At the time of Milgram’s studies a trial was taking place in Jerusalem of
one of the Nazi leaders involved in the Holocaust. Adolf Eichmann had
been part of this project from the beginning, and in 1942 he was given
the job of transportation administrator, which put him in charge of all
the trains that carried Jews from around occupied Europe to a small
number of death camps in Poland. After the war, Eichmann ﬂed to
Argentina where he was captured in 1960, and a year later he was put
on trial in Israel. He was found guilty and hanged.
The question that Milgram asked, and that also became the centre of
Eichmann’s trial, concerned what sort of person could carry out such
evil actions. The analysis of the trial that interested Milgram was the
writing by Hannah Arendt, a well-known philosopher and writer who
reported on the trial for The New Yorker. In her reports, Arendt focused
on how ordinary Eichmann appeared to be. She had expected the
person who carried out monstrous acts to look and behave like a
monster, but the reality, as observed by her, was very far from this.
Eichmann came across as a bland, simple and passionless man – not a
monster at all but an ordinary, petty bureaucrat who claimed to have
been ‘doing his job’, which in his case involved killing hundreds of
thousands of people. This observation led Arendt (1963) to refer to the
‘banality of evil’. Evil acts, she argued, do not require people to be
intrinsically ‘evil’. All that is needed is for people to be prepared to
carry out orders, and obey authority. Interestingly, this was the essence
of Eichmann’s defence: he claimed that he was just following orders.
Figure 2.3 Adolf Eichmann: an evil man or an efﬁcient bureaucrat who was
merely ‘following orders’?
Since Arendt’s reports were published as a book, the notion of the
‘banality of evil’ has received some criticism, especially in relation to
Eichmann. It turned out that Arendt attended only the start of the trial,
and heard Eichmann and his defence team as they tried to convince the
court that he was merely following orders. If she had stayed to witness
more of the court case, she would have come to a very different
conclusion. As it turned out, Eichmann was not just following orders
but was an innovator in ways to transport people to their deaths more
efﬁciently. He had, at times, gone beyond his remit and continued with
the slaughter of Jews even after he was ordered by his superiors to stop.
He was also aware that other people considered his actions to be……..
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