The Eichmann Trial: Fifty Years Later

Three days and fifty years ago, Adolf Eichmann entered a glass booth in a crowded Jerusalem theater-turned-courtroom and stood listening to the indictment read by Moshe Landau, the presiding judge, accusing him of causing the deaths of millions of Jews by facilitating the carrying out of the Nazi’s Final Solution. Several days later,following a series of legal challenges to the proceedings,  Eichmann was asked to respond to the charges. “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment,” he replied.

The trial was widely covered in the international press. But perhaps no coverage of the trial became as notorious as the “Report on the Banality of Evil,” the sub-title given to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (EiJ), which was the book version that appeared in 1963, following a five-part series of articles originally written for The New Yorker. As Allison Hoffman recently noted in an article in Tablet Magazine, The New Yorker articles were fairly well edited by William Shawn, its editor, who had commissioned Arendt for the journalistic assignment. The book did not receive the same treatment. And most people have read the book, not the edited essays.

What made Arendt’s book so highly controversial were a number of substantive points she made, including her claim–not really original, since Raul Hilberg’s Destruction of the European Jews ( a text Arendt replied upon, perhaps even more heavily than she had acknowledged) had made some of the same points–that the Judenraete or Jewish Councils’ “cooperation” with Nazi authorities helped contribute to the scope of the murderous crimes. Added to this was her contention that Eichmann was more of a clown, than a monster. In Arendt’s words, he was “thoughtless”, that is, he lacked the capacity “to think from the standpoint of anyone else.” (EiJ, p. 49) What made the evil perpetrated by the Nazis banal, Arendt continued, was the “ubiquitous complicity” with which these heinous crimes had been carried out. “Conscience itself,” Arendt wrote, “appeared to have gotten lost in Germany.” Yet, even more than these substantive contentions, it was Arendt’s tone–her cynicism and judgmentalism–that made readers bristle at what they read.

Recent scholarship has taken up the case of Eichmann again. David Cesarani’s Becoming Eichmann was published in 2004 by Da Capo Press. And just last week, Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial (Nextbook/Schocken) was released. Both books, in different ways, take issue with Arendt’s central claims. Lipstadt’s goes furthest. Countering Arendt’s criticism of how the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, conducted the trial–making the victims’ suffering the center piece of his case–Lipstadt defends that conduct, arguing that the great effect of the trial was to make the world face for the first time the full scope and consequences of Nazi anti-semitism and the horror of the Holocaust’s murder of six million Jews. Arendt, Lidpstadt contends, “ignored the bedrock of the Holocaust: the long, tortured (torturing) history of anti-semitism. It may have taken German National Socialism to pull from the thick soil of Jew hatred the means to murder millions. However, without a pre-existing animus…deeply ingrained in Western culture…the Nazis could never have accomplished what they did.” p. (185)

Arendt wrote in Eichmann, that the “supreme crime  [the court] was confronted with, the physical extermination of the Jewish people, was a crime against humanity, perpetrated on the body of the Jewish people, and that only the choice of victims, not the nature of the crime, could be derived from the long history of Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism.” (EiJ, p. 269).

Did Arendt downplay anti-Semitism in her analysis of the Holocaust? As you read both Eichmann in Jerusalem, and the first section of Origins of Totalitarianism, consider how Arendt explores the history of anti-Semitism. Why does she criticize the notion of “eternal anti-Semitism”? What does this have to do with her conception of history and politics?

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