On The Banality of Evil, by Hannah Arendt

A 2019 re-reading of Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book on Adolf Eichmann’s 1960s trial in Israel over crimes against humanity carries a deeper set of lessons that still seem ever so pertinent in 2019.

About a man, a bureaucrat, a citizen of a republic whose callousness over lost lives, sheer brutality, and inhumanity, led to annexations, invasions, forced migrations, massacres of POWs, and culminated in willful genocide. The history of the Nazi rule of Germany speaks volumes about those people who either deliberately or passively ignore politics, ignore right and wrong, and follow the masses and the state in a campaign of hate and annihilation.

What is more prescient, though, is how the world perceived of the refugees. Perhaps unknowingly, and perhaps unclear of the consequences, the tragedies perpetrated by the Nazis were exacerbated in large part because of two things: the willingness of countries to purge themselves of unwanted refugees who were thus deported to their death, and the unwillingness of states to accept asylum seekers, seeing them as an economic burden, thus allowing their deaths.

In this era, most metropolitan citizens would agree that a state accepting asylum pleas from those who fear for their lives is the only right thing for the world to do. The question is which countries should and are willing to accept them, and how does one evaluate whether their fear is genuine or a cover for economic migration, a fear from many citizens in the US and southern Europe whose communities have witnessed massive demographic shifts as a result of asylum seekers.

The lessons taught by this episode, this man, and this trial should be several fold.

There is a notion, brought up during the trial of Eichmann but dismissed already in the Nuremburg trials, is that crimes done in an official capacity, the crimes of state, cannot be legitimately judged by other states. The convictions at Nuremburg dismissed this notion, and in more contemporary thought, there is certainly an increasing conceptualization of the universalism of certain crimes in their evil, that is, the label of state acts means nothing for a crime as brutal as murder. Few people in fewer cultures consider that the deaths of innocents is acceptable, and those that do certainly would not feel this way if they were the victim of such a crime, and thus the loss of life and liberty may stand as universal crimes, crimes against our very human rights.

Secondly, what is the purpose of a trial, and what of justice. Is a trial to determine guilt, even if we are so sure of someone’s responsibility that the technical aspects matter less than the consequences of their actions? In comparing the actions of a bureaucratic killer, even if one never made the decision to kill but was a crucial accessory to the deaths, to that of a serial killer, does malice and intent to harm exacerbate and does the lack thereof excuse guilt? To the former, this question should be left to jurists. It would seem the answer to the latter is a qualified, no. Someone who can feel no remorse, someone who intends to kill without harm, such as exercised in some of the Nazi eugenics programs, still commits an act of murder, ending the life of another against their will. The crime is two fold, a public crime in that they pose a risk to humanity by the act of aiming to kill, but also a crime against the victim by aiming to deprive them of their lives. The first perhaps could potentially be excused as a social failure, and remedied with medication, counseling, incarceration. The second is a crime against the individual, and malice or lack thereof makes little difference once someone’s life is actually extinguished. Thus from a justice perspective, the act of murder, even without evil intent, can not be excused.

It also continues to raise relevant questions over the value of capital punishment and whether the purpose of Justice does and should lie closer to retribution or rehabilitation.

The most relevant questions that it raises, however, is over the treatment of refugees. European countries willingness to expel refugees during World War II, and the lack of countries willing take refugees until it was already too late, enabled the Holocaust to occur.

This raises questions over the viability of the modern refugees regime in the world. The process of accepting refugees is slow, cumbersome, and most importantly is essentially voluntary when the asylum seekers lack the means to physically present themselves at borders of accepting states.

Accepting refugees, and the social problems associated with the act, have become politicized when it is essentially a legal and moral responsibility of civilized countries, a duty to humanity regardless of the small social friction it may cause when this is measured against the value of human life, it is not and should not be up to the discretion of feelings.

Thus, as we remember European history, World War II, and the holocaust, we should remember the horrors of war, the fragility of peace and democracy, and the value of every precious human life.

Staff writer: Ari B

Photo: Children at an American refugee camp in Europe post-WWII