Once upon a time there was a thoroughly mediocre man. He was incapable of
finishing secondary or vocational school. By age 22, he found some small success
as a salesman. He lived with his parents when not on the road making sales
calls. Eventually he lost interest in the job, his performance dropped, and he
On the advice of his father's friend, he joined a political party. He didn't join out of any sense of conviction. He didn't even know the party's platform. He just wanted the sense of being part of something -- of belonging. When the party came into power he saw it as his best chance at some sort of success.
By his own admission he did best when he was told what to do. Projects he initiated failed. He did not have the capacity to think about what he was doing with any depth. His inability to speak coherently reflected his inability to think. He would obliviously string together contradictory ideas within a single statement. He was literally a thoughtless man.
He worked primarily in transportation planning. In time he became adept at moving people from one place to another in the most efficient manner. To him the destination was irrelevant. Initially he was working on the forced emigration of Jews out of Germany. But within a few years, on orders from his superiors, the process was adjusted to transport Jews to death camps. And that is how Adolf Eichmann became The Man In the Glass Booth on trial for his life in Jerusalem in April 1961.
Political theorist Hannah Arendt traveled to Israel and covered the trial in a series of articles for The New Yorker magazine which evolved into her book Eichmann in Jerusalem published in 1963.
She originated the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe the phenomenon of Eichmann. She raised the idea that evil is a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to conform to mass opinion and obey authority without thinking about the consequences of their actions. The world wanted a monster. And she gave them one. But not the monster they wanted. And for that she and her book have been vilified for over 50 years.
The monster Arendt saw on trial in the glass booth
was not a rare species of human. The horror of what Arendt discovered was that
the world might be filled with Eichmanns. And social psychology
experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961
proved it was the non-Eichmanns of this world who are in the
The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures measured the willingness of subjects to obey instructions to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. The 40 men who participated in the Milgram experiment were from 20 to 50 years old, with differing educational and professional backgrounds.
The experimenter outlined the procedure. The participant was the "teacher" who delivered an electric shock to the "learner" who was in a different room, each time an incorrect answer was given.
Before starting the experiment, the "learner" informed the experimenter and the "teacher" that he had a heart condition. The experimenter assured the "learner" the shocks might be painful but were not dangerous. The participant believed that he was delivering real shocks to the "learner" but the "learner" was actually a confederate in the experiment and pretended to be shocked.
As the experiment progressed, the participant would hear the learner pleading to stop, complaining about his heart. At the 300-volt level the "learner" banged on the wall and begged to be released. Beyond this point, the "learner" became completely silent and didn't answer further questions. The experimenter instructed the participant to treat this silence as an incorrect response and deliver another shock.
If the "teacher" balked, the experimenter issued these statements: