When I heard the owners of a cafe in my small hometown had attended the January 6 riots in the U.S. Capitol, I shrugged at first. The town is 90% white, in a county that often swings red — I figured there had to be a couple outliers. Then, some millennial sleuths unearthed the owners’ violently antisemitic tweets, while other local residents held a pro-Trump rally outside the cafe. I wondered how something so normal and seemingly innocuous as a rustic cafe known for its graham cracker coffee could become a focal point for our national conversation around white supremacy and fascism.
To better understand what was going on, I turned to Hannah Arendt’s classic text, Eichmann in Jerusalem. But first, some background:
Hannah Arendt is known as one of the foremost thinkers in contemporary political theory. She was born in Hanover, Germany in 1906 to a family of assimilated Jews. As a vocal critic of the Nazi Party, Arendt fled Germany in 1933 after being arrested by the Gestapo. She eventually immigrated to the United States, where she continued her career as a political theorist and professor, publishing oft-cited texts such as The Origins of Totalitarianism and on topics like power, democracy, and authority.
Sixty years ago, Arendt attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi bureaucrat who organized the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps in the Nazi project of annihilation. His policies were responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. You may know him from Rachel Bloom’s Drunk History episode on how he was captured by Mossad agents in Argentina and prosecuted in Israel.
Arendt’s report of the Eichmann trial was published in The New Yorker, and eventually as its own book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. It became one of her most controversial works, and is still the source of much debate.
Eichmann in Jerusalem is not for the faint of heart, but it’s worth reading in its entirety. Here’s the 101 version of what Arendt noted in the months of the trial:
- Eichmann was not a murderous zealot as the prosecution alleged, but instead an utterly ordinary — if dutiful — desk jockey.
- Eichmann could not think for himself; instead, he spoke entirely in the language of bureaucracy and empty clichés, which insulated him from the reality of his role in Nazi atrocities. Arendt wrote: “… his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think; that is, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.”
- Eichmann was a career man and a joiner who saw an opportunity to advance in the Nazi Party, and felt no moral anxiety over the deaths he caused.
- Arendt also criticized the trial itself, describing Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion as the “invisible stage manager” of the inevitably theatrical proceedings as dozens of survivors were put on the stand as witnesses. She raised questions about the trial’s legitimacy and its exploitation in shaping the image of the new State of Israel.
Nazism is often deployed as a convenient litmus test for evil. Think about how often Nazis are the villains in film — no moral struggle or self-reflection is required of the hero or the viewers, because Nazis represent the most heinous, inhuman evil, and we can feel righteous in unequivocally rooting against them. But the heart of Arendt’s thesis was that evil functioned through Eichmann’s banality, his mediocrity. Eichmann refused or was unable to think from any perspective other than his own ambition. To Arendt, he was no demon, but an unimaginative clown. At the time, this was a significant shift in the discourse about the Holocaust, because it meant that ordinary people — not monsters full of malicious intent —could be instruments of atrocities like the Holocaust.
The idea was met with widespread criticism; Arendt lost colleagues and friends over Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt was further rebuked and labeled as self-hating by Jewish leaders for the report’s mention of Jews who collaborated with Nazis, and its ironic and irreverent tone which was seen as disrespectful so soon after the carnage of the Holocaust. Regardless of how much you agree or disagree with Arendt’s critics, it would be a mistake to ignore the lessons of Eichmann in Jerusalem today.
As Jewish novelist Rivka Galchen put it, “Destroying a few singular monsters is comfortingly more achievable than countering a bottomless amoral mediocrity latent in millions.” It is comforting to take refuge in the neat dichotomy of pure good and obvious evil. If the Holocaust was perpetrated by bloodthirsty psychopaths, it is much easier to define ourselves against said psychopaths, and to convince ourselves that we would be able to identify evil if we saw it. But the truth is that evil is sometimes really boring people doing really boring things.
Your spidey senses might be tingling. If the idea of fascism flourishing in the absence of critical thinking and empathy rings a bell, it’s because those are the conditions we’ve been swimming in for years, and it’s at the core of the indoctrination that led up to the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.
At face value, the antisemitic conspiracy theories of QAnon and the far right that fueled the riots are blatantly vile, or at least absurd. It is easy to dismiss them as internet nonsense or the unhinged ramblings of ignorant ideologues. But as Emily Burack has pointed out, people also thought that the failed Nazi coup of 1923 was disorganized and laughable.
There is a common classist stereotype that Trump supporters are mostly uneducated, rural hicks, born out of the mythology that Trump is a working class hero. In fact Trump’s strongest support comes from the locally rich. But as we are learning, the rioters were therapists, politicians, Olympic medalists, CEOs, and business owners, people far from the fringe. Some were even Jewish. It’s much easier to ridicule them for their crude costumes and antics than to acknowledge that the call is coming from inside the house, and to face the reality of how the banality of evil has persisted in our communities. In a world where only 14 states have laws on the books requiring media literacy education in K-12 schools, many Americans are not inoculated against misinformation.
The lessons of the Eichmann trial are especially prescient now, when more than half of Republicans believe some or most of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Evil, according to Arendt, does not always announce itself in maniacal laughter. Eichmann’s tendency to regurgitate clichés and unoriginal language was a hallmark of his corruption, because it normalized his participation and distanced himself from the Third Reich’s immorality. QAnon has become a talking point for Republican lawmakers, who by and large have refused to explicitly dispel its baseless claims. Trump is leaving office, but the system that empowered him and the people who indulged him will remain.
Whether you’re trying to address white supremacy in your neighborhood or in the legislature, it isn’t always helpful to look for blind obedience or mastermindful cruelty; instead, pay attention to the vacuum created by the absence of critical self-reflection and empathy for others. Look for when normalcy, comfort, ambition, or that’s-just-how-things-are-done-ism are prioritized over truth and authentic analysis. Sometimes, the monster under the bed is some guy with a desk job.