We continue the story of the notorious Nazi officer and organiser of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, as he goes on trial in Israel. Political theorist Hannah Arendt covers the case, and like so many others, expects to see a monster in a glass cage. Instead she arrives at the chilling conclusion that Eichmann is not a criminal mastermind nor a “monster”, but a dim-witted bureaucrat. Her description upset many people, because how can something so terrible as the holocaust happen? Surely the devil himself must be behind it?
“Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown”, Hannah Arendt wrote in her famous article for The New Yorker. The experience led her to coin the phrase “The Banality of Evil”. Humans, she explains, do terrible things for ordinary reasons, such as turning up for work every day. In Eichmann’s case, this included making sure that trains full of Jewish people arrived at the death camps on time.
On this episode of Bad People, Dr Julia Shaw and comedian Sofie Hagen examines Hannah Arendt’s work and what it means for how we understand great acts of violence and antisemitism.
“Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil”, Hannah Arendt, The New Yorker, 1963.
This episode includes audio from the short series of educational films, The Eichmann Show, created for the BBC, produced and directed by David Barrie.
Warning: This episode contains strong language and descriptions of violence
Presenters: Dr Julia Shaw and Sofie Hagen
Producer: Louisa Field
Assistant Producer: Simona Rata
Music: Matt Chandler
Editor: Rami Tzabar
Academic Consultants for The Open University: Lara Frumkin and James Munro
Commissioning Assistant Producer: Adam Eland
Commissioning Executive: Dylan Haskins
Bad People is produced in partnership with The Open University and is a BBC Audio Science Production for BBC Sounds.