“The Banality of Evil”-Arendt

Hannah Arendt was a pretty smart lady. She was a historian, political scientist , philosopher and most importantly an influential writer on the topics of totalitarianism and absolutism.

Essentially, she took Amendola’s idea of totalitarianism and took it to the next step. Her best known theory is the idea of the “banality of evil” which implies that the reason dictatorships prevail is not in entirety due to an evil vanguard pf people, but the willingness of of ordinary folk to follow evil.

So what she was saying is that the reason Stalinism and Nazism became possible was due to the fact that normal folk followed the ideas of evil men, which in turn made their agency a possibility. How could someone like Hitler and Stalinist gain power if they did not, to an extent, have the acceptance of the people?

Absolutism is accepted by a society. Unfortunately, it wasn’t accepted only due to incessant powerful forces at the top of the political hierarchy, but also do to the acceptance of common people who were ordinary and probably not evil, but became evil. It would be redundant therefore to suggest that everyone in Nazi Germany was an evil Nazi, when In turn it would be more fair to understand that a majority of the population were swept up by evil ideology and molded by it.

Arend’t first work, On The Origins of Totalitarianism, is a rather interesting analysis and study of the process by which dictatorships establish within societies, and how they seem to arise successively among generally good people. Moreover, Arendt influences quite passionately on why the Holocaust became a reality, as evidence to the socio-political forces of the 20th century.

This, in essence, is the “banality of evil”. Evil’s ability to be successful among ordinary people, due to the rise of evil doctrines at the right time.

In my opinion, Hannah Arendt is one of the most important intellectuals which occupied themselves with the study of power dynamics, which seems to affect everything from human nature to society.

More Readings:

Origins of Totalitarianism: http://archive.org/details/originsoftotalit00arenBiography: http://www.egs.edu/library/hannah-arendt/biography/

Hannah Arendt



8 thoughts on ““The Banality of Evil”-Arendt

  1. Great post – I will have to read her work, I had not heard of her before.

    Perhaps as a societal coping mechanism, we tend to demonized leaders such as Stalin and Hitler to such a degree that they become unimaginable, their horrors become an aberration that fades into irrelevancy because we believe that it “could never happen to us”. Yet these dictators, evil though they undoubtedly were, could not have enacted any of their crimes without the support of millions of their citizens, people just like us who traded their freedom for security or bread or power, or who believed so strongly in an “end” that they disregarded the “means”, and turned a blind eye to the consequences.

    Keep up the great work, I really enjoy your posts.


  2. Sometimes I wonder what stance I might have taken if I’d lived in a society under Hitler or any dictator. As much as I’d like to believe I’d take the higher ideological road, I’m pretty sure in the end, my decisions would boil down to the welfare of my family. I wonder if perhaps many people also followed for that reason – their willingness to follow evil being motivated by fear for their own? Terrible decision to have to make…

    Interesting food for thought. Thanks.


    1. Exactly. Here is a perfect example.
      If you were asked to completely adhere to a particular ideology by joining a party, or be put in jail/camp or killed along with your family. What would you do?

      It is thus pernicious to say that most people in such systems were all evil. When in fact it was not so black and white. On the other hand, it is important to realize that a good deal of people also follow such ideology with their hearts.


  3. Often war is justified with the same reasoning. However, during the Nazi era do not forget the dissenters like Bonhoeffer, the underground resistance in France, most of Scandinavia, i.e. all in Denmark wore the Yellow Jewish Star in solidarity with the Jews, There are so many other who risked their lives to save others.
    Why were they so courageous in the face of danger?


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