How can we recognize evil and guard against it? The questions are prompted by the compelling recent film about the response of German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt to the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi functionary and one of the principal architects of the Holocaust.
In her account, first serialized in the New Yorker in 1962, Arendt – struck by Eichmann’s courtroom manner, which was that of a drab bureaucrat, not a sadistic monster – famously declared that the lesson of the trial (“this long course in human wickedness”) was its revelation of “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
Arendt’s perspective was controversial. Some felt that describing a Nazi agent as “banal” understated nazism’s horrors. But banal does not mean ineffectual. Arendt had no illusions about the deadly efficacy of Eichmann’s role.
More provocative was her claim that the Nazi toxin was so pervasive, it induced some Jewish leaders to collude in the destruction of their own people. But that specific controversy is not my concern here. It is with Arendt’s characterization of evil and how it might help us to identify and confront evil’s presence.
Arendt’s concern was with how evil, defined as the displacement of good, can spread like a fungus (her metaphor) to smother entire national communities.
But how can we recognize evil in its early stages, especially when its human face can be banal? Like the elusive neutron, evil has an uncertainty principle. We can glimpse shape or tendency, but only in retrospect is the detailed form of evil unmistakable. It was when Stalinism began to collapse in Russia, for instance, that its totalitarian horrors became fully apparent.
Let’s draw some distinctions. Canada has spawned its share of homegrown monsters, but that doesn’t mean that Canada is an evil society. While justice can falter here (as anywhere), we can have confidence that it ultimately prevails.
In Nazi Germany, by contrast, evil reigned because justice was undone, displaced by Hitler’s malign will. Even instinctive human goodness was considered subversive, Arendt noted.
What made nazism especially diabolical was its dehumanizing embrace of scientific method. Arendt agreed with Winston Churchill, who warned that the triumph of nazism would see the world “sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister … by the lights of perverted science.” Eichmann’s methodical approach to mass killing was a gruesome demonstration.
Arendt’s attention was on the susceptibility to right-wing extremism of a mature industrial society, ravaged by economic catastrophe and torn apart by opposed ideologies. But genocide is not unique to such societies. In the 1990s, it erupted in Rwanda, in a traditional pre-industrial society, whose divisions were tribal, rather than ideological. Here a brutally effective killing machine, the Hutu militia, eschewed modern weaponry in favour of the machete. (No wonder General Roméo Dallaire, the commander of a beleaguered United Nations mission, recoiled in horror when it dawned on him that he’d just shaken hands with a génocidaire.)
If Arendt’s identification of evil is historically specific, focused as it is on 20th-century totalitarianism, her prescriptions for resisting evil have broader application.
Ideology is not the answer, because ideologies, with their false claims to rational certainty, are part of the problem. Arendt also had little faith that supranational organizations such as the UN could protect minorities from genocide or “ethnic cleansing.” She put more faith in well-ordered constitutions, like that of the United States, as long as they could be periodically energized by civil disobedience.
But, for Arendt, the only effective remedy against evil is individual thinking itself, thinking unsullied by ideology, the kind of thinking that was a dangerous practice in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, the kind of thinking of which Eichmann was incapable.
Thus armed, the thinking citizen has a civic obligation to speak out against evil in society. Arendt resisted what Theodore Dalrymple calls the modern-day “rush from judgment.”
Yet here we need to invoke evil’s uncertainty principle. There is perhaps no greater evil than the confident presumption of evil in others. In early modern Europe, thousands of innocent people, mostly women, were sent to their deaths on the grounds that they were agents of the devil. The book that helped to launch the witch hunt was the Malleus Maleficarum (the “Hammer of Witches”), written by two Dominican friars.
As historian Norman Cohn has pointed out, it was a long stride chronologically, but a short one ideologically, from the Malleus Maleficarum to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the foundational text of modern anti-Semitism.
John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University.