I do not know if Leonard Cohen ever read Hannah Arendt’s 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

But it is hard to imagine that Cohen’s 1964 poem based on Adolph Eichmann was not influenced by Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil.” Cohen wrote:

“All There is to Know About Adolph Eichmann”
Leonard Cohen, from Flowers for Hitler (1964)

EYES:……………………………………Medium
HAIR:……………………………………Medium
WEIGHT:………………………………  Medium
HEIGHT:………………………………  Medium

DISTINGUISHING FEATURES………   None
NUMBER OF FINGERS:……………… Ten
NUMBER OF TOES…………………… Ten
INTELLIGENCE…………………………Medium

What did you expect?

Talons?

Oversize incisors?

Green saliva?

Madness?

Cohen’s point is clear. For all the barbarity of his behaviour, Adolf Eichmann was an ordinary person. Had we known nothing about the dark side of his actions, most of us would probably have considered Eichmann a good neighbour and a fine upstanding member of the community.

Jesus made the same point when he said,

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire…. ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:21,22,27,28)

In a more graphic way, Jesus illustrated the point in John chapter 8 when, confronting the Scribes and Pharisees who were advocating stoning for a woman caught in adultery, he said,

‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ (John 8:7)

There is an Adolf Eichmann in all of us. There is a selfishness and meanness that reside in all our lives that is only removed from Eichmann by a measure of degrees.

None of us knows what evil choices we might be capable of until we face circumstances similar to those that gave rise to the Nazis in the early 1930s.

This is not to excuse Eichmann’s behaviour. We are responsible for our choices no matter how difficult our circumstances. It is rather to acknowledge our own culpability in all the evils that beset the world we inhabit. None of us can claim complete innocence in the world of injustice and violence we all inhabit. For every finger of blame I point, three point back at me.

In the new documentary on Hannah Arendt’s life, “Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt”, a voice-over reads words from Arendt’s  essay “Organized Guilt And Universal Responsibility” in which she wrote,

For many years we have met Germans who claim they are ashamed of being Germans. I have often felt tempted to add that I am ashamed of being human, that all nations share the onus of evil committed by all others.

The shear ordinariness of Eichmann calls us to deep self-awareness, honesty and humility. There is no place for the hypocritical judgmentalism that sees evil only in the other. Until we have lived inside another person’s life, we have no idea what forces have conspired to produce the behaviour they have chosen.

The choices of an Eichmann are not amenable to easy explanation. We all make unhealthy choices at times. To the degree that we make unconscious violent choices, we move closer to behaviour that leads to death. Eichmann and the whole horror of Nazism stand as a constant reminder of how important it is for us, in the small daily decisions of our lives, to make choices that lead to life in order that we may continue moving towards the light.

Advertisements