Hannah Arendt and the Study of Evil

Philosopher Hannah Arendt spent her life examining the totalitarian states of the 20th century, coining the phrase "banality of evil." On the 100th anniversary of Arendt's birth, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl — author of Why Arendt Matters — recalls the life of a great thinker.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

The philosopher Hannah Arendt would have turned 100 years old today. Hannah Arendt was born to a Jewish family in Hanover, Germany. In the 1920s she studied under the great German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. She later fled the Nazi regime and lived for awhile in Paris before emigrating to the United States.

Hannah Arendt died in 1975, having made her name exploring the 20th century phenomenon of totalitarianism. Writing for the New Yorker, she covered the trial in Israel of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, and later wrote a book called Eichmann In Jerusalem. Referring to Eichmann's crimes, she famously coined the term the banality of evil.

I spoke about this phrase with Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, a biographer of Hannah Arendt.

Ms. ELISABETH YOUNG-BRUEHL (Biographer): The phrase, the banality of evil, is a difficult one because it seems to imply that evil itself is banal. What she meant was that this man and many, many like him was banal. And banal meant for her - and she talked about this at length - banal meant thoughtless. It meant that the man showed no capacity to engage in any interior dialogue with himself about what he was doing. No capacity, as we would say, for reflection. No sense of self, no moral sense as she understood it.

LYDEN: No sense of shame?

Ms. YOUNG-BRUEHL: She doesn't actually discuss a sense of shame, but what she focuses upon is that a man actually felt - said he felt - repulsion at what he was called upon to do when he first visited camps where the killing factories were beginning to operate. But then he detached himself from, dismissed - as a psychoanalyst I would say disassociated himself from that revulsion and, as it were, went about his business.

Her inquiry was, what allowed that to happen? What allowed a man to become a thoughtless executor of plans and orders that had such horrific, unbelievable consequences?

LYDEN: Ms. Young-Bruehl, can we just read a little phrase here from Eichmann in Jerusalem, as she's reflecting on these horrors.

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that there were so many like him and that the many were neither perverted or sadistic and that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.

Ms. YOUNG-BRUEHL: That argument, that Eichmann was neither perverse nor sadistic, not psycho-pathological, not a monster, was really offensive to many people who had it firmly in their minds that the Nazis were such monsters. And to be challenged in this way, to think that the problem that presented itself in the person of Eichmann, was that this was a bureaucrat who treated the arrangement of transportation to concentration camps as a largely technical matter of logistics was really a frightening idea.

LYDEN: Would you please tell us about Hannah Arendt's role in galvanizing opinion in the United States against communism? Wasn't she also distressed by Joe McCarthy and his anti-Communist witch hunts?

Ms. YOUNG-BRUEHL: Her role really stemmed from the book called The Origins of Totalitarianism that was published in 1951, in which she argued that the Nazi regime in Germany and Stalin's regime were both instances of a novel form of government to which she gave the name totalitarianism, a word that had existed but had never been really employed for political analysis.

That made it possible for people at the time to think that opposing Stalin's regime was politically, morally comparable to opposing the Nazi regime, so it gave it great gusto. But she, of course, was more worried as the 1950s went on about the implications of the way in which America and its allies opposed Stalin. She was as concerned about this as she was about the Stalinist regime.

Then she was most worried there had come about in America a kind of frame of mind that was quite rigid and obsessional itself, and Joseph McCarthy was the exemplar of this, that found any means to justify the end of anti-communism reasonable. And so she turned and wrote an analysis of the so-called ex-communists, of people who had been communists and then had turned away against communism and allied themselves with the forces of freedom but with almost no change of way of thinking, still just as rigid and obsessional as they had been when they were on the other side.

LYDEN: They still lacked this inner dialogue that she had spoken about?

Ms. YOUNG-BRUEHL: Yes. Which she constantly emphasized as the key ingredient of good judgment.

LYDEN: Elisabeth Young-Bruehl is a psychoanalyst, and her latest work is called Why Arendt Matters. Thanks very much for being with us, Ms. Young-Bruehl.

Ms. YOUNG-BRUEHL: Thank you very much for inviting me.

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