Thoughtlessness Revisited: A Response to Seyla Benhabib

Seyla Benhabib’s New York Times opinion piece, “Who’s On Trial: Eichmann or Arendt?” (September 21, 2014) is a ringing reaffirmation of Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil,” in response to renewed criticism by me and others in light of Bettina Stangneth’s newly translated book Eichmann Before Jerusalem. Since Arendt’s thesis has proved to be one of the most influential frameworks for understanding both the Holocaust and subsequent genocides, the interpretive stakes could not be higher.

Benhabib’s argument, unfortunately, contains a number of factual and analytical shortfalls. Among the most egregious of these are an unwillingness to acknowledge the centrality of Heidegger’s notion of “thoughtlessness” (Gedankenlosigkeit) as the inspiration underlying Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis; an implausible insistence that the Nazi world view, which underwrote the enslavement and extermination of millions of innocents, may be adequately described as “banal”; and a refusal to address Arendt’s own well-documented conceptual confusions on the question of Nazism’s alleged “banality.” After all, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt herself had confidently characterized the Nazis’ misdeeds as a species of “absolute” or “radical evil.”

It must also be said that the overheated rhetoric of Benhabib’s title seems to suggest that those who dissent from Arendtian orthodoxy (I am explicitly named along with fellow historian Deborah E. Lipstadt) are treating Arendt like a Nazi while letting Eichmann, the real génocidaire, off the hook. Benhabib’s concluding sentence, which contends that Arendt’s critics have “[avoided] coming honestly to terms” with the challenging nature of her position, has an analogous disqualifying effect. In this way, Benhabib perpetuates the myth—a myth that is prominently on display in Margarethe von Trotta’s recent film—of Arendt as an embattled apostle of truth, desperately striving to parry the ignominious sniping of an army of intellectual inferiors.

For the sake of brevity, I will only address the main lines of Benhabib’s defense. However, in reassessing this important debate, I think that it is useful to keep in mind two historical facts that fail to appear in Benhabib’s brief. First, in a letter written to Karl Jaspers on December 2, 1960, four months before the trial, Arendt mentions that she is looking forward to the proceedings insofar as they will allow her “to go and look at this walking disaster [i.e., Eichmann] face to face in all his bizarre vacuousness.” This frank avowal demonstrates that Arendt’s estimation of Eichmann’s fundamental “banality” was a preconception that she had already developed well in advance of the trial. Second, a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence indicates that so great was her impatience with the proceedings that she never saw Eichmann testify. Arendt endured chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s lengthy opening statement and, following an absence of several weeks, returned to Jerusalem to witness the final verdict. But, remarkably, she never saw Eichmann himself take the stand. (Here, one suspects that Arendt’s rather brazen disregard for the value of testimony, not to speak of the norms of journalism, is an instance of Germanic philosophical arrogance. As J. G. Fichte said, if the facts fail to accord with the sublimity of the idea, so much the worse for the facts!) With these points in mind let us turn to Benhabib’s vindication of Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis.

As I see it, the success or failure of Benhabib’s defense hinges on two main claims: her contention that Arendt’s main philosophical debt here was to Kant rather than Heidegger and Benhabib’s provocative contention that Eichmann’s anti-Semitism—and, by extension, that of the Nazis themselves—was itself banal. “He was banal,” she writes, “precisely because he was a fanatical anti-Semite, not despite it,” an assertion that, astonishingly, overshoots even Arendt’s own arguments and claims.

Arendt’s niece, Edna Brocke, aptly spoke of her aunt’s “fateful” dependency on Heidegger, and the philosophical inspiration underlying Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann as a dispassionate desk murderer clearly derives from Heidegger’s philosophical doctrines. It is on the basis of Heidegger’s fatalistic critique of modern technology as an unalterable condition of modern life that Arendt derives her view of Eichmann as a human automaton, or, following Eichmann’s own self-description during his trial, as a mere “cog” in the Nazi machinery of extermination. For evidence of Heidegger’s increasingly powerful influence on Arendt’s thinking, one need only consult the portentous opening passages of The Human Condition (1958), where she meditates on the existential significance of Sputnik (launched by the Soviets the previous year), employing the concepts of “earth” and “world” in their distinctive late-Heideggerian senses.

But the most telling evidence concerning the pedigree of Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis may be found in the Postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem’s second edition. Confronted with a burgeoning barrage of criticism, Arendt explicitly invokes Heidegger’s notion of “thoughtlessness” (Gedankenlosigkeit) in order to explain Eichmann’s status as an obedient functionary who, as it so happens, also excels at the tasks of mass annihilation. This perspective allowed Arendt to advance the shockingly myopic claim that, despite his status as the logistical mastermind of the Final Solution, Eichmann was bereft of “[criminal] motives.” Instead, in her view, what impelled his exterminatory vision of a Europe free of Jews was brazen careerism: a stereotypically bourgeois desire to ascend the bureaucratic ladder of Heinrich Himmler’s Reich Security Main Office (RSHA). As Arendt explains: “Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, [Eichmann] had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal . . . He . . . never realized what he was doing [. . .] It was sheer thoughtlessness . . . that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period”—an attitude that she goes on to describe as “banal,” “even funny.”

The recent books on Eichmann by David Cesarani, Deborah Lipstadt, and, now, most comprehensively, Bettina Stangneth demonstrate how erroneous and misguided was Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann as a simple-minded careerist or desk murderer; but also, how credulous Arendt was vis-à-vis Eichmann’s “performance” at the trial. As Stangneth observes appositely: “Eichmann-in-Jerusalem was little more than a mask.”

Benhabib’s claim that Kant’s moral philosophy plays a systematic role in Eichmann in Jerusalem is similarly unsustainable. Arendt’s reliance on Kant’s theory of judgment—the idea that we broaden our mental horizons by virtue of our ability to reason from the standpoint of other persons—is limited to one meager passage (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 48).  Moreover, in the passage in question, Kant’s name is not even mentioned. Casual allusions along these lines hardly qualify as systematic or serious employment. As most Arendt scholars are aware, Arendt only developed these Kantian precepts in earnest circa 1970, in the course of her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy and in the complementary essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations.”

Moreover, as Stangneth shows well in Eichmann Before Jerusalem, what Benhabib, following Arendt, interprets as Eichmann’s “inability to think”—his habit of responding to his interrogators with clichés and stock phrases—was essentially a ruse that Eichmann employed to provide his Israeli captors with as little substantive information as possible. As such, it had nothing to do with Eichmann’s incapacity to heed lofty Kantian precepts about “think[ing] from another’s point of view,” as Arendt contended. In fact, as the trial transcripts show, the Israeli judges immediately recognized Eichmann’s mendacious posturing and publicly reprimanded him for it (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 49). Eichmann’s attempt to invoke Kant’s categorical imperative as a cover for his murderous conduct was itself merely another attempt to provoke and deceive. 

Benhabib’s allegations concerning the purported banality of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism are peculiar, since they are fundamentally at variance with Arendt’s central arguments and claims. In fact, in Eichmann in Jerusalem Arendt repeatedly insisted that Eichmann acted not out of ideological conviction, as one might expect of a fanatical anti-Semite, but as a “functionary,” an exponent of what she terms “administrative mass murder.” Thus as she declared in a 1964 interview: “I don’t believe that ideology played much of a role. To me that appears to be decisive.” These observations led Arendt to the (to my mind, quite astonishing and unacceptable) conclusion that “[Eichmann] had no criminal motives.

Thus, it is not really the case, as Benhabib suggests, that Arendt “underestimated Eichmann’s anti-Semitism,” since, as we have seen, Arendt discounted ideological motives entirely. Consequently, Arendt’s interpretive framework leads to the implausible conclusion that someone who proudly claimed responsibility for the murder of six million Jews—and who, on more than one occasion, openly regretted that he had not killed more—remained unaffected by the reigning ideology of the regime he served: anti-Semitism.

More importantly, it is disingenuous to suggest that Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, crude though it may have been, was “banal,” since it was part of an ideological template that underwrote the extermination of European Jewry. As the historian Raul Hilberg observed: “[Arendt] did not . . . grasp the dimensions of [Eichmann’s] deed. There was no ‘banality’ in this ‘evil.’”

One can debate the question of Eichmann’s alleged banality. But it was not his “banality” per se—a character trait that he presumably shared with hundreds of millions of others—that made him into one of the greatest mass murderers in history. It is at this point that ideological zealotry enters the picture. And in Eichmann’s case, we have ample evidence of  his genocidal attitudes and convictions.

As evidence of Eichmann’s alleged banality, Benhabib cites the SS Obersturmbahnführer’s self-characterization from the tapes made by Nazi collaborator Willem S. Sassen of himself as a “cautious bureaucrat.” But, ironically, here, Eichmann’s self-description means exactly the opposite of what Benhabib intends it to mean. Eichmann invokes this common misapprehension only in order to deny it and to reaffirm that his leading role in the Final Solution was a matter of ideological commitment rather than simple obedience. 

It is at this point that the ultimate stakes of the debate over Eichmann’s “banality” emerge most clearly. For if Eichmann was “banal,” then the Holocaust itself was banal. There is no avoiding the fact that these two claims are inextricably intertwined. But can it plausibly be said that the mass graves at Babi Yar, the manacles of Theresienstadt, the ovens of Dachau, and the torture implements at Buchenwald were, in the main, a product of “thoughtlessness”? Arendt’s defenders would have us believe, counter-intuitively, that it was the mentalité of dutiful “functionaries,” rather than impassioned anti-Semites, that produced the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, and Auschwitz. But the vast preponderance of available historical evidence tells a very different story.

Editor’s Note:

Richard Wolin’s review of Bettina Stangneth’s book about Adolf Eichmann caused a stir, mainly about Hannah Arendt and the banality (or not) of evil. Yale Professor Seyla Benhabib responded in a New York Times piece, others blogged, and Wolin responded in an essay on our website. Now Professor Benhabib has rejoined the debate and Professor Wolin has replied a final time. Here’s a guide to the exchange from the original review to its last installment.


  1. Michael Selzer

    There is a more banal (if I may be allowed the word!) dimension to Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann than the philosophical ones recently identified by Wolin and others.

    Arendt based her argument in part on her claim (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p.26) that “Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified [Eichmann] as ‘normal’ – ‘more normal at any rate than I am after having examined him’, one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another found that his whole psychological outlook toward his wife and children, mother and father, brothers, sisters and friends, was ‘not only normal but most admirable’.”

    Tellingly, Arendt did not identify these six psychiatrists and they themselves - if indeed they exist - have never published their opinions or the data on which they were based. Dr Kulcsar, the psychologist appointed by the Israeli police to evaluate Eichmann and to monitor his state of mind during the trial, told me that as far as he knew he was the only mental-health specialist to have had contact with Eichmann. Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecutor at the trial, reported (Saturday Evening Post, Nov.10, 1962) that Kulcsar sent Eichmann’s responses to the Szondi test to Szondi himself, without identifying whose responses they were, and that Szondi declared that the results revealed “a man obsessed with a dangerous and insatiable urge to kill, arising out of a desire for power… a perverted, sadistic personality”. In her book (p.26) Arendt, who read Hausner’s article, could do no better than to respond by saying that if Szondi’s analysis was correct Eichmann “would have belonged in an insane asylum”!

    Five out of six psychologists to whom I showed the entire battery of personality assessment tests administered to Eichmann by Kulcsar – I did not say whose responses these were – essentially concurred with Szondi’s findings, (New York Times Magazine, November 27, 1977).

    Although the concept of normality is an ambiguous one and although the evaluation of responses to personality assessment tests is not an exact science it must be said that Arendt’s reference to psychologists’ testimony is implausible, at best. Like Kulcsar I regard it as probably a fiction she invented to make to justify her thesis about Eichmann’s “banality”. The fact that Stanley Milgram and many others made this thesis almost a self-evident truth should not obscure the thoroughly questionable – I would say even disgraceful – way in which Arendt built her case.

  2. Although I lack the background in the relevant philosophy that Prof. Wolin has, his arguments about Arendt's take on "the banality of evil" make sense to me. However, since first reading Eichmann in Jerusalem many years ago, my perhaps admittedly impressionistic understanding of what Arendt was driving at had less to do with Eichmann's vacuous thoughtlessness or his careerism and everything to do with the entirely ordinary context of his activities. The fate of millions was decided and enacted by men in ordinary suits, sitting at desks in offices, signing documents typed up by secretaries who went home each night to make dinner for their families--you see what I'm driving at. Granted that those functionaries who made the Holocaust were mostly fanatic anti-Semites, the fact that their work took place in such ordinary circumstances gives, to my mind at least, real meaning to the phrase "banality of evil", even if this meaning is not the one intended by Arendt. Far from rendering the Holocaust itself banal, it reinforces the horror of it--that so much evil could have been done, not in a paroxysm of primal or barbaric violence, but in the placid, even boring, atmosphere of a modern office. And the contrast between the banal, workaday mindset of the administrators of the death factories, and that of those who did the actual work, on the shop floor, so to speak, must have been immense. The violence of their work was viscerally present to them, and had to be coped with in some way, either through denial, dehumanization of their victims, or sadistic indulgence, or some other equally appalling psychological mechanism. The administrators, on the other hand, regardless of a strong commitment to their "historical" mission, must have experienced a certain sense of disconnection from the results of their actions, as office workers often do. That this aspect of the work they did, along with some of the others I've mentioned, fit so neatly into categories of the normal in a modern, industrial civilized society means that both the evil and the banality are key to thinking about the Holocaust. It would be a shame to entirely discard this notion of the banality of evil, just because Arendt's famous (or infamous) use of it was based on mistaken premises.

  3. gwhepner


    Gedankenlosigkeit is Deutsch for thoughtlessness
    Die Gedanken sind frei in Des Knaben Wunderhorn,
    by Mahler set to music tells us thoughts express
    themselves with freedom. That’s why they deserve great scorn
    when they abuse the freedom that’s the rationale
    for their expression, and are bound by hateful bias.
    Impeach imposter who apply the word banal
    To Nazi crimes. They were not thoughtless but impious.

    [email protected]

  4. Saksin

    Two comments out of the many one might make on this installement of the never ending saga of Arendt's famous phrase (what scholar has gotten more mileage out of a single phrase?):
    1. In a state that, as in the case of Nazi Germany, has elevated the extermination of the Jews to a national ideal, and which pursues that ideal at considerable expense through state policy, one does not need - indeed, one cannot properly speaking have - CRIMINAL motives for dedicating oneself to the killing of Jews. In such a state, criminal motives with regard to the "genocidal attitudes and convicions" embodied in state policy would mean exerting oneself to PREVENT the extermnination of the Jews.
    2. There is a plain reading of Arendt's "banality" that allows one to make sense of it without becoming caught up in the tangle of seemingly never ending arguments concerning it of which the Stangneth-Benhabib-Wolin controversy is a current sample: Given the right circumstances, many if not most of us, meaning you and I, with rather few but interesting exceptions, could become Eichmanns. The experiments conducted by Stanely Milgram at Yale in the early 1960s pretty much demonstrated this, particularly in light of the results of Philip Zimbardo's Stanford prison study of a decade later. This reading of banality, namely the potential for evil lurking in ordinary people like me and you, given the right circumstances, is perhaps the most profound lesson that carnage in the name of ideology - whether Communist or Fascist or Islamist - of recent history has to offer, however difficult that lesson might be to take to heart. That reading and that lesson implies, among other things, that Wolin is wrong when he writes that "For if Eichmann was "banal", then the Holocaust was banal." By no means, and what is more: unless we learn that lesson, we stand defenseless against a repetition of history in this particularly sinister form.

  5. hank613

    There are some who argue that the Eichmann and company saw themselves on a highly idealistic level. They had resoved to finally solve the "Jewish Problem" via elimination, "final solution." One can further argue, if you accept this theory, that they viewed their work with "seeming religious driven idealism." They and their entire bureaucracy were on a "world purifying" mission.
    They would succeed where others over the milenium had failed.
    Or another way of thinking about the horrors of the Holocaust is view as the culmination of Anti-Semitism in European historical experience. Eliminate this over intellectualism which frequently misses the point and minimizes the horror of the Holocaust and the murderers that made it possible.

    Hank Citron, Ph.D

  6. Millibauer56

    Richard Wolin writes: "Moreover, in the passage in question, Kant’s name is not even mentioned. Casual allusions along these lines hardly qualify as systematic or serious employment. As most Arendt scholars are aware, Arendt only developed these Kantian precepts in earnest circa 1970, in the course of her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy and in the complementary essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations.”

    There are several essays of Arendt's from the 1950s -- in collections like "Reflections on Literature and Culture" and "Between Past and Future" -- were Arendt discusses these exact Kantian precepts in depth, well before she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem. That Wolin does not know this is why he is not a serious scholar of Arendt and why he so misunderstands her work and Benhabib's critique.

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