The Banality of Evil

My latest posts happen to be about WWII, or specifically right after the war.  I had not planned it, but sadly it worked out that way.

Today marks 70 years since the Nuremberg trials began, 20 November, 1945.  Impossible to think about and then toss aside.  We will always wonder about the minds, the mentality, the rationalizing, it would take to maintain “civil” sanity while planning and managing the most horrific depravities of humanity in modern history.  The architects and middle managers, doing their day to day work.   The defendants at Nuremberg had their I.Q.s checked.  All scored higher than average.  No answers, or excuses, here –  just a glimpse into “The Banality of Evil.”  And the Trial of the Century that must always be remembered.  I leave the technical details to links.

“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.”  – from opening statement for the prosecution by Robert H. Jackson –  chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials (1) 

Before the end of WWII on 1 November 1943, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States published their “Declaration on German Atrocities in Occupied Europe”, which gave a “full warning” that, when the Nazis were defeated, the Allies would “pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth … in order that justice may be done. … The above declaration is without prejudice to the case of the major war criminals whose offences have no particular geographical location and who will be punished by a joint decision of the Government of the Allies.”(2)

Rare colour photo of the trial at Nuremberg, depicting the defendants, guarded by American Military Police. I am always freaked out to see Nazis in color photos:


No trial provides a better basis for understanding the nature and causes of evil than do the Nuremberg trials from 1945 to 1949.  Those who come to the trials expecting to find sadistic monsters are generally disappointed.  What is shocking about Nuremberg is  the ordinariness of the defendants: men who may be good fathers, kind to animals, even unassuming–yet who committed unspeakable crimes.  Years later, reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt wrote of “the banality of evil.”  Like Eichmann, most Nuremberg defendants never aspired to be villains.  Rather, they over-identified with an ideological cause and suffered from a lack of imagination or empathy: they couldn’t fully appreciate the human consequences of their career-motivated decisions.  The Nuremberg Trials by Doug Linder, 2000(3)

Doug Linder’s piece is an excellent read about the trials.  It is well written and very informative, with links to more in-depth info.  The links are worth exploring as well.  If you are curious at all about the trials – beyond the sad sensationalism, you should take a look.  It is not a long piece.  What I found interesting to read were the prosecution and defense cases.

The American authorities conducted subsequent Nuremberg Trials in their occupied zone.(4)

Other trials conducted after the Nuremberg Trials include the following:


The definition of what constitutes a war crime is described by the Nuremberg principles, a set of guidelines document which was created as a result of the trial. The medical experiments conducted by German doctors and prosecuted in the so-called Doctors’ Trial led to the creation of the Nuremberg Code to control future trials involving human subjects, a set of research ethics principles for human experimentation. (5)

Hannah Arndt

This references Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.  She explored the unimaginable state of mind that maintains a comfortable distance from atrocities.  And penned the phrase:

“The Banality of Evil” – Hannah Arndt (1906-1975)

She was a 20th century political philosopher.  The question with which Arendt engages most frequently is the nature of politics and the political life, as distinct from other domains of human activity.  Her thoughts span totalitarianism, revolution, the nature of freedom and the faculties of thought and judgment.

She controversially uses the phrase “the banality of evil” to characterize Eichmann’s actions as a member of the Nazi regime, in particular his role as chief architect and executioner of Hitler’s genocidal “final solution” (Endlosung) for the “Jewish problem.” Her characterization of these actions, so obscene in their nature and consequences, as “banal” is not meant to position them as workaday. Rather it is meant to contest the prevalent depictions of the Nazi’s inexplicable atrocities as having emanated from a malevolent will to do evil, a delight in murder. As far as Arendt could discern, Eichmann came to his willing involvement with the program of genocide through a failure or absence of the faculties of sound thinking and judgement. From Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem (where he had been brought after Israeli agents found him in hiding in Argentina), Arendt concluded that far from exhibiting a malevolent hatred of Jews which could have accounted psychologically for his participation in the Holocaust, Eichmann was an utterly innocuous individual. He operated unthinkingly, following orders, efficiently carrying them out, with no consideration of their effects upon those he targeted. The human dimension of these activities were not entertained, so the extermination of the Jews became indistinguishable from any other bureaucratically assigned and discharged responsibility for Eichmann and his cohorts.

Arendt concluded that Eichmann was constitutively incapable of exercising the kind of judgement that would have made his victims’ suffering real or apparent for him. It was not the presence of hatred that enabled Eichmann to perpetrate the genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible for him. Eichmann failed to exercise his capacity of thinking, of having an internal dialogue with himself, which would have permitted self-awareness of the evil nature of his deeds. This amounted to a failure to use self-reflection as a basis forjudgement, the faculty that would have required Eichmann to exercise his imagination so as to contemplate the nature of his deeds from the experiential standpoint of his victims. This connection between the complicity with political evil and the failure of thinking and judgement inspired the last phase of Arendt’s work, which sought to explicate the nature of these faculties and their constitutive role for politically and morally responsible choices.


You can read about each defendant, charges and sentence at:
The Nuremberg Trials:  
Brief Overview of Defendants & Verdicts by Ben S. Austin,

The Documentation
wenty-four major political and military leaders of Nazi Germany, indicted for aggressive war, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, were brought to trial before the International Military Tribunal. More than 100 additional defendants, representing many sectors of German society, were tried before the United States Nuremberg Military Tribunals in a series of 12 trials known as “Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings.” The four major publications linked below contain: the official proceedings of the trial of the major war criminals (The Blue Series), documentary evidence and guide materials from that trial (The Red Series), the official condensed record of the subsequent trials (The Green Series), and a final report on all the war crimes trials held in Nuremberg, Germany, from 1945 to 1949

See the referenced docs at the source:
Library of Congress,

References   [ + ]

1.  Title: “Second Day, Wednesday, 11/21/1945, Part 04″, in Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal. Volume II. Proceedings: 11/14/1945-11/30/1945. [Official text in the English language.] Nuremberg: IMT, 1947. pp. 98-102.
2, 4, 5.

The Banality of Evil was originally published on It Matters

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