In his comment on my last post, Doug pointed me to this article, a review of Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Carl Trueman. He discussed some of the serious critiques of Arendt’s analysis: missing important portions of the trial, ignorance (through no fault of her own) of Eichmann’s delight in the Final Solution revealed in interviews not allowed as evidence in court, and her limited understanding of the way that the Nazi bureaucracy worked.
Adding his own twist, Trueman notes that Arendt wrote her dissertation on Augustine and should have been able to see through Eichmann’s defense at the trial. I’m not sure that she was quite as taken in as Trueman thinks she was, but she certainly did see him as a “unimpressive, inarticulate, cliche-spouting mediocrity.” Augustine’s writings could have helped her, though:
She could have learned from Augustine that evil is at heart deceptive and adept at manipulating aesthetics to achieve its desired effect, hiding the truth from others. Yet she chose to believe Eichmann’s performance, falling for his carefully crafted and self-serving script. Self-love, not banality, was the real key to his evil. Self-preservation drove him in Jerusalem, just as self-promotion had driven him in Buenos Aires, and a selfish desire for god-like power of life and death over others had driven him in the Third Reich.
On a related note, here’s a Guardian podcast that discusses the idea of the banality of evil, that has both criticism and defense of Arendt.