Banality of Evil? Not Really

eichmann“The banality of evil” is a phrase that suddenly entered the English language, probably for ever, in 1963, on the publication of Hannah Arendt’s book about Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

It hardly matters that Hannah Arendt, after much arduous study and conscientious effort, got Eichmann entirely wrong, and had the wool pulled comprehensively over her eyes by the man she thought an utter mediocrity. Surely scum like him were no match for a much-garlanded political philosopher? But far from having been a faceless bureaucrat as she portrayed him, or mere pen-pusher who somehow, as if by accident, wandered into the organisation of genocide, Eichmann was an ardent and committed Nazi, an idealist of evil so to speak, who knew exactly what he was doing and regretted only that he had been unable to do more and finish the job. Bettina Stangneth’s book Eichmann Before Jerusalem should have put paid once and for all to the notion of Eichmann as a kind of sleep-walking little man, the post office clerk of extermination. But image often triumphs over reality, and in any case, the banality of evil could well survive as a concept, even if it had been grotesquely misapplied on its first outing.

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Recently, I seem to be surrounded by the banality of evil: in books, I mean, not in real life (assuming that books are not part of real life, that is). For example, I just picked up a book by the well-known French forensic psychiatrist Daniel Zagury, titled La Barbarie des hommes ordinaires: Ces criminels qui pourraient être nous (The Barbarity of Ordinary Men: These Criminals Who Could Be Us). The very title, of course, makes reference to Arendt’s famous phase, and I had not gone many pages into it when her name cropped up: because Zagury is writing about men (mainly men in contrast to women) who commit appalling violent crimes without being obviously mad, he makes reference to Arendt and her banality of evil. The banality lies in the absence of all thought or reflection, of foresight or imagination. The most atrocious acts occasion no more mental trouble than, say, that entailed in the making of a sandwich.

Before I took up Zagury, I had just read Behind the Shock Machine, a book by the Australian psychologist and writer Gina Perry, about the famous, or infamous, experiments carried out by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s at Yale on man’s obedience to authority. These experiments, as written up by Milgram in his book Obedience to Authority, have more or less entered common consciousness, at least that of intellectuals, as proving that there is in most of us an inner Eichmann, if not quite struggling to get out, at least prepared to obey the most frightful orders if authority gives them.

Milgram published his book in 1974, which was twelve years after the conclusion of his experiments and eleven years after the publication of Arendt’s book. He was, I surmise, much influenced by Arendt’s masterfully summarising—or one might say misleading—phrase, for the truth behind which he retrospectively tried to supply some psychological evidence. Gina Perry, by examining the records of his experiments in detail, found that Milgram had misrepresented his results, exaggerating his subjects’ willingness to comply with orders in his eagerness to show man’s tendency to obey, a tendency which demonstrates that the Holocaust could happen again—by implication anywhere.

In brief, what Milgram found, or claimed to have found, was that 65 per cent of ordinary people were prepared to give electric shocks of increasing severity, to the point of danger or even fatality, to a complete stranger, merely on the say-so of an authority-figure, in this case a scientist in charge of an experiment. The people concerned were not selected for any particular character-trait, and indeed Milgram wanted them to be ordinary so that his experiment should have the widest possible resonance.

Perry found that Milgram had misrepresented the figures: in fact, 65 per cent of the subjects were not prepared to administer strong and dangerous shocks, but rather refused to continue the experiment well before it reached that stage. Furthermore, even those who continued until they administered the most dangerous shocks displayed great distress as they did so: they cried, they squirmed, they sweated profusely. They were not people who simply obeyed orders, the authority of the experimenter having wiped away all their sense of personal agency or responsibility. And Perry came to the conclusion that Milgram’s experiments taught us nothing about human nature.

In a sense, she was perfectly right. We need no experiments to tell us that people often do things under the cover of authority that they would not do if entirely left to their own devices. It is a matter of common observation that in organisations bad things are done without protest from those who believe them to be wrong. Among other inhibitors of protest is the fear of losing one’s job or even the postponement of promotion.

But I am not sure that Perry’s criticisms of Milgram are completely cogent or reassuring. After all, when asked, psychiatrists (than whom, often, no one is less expert about human conduct because of the elaborate theoretical lens through which they view it) guessed that only 1 per cent of ordinary people would be prepared to administer an electric shock that they believed to be dangerous. Even if Milgram exaggerated the proportion, it was still very substantial. And when we consider that the authority exercised over them was completely informal and had none of the backing of sanctions that exist under tyrannies and dictatorships, the results are even less reassuring. The fact that those who were prepared to administer fatal shocks felt uncomfortable is neither here nor there (except in so far as it reveals the unethical nature of the experiments): for as Christopher Browning describes in his book on a Sonderkommando of ordinary men, many of its members felt distinctly queasy after a hard day’s genocide. Which is more important or significant, their genocide or their queasiness? Whatever the defects of Milgram’s experiments and book, its suggestiveness—like that of good literature—refuses to evaporate, and will remain long after the criticisms have been forgotten.

Milgram’s book was important to me. I read it when it first came out and twenty-five years later was commissioned to write a kind of anniversary review of it. It so happened that in preparation for my article I re-read it on a plane to Dublin, and I was seated next to an Irish social worker as I did so. She saw what I was reading and asked me what it was all about. I told her and she was very pleased; she said that she was against all authority, and I asked her why.

“We know about all authority in this country,” she said (meaning Ireland). “We’ve had it for so long. That’s why I’m against all authority.”

“So you don’t mind,” I said, “if I get up to the cockpit of this plane and take over the flight?”

“I don’t mean that kind of authority,” she said.

But which kind of authority did she mean? Our subsequent discussion was brief and not very deep, but the question surely touched on one of the most difficult questions of political philosophy. No authority, and anarchy results; too much authority, and freedom is extinguished. I do not pretend to have the answer as to where the limits should lie, and no doubt it shifts according to the situation; perhaps even in theory there can be no limit known in advance.

Suffice it to say that Milgram’s experiments gave a bad name to authority, even if he did not necessarily mean them to. They could be interpreted as demonstrating that every exercise of authority was somewhere on the slippery slope to Auschwitz and that everyone therefore had to examine every moral question or dilemma for himself, in the pure, dazzling light of his own ratiocination, putting no trust in any authority whatever, including—or especially—that of tradition.

Needless to say, life cannot be lived this way, and never is. As ever, Doctor Johnson (whom Simon Leys, with his own almost infallible sense of discrimination, called an inexhaustible fund of wisdom) had something useful to say. In his Life of Swift, Johnson says:

singularity, as it implies a contempt of the general practice, is a kind of defiance which justly provokes the hostility of ridicule; he, therefore, who indulges peculiar habits, is worse than others, if he be not better.

It is in the simple phrase, if he be not better, that Johnson shows his moral genius, as being conservative but not complacent.

2 thoughts on “Banality of Evil? Not Really

  • says:

    “a kind of sleep-walking little man”? I think you’ve got Arendt wrong. She knew the full evil of Eichman and said he deserved the gallows. He didn’t want to share the world with millions of his fellow humans, so why should they share it with. She was saying evil didn’t have to look out of the ordinary.

  • Tricone says:


    I took part in a Milgram experiment in the early 1970s, with some psychology students who were casual acquaintances.

    I started administering the shocks as directed, but as magnitude increased and the “victim” started to make distressing noises, I eased back on the shocks (and was sternly told I must increase as directed!) and then refused altogether.

    I was then told that this was exceptional and that most participants went on with it.
    Whether that was from the students’ experience or from the literature, I don’t know.

    Perhaps I could take some pride in it, but the truth is I was dubious all along as I knew these students to be genial and kind natured.

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