209. Radical and Banal Evil in Hannah Arendt, Part 1

The German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975; see here for an overview of her work) offered two groundbreaking and closely connected theories of evil, the banality of evil in her Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) and radical evil in her The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), that help us rethink many common conceptions of not only evil but the nature of humanity. In this post I will give a brief overview of radical evil; in the next post I will present the banality of evil. By the end of the two posts we will see that the two forms evil are connected since the banality of evil presupposes radical evil.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (second edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968) Arendt claims the Nazi leaders believed they were omnipotent and that, as a result, they believed “everything is possible.” God, it is often said, is omnipotent; and therefore in God all things are possible. Of course, God is traditionally understood to be a power that creates, continually sustains, and cares about a plurality of beings. The Nazis, however, were seeking to establish a totalitarian state that would negate the plurality of humans. Arendt tells us that “Total domination, which strives to organize the infinite plurality and differentiations of human beings as if all of humanity were just one individual is possible only if each and every person can be reduced to a never-changing identity of reactions, so that each of these bundles of reaction can be exchanged at random for any other” (438). And it is here we begin to approach Arendt’s first troubling discovery of a new form of evil she calls “radical evil.” 

Immanuel Kant maintained that spontaneity is the most fundamental characteristic of human beings. Without such spontaneity we would have neither freedom nor reason. But he never considered the possibility that such free spontaneity could be eliminated. However, Arendt used the term “radical evil” to denote a new form of evil which seeks to destroy spontaneity and thus to make human beings as human beings superfluous. She writes: “For to destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something that cannot be explained on the basis of reactions to environment and events” (455). Jerome Kohn, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center at the New School University (see here for the Center), elaborates in his essay “Evil: The Crime against Humanity” (read the whole essay here):

“Both Hitler and Stalin discovered in the camps the means to realize their belief in total power, a belief that meant not only that “everything is permitted” but implied the far more radical proposition that “everything is possible.” The camps were designed as “laboratories” in which “experiments” were conducted to test that proposition, and what those experiments demonstrated was that “the omnipotence of man” is bought at the price “of the superfluity of men”…In the camps all men were remade into one man, all human beings into one utterly predictable “living corpse,” a body permanently in “the process of dying.” Human beings were reduced “to the lowest common denominator of organic life,”…rendered “equal” in the sense of being interchangeable which, it should be noted, is exactly the opposite of political equality. Arendt understood political equality as the equality of peers, the achievement of a plurality of distinct individuals who join together in freedom to generate power and take responsibility for their common world. Human existence, according to Arendt, is in part conditioned and in part free, but the terror induced in the concentration camps corrodes from within the part that is free.”

According to Arendt this desire to make humanity superfluous makes the radical evil of totalitarianism a new form of evil that cannot be explained in accordance with any hitherto identifiable human motives such as resentment, selfishness, greed, desire for power, malice, defiance of the good, and so on. These motives can, of course, have terrible effects. But they are nonetheless human motives in relation to other humanly comprehensible values, fears, and insecurities. But radical evil is radically different in its agenda to remove humanity as such which, it should be stressed, applies to all individuals in the totalitarian state since the omnipotence of such a state is incompatible with the autonomy of its members. Arendt points out that perfectly normal men were trained in the SS to lose their humanity along with the Jews they dehumanized. And Hitler himself was subordinate to the necessity of history. In his book Escape from Freedom (see chapter 6, “Psychology of Nazism”), Eric Fromm notes that this complete denial of autonomy is the masochistic side of totalitarianism’s sadistic drive for total power over others:

“So far we have spoken of the sadistic side in Hitler’s ideology. However, as we have seen in the discussion of the authoritarian character, there is the masochistic side as well as the sadistic one. There is the wish to submit to an overwhelmingly strong power, to annihilate the self, besides the wish to have power over helpless beings. This masochistic side of the Nazi ideology and practice is most obvious with respect to the masses. They are told again and again: the individual is nothing and does not count. The individual should accept this personal insignificance, dissolve himself in a higher power, and then feel proud in participating in the strength and glory of this higher power. Hitler expresses this idea clearly in his definition of idealism: “Idealism alone leads men to voluntary acknowledgment of the privilege of force and strength and thus makes them become a dust particle of that order which forms and shapes the entire universe.” Sacrificing the individual and reducing it to a bit of dust, to an atom, implies, according to Hitler, the renunciation of the right to assert one’s individual opinion, interests, and happiness….This whole preaching of self-sacrifice has an obvious purpose: The masses have to resign themselves and submit if the wish for power on the side of the leader and the “elite” is to be realized. But this masochistic longing is also to be found in Hitler himself. For him the superior power to which he submits is God, Fate, Necessity, History, Nature. Actually all these terms have about the same meaning to him, that of symbols of an overwhelmingly strong power. He starts his autobiography with the remark that to him it was a “good fortune that Fate designated Braunau on the Inn as the place of my birth”. He then goes on to say that the whole German people must be united in one state because only then, when this state would be too small for them all, necessity would give them “the moral right to acquire soil and territory.””

When we inquire into the nature of evil we tend to find much that is thought defying. This is certainly the case here. But it turns out that radical evil does have a three-fold method that allows us to understand how it works to some extent. Kohn provides a helpful summary of this method for the removal of humanity which I have enumerated as follows:

(1) “The “first, essential step” is the destruction of juridical or political man by disfranchisement;

(2) secondly, the moral person is destroyed by rendering his or her conscience impotent;

(3) and thirdly, the “unique identity” of the individual is obliterated by annihilating the human capacity for spontaneity in thought and action.”

He goes on to elaborate on these stages:

“Disfranchisement means the elimination of every legal status, including even that of the criminal. Human beings are subjected to torment not only unfit for any conceivable crime but also unrelated to anything they have done; they are punished for having been born a Jew, for being the representative of a dying class, for being “asocial,” or mentally ill, or the carrier of a disease. New categories would be invented when old categories became exhausted, or victims would have to be selected at random, as in fact they finally were in Stalin’s “more perfect” system. The arbitrariness of the choice of victims aims at destroying “the civil rights of the whole population,” and such destruction is by no means a matter of brainwashing since it is not “consent” that is wanted but only absolute “discipline.” In the camps every legal right and political institution that for centuries had been wrought to stabilize the world and clear a space for human freedom, including the expression and debate of diverse opinions, is swept away as if it had never existed. In this sense the destruction of juridical or political man “is a prerequisite for dominating him entirely.” Next, the ability to make a conscientious choice is negated. Prisoners are made to choose not between good and evil but between evil and evil. When a mother is forced to choose one of her children to be murdered in order to save the life (or postpone the death) of another, she is implicated in the crime committed against her. Martyrdom was not possible since the camps were what Arendt called “holes of oblivion,” places completely cut off from the outside world in which a martyr’s story might be told, remembered, and become an example for others. The dead are immediately forgotten “as if they had never existed,” their deaths as superfluous as their lives had been. 

Emaciated prisoners at one of the largest Nazi concentration camps at Evensee Austria, May 7, 1945.

Finally, the concentration of human beings, massing them together and binding them in terror’s “band of iron,” destroys every relation to and distinction from one another, obliterating not only their individual place in the world but their individuality itself. They are submitted to torture, not to learn what they know but to so hurt them that they became bundles of insensate flesh. Far from being able to act spontaneously, to begin anything new by acting or thinking, they walk “‘like dummies to their death’.” 

Fritz Klein, the camp doctor, standing in a mass grave at Bergen-Belsen after the camp’s liberation by the British 11th Armoured Division, April 1945 (Wikipedia)

Richard J. Bernstein, in his book Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation (Polity, 2002), provides a helpful summary of Arendt’s vision of radical evil: 

(1) “There is the dominant theme that radical evil “has to do with the following phenomenon: making human beings as human beings superfluous.” This is closely related to the next two themes.

(2) The elimination of human unpredictability and spontaneity. This, in turn, is connected to what she later called natality, as well as to human freedom.

(3) The idea that the delusion of omnipotence (which is not to be confused with the lust for power) of an individual man is incompatible with the existence of men in the plural. This is intimately related to her claim in The Human Condition that “plurality is specifically the condition – not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quem – of all political life.”

(4) Traditional moral prohibitions, as represented in the Ten Commandments, are no longer adequate to characterize modern crimes.

(5) The most evil deeds that human beings perform do not arise from the vice of selfishness. And more generally, “radical evil has nothing to do with such humanly understandable, sinful motives.”” (208; also see his whole chapter on Arendt, pp. 203-224)

This account of the radical evil of totalitarianism was later supplemented by Arendt’s further discovery of what she referred to as the banality of evil. I discuss this form of evil in part two here.

3 replies on “209. Radical and Banal Evil in Hannah Arendt, Part 1”

  1. Greg Jackson on

    Thought provoking. One cannot dispute the horror of Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union under Stalin. The single minded approach to dehumanize. But the notion to dehumanize I think points to the discomfort I have with the use of “evil” as an analytical term to understand what transpired under these totalitarian regimes.

    If one is to dehumanize the assumption is one must first be human. Which here goes without saying is true for all actors-both the victims but also the victimizers. If we attribute the acts of humans to the realm of evil, it seems to me we take the very human component of the horror of theses events out of the equation. That is to say neither Hitler nor Stalin and their accomplices were from Mars. Quite the contrary they were far too human (to borrow a phrase from Neitzsche). And in that I think the true horror of totalitarianism emerges. Humans acting far too human.

    If morality is in the traditional sense a march forward through time from the Ten Commendements towards the present as was suggested in the work of Richard J. Bernstein, what then of humanities early manifestations in the development of moral codes that themselves were a march from hominid development towards the first civilizations and moral codes that preceded the achievement of civilization itself? My concern with the world evil as a moniker to explain our far too human impulses to violence upon our fellow man- albeit through the anahilation of their political existence or the horrow of the death camp- where is human accountability?

    Where does it leave us in accessing despots such as Assad in Syria or Duerete in the Phillipines? Or any other region of the globe where crimes against humanity are increasingly poping up. From ethnic clensing in Tigray and Ethiopia to the indifference of strongmen such, Pres. Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil, towards COVID that has led to more than 600k deaths?

    When does the term evil appropriately apply- where is the threshold and who decides?

    Great stuff. Thought proviking. Thanks for posting.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Thanks for your interesting comments Greg. I, too, have reservations about using the word evil and think it is often used irresponsibly. But I think Arendt’s account of radical evil is justified in using the word insofar as she has put her finger on something so extreme. Now, you think her use of the word is problematic for “If we attribute the acts of humans to the realm of evil, it seems to me we take the very human component of the horror of theses events out of the equation.” This is a good point and, for me, gets to the heart of a tension in her work (and many other theories of evil) between the loss of humanity and personal accountability. But I think her theory is able to keep both the threat to humanity and actual humans in the picture for the most part. As you yourself note, dehumanization, both for the perpetrators and victims, presupposes humans to dehumanize. So the human component remains in place as the condition for the possibility of radical evil. Of course, it is true that the theory claims the victims of radical evil can be made superfluous and have their spontaneity negated. Indeed, this is precisely what makes the theory so horrific and different from other forms of immoral action. So there must be a threat to humanity if the theory is going to work. But this doesn’t mean the threat will always succeed or that everyone in a totalitarian regime will completely lose their humanity. Here we should note: (1) those few radically evil people who sought to be omnipotent in the Third Reich remained quite human indeed! They obviously couldn’t succeed insofar as they were finite beings. Moreover, if they didn’t retain their spontaneity and freedom then they couldn’t be held accountable for their actions as many of them were at the Nuremberg trials. (2) Remember that Arendt adds to this account of radical evil another version of evil, the banality of evil, which shows how, in the context of a pervasive radically evil agenda, thoughtless people are led to follow orders and commit atrocities without having the motives of those few who dream to be God. In fact, they don’t have any evil motives at all and this is what makes the banality of evil so paradoxical (I go over this form of evil in part two of this blog series). These thoughtless people, however, are not stupid or lacking in free will and can be held accountable for their decision to not think. Indeed, Arendt supported hanging Eichmann for his banality. So in both (1) and (2) we see her pointing to human capacities of many perpetrators being compromised but not negated. And in the camps, too, we find human capacities in many cases being compromised but not completely negated. Thus if we distinguish between the agenda of radical evil and the limits of its actualization I think we can leave plenty of room for the human, all too human dimension you want to maintain. This is not to say that her views don’t leave us with a tension between losing and retaining free will/moral accountability – I think they do. But I suppose this is to be expected in a theory that puts radical dehumanization at its center. Just note that this dehumanization is never a function of evil forces or something beyond humans: it is a function of what humans can do to themselves and each other. Nor is it a function of the common motives for immoral action like resentment, selfishness, greed, desire for power, malice, and defiance. Once we see this then perhaps we can begin to address your question about legitimately applying the term evil. In each case we might look for motives and, if we see that actions are flowing from the above list (greed, resentment, and so on) then we wouldn’t have radical evil and the banality of evil that it makes possible. Perhaps we could still use the term ‘evil’ to denote another form that is less radical but still causes extreme suffering. Or we might just call the action bad, immoral, unjust, vicious, and so on. In any case, when and where to use the term ‘evil’ can be perplexing. I think it can be less so if we have a variety of forms of evil (we don’t seem to be required to reduce the concept down to one thing) that help us track different types of evil actions, people, and motives. I address some of these other forms in my other posts on evil which you might find helpful. You can see most of them here: https://philosophicaleggs.com/?s=evil

  2. Katherine Sherpa on


    I read the above article this evening. The accompanying photograph of the two men sitting “together” (eons apart) showed precisely the behaviors described by Fiona Hill. It was such a banal picture, and that phrase came to mind: “the banality of evil”. I remembered that it was Hannah Arendt who had used that description, so I googled it — and found your excellent essay. If ever her words held truth, it is now, in the worlds of pukin and drumpf.

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