What Does Justice Look Like for the “Banal” Adolf Eichmann?


Photo via Pikrepo

By Nola Boasberg

 (UBC Arts One, Dr. Brandon Konoval Seminar)


Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is nothing short of terrifying. The striking candor with which Arendt uses Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial to bring to light the horrors committed under the Third Reich is so irreconcilable with what we want to be true about the moral compass of mankind that it may be easier to pretend these events are all fiction, just an appalling thought experiment as to how far a society is able to go towards injustice and evil under the right circumstances. There exists an actual thought experiment from some 2300 years before, posited by the characters of Glaucon and Adeimantus within Plato’s Republic, that mirrors many of the same elements present within the Third Reich. For Plato, this situation is brought about as an absurd, abstract hypothetical used to signify an extreme situation for the purposes of proving the inherent value of justice, and, accordingly, injustice being its own punishment. Since the moral topography of the Third Reich is comparable to this absurd hypothetical, examining justice—or, more accurately, the consequences of injustice—within Nazi Germany is a chance to test Socrates’ argument against the facts laid out by Arendt. How does Arendt’s theory of “banality of evil” challenge both Plato’s and our own subsequent view on evil and injustice? This central question is what makes Eichmann in Jerusalem so philosophically groundbreaking, but the challenge of how to reconcile the existence of such evil is what defines it.

In an effort to disprove Thrasymachus’ claim that “a just man always gets less than an unjust one” (343d), Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Socrates construct a thought experiment that examines the internal benefits of a just life. Glaucon claims that society does not “praise justice itself, only the high reputations it leads to and the consequences of being thought to be just, such as the public offices, marriages, and other things” (363a). But, he cannot seem to find, whether in ancient writings or in his own logical deductions, proof of justice being in itself inherently better than injustice. Glaucon points to the myth of the Ancestor of Gyges to prove that it is only the threat of external consequences that prevents people from acting unjustly. The shepherd-turned-tyrant’s almost immediate succumbing to his vices as soon as he realizes that he is able to act unjustly without receiving any of the negative consequences those actions would normally merit (359d–360b) is almost the expected outcome of such a realization. (This example is notable also because it builds off of Thrasymachus’ earlier declaration that tyranny is “the most complete injustice” [344a], meaning that the Ancestor of Gyges is likewise held by Glaucon as the figure of radical injustice.) In fact, Glaucon claims that if not for the social pressures to stay just, and given the power that the shepherd acquired, we would all much rather do the opposite and act unjustly (360c–d). A situation in which justice is stripped of its material consequences—but, more pointedly, one where the just are seen to be unjust and the unjust just—is necessary to address the central argument of the Republic. In a refinement of Thrasymachus’ original challenge, Glaucon asks Socrates to prove why justice would still be worth pursuing if not only all of the worldly and external benefits of justice were now allocated to injustice, but also if the external punishments conventionally assigned to injustice were to become instead the price for justice (360e–361b).

It is exactly this seemingly absurd situation that happens within Nazi Germany:

the Führer’s words, his oral pronouncements, were the basic law of the land…. Practically speaking, however, orders to be disobeyed must be “manifestly unlawful” and unlawfulness must “fly like a black flag above [them] as a warning reading: ‘Prohibited’” —as the judgment pointed out. And in a criminal regime this “black flag” with its “warning sign” flies as “manifestly” above what normally is a lawful order—for instance not to kill innocent people just because they happen to be Jews—as it flies above a criminal order in normal circumstances.[1]


Under normal circumstances, a population’s moral code works towards being aligned with a genuine or true morality that is not simply at the command of a tyrant, and laws are made accordingly. (“True morality” here denotes a moral code that benefits all humanity, rather than any particular subset of powerful people.) In Nazi Germany, however, an inverse, popular morality under the sway of dictatorship opposed true morality, and the legal system followed suit. What Arendt claims took place was more than just using the branches of government to manipulate the legal system so that it was at odds with a true moral code: it was the manipulation of both the legal system and popular morality so that they aligned with one another. This was captured in Eichmann’s distortion of Kant’s categorical imperative, which he drew on to justify his actions morally, into the guiding principle of “act in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it.”[2]In other words, the original emphasizes acting in such a way that is morally true but also obeys the “golden rule,” a reflection of how conventional morality and laws are supposed to be aligned, but Eichmann had mangled it to fit the inverse moral code that ruled supreme over Nazi Germany and took Hitler’s words to be the law.

It might have been solely Eichmann who actively referenced Kant, but he represented not just the bureaucracy of the Nazi government, but almost the entire population of Nazi-controlled Europe in their adoption of this inverse morality. Hitler’s moral dominion was so overpowering that Arendt was only able to chronicle three instances of overt resistance: Denmark,[3]Bulgaria,[4]and Abba Kovner’s testimony on Anton Schmidt.[5]This was crucial: without near total participation in this “moral insanity,”[6]the massacre of millions of innocents would not have been possible. A version of this inverse morality was present even in the “innocents” referenced above. As for resistance within the internment camps, Holocaust survivor and Nightauthor Elie Wiesel in a piece for the December 1961 issue of Commentarymagazine recounts why it was also nowhere to be found: “it was neither out of love, nor out of pity, but from the conviction that humanity had come to such a pass of evil that no one could continue to live who wished to remain just.”[7]

If Glaucon’s argument is to be fully applied, then not only are just and unjust switched, but also the majority of people also only see the value of justice for the money, reputation, honor, and legacy it can bring when one is perceived to be just. It is because of this that when these benefits stem from something else, as they stemmed in Nazi Germany from injustice, the people will unthinkingly follow the distorted shadow of justice, the aforementioned worldly benefits, and not justice itself. These are not the philosopher-kings Plato’s Socrates envisions, they are the cave-dwelling masses, with Eichmann at the head of the herd.

Arendt details that Eichmann’s memory of events is oriented around how they influenced his own career, not the timeline of the Holocaust, and often will explain his lapses in memory because the events in question did not raise or lower his status in the eyes of his superiors. In other words, Arendt holds that his motivations were the search for the benefits of seeming just, and the closer he got to injustice (or the more raised his status), the more benefits were promised. This search was not without reward: his proximity to Hitler brought him an extraordinary “high standard of living in Budapest, where he could afford to stay at one of the best hotels, was driven around by a chauffeur in an amphibious car…went hunting and horseback riding, and enjoyed all sorts of previously unknown luxuries.”[8]

The benefits Eichmann desired were not just confined to physical opulence, however. His decision to join the Nazi party was a search for legacy: “from a humdrum of life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement.”[9]Glaucon describes the benefits of a just life as also including divine recognition (363b–d). Although there is no talk of the divine, the sense of metaphysical forces (conveyed by “History” with a capital H and “Movement” with a capital M) and the need for recognition or acknowledgement—or, at the very least, some power through which he could create a legacy—is prominent throughout the whole book. When the time comes for Eichmann to live a quiet, insignificant life in Argentina, he genuinely cannot: “he had written how tired he was of his anonymity.”[10]The overwhelming desire Arendt sees experienced by Eichmann for the apparent benefits that the just life can offer is exactly what brings him to find success with the actually unjust: again, it is the misconstrual of the value of justice being in its worldly benefits rather than the happiness and security the just life brings. It is for this reason that “every man believes that injustice is far more profitable to himself than justice” (360d), and even though he could not see that it was injustice he was profiting from, rather than what he believed to be justice, Eichmann was no exception.

Socrates maintains, however, that injustice being more profitable than justice is no more than a mistaken belief. As deceiving as these benefits may seem, his argument maintains that an unjust life is actually one of suffering and thus effectively its own punishment. The two are inextricable: Socrates’ theory of an unjust soul is a direct product of the soul’s degree of harmony, so that the more the parts of the soul are at war with one another, the lesser the degree of harmony, and the more suffering the man is exposed to (579d–580c). This is based on Socrates’ theory of the tripartite soul, whose natural and best state is one in which the reasoning part rules over the honor-loving part and the appetitive part (580e). Socrates defines a just person as one who “harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale–high, low, and middle” (443d), and an unjust one as having the opposite–“civil war between the three parts” (444b). When the parts of the soul are harmonized, each functions within its role and with moderation, and the resulting man is capable of reason and happiness and is truly free. When a state of civil war exists, the appetitive part rules supreme, and the resulting man is a slave to such appetites, specifically erotic love, and knows neither freedom nor happiness (575a). Of course, there are degrees to this descent from harmony to chaos, characterized by the figures of the philosopher-king, the oligarch, the timocrat, the democrat, and the tyrant,[11]with the philosopher-king as the most just and the tyrant as least. Suffering increases and access to true happiness decreases as the degree of injustice rises (579d–580c). Therefore, for Socrates, the degree of suffering must match the degree of injustice. For Eichmann, the degree of injustice is, without a doubt, the highest there is. So where is the accompanying suffering?

Socrates asserts that “to produce justice is to establish the parts of the soul in a natural relation of control, one by the other, while to produce injustice is to establish a relation of ruling and being ruled contrary to nature” (444d)—or, that just acts reflect a just soul and unjust acts reflect an unjust soul. Take Eichmann, who has produced so much injustice that quantifying it seems like a Sisyphean task, and examine his soul, which under Socrates’ argument must be a soul like that of the Ancestor of Gyges, the original tyrant, because the degree of injustice in his actions must match the most radical figure of injustice available. Such a soul is one where his appetitive part lives within him “in complete anarchy and lawlessness as his sole ruler, and drives him, as if he were a city, to dare anything that will provide sustenance for itself” (575a). In order for a man to suffer to the greatest extent under Socrates’ argument, as Eichmann’s crimes merit, his soul must be ruled by his appetites and his freedom trampled underfoot, which means that all his actions are fueled by the desire for instant gratification and satisfaction of said appetites.

In a departure from what would be expected according to Socrates, Eichmann identifies himself as an “idealist,” as “a man who livedfor his idea,”[12]a characterization few others would reach for. This “idealist” lifestyle which Eichmann claims to observe cannot be construed as the primal drive from appetite to appetite that Plato describes. It goes without saying that the morality behind his “idealism” is unjustifiable,[13]but the fact that he accounts for that being what drove him suggests that, in regards to the Platonic vision of his soul, his appetites are not fully enthroned. They are also by no means completely subdued, as his life in Budapest shows: in an apt reflection of Eichmann’s tendency to exaggerate the strength of his own personal principles, his “‘idealism’ broke down in this land of unheard-of abundance.”[14]Where does this leave him? His injustices bar him from being anything but the most unjust figure that Socrates describes, but his soul does not seem to fit the description of said tyrant, who, characterized by the Ancestor of Gyges, must endure extreme suffering.

In the myth of the Ancestor of Gyges, there exist the roles of the Ancestor—a tyrant and a shepherd—and those he is able to manipulate—the people and the sheep. If this analogy were expanded to the case of Eichmann, it is clear that he is neither the shepherd nor the sheep. He does not possess a fully tyrannical soul, so he cannot be the shepherd, but he also is literally in charge of herding from afar innocent Jews to be slaughtered, so he cannot simply be a sheep. His role is that of the sheepdog: he who acts as the shepherd’s aid in herding the sheep, but is still fiercely loyal to the shepherd. Hartouni cites The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, Volume IV: “Eichmann’s highest moral obligation, as he told the Court, was to upheld [sic] the oath of allegiance he had taken to the Führer…[which] he honored faithfully to the end, unlike many of his colleagues who lacked, as he said, ‘the courage of their convictions.’”[15]Eichmann obviously venerated Hitler, and Arendt herself documents him saying that Hitler’s “success [in rising in the ranks from lance corporal to Führer of 80 million] alone proved to me that I should subordinatemyself to this man.”[16]  There is a strong argument to be made for Eichmann’s testimony on this to have been motivated by the defense’s desire to forward the narrative that Eichmann was merely a cog in the machinery, a thoughtless follower (and therefore not culpable), but the fact remains that Eichmann wasHitler’s subordinate, and didfollow his orders.

The discussion on where within the shepherd and sheep analogy Eichmann falls closely parallels the argument at the core of the Eichmann case. As stated above, the defense wanted to prove that Eichmann was “only an instrument; and being merely an instrument, he was innocent.”[17]That is to say, he was a sheep who just happened to have some power over other sheep. As an “instrument,” the defense diminished the responsibility of Eichmann as an individual and instead argued that his presence did not make a difference in the overall implementation of the Final Solution. Dr. Servatius also stressed the importance of both intent to commit murder and physically committing murder, both of which Eichmann claims he never had: “with the killing of Jews I had nothing to do. I never killed a Jew, or a non-Jew, for that matter—I never killed a human being. I never gave an order to kill either a Jew or a non-Jew; I just didn’t do it.”[18]Eichmann pleads guilty only to “aiding and abetting”[19]the attempted genocide, with Dr. Servatius piling on and claiming “his virtue [of obedience] had been abused by the Nazi leaders.”[20]Arendt’s conviction that he possessed a great “inability to think[21]adds color to the developing portrait of a man, destined to “live a leaderless and difficult individual life”[22]until the Führer came along and offered him structure in exchange for orchestrating the murder of millions, which he was simply too obtuse to think critically about and resist.[23]

The prosecution, on the other hand, wanted to prove that Eichmann was the definition of satanic and radical evil. After all, how could one schedule the trains that sent millionsto their death notbe the definition of such evil? Eichmann may not have pulled the trigger, but in what world could he not be held accountable for his actions? They pointed to the instance in which he had deported 1,500 more Jews from Budapest against direct orders in July of 1944 as evidence of his clear hate-fueled agenda to exterminate,[24]and a refutation of the defense’s claim that anybody would have acted as Eichmann did. Arendt also adds merit to the prosecution’s argument by including the fact that Eichmann was, much to his own demise, unable to restrain himself from bragging about his work under Hitler to fellow Nazis in Argentina.[25]This portrait, in turn, is one of an individual so propelled by hatred that he does all within his power to slaughter European Jewry.

These two portraits are very different: one a sheep, one the embodiment of radical evil. As the term implies, “radical evil” refers to the furthest point on the spectrum of evil, an evil that engulfs and corrupts totally. The tyrant is Socrates’ representation of radical injustice, namely, the most extreme form injustice can take. These two questions—“to what extent is Eichmann a tyrannical shepherd” and “to what extent is Eichmann radically evil”—are parallel both in their query and in their answer. Both seemingly create a spectrum, where complete thoughtlessness and banality is placed on one end, and the other holds either the fullest form of injustice or evil, respectively.[26]However, both spectra offer a definite process towards justice if (and only if) Eichmann falls on either extreme. In reality, the “ends” of these spectra are two diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive doors, through which the justice system that has been constructed—whether it be the one in the Republicor the one in Israel—is accessible. Anything that does not fit through these doors has no clear path to justice under these systems.

However, Eichmann doesn’t fit into either door. The reality of Eichmann having committed a terrible injustice while also not fully being a tyrant is difficult to reconcile with Socrates’ theory that injustice brings with it inherent suffering. The response to Socrates’ question of “how, then, could [one who is unjust] fail to be wretched” (589e) is not Glaucon’s enthusiastic agreement, but that one can indeed fail to be wretched, and that one is Eichmann, on Arendt’s account. Not only had Arendt observed that “he merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing,[27]her observations included none of apparent internal suffering while Eichmann nonetheless holds the inverse morality as true. In fact, Eichmann only begins to feel twinges of guilt when he is forced out of the inverse moral topography of the Reich and back into a world where normal morality and justice are in force.[28]Socrates’ argument—that there is an inherent punishment in living an unjust life and, for that reason, we should all live just lives—appears to fall apart. This begs a new question: if the Nazis had not been defeated and the Reich not been dismantled, would the consequences detailed by Socrates of certain unhappiness and slavery of an unjust life have caught up with Eichmann? The alarming answer is, apparently, no.

These circumstances are those of inverse morality, as initially set out by Thrasymachus, and so cogently articulated by Glaucon. As long as the “black flags” remain where they are, Eichmann will always perceive his actions to be just and reap the external benefits that he seeks from them. In order for Eichmann and others indoctrinated into such an inverse morality to understand their lives as ones of injustice, and therefore face the internal punishment deserved, the revolting moral code that was implemented by the Nazi party and described by Glaucon must be shattered, and a return to normal life is needed. The implication of this is that situations like this, of absolute inverse morality, cannot be corrected internally and require an external force of true morality to shatter the evil one.

The other parallel, concerning Eichmann’s degree of radical evil, is also irreconcilable with our justice system as it is set up, that is, requiring that evil acts stem from evil minds. The Israeli Supreme Court “reconciles” this by finding Eichmann to have been “his own superior,” painting him as one who had full agency over his decisions to not just go along with but also to do his best to live in line with the spirit of the Führer’s laws. Thus, as Arendt puts it, the court “accepted the arguments of the prosecution.”[29]Arendt, in her own works and in letters to her contemporaries, namely Gershom Scholem and Karl Jaspers, insistson the banality of evil and resists ascribing to the Nazis “satanic greatness,”[30]which is not to say that she sides with the defense. Just as Eichmann was found to be neither the shepherd-tyrant nor the sheep, Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann put him in some sort of middle ground: he did not understand the severity of his actions, but that did not mean that he was devoid of all culpability. His actions meant something, something so terrible that it escapes proper articulation. Yet, an act of targeted hatred that massacred roughly two thirds of Europe’s Jews was carried out by someone who professed that “he ‘personally’ never had anything whatever against Jews.”[31]How does one go about resolving this paradox?

Socrates’ theory of injustice was that unjust actions must stem from unjust souls. The modern world’s theory of evil follows suit: evil acts must come from evil people. Our conception of justice places intent as a marker of the degree of evil or injustice within a person, weighing it equally, if not more heavily, than the result of the action itself. Eichmann’s case proves that one will never be able to understand nor prevent extreme acts of injustice and evil if they are viewed solely through this lens:

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that there were so many like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied…that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani, commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.[32]

These cases of extreme injustice and evil are not as removed from us as we would like to believe. To make Eichmann a monster is to refuse to address serious weaknesses in the human condition and not do all that is possible in preventing future unspeakable acts from occurring. From the time of Plato, we have considered one who is fully evil or fully unjust to be in possession of such a mangled and disfigured soul that we refuse to seriously entertain the possibility that evil actually looks like something much closer to what we perceive ourselves to be. This is why the overreach of Socrates’ argument is relevant: Ancient Greek philosophy is the bedrock for much of the modern Western world’s concepts of morality. This means that the logic applied to find the real-world limitations of Socrates’ argument is also applicable in finding the real-world limitations of our very own views towards criminal justice. Eichmann’s lack of a wholly unjust and evil soul (what Arendt coins as his “banality”) prove that evil and unjust actions of catastrophic magnitude are possible without being entirely possessed by evil and/or injustice, meaning that our very conceptionof justice is inadequate. This unprecedented criminal and his unprecedented crime leave us without a clear way to achieve justice in a case where justice has never been so badly needed.

After Eichmann’s verdict was announced, Elie Wiesel proclaimed that “simply to condemn Eichmann was not enough; not even, in fact, possible. The enormity, call it even the absurdity, of his acts, transcended his person and placed him outside of temporal justice.”[33]What, then, does justice look like? Without a clear vision, how may the arc of the moral universe bend towards it?


Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Group, 2006.

Bowring, Finn. Hannah Arendt: A Critical Introduction. London: Pluto Press, 2011. Accessed April 22, 2020. doi:10.2307/j.ctt183p31g.12.

Hartouni, Valerie. Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thoughtlessness. New York; London: NYU Press, 2012. Accessed April 22, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qfz8s.9.

Plato, Republic. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Revised by C.D.C Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1992.

Wiesel, Elie. “Eichmann’s Victims & the Unheard Testimony.” Commentary Magazine. Commentary, Inc., December 1961, published online November 16, 2015. Accessed April 22, 2020. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/elie-wiesel/eichmanns-victims-the-unheard-testimony/.

[1]Hannah Arendt,Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil(New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 148.

[2]Hans Frank,Die Technik des Staates(Munich, 1942), 15–16, quoted in Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 136.

[3]Ibid, 171–5.

[4]Ibid, 185–8.

[5]Ibid, 230–1.

[6]Ibid, 277.

[7]Elie Wiesel, “Eichmann’s Victims & the Unheard Testimony,” Commentary Magazine, Commentary, Inc., December 1961, published online November 16, 2015.

[8]Arendt, 197–8.

[9]Ibid, 33.

[10]Ibid, 242.

[11]Within the Republic, government and society are represented as large-scale projections of a man’s soul. When making his argument, Socrates first demonstrates how a society becomes unjust, and then describes how the same process happens within the man’s soul. In the case of these five figures, their names are not such because that is the political system under which they live, but rather because the degree of justice present in their souls corresponds with the degree of justice present in the respective political structure (544d–e).

[12]Arendt, 42. Italicization in original.

[13]There is a certain irony that rests in the fact that Eichmann’s ‘idealism’ was what drove him to commit gross acts of injustice, but it is this very ‘idealism’ that proves that he is not tyrannical and therefore not, by Socrates’ definition, unjust.

[14]Arendt, 197.

[15]State of Israel Ministry of Justice, The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, Volume IV(session 106), 1815, 1820, quoted in Valerie Hartouni, Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thoughtlessness(New York; London: NYU Press, 2012), 120.

[16]Arendt, 126 (emphasis added).

[17]Hartouni, 122.

[18]Arendt, 22.

[19]Ibid, 246.

[20]Ibid, 247.

[21]Ibid, 49. Italicization in original.

[22]Ibid, 32.

[23]The multiplicity of overlapping explanations as to the true reason(s) why Eichmann did what he did is further muddled by the overlapping motivations others had to ascribe certain explanations to his actions. For Dr. Servatius and Hausner, their motivations were obviously to win the case; for Arendt, proving her thesis; for Ben-Gurion, creating a narrative for the benefit of Israeli national identity; and for all theliterature following, disproving orsupporting Arendt. As Arendt is the primary source, I took the portrait she details, which is one where Eichmann’s thoughtlessness and stupidity were weighed heavily.

[24]Arendt, 201.

[25]Ibid, 237.

[26]The ends are not “good” versus “evil” and “justice” versus “injustice” but (because this takes place within the context of criminal proceedings) “evil/injustice” and “the absence of evil/injustice”. This mirrors the court’s two options of “guilty” versus “not guilty”, where the opposite of guilty is the absence of guilt. The structure of these spectra is just as in a court case, where one could posit the existence of a spectrum of guilt but instead a binary is presented, but with “guilt” being replaced by “evil” or “injustice”,respectively. The opposite end isthoughtlessness and sheep-like following because this is the argument provided by the defense for Eichmann’s lack of guilt.

[27]Arendt, 287. Italicization in original.

[28]Ibid, 242.

[29]Ibid, 249.

[30]Finn Bowring,Hannah Arendt: A Critical Introduction(London: Pluto Press, 2011), 225.

[31]Arendt, 26.

[32]Ibid, 276.