In Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt gives an account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and provides analysis of the case, focusing on the question of Eichmann’s conscience. Arendt believes that the judges missed the “greatest moral and even legal challenge of the whole case”: Eichmann’s inability to tell right from wrong. Her argument that Eichmann’s conscience was “quieted” due to the influence of his social environment, peers, and superiors is convincing, and as I read Eichmann in Jerusalem I became convinced that our ability to tell right from wrong is dependent on our faculty of thought.
Eichmann, due to his involvement in the Jewish Final Solution, is viewed as a wicked man by the jurors. However, he pleads “not guilty in the sense of the indictment”, claiming that he had not performed his duties for the Nazis out of “base motives”. The prosecution’s case was based on the assumption that Eichmann, while performing his duties in arranging the transportation of Jews to death camps, must have been aware that his actions were criminal in nature. Throughout Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt challenges this assumption. Arendt suggests that participation in political evil doesn’t require a person to be evil in nature or have “base motives”, and that such evil only requires a kind of thoughtlessness or detachment from reality. This proposal led her to coin the phrase “the banality of evil”, by which she means the ordinariness of the criminal. Arendt explains the meaning of the phrase in Thinking and Moral Considerations in which she writes, “…I spoke of the ‘banality of evil’ and meant with this not theory or doctrine but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doe, whose only personal distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness”. The psychiatrists who examined Eichmann also came to the...
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