One of the most important ideas to come out of the Sturm und Drang that followed the Holocaust was that of the so-called “banality of evil”, drawn from the subtitle of political theorist Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. It’s a powerful concept, borne out of her observations of Adolf Eichmann at the trial that would ultimately result in his hanging for crimes against humanity, and her efforts to square the man she saw with the enormity of the charges against him. The “Final Solution” was monstrous, but what Arendt saw was not a monster but a petty bureaucrat; “the greatest evil in the world is the evil committed by nobodies”, she realized.
Eichmann’s defense quoted that of many, if not most of the defendants at Nuremberg: Befehl ist Befehl — “orders are orders”. That is, the Führer‘s word was literally law, and when he was ordered to handle the logistics of the mass deportation of Jews, he was “only following orders” to comply. He may well have committed acts that led to the systematic slaughter of millions of people, but he never pulled a trigger, or manned a gas chamber, or fired a crematorium. And so, in his mind, he was guilty of no actual crime.
It’s maddening, but there seems to be a perverse kind of sense to this line of reasoning. The Holocaust was committed by no one man, nor even by some small group of men working in concert. It was, rather, an atrocity that emerged from the entire social system of Western Europe under the influence of Nazi Germany, enabled and encouraged by that regime’s totalitarian structure — another of Arendt’s specialities. The real insight of the banality of evil is in the distinction between personal and systemic crimes, the latter of which can only be recognized once our systems grow large enough for their emergent effects to reach a certain scale.
We should note here that, contrary to Stanley Milgram’s interpretation, this is not to say that everyone is equally subject to these behaviors, and that Nazis are somehow washed in the blood of human nature. Indeed, Arendt is clear that Eichmann did make an unforgivable choice: he abandoned his power to choose. Werner von Braun may say that, “Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down?” but we can respond, “Me; I care.” In willfully blinding ourselves to the consequences of our actions we abandon what it means to be a thinking being. In a way, this is Eichmann’s ultimate crime against humanity: he murdered his own, in cold blood.
This is not one of those insights that suddenly makes a lot of things make sense, like the unified law of gravity or the mechanism of natural selection. These are really, really hard ideas that raise even more questions than they manage to resolve.
For one thing, systems have a way of being larger than we think. The social system in Nazi Germany included the Jewish populations themselves, and their own internal organizational and leadership structure, which the architects of the Holocaust exploited. Jewish leaders even testified as to the orders they received from Eichmann’s RSHA Referat IV B4, and Arendt herself picked up on this fact. If the Jewish communities had been disorganized, the Holocaust could not have been carried out on the scale that it was. Does this implicate Jewish leaders or the Jewish people in their own genocide? no. Does it imply that some Jews may have abandoned their own facility of moral choice? yes. This, more than anything else, led to the initial outrage at Arendt’s writings.
We all compartmentalize the consequences of our behavior all the time. I write this essay on a desktop computer that draws on the order of one kilowatt of power, which is one kilojoule of energy every second being used to peck out my thoughts instead of some more lofty pursuit like the eradication of hunger. I eat more food that is more expensive and that travels further to get to me than may be strictly necessary. Do these make me a “Little Eichmann”? Surely some people would say they do, but that feels extreme to me. Taken strictly rationally on a global scale, the single best thing any member of a Western, industrialized society can do to minimize the harm they cause is to commit suicide. This is clearly — to me — absurd, but then we open the door to all sorts of debate about where to draw the line between an acceptable abdication of our thinkingness and an unacceptable one. Still, I don’t think it’s hard to place Adolf Eichmann on the far side of that line from me.
And then there’s the problem that thinking systemically is itself really, really hard. We’re so used to thinking in terms of effects with obvious, localized causes that we’re blind to systemic, structural effects. Not everyone in a system needs to be anti-Semitic in order for the system as a whole to commit horrendous crimes against Jews. Arendt caught flack for taking Eichmann at his word that he was not anti-Semitic, when the question of his own anti-Semitism is actually beside the essential point of his guilt.
This sort of difficulty persists to this day. It’s easy to say, “I’ve never denied a woman a job because of her sex, or called a woman by a sexual slur, or made sexist jokes, or sexually assaulted or raped a woman; I’m no sexist”, and never understand that no one person must “be sexist” for a system to have sexually discriminatory structural problems and emergent behaviors. The same goes for race, creed, and any number of other points of discrimination.
The banality of evil is among the most important insights in the latter half of the twentieth century because of the way it expresses in political theory the wide-ranging trend towards the recognition of the importance of epiphenomena — effects that arise from collective behaviors across entire systems rather than from individual behaviors from single actors. In Hannah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta attempts to fill in how Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) came to this insight.
And, aside from some distractingly awkward ADR work, von Trotta and co-writer Pam Katz do a fantastic job of it. Sukowa is brilliant in her performance, which anchors the entire film. Around her, von Trotta hangs the supportive figures of her friend, Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), her assistant, Lotte Köhler (Julia Jentsch), and her husband, Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg). We get flashbacks to Berlin, where a younger Arendt (Friederike Becht) studied under Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), showing how his influences echoed on, decades after they lost contact. When in Israel for the trial, Hannah stays with her old Zionist friend from back in Berlin, Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen), who provides a view of the way she spars even with people she likes.
Von Trotta paints a vivid picture of Arendt as a smart woman with a powerful personality and the confidence to go after what she finds important while letting slide what she’s less concerned about. And — no surprise coming from von Trotta — we also get a very vivid sense of the sexist undertones of the backlash against her.
But the film is at its best in the sections where Sukowa recounts Arendt’s own writings. The vivid prose comes to life, reminding us exactly why it’s so important that we never forget, and doing so in a way that another dozen survival narratives cannot.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.