Eichmann, Arendt, and “The Banality of Evil”
Richard Wolin’s review of Bettina Stangneth’s newly translated 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.
- The Banality of Evil: The Demise of a Legend by Richard Wolin
Bettina Stangneth’s newly translated book Eichmann Before Jerusalem finally and completely undermines Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” thesis.
- Who’s on Trial, Eichmann or Arendt? by Seyla Benhabib
On September 21, 2014, on The New York Time’s website, Seyla Benhabib argued that a “rejection of the ‘banality of evil’ argument . . . does not hold up” and took issue with Wolin’s review.
- Thoughtlessness Revisited: A Response to Seyla Benhabib by Richard Wolin
Richard Wolin responds to Benhabib’s “ringing reaffirmation of Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil.”
- Richard Wolin on Arendt’s “Banality of Evil” Thesis by Seyla Benhabib
Seyla Benhabib rejoins the debate, contesting Wolin’s critique of Arendt’s banality thesis on historical and philosophical grounds.
- Arendt, Banality, and Benhabib: A Final Rejoinder by Richard Wolin
In the final installment of the exchange, Wolin defends and amplifies his critique.
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I find it astounding that in the course of the by now rather extensive exchange between Seyla Benhabib and Richard Wolin regarding Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil", that which more than anything else can help us understand that phrase and give it a most painful reality is never mentioned even once by either author.
I am referring of course to the behavioral experiments carried out by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s - initiated at the very time of Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem - and Philip Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment of 1971. This is not the place to review these experiments, but they show with startling clarity how easy it is to create circumstances in which ordinary people "off the street" perform acts which easily qualify as evil, and will do so under far less external pressure than that under which functionaries of the Death Camps stood.
Rightly understood these experiments allow us to make sense of Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil" without concluding, as Wolin does, that this commits us to regarding the Holocaust itself as banal. On the contrary, doing so makes the Holocaust all the more frightening by showing us that it is an ever present possibility, given what the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments showed us about who we are.
Not to take that lesson to heart, for whatever reason, is to close one's eyes to a difficult piece of self knowledge, and to close an essential path to measures that might help in preventing a recurrence. As Zimbardo has pointed out, the characteristics and circumstances of those few - and they were frighteningly few indeed - who refused when most did not, provide invaluable information in that regard.
Saksin's October 15 comment is very much to the point. Milgram was initially planning to conduct a series of "obedience to authority" experiments with subjects from different countries but quickly realized that it would be pointless to do so after he was shockingly successful, as it were, at eliciting cruel, sadistic behavior from a subject population of ordinary Americans. Psychologist Dorwin Cartwright, the author of a history of academic social psychology, has written that "If I were required to name the one person who has had the greatest impact upon the field, it would have to be Adolf Hitler," while Milgram, who was the son of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, once wrote "I should have been born into the German-speaking Jewish community of Prague in 1922 and died in a gas chamber some 20 years later."
Echoing Saksin above re Milgram and Zimbardo experiments:
Seems to me any Holocaust museum truely serious re "never again" for any group should have a section devoted to those experiments. As far as I know no Holocaust museum draws attention to those experiments which to my mind suggests a moral bankruptcy in Holocaust Studies.
I would be happy to learn I am wrong, that one major Holocaust museum does draw significant attention to the Miligram/ Zimbardo work ... Anyone know of such an institution ?
There's another reason why this debate over the banality of Eichmann's evil seems misplaced. Jewish tradition as I understand it is pretty uninterested in understanding the evil doer. Aside from debates over Pharoah's hardness of heart, and what Amalek really represents, we've focused much more on what responsibility we have for the evil, whether directly (the people's failure to follow mitzvot) or indirectly (tikkun loam). Likewise Satan is just God's devil's advocate, not a real evil-doer. We also think everyone can do teshuvah -- no one is irredeemably evil. And that's a big reason why we survived terrible persecution over the centuries. We never let ourselves become victims by obsessing about our enemies.
Wow... Talk about missing the point. Yes, the experiments show that there can be such a phenomenon as "following orders." But what Wolin shows is that Arendt was totally off-base when it came ti Eichmann, who was not the "victim" of the type of situation in Milgram's experiments. Eichmann was the guy issuing the orders. And was forever proud of the SIX MILLION HUMANS he eradicated and for which he took gleeful credit (sorry for the caps--Italics would be better). Arendt had no way of seeing those transcripts, but she should have known better for the reasons Wolin gave and regardless was predisposed (perhaps by Milgram and almost certainly by Heidegger) to only see a dunce following orders rather than an evil mastermind.
As to @jtlandry, yes, perhaps as Talmudists on 1,000 years we'll be doing what you're saying, but you have to be some kind of sociopath not to even understand the human need to try to make sense of what happened there (even if you personally conclude that you can't and didn't need to understand it on that level). I'll add that those writing about Amalek et al came from a milieu where what we call barbarism was de rigeur. What was shocking about the Nazis and made them unique to us almost was that they came from "civilized society" and actually perverted the tools that had to that "civilized society" to commit grotesque barbarism is new and unthought of fashions. I do stand by the uniqueness of the Holocaust, though I understand there have been many other genocides that have claimed even more lives. And going back to traditional Judaism, Satan is irrelevant because he's not a person and has no free will, but is an angel part of G-d or however you understand angels in Judaism. But the Talmud certainly is interested in evil--it discusses it and discusses the punishments for particularly evil individuals, mostly in quality rather than quantity, with such figures as Ahitophel.