The Banality of Evil

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Hannah Arendt’s work, so it was a special treat to come across Adam Kirsch’s excellent article about her in this week’s New Yorker. Here is the opening paragraph:

In 1999, the Croatian novelist Slavenka Drakulić visited The Hague to observe the trials for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. Among the defendants was Goran Jelisić, a thirty-year-old Serb from Bosnia, who struck her as “a man you can trust.” With his “clear, serene face, lively eyes, and big reassuring grin,” he reminded Drakulić of one of her daughter’s friends. Many of the witnesses at The Hague shared this view of the defendant—even many Muslims, who told the court how Jelisić helped an old Muslim neighbor repair her windows after they were shattered by a bomb, or how he helped another Muslim friend escape Bosnia with his family. But the Bosnian Muslims who had known Jelisić seven years earlier, when he was a guard at the Luka prison camp, had different stories to tell. Over a period of eighteen days in 1992, they testified, Jelisić himself killed more than a hundred prisoners. As Drakulić writes, he chose his victims at random, by asking “a man to kneel down and place his head over a metal drainage grating. Then he would execute him with two bullets in the back of the head from his pistol, which was equipped with a silencer.” He liked to introduce himself with the words “Hitler was the first Adolf, I am the second.” He was sentenced to forty years in prison.

None of Drakulić’s experience in creating fictional characters could help her understand such a mind, which remained all the more unfathomable because of Jelisić’s apparent normality, even gentleness. “The more you realize that war criminals might be ordinary people, the more afraid you become,” she wrote. What Drakulić discovered, in other words, is what Hannah Arendt, at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem, some forty years earlier, called “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

The essay covers a lot of ground—including Arendt’s troubled, and troubling, relationship with Heidegger and how the experience contributed to her intellectual growth. You can read the entire piece online, here.

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