creeds and placed his faith in science…. The Holocaust museum offers a basic moral foundation on which to build: a negative surety from which to begin.


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