The banality and evil of state sanctioned genocide

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Hannah Arendt brought about the phrase “banality of evil” in her eponymous text (1963) touching on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel.  The phrase brought about a fierce backlash from Israeli and American intelligence in relation to other important themes that were covered in book most especially the roles of the Jewish leadership in the Holocaust (Arendt, 1963).  Many people took the phrase to mean something that cleansed Eichmann of the since that he had committed. Arendt considered perpetrators of state sanctioned crimes as a collective crime of obedience ordered by their rulers.

Banality of evil had two interpretations. The first was simplistic as people construed banal to mean ordinary or lack of special significance. However, this was not what Arendt meant as she has condemned the Nazi evil throughout her career. The second interpretation was  an extension of Raul Hilberg’s analysis in his book on Nazi Germany and crimes of bureaucracy. This view emphasized the role of bureaucracy and industrialization inn separating the perpetrators  and the victims of murder, for instance in the Holocaust (Hilberg, 1971). Various philosophers explain the banality and evil of state sanctioned genocide in different ways. Despite the fact that Nazis achieved power through some democratic procedures, the deaths of the Jews that occurred during the Holocaust cannot be considered similarly to the manner in which Nazis achieved power through certain democratic purposes because if the democracy was effective then the massacre would not be needed.

The banality and evil of state sanctioned genocide has been considered by philosophers in morality realms touching on the realities of evil and suffering as well as in religious backgrounds. For instance, Abraham Isaac Kook considered this issue as a mystical thinker  and gave a religious examination of it. He looked at this issue in terms of good and evil and rejected philosophical disposition that evil is mere absence of good (Sacks, 1992). To him the banality and evil of state sanctioned genocide cannot just be an absence of good but something more than this. To him, the perpetrators of the Holocaust were looking for perfection through elimination of Jews.

Other philosophers such as Dietrich Bonhoffer argued that the banality and evil of state-sanctioned genocide was because of the death of God or rather the absence of God (higher power) and those who believed in his existence were engaging in mere absurdity. Bonhoffer believed that were it true that God was alive then the banality of such evil could not happen (Zerner, 1975). The religious renegades that did not see sense in this decided to rebuild the church rather than abandon their religious life. As such, their beliefs were altered by events such as the Holocaust.

Other philosophers such as Fackenheim, legal philosopher, considered the Holocaust as a unique event in history for two reasons. First, the Nazis persecuted the Jews not because of they had different religious beliefs and practices but because of their genetic makeup (Fackenheim, 1985). This means that to Fackenheim, the banality and evil of state-sanctioned genocide was a racist and biological makeup issue rather than a religious issue. Secondly, Fackenheim argued that the demonic will of the persecutors to exterminate the Jews was not just meant to help them win the war but was something more than this. The second reason supports the first reason in the sense that it was not just a religious war but also something, that was influenced by factors such as hate, winning the war, and desires to terminate all the Jews all together. For philosophers such as Fackenheim, the Holocaust was influenced by a myriad of factors that were hidden under the notion of achieving victory in war or as a religious issue.

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  1. Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Penguin.
  2. Fackenheim, E. L. (1985). The Holocaust and philosophy. The Journal of Philosophy, 82(10), 505-514.
  3. Hilberg, R. (1971). Documents of destruction; Germany and Jewry, 1933-1945. Quadrangle-New York Times Book Co..
  4. Sacks, J. (1992). Crisis and covenant: Jewish thought after the Holocaust. Manchester University Press.
  5. Zerner, R. (1975). Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jews: Thoughts and Actions, 1933-1945. Jewish Social Studies, 37(3/4), 235-250.
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