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Let’s not slather ‘banality’ over every Holocaust story: a plea to journalists

There it was, as it usually is, the word that pops up in most stories about or related to the Holocaust: “banality.” This time it appeared in the headline and in its adjectival form in the text of an opinion piece in the Sunday Review Section of The New York Times on November 17: “The Banality of Robbing the Jews,” by Sarah Gensburger, a social scientist at France’s Center for Scientific Research.

Posted on the paper’s website two days earlier, Gensburger’s column describes the widespread looting of Jewish possessions by the Nazis during World War II, emphasizing the plunder of mundane possessions from poor Jews in Eastern Europe, looting that has received less attention than the looting of works of art from well-to-do Jews in Berlin, Vienna or Paris (as did the recent discovery of more than 1,400 looted paintings in a Munich apartment building.)

So far so good for what Gensburger‘s research has revealed. But as early as in the first paragraph of her NYT piece she writes that “the bulk of anti-Semitic looting during World War II was at once much more banal and more widespread” than the looting of art that has received the media limelight.

But why describe either kind of looting as “banal” in the first place? The author cannot be unaware of how “banality” became associated with writing about the Holocaust, and NYT editors ought to be aware of it and at least examine its use every time they come across it in a story or opinion piece.

The German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) used it for the subtitle of her 1963 book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” Covering the trial of the Adolf Eichmann, widely considered the “architect” of the Holocaust that sent about 5.2 million European Jews to their death by bullets, starvation or gas, she made it quite clear what she meant by the term “banality of evil”:

“When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial…Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all…He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.”

Now this is a “phenomenon” that did not stare everyone who attended Eichmann’s trial in the face. As Columbia historian Mark Lilla wrote in the November 21 issue of the New York Review of Books: “Arendt was not alone in being taken in by Eichmann and his many masks, but she was taken in. She judged him in light of her own intellectual preoccupations…” and accepted his trial persona as a cog in the Nazi machinery of death and member of the faceless or inauthentic crowd that marched to its music of destruction.

Lilla calls her depiction of his “banality of evil” an “overcomplicated simplification” that led her astray. Others were less kind. Saul Bellow lets the protagonist of his 1970 novel, “Sammler’s Planet,” deliver this demolition of Arendt’s thesis: “Politically, psychologically, the Germans had an idea of genius. The banality was only camouflage. What better way to get the curse out of murder than to make it look ordinary, boring, or trite?… There was a conspiracy against the sacredness of life. Banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience. Is such a project trivial?” Lilla considers Sammler’s own simplification “closer to the truth” than the one by Arendt.

Moreover, in Gensburger’s article there is no denial of a motive for the plunder: “Stripping the Jews of their belongings was part and parcel of the effort to destroy them; pillage was an essential tool of extermination.” Even more reason not to label a part and parcel of extermination “banal.”

Journalists and editors might want to consider permanent retirement for “banality” and “the banality of evil” in Holocaust stories unless they address the specific way in which Arendt used it in her book and the criticism and defense of her take on Eichmann. Even someone as politically correct and attuned to every academic trend as Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley Judith Butler considers the banality of evil “a phrase that has (since) become something of an intellectual cliché.”