The Ph.D. Program in History

at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

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03-12 Richard Wolin on ‘The Banality of Evil’ the Death of a Legend


‘The Banality of Evil’ the Death of a Legend
March 12, 2014
6:00 pm
The Graduate Center
C 203-204-205


Free and Open to the public (with limited seating available)
Post-talk commentator: Jeffrey Herf of the University of Maryland 
Co-Sponsored by the Committee on Social and Political Thought, the Ph.D. Program in History and the Center for Jewish Studies


Few claims about the Holocaust have been more tenacious – and more controversial – than Hannah Arendt’s contention in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Nazi executioners, rather than being “evil,” were somehow “banal.” By making this argument, Arendt sought to highlight the role played by non-ideological “desk-murderers” in so-called “administrative mass murder.” However, in light of evidence that has recently come to light – above all, Eichmann’s long-hidden “Argentine Dossier” – serious doubts have been raised about Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann as a robotic functionary who, when all is said and done, was motivated by bureaucratic loyalty rather than anti-Semitism.

These new findings raise important questions that bear on the future of Holocaust interpretation as well as genocide studies in general. If the “banality of evil” thesis is inapplicable to Eichmann, to whom or to what groups might it then apply? How might one begin to account for the widespread cultural and intellectual appeal that this concept has exerted since Arendt first coined it in the early 1960s?

Richard Wolin is Distinguished Professor of History, Political Science and Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. Among his books, which have been translated into ten languages, are: Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse, The Seduction of Unreason: the Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism, and The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution and the Legacy of the 1960s, which was recently listed by the Financial Times as one of the best books of 2012. He frequently writes on intellectual and political topics for the New Republic, the Nation, and Dissent.
Jeffrey Herf studies the intersection of ideas and politics in modern European history, specializing in twentieth century Germany. He has published extensively on Germany during the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and on West and East Germany during the Cold War. Notably, he is the author of  Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Sybil Halpern Milton prize and Washington Institute for Near East Policy Bronze Book Prize) and  The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust (2006 National Jewish Book Award). 
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