January 27 th was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most infamous beyond infamy of the Nazi factories of torment and death. It was here the “blood-dimmed tide” unleashed by Hitler reached its most swollen, where a million Jews went in unspeakable humiliation and pain to their end. Anniversaries, perhaps especially those of the most grim event, provoke recollection, and in the case of the Holocaust in particular are meant to reinforce memories. “Lest we forget” is not an idle injunction. Some things have to be remembered.
The capture and famous trial of Adolf Eichmann was perhaps the real beginning of Holocaust memorialization, certainly the key event that pushed the horrors of the Nazi era back into the mind of the world. Yet curiously, the most singular account of that trial, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann
in Jerusalem, gave birth to a terrible shorthand description of that period in its subtitle: A Report on the Banality of Evil. That one phrase, “the banality of evil,” has become a commonplace, a near-signature designation for events so much larger than the words it encompasses. It is grotesquely inadequate, utterly wrong.
The scale and depth of the horrors of the extermination machine, invented, set in motion, and kept demonically in exercise for the entire six years of war, are not so much diminished as sidelined, obscured and obliterated from primary notice by Arendt’s semantic sleight of phrase. Nazi evil reached nearly unscalable dimensions, possessed an inverted, perverted sublimity — a negative sublime, for which of all words in all languages “banality” is the last and least it suggests. When we think or read of Auschwitz and its brethren slaughterhouses, most of us don’t have ready or adequate words for its scene — and even in the highest poetry it is difficult to find worthy correlatives, though Milton’s words on Hell are, singularly, very close: No light; but rather darkness visible Served only to discover sights of woe, Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace And rest can never dwell, hope never comes That comes to all, but torture without end ...
Auschwitz was a scene not of banality, but enormity — of vast, incomprehensible, massive evil. The operative understanding is not simply the “enormousness” which the associate word instantly implies, but far more centrally the essence of the act being denoted — evil. Enormity is not, first, a word of magnitude; it speaks cardinally of evil and disaster. It is a word of judgment far more than measure.
Banality is so far removed from this dimension, is so placid, clinical and even self-satisfied a term — it is, in the worst sense, a writer’s word — that it will not do as anything more than a smart, blunt effort at facile paradox. Arendt was wrong, wrong from the very beginning to deploy it, and however much, in whatever sense it has been used since to dismiss, scorn or reduce Eichmann, it has also been wrong. It is a spectacular misreading. Her error lies in taking the reading of Eichmann’s personality, his demeanour, his dull face, his “boring” presentation of himself, as ascriptive of the character of the deeds which he ruthlessly and with such passionate (not banal) efficiency pursued.
The phrase is the very end chord of her long piece, in which she dismisses Eichmann’s speech from the gallows as “grotesquely silly,” and his thoughts and words as rancid with cliché. But the famous equation that concludes the coda is not about Eichmann. It is about evil: “It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us — the lesson of the fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
That the sadist fanatic in the Israeli dock had no horns and didn’t speak with the manic fluency of his master, Hitler, emphatically does not mean the “work” he superintended with such reptilian frigidity was banal, or that the moral category in which it was so perfectly enfolded — Evil — was itself banal.
An easy but unpalatable speculation discloses the error quite succinctly. Were it Hitler that day on the gallows, would his dark, fearsome charisma have suggested a different ascription — the insanity of evil, the monstrousness of evil? Or bloated Goering — would he have suggested the gaudiness, the bestial appetency of evil?
Arendt’s urge for a flare of originality, a reach after cleverness, betrayed her, but such was the unexpectedness of the conjunction between the two key words — banality and evil — that her phrase has become fixed in altogether too many glancing minds as something of an assessment. It lowers the moral and intellectual temperature of the reality of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and all those other halls of Hell.