Hannah Arendt volunteered to report on Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1960 for The New Yorker magazine, she wrote a series of articles for them, later compiled in a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. After her reporting, Arendt went from a well respected political theorist, especially on theories totalitarianism, who also fled Nazi persecution to a controversial figure. She was hated in some circles, especially certain Jewish circles. Many long time friends cut off contact with her, she nearly lost her teaching job at the university and she was ostracized from the intellectual circles which she used to be a part of.
How did she go from well loved, well respected intellectual and academic to being hated and ostracized? Because she dared question the mainstream accepted views of the Holocaust and how the Holocaust was discussed and viewed. She was described as a self-hating Jew who blamed the victims for their own demise. Her love affair with an old professor Martin Heidegger, one of her early mentors, who later joined the Nazi Party kept being brought up and thrown in her face. She was accused of not researching deeply enough into Adolf Eichmann’s background and if she did, she’d find out that he really was a monstrous antisemite deep down in his bones and not just a unthinking cog in a system, as she asserts.
The main accusation against her is that she blamed the Jewish leaders (Judenrat) at the time of the Third Reich for the Holocaust, shifting it from the true perpetrators – the Nazis. And those who took kinder to her said she was insufficiently sympathetic to the plight of the Jewish leaders during that time. The other accusation is that she determined that Eichmann wasn’t this big evil person with horns growing out of his head who helped facilitate and ordered the deaths of millions of people, he was a rather ordinary nobody, mediocre, robotic, more like a “clown”. He wasn’t even dishonest as one would think a monster would be. This notion was contrary to what the Israeli government portrayed him as, which was a monstrous evil person who committed great acts of evil due to his innate evil nature. Lastly, though much milder compared to the other criticisms, she criticized the Israeli courts about how the whole trial was conducted. It was essentially trial of emotional theatrics, Eichmann himself and his deeds weren’t on trial, but the actions of the Third Reich and the resulting extermination of Jews was on trial. The prosecution brought in Holocaust survivors as witnesses, none of whom had direct contact with Eichmann or even knew him, who could not speak to or testify for or against his crimes, but had directly or indirectly suffered from his crimes.
If one read the book cover to cover, all these accusations against Arendt are unfounded. Her writing style is very blunt and direct – she writes as though she’s speaking, it’s very easy to chop up quotes and editorialize out of context, but if you take the totality of her book, she didn’t shift the blame or responsibility of the Holocaust from perpetrator to victims. She didn’t excuse Eichmann for his monstrous deeds, she mourned the deaths of all the lives lost in the Holocaust (not just the Jews) and she even answered the common tropes about how Jews willingly allowed others to lead them to their deaths like a lamb to slaughter, but she did accuse the Israeli courts of putting on a theatrical show for the world to see and it wasn’t really about trying Eichmann for his crimes, he was just a prop.
Eichmann’s fate was determined the minute he was caught by the Israeli secret service in Argentina. The trial was just perfunctory, a formality, to give the appearance of justice being carried out when the outcome of the trial was already decided (much like the Nuremberg Trials). It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble and money to just put two bullets in the back of his head when they found him in Argentina, instead of dragging him on a long haul flight from Argentina back to Jerusalem, jailing him, clothing and feeding him and then put on a theatrical show of a trial when the result of the trial is already predetermined. He was found guilty, sentenced and hung on June 1, 1962.
Under those circumstances, Arendt decided that there was nothing to ‘report’ on besides the daily synopsis of what went on in the courtroom, which thousands of reporters around the world are already doing. So she took a philosophical approach to the trial instead. She decided to ask questions instead of just accepting the facts and answers which were provided to her.
The man on trial, Adolf Eichmann was a contradiction himself. He was charged with mass murder but he’s never personally carried out a single murder himself. He’s never shot anyone to death, never turned on the gas chamber at the concentration camps nor did he ever participate in any means of directly murdering someone. But he facilitated the transportation of those who will be murdered, meaning he sent people to their deaths on those horrible trains. Thousands at a time, tens of thousands in some weeks, hundreds of thousands in some months, his total body count was in the millions during the implementation of the Final Solution. Arendt’s first dilemma was how do you analyze and discuss a mass murderer who’s never personally murdered anyone?
She decided to look into the Eichmann the man himself, the Nazi political and bureaucratic structure, which was rather complicated. There were many layers of command across different bureaucratic departments; it takes someone well versed in the machinations of the Third Reich to figure it all out. What she found out about Eichmann the man was shocking in his mediocrity. This was literal a nobody, unremarkable in every way, possessed no gift or special talent, his career as a salesman went nowhere, his life went nowhere until he joined the Nazi Party where he finally became somebody. He was under the direct command of a real monsters and psychopaths Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. The often repeated Nazi defense of “I was just following orders” was used by Eichmann, as it was used by every Nazi war criminal that was captured and put on trial at Nuremberg and elsewhere. The person that gave the orders Adolf Hitler was dead, so in their twisted minds, they aren’t really responsible for the orders given by their “Fuhrer”. But what’s different about Eichmann was he wasn’t just paying lip service to “I was just following orders”, he believed it and he response he gave to all the charges against him was “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment”, when pressed further as to exactly what he meant, he spoke through his attorney Robert Servatius: “Eichmann feels guilty before God, not before the law,” and further elaborates that Eichmann had committed “[acts] for which you are decorated if you win and go to the gallows if you lose.” This is a close mimic of Joseph Goebbels quote: “We will go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all times or as their greatest criminals.”
While attending the trial, Arendt begun to notice a curious pattern about Eichmann, there was something off about him when he spoke and articulated his thoughts, for awhile she couldn’t put her finger on it and then one day it hit her, Eichmann was incapable of thinking, the man had no original thoughts of his own, he regurgitates and repeats cliches, sayings, quotes and books he read:
To be sure, the judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk” – except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.
Arendt’s many expressions of shock of just how unthinking this person Eichmann was would be comical to the point of hilarity if it weren’t about such a tragic subject under such tragic circumstances. Suppose being an academic and surrounded by intellectuals all the time, the chances of her encountering someone who was incapable of thinking or having an original thought of their own was rare. It certainly wasn’t someone she’d associate with being of a middle command position in the Nazi hierarchy who was responsible for sending millions of people to their deaths. Eichmann wasn’t even stupid, he just won’t think.
It would be natural to assume that Eichmann was clinically insane or suffered from some sort personality disorder, but after many thorough examinations by Israeli psychiatrists, they found nothing abnormal about him, in fact they found the opposite to be true. He was perfectly normal, quite a nice and affable person, loved by his family, friends and acquaintances – he just didn’t have the ability to think – as a dismayed Arendt points out over and over again (this is a fact she has difficulty getting over). Because he can’t think or refuses to think beyond the superficial, he had no opinion one way or another about antisemitism or the ideas of racial hierarchy propagated by the Third Reich. He accepted them at face value because his superiors told him to, in fact, he pointed out many times he had no ill feelings toward Jews and socializes with them and even had family members who were Jewish (by marriage). On his self-aggrandizing moments, he went so far to say he saved many thousands of Jews, therefore, it’s proof that he wasn’t really “a Jew-hater”. Arendt didn’t downplay his antisemitism, she’s saying that in the case of Eichmann, it didn’t matter, his mind didn’t reach the deep recesses of such thoughts.
Aside from analyzing the man that was Eichmann, Arendt also took this opportunity to educate the world on how the Holocaust happened, country by country of Nazi conquest. She laid out in painful, at times excruciating detail on how each country dealt with “the Jewish problem”. She would describe said country’s attitudes towards Jews prior to Nazi invasion and their attitudes and actions after the Nazi invasion. Some countries such as Romania was even more hostile to Jews than Germany, if one can imagine that. Sweden, being in the unique position of not being invaded by Nazis, accepted any and all Jewish refugees without preconditions. Denmark stood out as being the lone country that refused to participate in active Judenrein. The local authorities in Denmark flat out refused to comply with the Nazi decrees, starting with wearing the Star of David. When the king of Denmark heard that, he said he would order all Danes (starting with himself) to wear the Star of David if Jews had to wear them. Denmark refused to comply with deportation orders, the Danish civilians hid Jews in their homes, paid for their voyages to Sweden, obfuscate Nazi authorities, in the end the SS officer charged with making Denmark Judenrein threw up his hands and said the Danish population was noncompliant. As a result about 100 Jews were deported from Denmark, these were the ill or very old, who didn’t get the news about where to hide, but they weren’t sent to a death camp, they were sent to Theresienstadt, which was a ghetto for ‘privileged’ Jews who would not be moved on to death camps, of the one hundred Jews that got deported, 48 died, mostly due to existing illnesses. Arendt want to emphasize the case of Denmark to prove that it wasn’t impossible to counter Nazi thugs without violent means, you just had to be clever and most importantly, local authorities had to have conviction in their leadership and having a conscience helps too.
It was when she described how each country dealt with “the Jewish problem” drew the most controversy. The Judenrat (the local Jewish authority charged with deporting and confiscating the property of Jews) in many of these countries conquered by the Nazis assisted the Nazi’s in confisicating their wealth and deporting them to ghettos and then onward to death camps. Whether the individual Judenrats at the time knew what the ultimate fate of their Jewish brethren were, it’s hard to know – after all, those that participated in Judenrat; their lives were not spared. But what’s clear, with documented proof is that the Judenrat did assist in the destruction of the European Jews. And they did make the work of the Nazis easier as function of their existence. This is indisputable. She never blamed the Judenrat, she understands they were under duress, but the fact it happened, that she wrote about it so matter-of-factly; she was accused of not showing sufficient sympathy for the Judenrat and the position they were put in. This angered many and caused many to accuse her of blaming the Jews for their own destruction. She countered very early on in the book, the charge or a common trope that Jews put up no resistance and that’s how a regime could kill millions of them:
Nothing is more terrible than these processions of human beings going like dummies to their deaths” (Les lours de notre mort, 1947). The court received no answer to this cruel and silly question, but one could easily have found an answer had he permitted his imagination to dwell for a few minutes on the fate of those Dutch Jews who in 1941, in the old Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, dared to attack a German security police detachment. Four hundred and thirty Jews were arrested in reprisal and they were literally tortured to death, first in Buchenwald and then in the Austrian camp of Mauthausen. For months on end they died a thousand deaths, and every single one of them would have envied his brethren in Auschwitz and even in Riga and Minsk. There exist many things considerably worse than death, and the S.S. saw to it that none of them was ever very far from their victims’ minds and imagination. In this respect, perhaps even more significantly than in others, the deliberate attempt at the trial to tell only the Jewish side of the story distorted the truth, even the Jewish truth. The glory of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto and the heroism of the few others who fought back lay precisely in their having refused the comparatively easy death the Nazis offered them-before the firing squad or in the gas chamber.
Hannah Arendt coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to describe Eichmann, great evil occurs when men like Eichmann surrender their personhood and decides to not think. That she described Eichmann as ‘banal’ also angered people, it seemed like she was minimizing his crimes. To borrow the phrase from the philosopher Descartes “I think, therefore I am”, Eichmann chose to not think, he was following orders, everything he did was “legal” – this was a point he emphasized over and over again, ad nauseum, he never did anything illegal. Ever. Therefore, he cannot be guilty of the things he’s been charged with on the indictment. This frame of mind was what allowed him to get up every morning, shove screaming men, women and children on the train and send them to their deaths; without ever once thinking about what he was doing. The concerning part is not minimizing him as ‘banal’, the scary part is that a nobody like Eichmann himself, can be capable of such evil, as a result of surrendering one’s ability to think; which then leads one to conclude, anyone can do evil things if they surrender their personhood, which to Arendt is the ability to think.
Hannah Arendt dared to challenge the accepted discourse of the Jewish establishment with regards to the Holocaust. The backlash she suffered was immense. In the biopic on her life Hannah Arendt (2013) – a great review of it here. , it explores the questions she raised in covering the Eichmann trial was something she had to do. Towards the end of the movie, she gave a fiery defense of herself and all the accusations raised against her to her students.
Arendt received thundering applause at the end, the but point is not that she was somewhat vindicated in her views or that she got to say her peace, but that she should be allowed to freely express her views or “question” events in order to think more deeply about them without suffering harmful backlash.