The Banality of Evil

Hannah Arendt was great at devising pithy phrases that explained in a sentence or two, what others could not articulate in a whole book. When observing Eichmann in the dock what struck her was his lack of physical presence and his modest book keeping like demeanour. This insignificant figure was the monster responsible for the slaughter of millions of Jews. There was no charisma of evil, just a mediocrity of evil, hence she coined the phrase the ‘banality of evil’. This contrasts with the public perception of evil, which invests serial killers such as Hannibal Lecter with the charisma of fear. Even the feared leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler was nothing more than a former butcher. The Nazi’s charismatic leader Hitler, was a disregarded nobody before his rapid ascent to power. His wartime heroics were a fiction. He worked as a messenger in the trenches a safe position which can explain why he could enjoy that war. Was his charisma only a product of the machinations of his propaganda chief Goebbels?

Blandness is never associated with evil in the popular imagination, yet as Hannah Arendt writes there is no glamour in evil. Would anybody associate the bland mediocrities who run Europe with evil. What is most notable is their projection of themselves as the family man or woman, a person just like you or me who happened to be elevated by chance to power. Yet it should be noted that all the prominent Nazi’s were able to distance themselves from their crimes and were good family men. These ordinary family men you would pass in the street without notice, there was nothing about that indicated that they were monsters. I would go further than Hannah Arendt, and say that it is the bland who are most likely to do evil. They are not distinguished by any commitment to a higher cause, they have no understanding of the great moral virtues, instead they are motivated by self promotion and material comfort. They have no problem with doing evil, if it means self advancement, as they having no understanding of public virtue or to use an older phrase the common good. It is my contention that the bland mediocrities who run Europe are the people most likely to do harm to their fellow Europeans. Their crime is the impoverishment of millions of their fellow Europeans through austerity policies designed to protect the bank balances of the rich and powerful.

This is the first time in history that the rich and powerful have not been affected by economic depression. In the great crash of 1929, millionaires were reduced to poverty, in the crash of 1990 rich property dealers became poor overnight. Only the careless few millionaires have been impoverished by the latest crash. What is more usual is the Greek situation, where the government has moved heaven and earth to protect the fortunes of the rich and powerful. What the government did by imposing a harsh austerity programme was to prevent the collapse of the banks. This gave the rich time to shift their money out of over indebted Greek banks to safe havens abroad. Keeping Greece in the Euro by not defaulting on their debts made this money transfer possible. Inevitably making a bad situation worse. A Greek debt default would have hurt the rich most because their vast fortunes locked up in Greek bank deposits and would become practically worthless overnight. For the vast majority a default would be no worse than their current situation, as losing their savings would have been preferable to being thrown out of work and losing their incomes and homes.

Why are the bland and mediocre so more likely to do evil? Lacking any well defined moral instincts, they do not recognise any wrong doing in their actions. Therefore they recognise no wrong in their actions which impoverish the many and make the lives of many others a misery. Politicians have always been motivated by self advancement, so why do today’s politicians not link their self promotion with the advancement of the interests of the people?. Post war Europe was dominated by the ideologies of Social and Christian Democracy. These two similar ideologies saw the goal of political activity as the maximisation of the welfare of the people. It was a British conservative politician, Harold Macmillan in the 1950’s who promised to build 300,000 homes a year, it was Konrad Adenauer’s Christian Democrat government which introduced Germany’s generous welfare system. A system incidentally which the party he founded is now dismantling. With the collapse of these ideologies, politicians increasingly identified their self advancement with allying themselves to powerful corporate interests. A political system in which politicians are increasingly front men for powerful business interests will not attract the best and brightest. One businessman recently remarked that it would be hard to staff the board of a mediums sized public company from the limited talents assembled in the House of Commons. Therefore it should not be a surprise that the mediocrities who occupy Europe’s elected assemblies, should not venture to undertake any policies that would promote the common good but which could be seen harm the interests of the rich and powerful.

Possibly it’s too harsh to identify the the mediocrities that run Europe with the ‘banality of evil’, but they are on that spectrum, they have impoverished not killed millions. Instead should they not be called the ‘banality of lesser evils’?

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