What can we learn today from Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963)?

Most people would agree that human rights today have become a “lingua franca of moral and political claim making” (Ingram, James D. (2008) ‘What is a ‘Right to Have Rights? Three Images of the Politics of Human Rights’ in American Political Science Review 102(4): 401-16). This, however, is certainly no guarantee that each and everyone’s rights are protected and respected. Too many examples have made this clear. It’s fair to say that human rights have fallen victim to their very success, that interventions in the name of universal human rights not seldom make things worse, and that living conditions of vulnerable groups are unacceptable in light of international human rights law. An obvious example of the latter is undocumented migrant children in Europe lacking access to basic human rights.

I assume that Hannah Arendt, who’s books I’m working with at the time of writing, would agree that there is a need in our time for a broader understanding of the basis of “universal human rights”. This is strongly suggested by her ambition to frame human rights philosophically and manifest them politically.

In the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) Arendt approaches human rights by giving a close account of the trial against the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem after the Second World War. Not so interested in whether Eichmann was a cog in the larger machinery or whether he was the engine behind, Arendt seeks an understanding of how serious violations of human rights can come about.

Eichmann, the book’s main character, completely lacked the ability to think himself into other people’s situation and position. He is described as an unimaginative bureaucrat without his own ideas and initiatives other than climbing the career.

In here analysis Arendt claims that Eichmann didn’t have a radically evil core or motivation that fuelled his monstrous actions, but a banal evil that was perpetrated by his thoughtlessness. The second part of the title “banality of evil” refers to Eichmann’s claims that he bore no responsibility because he was simply doing his duty; “he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law” (p 135). During the trial Eichmann maintained that he was never anti-Semitic nor willed the murder of human beings. His guilt came from obedience praised as a virtue under Nazism.

I think two main points in the book are valuable when exploring contemporary migration control mechanisms. Both have to do with bureaucracy as a way of organising governmental power. The first point is the following: When the space for individuals operating in complex bureaucracies to reflect upon their tasks is curtailed, it has an impact on their way of exercising power. Worst case, structures where room for reflection is limited facilitates and cause thoughtless use of power.

Although it is tempting to see Eichmann as a monster, it wasn’t the case says Arendt. In several parts of the book his anxiety for Nazi atrocities is described. As an individual bureaucrat Eichmann wasn’t demonic, but he was thoughtless. As most ordinary people operating in complex bureaucratic systems, Eichmann developed a tendency to obey orders without thinking more closely about the results of his actions. Perhaps most people, in a system with certain characteristics, can come to a point where they undertake terrible acts.

What, then, are these organisational characteristics? Here comes the second main point made by Arendt in the book, namely that complex bureaucratic systems through a division of tasks tend to diffuse responsibility. An organisation can actually insulate those acting within it from critical self-reflection with the inevitable consequence that intellectual processes through which bureaucrats achieve moral authority are degenerated.

With the division of tasks, combined with constant reference so “someone else’s orders”, it is very difficult to hold individuals responsible for the consequences of the organisation’s activities. In the Nazi system for example, giving the order to transport Jews to a camp where they would certainly be killed, was separated from arresting individual Jews or them away from their home. The scope of the organisation’s implications was veiled in obscurity to the subjects operating in it and thus it was almost impossible to ask someone accountable for the consequences of their actions.

To conclude, Arendt’s sustained analysis of the Nazi system in Eichmann in Jerusalem gives important insights as regards which consequences complex bureaucracies can have for bureaucrats’ domination over individuals.

The foundations of human rights


The focus of this blog is the living conditions of un-documented migrants in Sweden, UK and the world. Posts here will be about the situation of undocumented persons in the contemporary world, and our research activities in this field. Theoretically, our research draws on philosopher Hannah Arendt’s observation that rights can be realised only in a political community where humans are not judged by the characteristics defined to them at birth but through actions and opinions. In the book The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt recognizes the importance of being part of a community to get access to human rights. Perhaps her most famous quote is the following:

“We became aware of the existence of a right to have rights and a right to belong to some kind of organized community, only when millions of people emerge who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation.”

The above observation, formulated in the aftermath of the World War II, entail that the modern conception of human rights is too weak to provide for real protection of all human beings (which is the basic idea). This is particularly evident in relation to the living conditions of migrants without a residence permit in the contemporary world. Having nothing left but an appeal to their rights as human beings, stateless people, in the nineteen-fifties as well as today, are barely recognizable as humans. As a consequence of this, Arendt stressed, we become aware of the link between being a member of a political community and being able to claim protection of rights. Hence, one fundamental human right is the most important, namely the right to have rights, i.e. the right to be part of a community beyond the nation state.

As I understand her, one aim of Arendt was to help establish philosophically and securing politically human rights. She wants to give us an idea of the foundations of human rights without reference to god, the rationality of nature, history or the self-evidence of reason. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt states that man has become as emancipated from nature as eighteenth-century man was from history, and “…the essence of man can no longer be comprehended in terms of either category.” If nor god, history or nature constitutes the foundation of human rights humanity itself must guarantee the right to have rights, i.e. the right of every individual to belong to humanity. This is an inescapable fact but, says Arendt, it is by no means certain whether it is possible.

I am not convinced that Arendt succeeds in the ambition to frame a non-arbitrary foundation of human rights but she does have a point stating that one step in this direction is to recognize the idea of common responsibility:

“The idea of humanity … has the very serious consequence that in one form or another men must assume responsibility for all crimes committed by all men, and that eventually all nations will be forced to answer for the evil committed by all others.”

Anna Lundberg



From Oxford to Malmö

Today we came back to Malmö after a two day conference in Oxford, where we presented our two draft articles: “The emergence of human rights for undocumented migrants in the city of Malmö”, and “The No-border musical as a spece of inclusion and a spece of resistance”. Also made great contacts with Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Nando Sigona. Hope for more cooperation in our field of research.