Friday, April 29, 2011

No "Banality," Just Plain Old Evil

It's good to see that, fifty years after the Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt's misperceptions, especially her thoughts on "the banality of evil" (the most famous line to come out of the trail, and part of the title of her famous book about the trail) have been largely debunked. It's amazing, though, how Arendt's analysis still manages to find its way into things. Last night, for instance, in a documentary on PBS about the Eichmann trial, the narrator explained that the reason Eichmann suffered during Argentina's economic collapse in the 1950s is that, like all Nazis, he "lacked imagination," and therefore couldn't adjust to changing circumstances.

Au contraire, thought I. That idea--that Nazis lacked imagination, that they were colourless bureaucrats, merely following directives--is pure Arendt. In reality, Eichmann in his prime was full of imagination. It was he, in fact, who imagined the round up and murder of Hungary's Jews in the latter stages of the war, when the Germans already knew they were going to lose. He didn't sit at his desk (a "desk genocidaire," according to Arendt) waiting for his orders to turn up. He took a pro-active approach to killing Jews, whom he despised (nothing "banal" about his anti-Semitism). (Deborah Lipstadt's recent book offers a cogent and succinct summary of the Eichamann trial. She has little good to say about Arendt, who missed most of the trial and whose impressions were based primarily on Eichmann's nebbishy appearance in the dock and on the dry court transcripts.)

The problem is that "the banality" trope (a trope that became a meme) is like the Rasputin of political theory: every time you think you've killed it, it comes back to life. Eventually, though, like Rasputin, it will finally die.

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