Sunday, February 7, 2010

Eichmann in Jerusalem

Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press, 1963.

Reviewed by T. Hatch

The publication in 1963 of Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem was greatly resented in Israel. Evidence of this irritation was manifest in that it took over forty years for a Hebrew translation to appear. Arendt is evidence that while a gadfly is never a welcome guest empirically challenged creators of an ideology have all the more reason to resent self-appointed truth tellers in their midst.

Mossad agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, Argentina in May of 1960. Living under the name of Ricardo Clement, working for a local water utility company, Eichmann knew that he was being followed. After his capture/abduction he was spirited to Israel where he stood trial on fifteen criminal counts including crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people, and membership in an outlawed organization. He was eventually convicted on all counts and was hanged on May 31, 1962.

Hannah Arendt who was working as a reporter for the New Yorker magazine at the time was highly critical of what she saw as a show trial. Arendt, who for a short time had worked in the Jewish Agency's Paris office, was alienated from the Israel of David Ben-Gurion because she perceived it to be overly nationalistic, racist, too religious, unwilling to make concessions on the Arab question, not sufficiently liberal in regard to its own Arab minority, arrogant towards Jews living in other countries, and much too quick to ascribe to itself a set of moral virtues. She rejected the Zionist founding of Israel and its failure to separate church and state. Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, argued that the cause of the Holocaust was that Jews did not live in their own country and one of the goals of the Eichmann trial was to remind the world that the Holocaust obliged them to support Israel.

While Arendt characterized Eichmann as a liar and a braggart who was outrageously stupid; he was not inherently evil. What made Eichmann, and all of the future potential Eichmanns, dangerous was the relative ease with which a rather average person is converted into doing immoral acts. This is a profoundly misanthropic doctrine that Arendt puts forth but there is some validity to it. What if you knew George W. Bush as the avuncular fellow behind the counter at the bowling alley instead of his role as the “decider” overseeing a system of secret gulags where torture was practiced?

One of the common themes at the Eichmann trial was Israeli heroism and the weakness of Jews in exile; Arendt was a critic of both groups. In the instance of the Zionists she compared their search for “suitable [human] material” to Nazi racist attitudes “...the Jews from Palestine spoke a language not totally different from that of Eichmann” (p.55). In the case of the Judenrats (Jewish Councils) she was even tougher. These councils made the work of the Nazis easier. The Jewish authorities in many instances helped in administrative and police work (in Berlin the final round-up was done entirely by Jewish police) and without their assistance there might have been complete chaos or a severe drain on German manpower. “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story” (p.104).

While Arendt is critical of the conspirators of July 1944 who attempted the assassination of Adolf Hitler because they rarely mentioned the slaughter of Jews in the East in their correspondence, the extermination camps and the Einsatzgruppen were largely ignored by Hitler's opponents, the German Republic with its “veritable genius for understatement” regarding its Nazi past really drew Arendt's ire. There was a political implication to this criticism as Ben-Gurion was busy selling arms to the Germany of Konrad Adenauer at the time of the Eichmann trial and was already under fire for this activity.

Arendt pointed out that Eichmann's illegal arrest was justified by Ben-Gurion only because the verdict of the trial could be safely anticipated. Eichmann was clearly from the Nazi “B” team. His role in the Final Solution was “vastly exaggerated” because the defendants at the earlier Nuremberg trials had tried to exculpate themselves at the expense of the guy who was not at the trial. He had a terrible habit of boasting about his wartime exploits. He was also the one Nazi official who had been in close contact with Jewish officials.

In Arendt's view the Eichmann trial failed in at least four respects: Eichmann did not participate in Einsatzgruppen activity in the East; he was not the officer in charge of transporting Jews from Polish ghettos; he was not liable for what happened in the extermination camps; he was not responsible for the conditions in the Jewish ghettos.

If only Hannah Arendt could see the course history has taken since the Eichmann trial. At least Eichmann was charged (and not held in indefinite detention), he did not appear before a military tribunal, and he was not tortured.

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