Arendt on Eichmann

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of EvilEichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This spring, I watched the recent movie Hannah Arendt, which focused on the Eichmann trial and the controversy over Arendt’s analysis of it. Her reports became this book. It’s a provocative and cutting analysis of the Holocaust, with the main theme being that many people went along with it — Germans, occupied governments, even the Jewish Councils — that could have done otherwise. Arendt also is quite critical of the political goals of Israeli PM David Ben Gurion and the prosecuting attorney who sought to achieve symbolic ends through the trial. She also points to instances where those who did not go along with the Final Solution did actually successfully resist. One of the most compelling of these is her discussion of Denmark, where refusal to cooperate frustrated the German government greatly.

The introduction to the Penguin edition by Amos Elon (you can find it here) was helpful in understanding the context of the book and the attending controversy:

Walter Laqueur wrote early in the controversy that she Arendt was attacked less for what she said that for how she said it. She was inexcusably flippant, as when she referred to Leo Baeck, the revered former chief rabbi and head of the Berlin Judenräte, as the “Jewish Führer” (she excised the remark in the second printing). At times her style was brash and insolent, the tone professorial and imperious. She took a certain pleasure in paradox and her sarcasm and irony seemed out of place in a discussion of the Holocaust. A good example was her obviously ironic remark that Eichmann had become a convert to the Zionist solution of the Jewish problem. It was widely misunderstood and misinterpreted.

To illustrate a bit of her approach, here’s a quote from her critique of German doctor Peter Bamm’s lament that totalitarian states refuse people the opportunity to die noble deaths for acts of resistance by making them disappear, and thus make resistance unappealing to almost everyone. She referred to a German soldier named Anton Schmidt who did indeed save Jews for 5 months before being executed, and then noted:

It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June, 1942, on, to erase all traces of the massacres–through cremation, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing machinery–were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents “disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be “practically useless,” at least, not in the long run. It would be of great practical usefulness for Germany today, not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition, if there were more such stories to be told. For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can be reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.” (232-233)

One of the most credible criticisms of Arendt’s work that I have read is that she did not realize that Eichmann was actually an anti-Semitic fanatic who hid his hatred for the trial, rather than a man who simply cooperated with evil. I would like to find out more about the accuracy of her portrayal.

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  1. She also wasn’t present for a very critical part of the trial, forming her opinions from court transcripts (which often don’t do justice to the actual proceedings). She is not up front about this in her book. I read a critique not to long ago of her work, but I can’t remember where.

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