The Path to Mass Evil. Reflections on Michael Hardiman’s study of Hannah Arendt and Totalitarianism Today

There are some books which one would wish were less timely and topical than they are. And this book on the Path to Mass Evil (Routledge, 2022) is one of the them. Reading it, the reader recognizes again and again that while Arendt is speaking mostly about Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, the analysis is applicable well beyond these instances. It is one of the singular strengths of this book that Michael Hardiman continuously directs our attention towards its contemporary relevance. To give you a flavour of this let me cite a passage from pp. 69-70:

Early in 2018 on the Southern border of the United States a political decision was made to implement a separation policy among refugees and migrant families arriving at the border. Consequently, a group of government employees left their homes, some probably kissed their spouses, and others may have prayed over their breakfast and/or tousled the hair of the children. Bidding farewell to their families as they went to work. At work they commenced separating hundreds of children from their families and took them forcefully to holding centres, where other government employees drove buses that transported them to internment camps set up for that purpose. On arrival there, other employees, social workers, ‘care’ workers and medics planned how to distribute these children into the ‘care’ of strangers …

In terms of the definition of evil as causing grave harm and suffering to the innocent, these were evil acts. In the context of Arendt’s thesis, the perpetrators are not, for the most part, evil people. In fact, most could accurately be described as ordinary decent folk. However, in the Arendtian schema, they fit the profile of banal evil doers.

To declare an interest right away, I should say that this book is the re-working of a PhD thesis, which I had the great pleasure of supervising. I feel a certain pride in it, having being there as it emerged – and having now and again helped it along the way.

First and foremost, this is a book about the work of Hannah Arendt. Arendt was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th Century – I mean that in both senses of the genitive: she lived through the C20th and she thought most profoundly about the C20th.People who know nothing else about Arendt, have heard of ‘the banality of evil’. Ironically, that concept has become itself banal in the manner in which is used and misused. But to understand it, you could hardly do better than to read Chapter 2 of this book, which clearly and thoroughly outlines the meaning and scope of the concept. And Michael states there and he repeats it in the concluding paragraphs of the book, that Arendt never said and never meant that evil, much less the evils of Stalin and Hitler and their acolytes, was banal. The fact that he has to state this so emphatically is testament to the manner in which Arendt has been misread so egregiously on this point.

Michael’s is a generous reading and by generous I don’t mean uncritical, but rather a reading which understands that if as a reader I think with a clever, glib couple of lines I can dismiss a key concept of a thinker such as Arendt, then the problem is with me as a reader not with Arendt as a thinker. What Arendt is seeking in her reader is wisdom and thoughtfulness and as we know the clever are rarely wise and the wise have no need for cleverness. Michael reads carefully, writes clearly and does so above all – as Arendt herself – out of a deep sense of commitment to, and indeed, a love of, the world.

What is, though, interesting and very fruitful in this book, is that while Arendt’s commitment stems from her concerns with politics, Michael’s commitment is first and foremost as a psychologist. He is concerned to understand and – the final chapter makes clear – respond to how it is that individual people become perpetrators of mass evildoing. The question which animates his work is the uncomfortable question as to how ‘decent’ people become cogs in the wheels of such evil. And this question is one which concerns the secretaries, the drivers, the engineers, the lawyers, the doctors and yes the academics, who may never fire a gun in anger, hit someone in the face, or throw a stone through a window, but who all are necessary participants in such things as the gulags and the holocaust, but also the immigration procedures in the US and elsewhere (in the UK we have a Home Secretary dreaming of seeing a photo of Rwandan-bound asylum seekers on the front page of the Daily Telegraph), the institutional agencies of harm that we have witnessed in our own society. The power of Arendt’s concept is that such banal evildoing does not need to be on the scale of the holocaust, but that she diagnoses the conditions that lead to evildoing – to the needless and unjust infliction of harm on others – in a concerted, socially endorsed manner.

Clear-sightedly, and unblinkingly, Arendt confronted the reality that we are faced here with evildoing for which both ordinary morality and moral philosophy can be powerless to oppose. Ordinary morality fails us, because it depends on social mores and when those mores prescribe that Jews or Class enemies or unmarried mothers are no longer worthy of our care and concern, then in good conscience we can condone or indeed participate in harming those groups of people. As regards moral philosophy, Eichmann managed to give a reasonable rendition of Kant’s categorical imperative at his trial in Jerusalem in the course of explaining how he recognized his guilt in trying to save a half-Jewish cousin (p. 30). In both cases, what she sees is thoughtlessness and the key to mass evildoing is in such thoughtlessness.

Again here, Michael responds to a standard kind of critique: Arendt was wrong, Eichmann was not a thoughtless functionary, he was committed Nazi, was intellectually very capable and arranged the murder of millions of Jews with determination and fully understanding the goals he was working towards. It is true that to some extent Arendt was taken in by Eichmann’s presentation of himself as a mere functionary rather than a primary organizer, but that is not the principal point. Because, by thoughtlessness she does not mean lack of intellect nor indeed a failure in problem solving, even in ‘thinking outside the box’. Indeed, in an interview on German television with Günter Gaus in 1964 (, Arendt speaks of her disillusionment in 1933 with philosophers (not named, but clearly Heidegger first of all) and intellectuals, whose job it is to come up with ideas and who could do so to support the rise of Hitler. They become trapped by their own ideas, she says. So great thinkers can – paradoxical though it sounds – be thoughtless, and ordinary ‘simple’ people can be capable of thought. Michael sets this out so clearly and thoroughly, I cannot do it justice here – but in the most basic sense, thinking is the relation of two in one, is my relation to myself and the courage to question those ideas, those commands, those roles which are given to me. This basic Socratic sense of thinking has nothing to do with cleverness, with brilliant planning or complex and fantastic ideas, but simply with the strength to take responsibility for oneself, one’s actions and one’s thoughts.

None of this is to have recourse to a facetious anti-intellectualism. Arendt is steeped in the Western philosophical and literary traditions and brings this to bear in all her writings. What is crucial for Arendt, however, is to confront such ideas, stories and figures of thought with the reality of the political world and to grasp both the possibilities and the dangers inherent in human action. What Michael demonstrates so well in this book is that the tendencies to banality coming out of a thoughtless conformity and obedience to some power or other had two basic presuppositions: a rootlessness or homelessness in modern ‘mass’ society and the existence of ‘pernicious’ ideologies or ideologies that justify and attempt to make inevitable the destruction of other human beings. In brackets here I should say that I remember discussions with Michael when I was advising him in the course of his PhD that going into Arendt’s account of ideology might not be necessary … of the nine chapters of this book four have ‘ideology’ in the title. The moral is, don’t always listen to your supervisor! What ideologies give is stability, security and consistency for those who feel rootless, superfluous, on the outside of society. This explains how in times of high unemployment and instability, ideologies become particularly attractive. But, the alienation described there is accompanied with specialization: increasingly through education and social organization we are encouraged to specialize, to know a lot about a small area, and neither know nor be able to think about the wider context, leading, quoting Michael, “to the creation of a group of people who, in virtue of specialization, develop a dangerous condition whereby their arrogance with regard to their small area of knowledge le[aves] them unaware of their ignorance towards the broader implications of their cultural and political condition” (63).

It is in this context that totalitarianism emerges and Arendt’s analysis here is again clear and revealing. While up to the C20th political systems were understood as either law bound (democratic, monarchist, republican) or lawless (tyrannical, despotic), totalitarian regimes claim a higher law (of history in Stalinist Russia; of nature in Hitler’s Germany) which justifies their rule. The result is that everyone becomes superfluous; the individual becomes subsumed in the ideological goal, such that even the state for both Stalin and Hitler becomes only a vehicle for the actualization of those ends. As Michael makes clear, totalitarian regimes do not create ideologies, they reveal and actualise their power (86).

But to actualise that power, people must be receptive to ideologies. And what conditions that receptivity? Again, we return to thinking. There is necessarily an insecurity to philosophical thought. Recently in students’ essays, I notice the word ideology being used as a synonym for philosophy: Husserl’s ideology, Descartes’ ideology, etc. But there is no such thing, or if there is, that ideology is distinct from their philosophy. Genuine philosophical thinking – by which I think Arendt means not the thinking academic philosophers exclusively have access to, but that thinking in which we entertain – the word means hold together – entertain ideas, is one which requires a courage to grapple with dissonance, to endure the discomfort of losing certainties without new ones to replace them and the dialectical engagement of the self with itself. Michael’s final chapter works through different ways – pedagogical, psychological and political – of promoting genuine philosophical thinking (which resonates with work in the Discipline of Philosophy in the Philosophical Dialogue Project and Philosophy for Children) and countering banality, pernicious ideology and totalitarian tendencies.

Michael is not afraid to criticize Arendt, as he does when he argues against her contention that religion cannot be understood ideologically and by implication then relatives her thesis that the totalitarian regimes of the C20th were radically new. This is indeed an important step for him because he is seeking to make a claim about human consciousness itself, which goes in some ways counter to Arendt’s manner of understanding politics. As I said, his concern is in the end that of a philosophically astute psychologist, one which seeks to intervene on the level of the individual, all the time recognizing the crucial distinction between the thinking individual and the ideological construct of individualism that feeds on the narcissistic rather than the thoughtful.

There is so much more I could speak of in this book – the way in which Michael charts the murder alphabet, how these regimes kill first the juridical self (by stripping them of the rights of citizens), then the moral self (by placing people in such impossible situations that they become themselves complicit in their own destruction) and then kill the soul (by reducing their victims to living shells of human beings (as we witness in the concentration camps). In this context his analysis of the respective fates of Danish, Estonian and French Jews is particularly insightful (see pp. 180-1).

As I said, Michael’s gift is to bring together philosophical themes with the concerns and the vision of a psychologist. It is most appropriate then that the Acknowledgments begin with reference to the former professor of Psychology at UCG Martin Mc Hugh. What Michael may not know is that my mother graduated with PhD in the 1990s with a thesis on the Psychology of Music supervised by the same Prof. McHugh! This is a happy occasion. It is wonderful to see this book in print and that the long years of work have borne such bountiful fruit. But introducing a book like this cannot end on anything but a serious and disturbing note. Because this is a disturbing book in the best sense of the word. It faces us with the utter reality of mass evil and does not let us rest with any complacent sense that it is something we find only with the Nazis or the Stalinists.

I will, though, return to that Nazi past to conclude because it so exemplifies all that Arendt is warning against. On a recent trip to Berlin, my wife Anne and I went to the Holocaust Memorial. Among all the horrors recounted there, one stood out for me. It is a letter from somebody who is described as a civil servant from Vienna who somehow finds himself while in the East recruited for a ‘shooting party’. He writes home to his wife about how at first he was nervous and his hands shook and were sweaty, but after a short while he got the hang of it and became an effective member of the group. He then goes into some further detail. While most were shot in front of a pit into which their dead and dying bodies would fall, babies were snatched from their mothers, thrown in the air and his and his comrades’ job was to shoot these unfortunate infants (those are not his words) before they would fall into the pit. Doing all of this reminded him – he tells his wife – of their own baby safely back home in Vienna. A moment of empathy you might think, an imaginative move to think from the point of view of the other person, a dissonance with his own actions, a recognition of suffering that he would surely not wish on his own baby. Yet, what in fact he does conclude from this thought is that at least they were giving them a swift end not like what ‘these hordes’ would do if they ever reached the gates of the Austrian capital. He with the might of the Wehrmacht around him is imagining these naked, ordinary people, not as he sees them in front of him, but as the regime has taught him to see them. And there is the thoughtless banality which made and continues to make mass evil possible. To understand how this is so, but to do so in a context which is nevertheless optimistic, in which not alone are these things diagnosed but we also get prescriptions as to how we might begin to immunize ourselves and our communities from these evils, I recommend you read this book.

Prof. Felix Ó Murchadha

Felix Ó Murchadha is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Galway. A Fulbright Scholar, he has published articles, papers, books and book chapters in the area of Phenomenology with specific emphasis on questions of Religion, Time, Violence and the Self and is the author of The Formation of the Modern Self: Reason, Happiness and the Passions from Montaigne to Kant (Bloomsbury 2022), A Phenomenology of Christian Life: Glory and Night (Indiana University Press, 2013) and The Time of Revolution: Kairos and Chronos in Heidegger (Bloomsbury, 2012).