Comparing Martin Luther King’s Letter From the Birmingham Jail with Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil

Both Jews in Nazi Germany and blacks in the Deep South were seen as an inferior race.

Many Americans are either unaware or do not want to make the connection between the Jim Crow system of racial segregation and the Nazi ideology of the master race. In fact, the Jim Crow statutes enforcing segregation were used as precedents by the Nazi lawyers drafting the Nuremberg Jewish Race Laws soon after the Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. We reflected on the academic study of this connection in a prior video.

In this blog/video we will explore the similarities between the work by Hannah Arendt on the Banality of the Evil of the Nazi regime and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Similarities should be expected, both Jews in Nazi Germany and blacks in the Deep South were seen as an inferior race. Southerners may be offended by the comparison of the Nazis killing millions of Jews to the Deep South, but there was plenty of lynching and murdering going on, you can extrapolate the documented five thousand plus cases of lynching to the tens of thousands of murders of blacks that were often unreported and rarely prosecuted and punished.

Martin Luther King’s Letter From the Birmingham Jail can be found here:

See the YouTube video for this blog:


Adolph Eichmann was the Nazi bureaucrat who managed the bureaucracy that planned and executed the murder of millions of Jews in the Final Solution, the death camps in Eastern Europe. After the war, he successfully fled in the infamous Vatican ratlines to Argentina, where he lived with his family as Ricardo Klement, an ordinary laborer for many years. Eventually the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, learned where he lived, and he was kidnapped and flown to Israel to be tried for his crimes. The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt attended his trial, putting her thoughts to paper in her treatise, Banality and Conscience: The Eichmann Trial and Its Consequences.[1]

Hannah Arendt knew firsthand the struggles that Jews faced in Europe under Naziism. She writes, “the trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many Germans were like him, neither perverted nor sadistic, but terribly and terrifyingly normal.”[2]

Both Adolph Eichmann and Hannah Arendt were born in the same year, 1906. Hannah Arendt was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo for her research into anti-Semitism in the year Hitler came to power in 1933. After her release, she fled to Czechoslovakia, then Switzerland, before settling in France. She was again detained when the Nazis conquered France, but then she fled through Portugal to the United States, where she learned English and found word as a writer for a German-language Jewish newspaper.[3]

We have told the sordid tale of how Hitler quickly started persecuting the Jews, as well as Confessing Christians, soon after he assumed dictatorial powers as Chancellor in 1933. This persecution started with denying Jews jobs in the civil service and the professions, then escalated to outright theft and imprisonment in thousands of work camps and death camps like Auschwitz. The Nazi regime first experimented with gas chambers for so-called mercy killings of the disabled and patients in mental hospitals, and when public opinion curtailed this program, how this killing technology was implemented on a far grander scale in the Eastern European death camps.


Complacency was the norm among both the common Germans and the Jews. The Nazis controlled the press and fed upon the grievances of Germans who felt cheated out of the victory their government propaganda said was imminent at the end of World War I when Germany surrendered. We explore how this complacency developed in our video on Nazi Germany, which includes quotes from many interviews of ordinary German Christians, and we explore the dark history of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Dreyfus Affair in our video on Vichy France.

Hannah Arendt recalls that in 1935, the Nuremberg Laws had deprived the Jews of their citizenship and civil rights. No longer could Jews work in government or teaching jobs, or in any of the professions. “Sexual intercourse between Jews and Germans, and the contraction of mixed marriages, were forbidden. No German woman under the age of forty-five could be employed in a Jewish household.”

Hannah Arendt writes, “When Eichmann was asked how he had reconciled his personal feelings about Jews with the outspoken and violent anti-Semitism of the Nazi party he had joined, he replied with the proverb, ‘Nothing is as hot when you eat it as when it’s being cooked,’ a proverb that was on many Jews lips as well.”

Hannah Arendt writes, “Many Jews lived in a fool’s paradise.” “It took the organized pogroms of 1938, the Kristallnacht or Night of Broken Glass, when 7,500 Jewish shop windows were broken, all synagogues went up in flames, and 20,000 Jewish men were taken off to concentration camps, to expel them from it,” their foolish complacency.”[4]

Early in the regime the Nazis tried to encourage the Jews to emigrate, and Eichmann, always very courteous to the Jewish leaders, sought to streamline the process so Jews could quickly obtain the needed paperwork without having to trudge from office to office to office. So, he relocated the government bureaus in one centralized building, so the Jews could quickly go from one line to the next.

But when Eichmann invited the Jewish functionaries from Berlin to observe the process, they were appalled. “This is like an automatic factory, like a flour mill connected with some bakery. At one end you put in a Jew who still has some property,” “and he goes through the building from counter to counter, from office to office, and comes out at the other end without any money, without any rights, with only a passport which says, ‘You must leave the country within a fortnight. Otherwise, you will go to a concentration camp.’” The main problem is that few countries are eager to accept immigrants who do not have any money at all.[5]


Eichmann was an enthusiastic bureaucrat, or as enthusiastic as a bureaucrat could be, always eager to follow the rules, as if following a rule devoid of morality possessed a twisted type of virtue. Hannah Arendt observed that Eichmann had an odd notion of idealism, he believed that “an idealist was a man who lived for an idea,” “and who was prepared to sacrifice for his idea everything and, especially, everybody. When he said in the police examination that he would have sent his own father to his death if that had been required, he did not mean merely to stress the extent to which he was under orders, and ready to obey them; he also meant to show what an ‘idealist’ he had always been.”[6]

“Eichmann needed only to recall the past in order to feel assured that he was not lying and that he was not deceiving himself, for he and the world he lived in had once been in perfect harmony. And the German society of eighty million people had been shielded against reality and facts by exactly the same means, the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s mentality. These lies changed from year to year, and they frequently contradicted each other.” “This practice of self-deception had become so common, almost a moral prerequisite for survival, that even now, eighteen years after the collapse of the Nazi regime, when most of the specific lies have been forgotten, it is sometimes difficult not to believe that mendacity has become an integral part of the German national character.”

“Eichmann’s astounding willingness, in Argentina as well as in Jerusalem, to admit his crimes was due less to his own criminal capacity for self-deception than to the aura of systematic mendacity that had constituted the general, and generally accepted, atmosphere of the Third Reich.” And later Hanna Arendt observes, “Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that the man Eichmann was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.”[7]


Hannah Arendt writes, “Bragging was the vice that was Eichmann’s undoing. He boasted to his men during the last days of the war” ‘I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews, on enemies of the Reich, on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.’” Bragging this was, overstating the barbarities he committed. Arendt continues, “Bragging is a common vice, but a more decisive flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view.”[8]

On one occasion Eichmann did violate orders in the early days of the war, sending a group of Germans to a Polish ghetto rather than to the death camps, so they could emigrate, so he said, but they, too, eventually were sent to the camps to die. Hannah Arendt comments, “His conscience rebelled not at the idea of murder but at the idea of German Jews being murdered.”

But there were many more stories of an uncaring bureaucrat, for whom suffering was stifled by paperwork and procedures. Once, when an SS man told him that the Jews could not be fed in the winter, Eichmann wondered “whether it would not be the most humane solution to kill those Jews who were incapable of work through some quicker means. This, at any rate, would be more agreeable than to let them die of starvation.”[9] “It was firmly anchored in Eichmann’s mind that the unforgivable sin was not to kill people but to cause unnecessary pain.” Gassing was morally superior to shooting, in his twisted mind.[10]


Adolph Eichmann was not an isolated phenomenon; he was one of a vast national mob of ideological Nazis. Hannah Arendt spoke both of the moral blindness of the German leadership and the German people, how the July anti-Hitler conspiracy sought to assassinate Hitler not for his crimes against the Jews and against humanity, but to rescue the nation from total defeat at the hands of the Allies. These conspirators were clueless that the monstrousness of the Nazi brutalities led to the demand for unconditional surrender, they thought that if Hitler were gone they could simply negotiate with the Allies as if they were equals.

Hannah Arendt regrets, “the situation was just as simple as it was hopeless: the overwhelming majority of the German people believed in Hitler, even after the attack on Russia and the feared war on two fronts, even after the United States entered the war, indeed even after Stalingrad, the defection of Italy, and the landings in France. Against this solid majority, there stood an indeterminate number of isolated individuals who were completely aware of the national and moral catastrophe; they might occasionally know and trust one another; there were friendships among them and an exchange of opinions, but no plan or intention of revolt.”[11]

Why did Eichmann follow Hitler and his evil designs? Hannah Arendt tells us, “What Eichmann fervently believed in up to the end was success, the chief standard of ‘good society’ as he knew it.” “Hitler, according to Eichmann, may have been wrong all down the line, but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up from lance corporal to Fuhrer for eighty million Germans. His success alone proved to me that I should subordinate myself to this man.” “he did not need to ‘close his ears to the voice of conscience,’ not because he had none, but because his conscience spoke with a ‘respectable voice,’ with the voice of respectable society around him.”[12]


Martin Luther King was initially hesitant about becoming the voice of the civil rights movement, from the start he suspected this would doom him to death by assassination by white supremacists, which is what eventually happened. He was arrested while leading a nonviolent protest in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, and was thrown in jail with brutal conditions. The Attorney General, Robert F Kennedy, was in constant contact with Alabama authorities to guarantee his life and safety as much as possible. Eight white Alabama clergymen published “A Call for Unity” in the newspaper condemning King and his tactics. The Letter From the Birmingham Jail responded to these criticisms.[13]


Martin Luther King said in his letter, “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.”

Martin Luther King compares himself with Socrates, the gadfly who was gifted to Athens. King queries, “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

But Martin Luther King was able to fight complacency, his was a different time, a different place than Nazi Germany. Like in the Civil War times, the federal government and Congress wanted to pass civil rights legislation and provide the justice and equality to blacks in the South, but they were opposed by many segregationist governors, mayors, and police chiefs. Complacency was rife in the South; many whites did not welcome the civil rights protests and agitation.


Martin Luther King persuasively exclaimed: “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘WAIT.’”

Martin Luther King then tells us of the vicious treatment of blacks in the Deep South, which was similar to the cruelties and persecutions the Jews faced in the Holocaust: “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society, then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

King continues, “But when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Fun-town is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?,’ then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

King continues, “When you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness,’ then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”


The laws enforcing segregation in the Deep South were precedents for the drafting of the Nazi race laws, so we know that the legal system in the Deep South denied justice for blacks. Many whites pleaded with Martin Luther King, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” Martin Luther King answered, “The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

King continues, “Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

Martin Luther King himself makes the connection between the blacks and the Jews: “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.”


We told the tale of how, in Nazi Germany, Hitler tried to control the German churches. Under Hitler, only about twenty percent of the Protestant Churches joined the Confessing Church movement that took a stand for independence from state control, while another twenty percent adopted Nazi racial ideology, even abandoning the Old Testament and declaring that Jesus was not a Jew, while the rest of the churches refused to choose between good and evil.

Likewise, Martin Luther King confronted the complacency of many clergy and many blacks. “You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first, I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, because of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of ‘somebodiness’ that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.”

“The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation.” “I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the ‘do nothingism’ of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.”

Just as in Nazi Germany, many churches in America, particularly in the Deep South, did not want to rock the boat and oppose segregation. Martin Luther King lamented, “Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again, I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times.”


The police in the Deep South were as concerned with enforcing unjust laws as was the Gestapo in Nazi Germany. Martin Luther King chides his opponents, “You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping ‘order’ and ‘preventing violence.’ I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.”

Instead, Martin Luther King lamented, “I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes.” “They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.’ They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were, in reality, standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”[14]


One troubling aspect of the Holocaust for Hannah Arendt was how some Jewish leaders were complicit in administering the program, since Eichmann sought their cooperation so the camps could be run more smoothly. Some made a devil’s bargain when Eichmann offered to let some thousands of Jews to emigrate in return for their cooperation, a devil’s bargain in return for the orderly execution of millions of Jews. And as in nearly all instances of religious persecution in history, the Holocaust was very much about stealing as much as possible from the Jews, including the hair and gold fillings yanked from their corpses.[15] This sad tale is told in detail in many pages by Hannah Arendt.

We see the same dynamic occurring among the blacks in America, how a minority of blacks seem to lean towards and sometimes further the fascist side of conservatism. We phrase it in this way since we realize that the Booker T Washington approach towards accommodation is often beneficial as blacks try to prove themselves by their hard work, but this approach is often condemned by more radical black activists as being a betrayal, so this conversation can quickly go too far when you start calling people names. We may scratch our heads when Thomas Sowell says some of what he says, but he does add a sane voice to the conversation.

On the other hand, when this video was cut there was controversy over whether the vote by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on Trump’s papers was prejudiced by his right-wingnut wife attending the January 6th rally and, though so far there is no evidence she chose not to trespass on the Capitol building, her text messages were cheering on the insurrection. And we have black right-wingnut commentators on Fox News drawing huge paychecks for their right-wingnut propaganda.

Hannah Arendt comments on how thoroughly the average German bought into the Nazi racist ideology. She remembers that what the court trying Eichmann demanded was that they be “human beings capable of telling right from wrong even when all they have to guide them is their own judgement, which is completely at odds with what they must regard as the unanimous opinion of all those around them.” She continues, “Since the whole of respectable society had succumbed to Hitler, the moral maxims which determine behavior and the religious commandments, such as Thou Shalt Not Kill, which guide conscience had virtually vanished.”[16]

Indeed, the consciences of many whites in the Deep South had indeed virtually vanished with respect to the injustices suffered by blacks under Jim Crow. In Europe, freedom of speech is limited, Nazism was driven underground by mandating that it is illegal to deny that the Holocaust occurred, and that Jews were murdered by the millions. But in America freedom of speech is broader, in America not only is it legal to deny the Holocaust occurred, it is also legal to deny that lynchings and race riots targeting blacks occurred, and that they killed tens or hundreds of thousands of blacks. Not only that, but the criticisms against Critical Race Theory are also really trying to bring back the Lost Cause myth, making it illegal to teach our children the truth about slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation and lynchings, and the Civil Rights Movement.

We will end with the rhetorical question by Martin Luther King: “Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’” “And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ So, the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”[17]


[2] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hanna Arendt (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003, 1963), Banality and Conscience: The Eichmann Trial and Its Consequences, p. 373.


[4] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hanna Arendt, Banality and Conscience, pp. 315-316.

[5] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hanna Arendt, Banality and Conscience, p. 321.

[6] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hanna Arendt, Banality and Conscience, p. 318.

[7] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hanna Arendt, Banality and Conscience, pp. 326-328.

[8] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hanna Arendt, Banality and Conscience, pp. 315-316.

[9] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hanna Arendt, Banality and Conscience, p. 331.

[10] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hanna Arendt, Banality and Conscience, p. 341-342.

[11] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hanna Arendt, Banality and Conscience, pp. 332-336.

[12] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hanna Arendt, Banality and Conscience, p. 355.



[15] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hanna Arendt, Banality and Conscience, pp. 346-349, 360-361.

[16] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hanna Arendt, Banality and Conscience, p. 385.



About Bruce Strom 185 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

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