The cultivation of evil, the sickness of Europe 12

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) is widely known as the inventor of the phrase ‘the banality of evil’. Apparently the idea was intended to be the main point of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, as its subtitle is A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Adolf Eichmann was tried and sentenced to death in Jerusalem forty-eight years ago. He was the arch administrator during the Second World War of Hitler’s ‘final solution of the Jewish problem’ by systematic murder. When Hitler’s Reich was defeated in 1945, Eichmann sought refuge from justice under another name in South America. In 1948 part of Palestine became the Jewish state of Israel, and some twelve years later the Israeli secret service traced Eichmann, captured him, smuggled him out of Argentina, and delivered him to Israel. There he was humanely imprisoned, politely interrogated, brought before a legally constituted tribunal, judged, and condemned. The proceedings were conducted with scrupulous regard to law and all the safeguards it provides: due process, evidence, cross examination of witnesses, argument for the defense. He was found guilty of multiple crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity; of persecution, plunder, and war crimes (and was acquitted on certain parts of the indictment where proof was considered inadequate). He was sentenced to death, permitted to appeal, and had his sentence confirmed. The appeal judges declared: ‘In deciding to confirm both the verdict and the sentence passed on Adolf Eichmann, we know only too well how utterly inadequate is the death sentence when we consider the millions of deaths for which he was responsible. Even as there is no word in human speech to describe his deeds, so there is no punishment in human law to match his guilt.’ He was hanged on 31 May 1962.

Hannah Arendt considered the proceedings to be flawed. She questioned whether the Israeli court had jurisdiction to try the crimes of which Eichmann stood accused. She argued that the Nazi policy of discrimination against the Jews was a ‘national issue’, so persons accused of implementing it should be tried in a German court. Deportations, however, (she said) affect other countries, so those accused of organizing them should be brought before an international court; and so should those accused of genocide, because it is ‘a crime against humanity’. The particular human genus marked down for extermination in this case was the Jewish people, but it was nevertheless, in her view, a crime against all humankind: therefore, she argued, the world, not the Jewish state, should call its perpetrators to account. The fact that the world had shown little interest in tracking down Nazi fugitives was no discouragement to her optimism that it would see justice done.

She was not alone in having doubts on the question of jurisdiction. Legal opinion had been divided over the legitimacy of the court which had tried Nazi leaders at Nuremberg. Argument over type of tribunal, applicable law, and definition of the crimes was necessary, and the Jerusalem court itself examined such questions and gave reasoned answers to them.

But Arendt’s criticism was not limited to those debated issues. She also objected to the terms of the judgment. She accepted that the ‘guilty’ verdict was just, and even agreed that Eichmann deserved the death sentence (unlike some other liberal critics, such as the British publisher Victor Gollancz, who recommended that he be acquitted with the words, ‘Go, and sin no more.’ (1)) What she cavilled at was the judges’ reasons for their verdict. They should, she thought, have ‘dared to address their defendant’ in these terms:

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune [Eichmann’s defence being chiefly that he too was a victim of the Nazi regime, forced to obey immoral orders] that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

In other words, what Arendt thought Eichmann most guilty of, what she identified as his chief and most appalling offense, what she thought his judges should be hardest on, what alone would justify his being put to death, was – hubris.

This peculiar, not to say eccentric view is, however, not the point to which she most urgently directs her readers’ attention. Her most important conclusion she encapsulated in the famous generalization on the nature of evil. She leads up to it in the last two paragraphs (before the Epilogue and a Postscript), and to keep it in context I shall quote them almost in full:

Adolf Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity. He had asked for a bottle of red wine and had drunk half of it. He refused the help of the Protestant minister — who offered to read the Bible with him — He walked the fifty yards from his cell to the execution chamber calm and erect, with his hands bound behind him. When the guards tied his ankles and knees, he asked them to loosen the bonds so that he could stand straight. “I don’t need that,” he said when the black hood was offered him. He was in complete command of himself, nay, he was more: he was completely himself. Nothing could have demonstrated this more convincingly than the grotesque silliness of his last words. He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläubiger [believer in God], to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. [Yet] he then proceeded: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” In the face of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows, his memory played him the last trick; he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral. It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lessons that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil. [Her italics]

So in Arendt’s opinion, the story required a fascinating demon, not a bespectacled clerk. Even when he stood under the noose, when history needed him to speak pathetic or terrifying words of pride or remorse, the best he could come out with were embarrassingly trivial ‘funeral clichés’. He was simply not big enough for the evil he had committed. He was a dull man; not exactly stupid, she says, but thoughtless.

Having the mind of a philosopher, she did not leave it at that. She considered further the idea of thoughtlessness as a root of evil. It is close to a proposition by Socrates that men do evil out of ignorance of the good. She went on to write and deliver a series of lectures on how philosophers from ancient Greece to modern Germany have dealt with the subjects of thinking, willing, and the nature of evil. They were collected and published after her death in two volumes under the title The Life of the Mind. In an introduction, she refers to what she has said about Eichmann and his crimes, and makes it clear at last that the evil-doer was banal, not the evil he had done. ‘I was struck by a manifest shallowness [in him] — The deeds were monstrous, but the doer — was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.

So it was the man, not his evil, which was banal, and when she had spoken of ‘the banality of evil’ she had not said quite what she had meant. She offers a kind of excuse: ‘Behind that phrase [‘the banality of evil’], I held no thesis or doctrine —- although I was dimly aware of the fact that it went counter to our tradition of thought – literary, theological, or philosophic – about the phenomenon of evil.

Dimly aware’? Was she being forgetful or disingenuous? Neither, I think – just using the wrong adverb. She was perfectly aware that ‘it went counter to our tradition of thought’. German-born, of Jewish descent, she had studied philosophy at Marburg under Martin Heidegger – with whom she had a love-affair – and at Heidelberg under Karl Jaspers. In 1933, when Hitler came to power, she had left Germany for France, and in 1941 escaped to America. Living in New York, she had worked hard at learning English, and in 1944 started writing for The Partisan Review which was then a Trotskyite organ. In the following years she wrote a number of books, one on totalitarianism in which she equated Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia under Stalin – showing a readiness to allow facts to overrule ideology to a degree unusual in Marxists, even a critical Marxist, which she increasingly became.

That she knew well the European tradition of regarding evil as a sublime power, she goes on to show in her introduction to The Life of the Mind: ‘Evil, we have learned, is something demonic; its incarnation is — the fallen angel —that superbia of which only the best are capable.’ And only in that context could her revelation that evil was ‘banal’ have any meaning. Yet that is as far as she went in dealing with the aggrandisement of evil in ‘our tradition of thought’. She does not touch on it again in the chapters that follow, though some of the philosophers she writes about notably contributed to it, such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger(2). Her turning away from the issue is to be regretted. She had come so close to a salutary diagnosis. Evil as an intoxicating passion; evil as a means of transcending the quotidian; evil as a high destiny; evil as power; evil as surpassing beauty; evil as a higher good – these notions have been corrupting the European mind for centuries, at least since the start of the Romantic Movement(3). Europe is sick with a dark passion, ‘a passion for the night’, as Karl Jaspers called it. It is a morbid sickness for which the shortest sufficient name is perhaps Richard Wagner’s: ‘Der Liebestod’ [‘the love-death’].

Richard Wagner, who so inspired Hitler, was one of the most infected, as Thomas Mann illustrates in a story called Tristan. Here is a slide of it: In a Swiss alpine clinic for the treatment of tuberculosis – which Thomas Mann often used as a symbol of the disease of the spirit – two patients, a pretty married woman and a young man of refined aesthetic sensibility, are singing together at the piano:

Their voices rose in mystic unison, rapt in the wordless hope of that death-in-love, of endless oneness in the wonder-kingdom of the night. Sweet night! Eternal night of love! An all-encompassing land of rapture! Once envisioned or divined, what eye could bear to open again on desolate dawn? Forfend such fears, most gentle death! Release these lovers quite from need of waking. Oh, tumultuous storm of rhythms! Oh, glad chromatic upward surge of metaphysical perception! How find, how bind this bliss so far remote from parting’s torturing pangs? Ah, gentle glow of longing, soothing and kind, ah, yielding sweet- sublime, ah, raptured sinking into the twilight of eternity! Thou Isolde, Tristan I, yet no more Tristan, no more Isolde — (4)

Their duet is Der Liebestod. Thomas Mann’s story is about sickness versus health, death versus life, healthy love versus sick love, healthy art versus sick art. These are constant themes of his. No other writer has diagnosed the European – in his view the particularly, if not peculiarly, German – sickness as surely, investigated it as thoroughly, or described it as exactly as he has done. He offers various terms and phrases for it, among them ‘sympathy with death’, ‘the fascination of decay’, the temptation of the abyss’. It inclines those infected with it to negate the value of life and whatever is life-sustaining; to turn away from light towards darkness. He shows us what results from that choice, to those who make it and through them to their world, their age, their nation, their civilization. In general, those who have the sickness revel in it, holding it to be a treasure of incomparable worth, a distinction, a glory. Not only would they not choose to be cured of it, they pity and despise the uninfected. It is understood to bring with it a superior capacity to feel and understand. It makes artists of them even if they make no art; martyrs even though they serve no cause but their own discontent. And in fact these associations are so widely accepted in Europe, so little questioned, so deeply revered, that to their own intense gratification some of the sickest – of whom I name a few in this essay – are adored by millions (if not necessarily the same millions), to whom they are heroes and saints: heroes of darkness, that is to say, or ‘demonic saints’. Dead, they are revered as ‘tragic’ figures. There are many of them, but a few examples will do.

Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt’s lover, is one . He declared emphatically that he was not concerned with ethics, and taught that ‘sin is living inauthentically’. What he was greatly concerned with was the German nation, which must, he said, ‘preserve at the deepest level those forces that are rooted in the earth and its own blood.’ It was embodied in Adolf Hitler. ‘The Führer himself and he alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law.’ Hitler, he believed, would ‘heal’ the nation.(5) Only when, contrary to this prediction, the Führer led Germany to defeat and shame, Heidegger at last discerned in its ruins something he could bring himself to call an evil. He wrote, two years after the ending of the Second World War: ‘Perhaps the distinguishing feature of the present age lies in the fact that wholeness as a dimension of experience is closed to us. Perhaps this is the only evil.’ (6) His recondite and perverse teachings continue in the twenty-first century to direct European trends in philosophy, literary criticism, historical research and even legal theory.

Very much concerned with ethics was George Lukács. The notion that the evil-doer is himself the tragic victim of his own evil deed, since in choosing to commit it he makes the ultimate spiritual self-sacrifice ‘of his purity, his morals, his very soul’, excited Lukács to the point of rapture. He was a literary critic and aesthete who became Minister of Culture in the short-lived Communist government of Hungary after the 1919 revolutionary uprising. He considered himself, as Marxists generally do, a great humanitarian. And like many of his intellectual comrades – Lenin, Trotsky, for instance (7) – he could hardly conceive of a more elevated moral deed than an act of terrorism: ‘Only he who acknowledges unflinchingly and without any reservations that murder is under no circumstances to be sanctioned can commit the murderous deed that is truly – and tragically – moral.’ (8) Such a one is the terrorist. He is a heroic martyr because when he murders ‘his brethren’ he does so with awesome courage, knowing full well that he himself must thereby suffer intense agony. So the man who kills in the full knowledge that it is ‘an absolute and unpardonable sin’ is thus sacrificing himself. There is no greater love than to lay down the life of a fellow man.

The French writer Georges Bataille, also a Marxist revolutionary, wrote that he desired human beings, as a species, to move towards ‘an ever more shameless awareness of the erotic bond that links them to death, to cadavers, and to horrible physical pain. — One of a man’s attributes is the derivation of pleasure from the suffering of others, and that erotic pleasure is not only the negation of an agony that takes place at the same instant, but also a lubricious participation in that agony.’ And: ‘The movement,’ he held, ‘that pushes a man — to give himself (in other words, to destroy himself) — completely, so that a bloody death ensues, can only be compared, in its irresistible and hideous nature, to the blinding flashes of lightning that transform the most withering storm into transports of joy.’ He looked forward to a ‘post-revolutionary phase [of human history] when an antireligious and asocial organization [has] as its goal orgiastic participation in different forms of destruction’. He acknowledged that ‘such an organization, can have no other conception of morality than the one scandalously affirmed for the first time by the Marquis de Sade’. (9) The Marquis de Sade (from whose name the word ‘sadism’ is derived) had notoriously defended and advocated the committing of incest, rape, pedophilia, torture, infanticide, necrophilia, and committed whichever of them he could whenever he could. He wrote of murder that it was ‘often necessary and never criminal’. (10)

Michel Foucault, another comrade and ‘tragic hero’ of the European political left, vastly admired Bataille’s vision and lauded his aims. He endorsed Bataille’s ‘erotic transgression’, rhapsodised over ‘the joy of torture’, and longed to carry out, with his hero, a ‘human sacrifice’; murder performed as a holy act, a spiritual thrill and a work of art. The two of them dreamt of establishing ‘a theatre of cruelty’. But even that would not be enough. Foucault went much further. Cruelty should not be only an occasional act performed for the catharsis of one’s own soul, but a constant part of everyday life; a custom for all to follow. ‘We can and must,’ he wrote, ‘make of man a negative experience, lived in the form of hate and aggression.’ (11) And he did his personal best to make life short and miserable. He contracted AIDS in the bathhouses of San Francisco, and when he knew he had it, returned to infect other men. Experiences of pain, madness, fatal illness were what he called ‘edge situations’, much to be desired because they redeemed existence from its unbearable banality. Evil, in other words, far from being banal itself, was to him a means of redemption from banality.

Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps the most adulated of all the twentieth-century philosophers in the French pandemonium, followed Heidegger in the belief that the supreme and most necessary task for a human being was to ‘live authentically’. He tells us what we should do to avoid ‘the sin of living inauthentically’: do what is forbidden because it is forbidden; transgress, for transgression is a way to ‘transcendence’. In other words, do evil to achieve the higher good. All Sartre’s heroes were on the side of the demonic. He proclaimed that the poet Charles Baudelaire’s soul was ‘an exquisite blossom’ because he ‘desired Evil for Evil’s sake’; and because he ‘saw in Satan the perfect type of suffering beauty. Satan, who was vanquished, fallen, guilty — crushed beneath the memory of an unforgivable sin, devoured by insatiable ambition, transfixed by the eye of God — nevertheless prevailed against God, his master and conqueror, by his suffering, by that flame of non-satisfaction which — shone like an unquenchable reproach.’ (12)

One of Baudelaire’s poems in Flowers of Evil lyrically celebrates the ravishment of a putrefying corpse. (An image highly suitable as a logo for the Europe of the ‘love-death’.) Elsewhere he declared: ‘In politics, the true saint is the man who uses his whip and kills the people for their own good.

This rottenness was what Thomas Mann showed Europe in the mirrors he held up, among them the long novel The Magic Mountain, set like Tristan in a Swiss clinic for the treatment of tuberculosis. One of its chief characters, Naphta, a religious voluptuary with a passion for terrorism, is partly modelled on Georg Lukács. There is also his novel Dr Faustus in which the Faust figure is a spiritually corrupt genius, a composer who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for musical genius. In mundane terms he intentionally contracts syphilis – as did Baudelaire – and again the physical sickness symbolizes the spiritual one. (Incidentally, syphilis was the disease that killed Hannah Arendt’s father.)

Is Europe redeemable? Goethe’s Faust, who personifies European Romanticism with his longing ‘to explore the heights and the depths’, is redeemed; snatched back from the brink of eternal doom when he has a last minute change of heart and renounces evil (though this of course makes nonsense of the myth, as decisively as Oedipus would make nonsense of his if he failed to kill his father and marry his mother). But Europe – no: Auschwitz doomed Europe beyond any hope of recovery.


1. Victor Gollancz, the British publisher, in his own book on the trial.

2. For Hegel’s’ ‘ethics of domination and submission’, and what the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called his ‘brilliant spirit of putridity’ and ‘infamous splendour of corruption’ see Karl Popper The Open Society and its Enemies Volume 1 Hegel & Marx esp. pp 275, 276. For Marx on terrorism, see ref. in note 6 below, and for Marx’s and Engels’s view that certain nations – Poles, Czechs, Slavs – were fit only to be used as canon-fodder or enslaved, see Leopold Schwarzschild The Red Prussian, Pickwick Books, London 1986 p 81, and Nathaniel Weyl Karl Marx, Racist, Arlington House 1980. Nietzsche famously praised evil and the infliction of pain, and recommended the annihilation of millions of ‘botched’ human beings in order to expedite the spiritual strengthening of the emerging Superman. For Heidegger see later in the text and notes 4 & 5 below.

3. The inversion of moral values, orgiastic ritual sinning, and defiance of the law as means to a higher good, characterized Gnostic religious cults in the Roman Empire and throughout the Middle Ages.

4. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter

5. Hugo Ott Martin Heidegger: A Political Life trans. Allan Blunden, HarperCollins, 1993 p 167, quoting Heidegger’s rectorial address at the University of Freiburg, May 27, 1933.

6. Letter on Humanism by Martin Heidegger, 1946.

7. For a succinct account of the views of Marx, Trotsky and Lenin on the virtue of terrorism, see Roberta Goren The Soviet Union and Terrorism, ed. Jillian Becker, George Allen & Unwin, London and Boston, 1984.

8. Georg Lukács Tactics and Ethics. He wrote this as an approving summary of an idea expressed by Boris V. Savinkov (who wrote under the name of Ropshin) in his novel The Pale Horse. Lukács admired this novelist for his ‘new manifestation of an old conflict’ between ‘duties towards social structure’ and ‘imperatives of the soul’ – the conflict with which Bataille, de Sade, Foucault, Heidegger, and Sartre were also centrally concerned.

9. Georges Bataille Visions of Excess: Selected Writing 1927-1934 ed. & trans. Allan Stoeckl, Manchester University Press, 1985 p 69

10. The Marquis de Sade Philosophy in the Boudoir.

11. James Miller The Passion of Michel Foucault, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1993 pp 204, 206.

12. Jean-Paul Sartre Baudelaire Trans. Martin Turnell

Jillian Becker July 20, 2010

  • liz

    This is not only fascinating, but so important in explaining the derangement of leftists, and the destruction they cause. Thanks for all your research on this subject, Jillian!

  • What Hannah Arendt, and many others saw, was only Eichmann’s mask and not the evil creature within. Evil people never show their true character to anyone other than a victim. That way whatever the victim can say later they are never believed. Eichmann was evil and that means he got pleasure from the suffering he saw and which he helped cause.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kyrani. I’m sure you’re right that Eichmann (like the Nazis in general) enjoyed the suffering of his victims. Enjoyed his power to inflict suffering. Arendt saw that Eichmann was evil; she just didn’t think that he was worthy of being evil, wasn’t a grand enough being to represent such a grand concept as evil. Only a Romantic Intellectual could hold evil in such high esteem. That is why Romanticism, which is a form of religion, is itself evil.

      • I’ve been thinking about what you have said about Romantic intellectuals. I think I understand what you mean. Some express ideas about evil based on the idea of the devil, and as an opposite to God. And not only the opposite to God but on the same level. I have seen many who rationalize the evil person’s behavior and thus deny even the existence of evil. These types hide in all walks of life and in all ideologies.They are lurking in the shadows trying to influence others without those others realizing that they become participants in a religion of evil.

        For example I have seen in science and medicine today people, who insist we are all meat robots, so as to deny the existence of evil. They use labels like psychopathic, narcissistic, antisocial etc., and explain them as different brain wiring. They make suggestions like what if we find a pill to cure psychopathy and then go on as if this was a reality or could be a reality. Thus they are transforming a science or branch of medicine into a kind of religion of evil without other people realizing it.

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  • Elyse

    From what I gather from my friends and relatives in Europe, ordinary folk are frightened and frustrated by these philosophies on the one hand (which is why they are looking to conservatives) but proud of the authors as intellectual achievers on the other. In America, their philosophies (mostly Foucault and Derrida) have permeated American social sciences academia as Critical Theory. CT is activism rather than scholarship–deliberately and gladly so–in fact, it says that because there is no true objectivity in scholarship, the adherents of CT are just being more honest about being biased, so fact and reason are not fundamentals–overthrowing the power structures is more important. CT is based on Marxism. Some of the main tenets of this theory are that the oppressed must overthrow the power structures (often called the 'white power structure' or 'male dominance'. One part of CT is found in Pragmatics, a section of Linguistics, and is called Critical Discourse Analysis, which analyzes text (not just written but spoken, broadcast, etc.) to find evidence of power imbalance against minorities, women, and so on. CDA is accused by opponents of begging the question and circular reasoning (finding what they look for because they're looking for it), which supporters deny. CDA is being taught to teachers (K-12) and the teachers make lesson plans from it to teach their students how imperial, racist, and colonial America is. CDAers and CTers have the same white fire of zealous bigotry that religious (in the colloquial use of the term) extremists have, and the same placing of emotion over reason. Scary stuff. I'm hoping to do a section of my doco on CDA (I posted about the documentary on the About page, FYI). Great article, Jill. More people need to be made aware of this, and of how much philosophers and intellectuals do affect people's everyday lives. Marx certainly does!! Americans tend to laugh at philosophers as if they just talk and nothing happens from their talk. Not true.

  • Frank

    While this would explain corruption in Europe, could you cite sources? I mean your accusations are pretty hard-hitting and should therefore have some sort of basis that can be proven.

    • Jillian Becker

      Certainly I can give you all the sources, Frank.

      If you would let me have your email address by emailing me at

      I'll send them to you. Please check them all out. There's much more of the same in the places I took those horrible quotations from.

      Footnote references on our front page would be a bore for most readers. I'll only post them there if I get more than ten requests for them.

    • Jillian Becker

      I have now added the Notes with the source references.

  • Jillian Becker

    Thank you, MarkE, for your appreciation. My work is rewarded by it.

    Unfortunately many Chinese – not here in the United States, but in China itself – did come to believe all too ardently in Marx's philosophy. The ideas associated with his name have spread like a killer virus through the world, infecting Mao, the Ba'athists (Saddam Hussein), The Castros of Cuba, Hugo Chavez, Saul Alinsky … a full list would be very long.


  • I think it is significant that this piece attracted no comments (until now). In my ideal world this sort of (serious) issue would be the focus of attention and discussion. But that is not the world we are in… Anyway, I would just like to say that what Jillian Becker says about this fatal flaw in European culture rings true to me. I have been puzzled in the past by her use of the word evil – and have tended to think she was using it for rhetorical effect, but I am now beginning to see that this was not really the case. I have often thought that philosophy departments in universities do more harm than good (preaching fashionable relativisms and other -isms). I have also been struck how uninterested most Chinese people I have encountered are in western “philosophy”: maybe this is one of their advantages – that they have not been infected by the cultural disease Becker discusses.