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  • The Banality of Death in Eichmann in Jerusalem
  • Jennifer L. Culbert (bio)

At the end of her famous account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt imagines what the judges of the High Court might have said to the defendant if only they had dared to acknowledge that intent to do wrong is not necessary for the commission of a crime. On the grounds of the long-forgotten proposition that “a wronged collective owes a duty to the moral order to punish the criminal,” Arendt has the judges say to Eichmann:

[J]ust as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.[1]

According to Arendt, Eichmann need not have intended to do anything wrong when he carried out his orders to implement the Final Solution. Eichmann deserved to die, Arendt argues, because he put into practice a policy that repudiates an essential fact of human life, the fact that “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.”[2] According to Arendt, only in the presence of others do individual human beings appear and act as such. That is to say, only in the presence of others do individual human beings exist not merely as animate things but as people. For threatening this condition of human existence, Arendt condemns Eichmann to death.

At first glance, Arendt’s argument in favor of Eichmann’s execution appears seriously flawed. Arendt condemns Eichmann to death for failing to respect human plurality but in arguing that Eichmann must hang for this offense Arendt herself exercises the very “right” that she denies Eichmann and his superiors: the right to determine who should and who should not live in the world. In this short essay, I explain how Arendt can condemn Eichmann and condone his execution without undermining the integrity of her account of the human condition. The goal of this essay is not, however, to rescue Arendt from any inconsistencies in her thinking in either The Human Condition or Eichmann in Jerusalem. Rather, I hope to clarify what is at stake in Arendt’s somewhat limited discussions of punishment. My hope in so doing is to highlight certain, perhaps less familiar, aspects of Arendt’s thinking about questions of law, obligation, judgment, and the grounds of human solidarity in the modern world. I conclude the essay by posing some questions about these aspects of her thinking for future consideration.


Arendt says that Eichmann must die because he participated in a policy that threatens the very condition of human plurality. As I have already suggested, it seems that Arendt contradicts herself for condemning Eichmann on these grounds. In The Human Condition, Arendt argues that human beings realize themselves as such in the sphere where they appear to others.[3] According to Arendt, human beings are distinguished from other forms of life by the fact that they can act, in speech and deed, to bring new things or states of being into the world. For these acts to take place or become real, other human beings must acknowledge and remember them. To be deprived of this space and the presence of others is to be deprived of the condition that confers reality on the founding and preservation of something new. In other words, to be deprived of this space and the presence of others is to be deprived of the condition that permits human beings to be distinctly human. Arendt argues that the Nazis implemented a policy dedicated to eliminating forever certain “races” from this space.[4] Thus, the Nazis threatened the possibility condition of humanity as such. Eichmann must die because he supported and carried out this policy and that is why he must die. However, in condemning Eichmann for his participation, Arendt appears to...

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