Reading Eichmann in Jerusalem

Fifty years ago, Hannah Arendt published her controversial report on the trial of Nazi deportation commander, Adolf Eichmann: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The book put Arendt at the center of a storm of criticism that continues to this day. Her most virulent critics called her a self-hating Jew who seemed to be blaming the victims more than the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Arendt didn’t engage these critics immediately. But several years after the book’s publication she replied indirectly in an essay entitled “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship.”

About seven weeks from now, 16 educators from across the country will join me in a summer seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities to discuss the Eichmann book, the “Personal Responsibility” essay along with several other essays and books b by Arendt. I have recommended that these summer scholars begin their preparation for the seminar by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. In addition to the excellent introduction by Amos Elon in the Penguin edition, several other recent sources can help guide readers into the arguments put forth in the book, as well as those the book launched.

I explored some of this controversy in a recent blog entry on the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities web site of Bard College. The entry was adapted from a longer piece I wrote for Humanities Magazine last month. Another helpful resource is the podcast of a discussion that Roger Berkowitz, director of Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center, participated in last week on Canadian radio’s talk show, “Ideas,” hosted by Paul Kennedy. You can listen here to the discussion where Berkowitz was joined by Adam Gopnik, Rivka Galchen and Adam Kirsch.

“Thinking….is a dangerous activity.”

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5 Comments

  • Joyce Stewart
    Reply

    This reminds me of an interview I heard with John Rizzo, the CIA’s former acting general counsel. On the publication of his memoir, Company Man: 30 Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA, he said, in regards to the question, “Is waterboarding torture?” “No. I’m a lawyer, and torture is legally defined in U.S. law. If I had concluded — or, more importantly, if the Justice Department had concluded — that these techniques constitute torture, we would never have done them. So I can’t say they were torture. I didn’t concede it was torture then, and I don’t now. Waterboarding wasn’t torture then and I don’t concede that it’s torture now.” NPR January 07, 2014. CIA Lawyer: Waterboarding Wasn’t Torture Then and It’s Not Torture Now.
    Rizzo and Eichmann must share a similar moral code.

    • Kathy J.
      Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Joyce. Although to call these codes “moral” may be giving them too much credibility.

  • Mark Valentine
    Reply

    Eichmann’s duty to the Third Reich never wavered; for him, duty trumped thinking and his service, fulfilled in his obedience to his superiors, justified his morality.

    Arendt’s chronicle of Eichmann has a new chapter, reported today in The New Yorker: http://tinyurl.com/majy69v. Thierry Cruvellier has written on the trial of a Khmer Rouge executioner, Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, in his book, The Master of Confessions. The nuances of Duch’s case differs from Eichmann’s but the scent of banality still hovers in the air like a pall.

    • Kathy J.
      Reply

      Thanks for posting this link, Mark.

    • Joy
      Reply

      Why do you suppose Duch was given a life sentence instead of the death penalty? Was it a foregone conclusion that Eichmann would be hung? I see that Duch converted to Christianity after the genocide. How can one think about God and torture in the same world? Eichmann’s last words were, “I die believing in God.” What did he mean? How does Arendt’s writing about reconciliation relate to justice?

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