Chaim Rumkowski, Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil
by Bob Schwartz
It [evil] possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface.
Citizens and respected leaders alike, in disgust and frustration, are heard comparing Trump policies and enablers to fascism and Nazis. This is treated by many, even those sympathetic to this disgust and frustration, as understandable but unhelpful and far too extreme.
In some ways, though, this is not entirely unhelpful. Theorize and moralize all we want, at some point we must look to concrete lessons from history for context and insight. Just because those examples seem so far outside an American context doesn’t mean that something can’t be learned.
During World War II, the Germans established Jewish councils, usually called Judenraete. These Jewish municipal administrations were required to ensure that Nazi orders and regulations were implemented. Jewish council members also sought to provide basic community services for ghettoized Jewish populations.
Forced to implement Nazi policy, the Jewish councils remain a controversial and delicate subject. Jewish council chairmen had to decide whether to comply or refuse to comply with German demands to, for example, list names of Jews for deportation. In Lvov, Joseph Parnes refused to hand over Jews for deportation to the Janowska forced-labor camp and was killed by the Nazis for his refusal. In Warsaw, rather than aid in the roundup of Jews, Jewish council chairman Adam Czerniakow committed suicide on July 22, 1942, the day deportations began.
Other Jewish council officials advocated compliance, believing that cooperation would ensure the survival of at least a portion of the population. In Lodz, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, who tried in vain to persuade the Nazis to reduce the number of Jewish deportees, urged ghetto residents to report for deportation as ordered. Rumkowski also adopted a policy of “rescue through labor,” believing that if the Germans could exploit Jewish labor, deportation might be averted….
On German orders Rumkowski delivered a speech on September 4, 1942 pleading with the Jews in the ghetto to give up children 10 years of age and younger, as well as the elderly over 65, so that others might survive. “Horrible, terrifying wailing among the assembled crowd” could be heard, reads the transcriber’s note to his parlance often referred to as: “Give Me Your Children”. Some commentators see this speech as exemplifying aspects of the Holocaust:
“A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They [the Germans] are asking us to give up the best we possess – the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I’ve lived and breathed with children. I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!”
— Chaim Rumkowski, September 4, 1942 
Born in Germany in 1906, philosopher Hannah Arendt gained much attention for her writings on totalitarianism and Jewish affairs after World War II. Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) addressed the rise of the totalitarian state out of the collapse of traditional nation-states. Following the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). She died in New York City in 1975….
Arendt completed her Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg in 1928, after writing her doctoral thesis on Saint Augustine under the direction of Karl Jaspers. The following year, she married Gunther Stern. With the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, Arendt soon found herself in trouble for gathering evidence of the regime’s anti-Semitism.
In 1933, Arendt fled her native Germany for the relative safety of Paris, France. There, she worked for Youth Aliyah, an organization that helped rescue Jewish children from Eastern Europe. In 1940, Arendt married her second husband, Heinrich Blücher. Their wedded bliss was short-lived, however: The pair was soon interned at a concentration camp in Gurs, France. After managing to escape, the couple made their way to the United States in 1941….
In 1961, Arendt covered the trial of infamous Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, held in Jerusalem, for The New Yorker magazine. Her writings on the trial were later published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), and she was criticized for some of the views she expressed in the work. Among these views, Arendt posited that Eichmann was more of an ambitious bureaucrat than a figure of extreme evil.
The Banality of Evil
Arendt’s coining of the term “banality of evil” and what some perceived to be her blaming the Jews for their own victimhood remain hotly controversial. Some think that seemingly characterizing the sort of evil perpetrated by Eichmann and other bureaucrats as banal and ordinary is dangerous and mistaken; if anything, they say, it should be forever described as radical and extraordinary.
Arendt on Eichmann:
What he [Eichmann] said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.
Arendt on the banality of evil:
It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.