Eichmann in Jerusalem : a report on the banality of evil


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Hannah Arendt's authoritative report on the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann is a classic examination of evil from one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century.

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Dec 8, 2019

Hannah Arendt's Account Of The Eichmann Trial

I had long wanted to read Hannah Arendt's (1906 -- 1975) study of the Eichmann trial, "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" and was prompted at last to do so when I found the book on sale at my local library. As I read, the controversial nature of Arendt's book was brought home to me. I decided I needed to read Arendt in tandem with a recent study of the trial, "The Eichmann Trial" (2011) by historian Deborah Lipstadt. Lipstadt devotes a lengthy chapter to analyzing Arendt's book. Lipstadt, perhaps with the passage of time, sees the trial and its significance differently than does Arendt. Her treatment of Arendt is critical but balanced. She offers many of the criticisms of Arendt's book that were made when the book was published but finds a good deal to praise in Arendt's account. Although Arendt's and Lipstadt's book take opposing positions in many respects, this is not at all unusual in serious historical study. There is much to be learned from both books. They are better read, I believe, as complementary, rather than as opposed. For all its flaws and datedness, Arendt's book remains tough minded, provocative, and deeply thoughtful. Even for readers who disagree with Arendt or who become angry with her, the book is worth reading and pondering.

Arendt was a political philosopher who received an extraordinary education in pre WW II Germany. Her teachers included the philosophers Martin Heidegger (with whom she had an affair) and Karl Jaspers. Arendt immigrated to the United States in 1941 and soon became a famous public intellectual.

On May 11,1960, Adolph Eichmann was captured by Israeli operatives in Argentina and brought back to Israel to stand trial for his activities in the Holocaust. The capture and kidnapping of Eichmann resulted in substantial international controversy as did the trial. Eichmann's trial began in April, 1961, with the accused sitting in a bullet-proof glass both which became famous in itself. The trial was held before three distinguished Israeli Judges, each of whom had received their legal training in Germany. The chief prosecutor was Israeli Attorney General Gideon Hausner. Eichmann was defended by counsel of his choice, Robert Servatius, who had also been a lawyer for Nuremberg defendants. After a lengthy trial, in which Eichmann testified and was cross-examined in great detail, the court found Eichmann guilty and sentenced him to death in December, 1961. The Israeli Supreme Court rejected Eichmann's appeal on May 29, 1962; and Eichmann was hanged two days later on May 31, 1962. Arendt covered the trial for "The New Yorker". Critics point out that she was not present for the entire trial. Her book is based not only on observation of the trial but upon Arendt's reading of the transcripts, affidavits and other materials, including Eichmann's extensive pretrial statements, that Israel's government made available to the media at the time as well as upon additional sources.

With all the criticism the book received at the time, Arendt's account of the trial was careful. The book is difficult to read and, in spite of her protestations to the contrary, is as much a work of political philosophy as it is a journalistic account of a trial. Arendt criticized the kidnapping of Eichmann and the manner in which prosecutor Hausner conducted the trial. She praised the Israeli judges and their approach to the case. It is sometimes overlooked that Arendt found that the Israelis were in the right in kidnapping Eichmann and in trying him before an Israeli court. Arendt found that Eichmann amply deserved the sentence of death, and she approved of the Israelis carrying the sentence out expeditiously in the face of widespread arguments for commutation.

Among other things, Arendt is criticized for applying the term "banal" to Eichmann. He appeared to her and to others as a mediocrity interested in his own career and in carrying out his orders rather than as a rabid Nazi and anti-Semite. She emphasized as do many modern writers the pervasive character of evil in WW II Germany and the lack of resistance. Documents that were not available to Arendt suggest to some historians that she overstated Eichmann's "banality", and that he was a far more committed Nazi and vicious anti-Semite than she realized. Arendt was also criticized for emphasizing the lack of resistance of the Jewish victims and the alleged cooperation of the Jewish leaders with Eichmann in carrying out the transports to the camps. Her manner of presentation was thought to be insensitive and ahistorical. Arendt attempted, with some plausibility, to respond to these criticisms. I don't think Arendt was as insensitive or as mistaken as her strongest critics suggest. There is still, as Lipstadt acknowledges, a great deal of historical discussion about the means in which the Holocaust was carried out. Arendt's tone, however, was that of a detached academic, and it sometimes became provocative and unduly combative.

The main issues raised with Arendt's book seem to me her understanding of the purpose of the trial and her view of the nature of the Holocaust and of Eichmann's crimes. The prosecutor, Hausner, wanted to use the trial to educate the world further about the nature of the Holocaust. He put on the stand 100 witnesses, most of whom were Holocaust survivors. Many of these witnesses offered testimony that had little to do with Eichmann or that was unreliable. The Israeli court frequently grew impatient with Hausner and criticized his conduct of the trial, describing it as "picture painting." For Arendt, the trial was a legal proceeding that should have been focused on a single question, the actions of the accused and his guilt or innocence of the charges. She found overwhelming evidence to convict Eichmann. In this, the Israeli court at the time agreed with her. Many more recent scholars, including Lipstadt praise Hausner's approach to the trial.

Arendt saw Eichmann's guilt as a "crime against humanity" directed against the Jewish people against the background of a long history of anti-Semitism. Her approach tended towards universalism. Lipstadt and Hausner, in contrast, see the Holocaust as the final and direct result of centuries of anti-Semitism and violence. She, of course, does not deny the universal character of the Holocaust. The different approaches are important but matters of emphasis. It is here that I think that Arendt and Lipstadt may both be right.

Arendt's book remains worth reading as a historical document and for the views, sometimes ingraciously expressed, about the nature of law, government, evil, and personal responsibility.

Robin Friedman


Jun 9, 2009

To slay with the pen...

An excellent piece of reportage, Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem" is a thorough account of a trial which attracted huge international attention.

Professor Arendt handles her subject deftly and with a light, dispassionate touch which I frequently found stylistically reminiscent of H.L. Mencken's journalism. A good deal of thoroughly unpleasant material is dealt with in the course of the trial, and Arendt's writing style neither trivialises nor sensationalises any of this.

The philosophical niceties of Eichmann's guilt are thoroughly explored, as is the uncomfortable fact of the illegality of his abduction by Shin Bet agents.

Eichmann's craving for importance in the world and for recognition in his own right appear, eventually, to be the main factors in his downfall, and indeed may have led to the lack of resistance whcich he offered to his captors. Such insights into the man's character are built, for the most part, chronologically, as the trial unfolds, which gives the work the necessary pace to avoid becoming bogged down in procedural detail.

Eichmann's sentence was never any more in doubt than that of the thousands he dispatched to the camps, proud of his efficiency in so doing. Indeed, it's hard to argue that it could have been otherwise, and at times even the defendant seemed keen for the gallows. Still, Arendt pays tribute to the professionalism of the trial judges, not only for their impartiality in judgement, but also for their resistance to the attempted politicisation of the proceedings by David Ben-Gurion and his administration.

An excellent, pithy account of a fascinating trial.

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