Beyond ‘instrumental rationality’: Lord Cromer and the imperial roots of Eichmann's bureaucracy

Yehouda Shenhav*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt introduced the term ‘banality of evil’ to describe the ‘superficial mind’ of an over-conformist bureaucrat, whose organizational expertise was the emigration of Jews. The literature that examined the roots of Arendt's thesis on the banality of evil assumed that she had portrayed a pathological and malfunctioning rational bureaucracy, motivated by a strong culture of instrumental rationality. In contrast to this instrumental rationality thesis—and despite Arendt's own reservations about a wholesale comparison between British imperialism and Nazism—I suggest that: (a) Arendt's depiction of Nazi bureaucracy was anchored in her reading of imperial bureaucracy as analysed in The origins of totalitarianism; (b) Arendt's analysis of Eichmann's Nazi bureaucracy was, in several respects, similar to her analysis of Lord Cromer's principles of imperial bureaucracy formulated in Egypt in the early years of the twentieth century; and (c) the ‘instrumental rationality’ thesis overlooked Arendt's insights about the affinity between imperial bureaucracy and totalitarian bureaucracy, and particularly the relationships between race, arbitrary governance and bureaucratic aloofness. I explore the similarities between the Nazi model and the imperial model of bureaucracy in Arendt's writings, focusing on the analogies she drew between Lord Cromer and Adolf Eichmann. The analysis reveals that her ‘banality of evil’ argument is deeply anchored in the history of race and imperialism, and that she was not oblivious to the affinity between imperial bureaucratic repertoires and bureaucracies of genocide.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)379-399
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Genocide Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2013


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