Penn State: the Banality of Collaborative Evil


When the Israeli government captured Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann, journalist Hannah Arendt was struck by the fact that Eichmann appeared to be a nondescript accountant type. He was not highly intelligent, and he did not appear to be particularly vicious. This led Arendt to the conclusion that anyone could, under the right ideological circumstances, become evil. Evil, she said, was banal.

This was an exaggeration of the case. Eichmann was a willing executioner of Hitler's orders; he identified deeply with Hitler's anti-Semitism. He was not just a cog in the system, he was an active system-maker.

But there is truth to the notion that anyone, given the right amount of self-interest, can be sucked into collaborating with evil -- or at least looking the other way. Edmund Burke once stated that all that was necessary for the triumph of evil was for good men to do nothing. The Nazis believed ideologically in the murder of Jews, but the rest of the Western world, including the Roosevelt administration, were willing to sit idly, closing their gates to the refugees. A Holocaust is a worldwide affair.

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