One of the most notorious lines — and lies — that grew out of the trial of Adolf Eichmann for his important role in the Holocaust, was what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” meaning that even the most horrific people can appear insipid. Arendt was assigned to report on the 1961 trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, but according to contemporaries, she rarely attended the trial. She came to Jerusalem having made up her mind in advance that Eichmann in particular and other perpetrators of the evils of the Holocaust in general, were ordinary nondescript functionaries. She reported on the trial with an agenda. It was not necessary for her actually to observe and listen to Eichmann because to do so might undercut her thesis. So instead she wrote a mendacious screed in which she constructed a stick-figure caricature of one of the most significant perpetrators of the Holocaust.
I use the word mendacious deliberately, because it seems Arendt knew better. One of Hitler’s key supporters was Professor Martin Heidegger, perhaps the most influential philosopher of his day. Arendt was his student and lover. After the war, she tried desperately to rehabilitate him. He was anything but banal. Nor were Göring, Goebbels, Himmler, Hitler and the numerous doctors and lawyers who were tried at Nuremberg. Neither were the university students who began by burning Jewish books and ended by burning Jewish children. The perpetrators of the Holocaust — from those who organized it in Berlin to those who carried it out in the death camps and killing fields — included some of the most brilliant young men and women in Germany. Many left university to participate in the “final solution” and then returned to highly prestigious jobs in post-war Germany.