Eichmann Arrested Fifty-One Years Ago Today

Fifty-one years ago today, on May 11, 1960, Adolf Eichmann stepped off a bus in Buenos Aires, Argentina and into the hands of his Israeli captors, agents from Mossad, the Israeli special forces. Some days later they transported him on an El-Al flight to Israel. On April 11, 1961, the trial of Adolf Eichmann for his role in the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” overseeing the deportation of European Jewry and, after 1942, their transportation to the killing centers in the east.

After 14 weeks of testimony, the trial ended on August 14, 1961. In December, Eichmann was convicted and sentenced to death. (More than 200 hours of testimony from the trial are available on the Eichmann Trial Channel on Israel’s Yad Vashem web site.)

Hannah Arendt attend several weeks of the trial until early May, during the time the prosecution was establishing its case. She returned in June, 1961, for a few days, when Eichmann first took the stand in his own defense. She was not there when the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, cross-examined him. But she read all the transcripts and an enormous body of secondary research related to the trial.

What did she say in this book that led to her subsequent vilification, an attack that seems to be, in many ways, renewed in recent weeks?

As her biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl noted, it was Arendt’s judgment—of the conduct of the trial; of the scope of its reach, which put the victims of the Holocaust, even those never directly affected by Eichmann’s activities, at the center; of the failure of Israel to grasp what she called the “unprecedented” nature of the crime of the Final Solution; of the role of the Judenrat in the creation of lists of Jews for deportation; of the early relationship between certain Zionist organizations and the Reich; of the characterization of Eichmann himself as not so much a monster as a clown—that caused great consternation. All that, and the idea she articulated as the “banality of evil,” a concept meant to represent the fact that, in a world turned upside down, where the old injunction not to kill has been turned on its head, and reversed into a legalized order to kill, the ordinary moral categories seem to have been disappeared from the social fabric. Evil itself has become banal.

Arendt’s “report” on the trial became the basis for an extensive and often vituperative campaign against her. In recent weeks, both the publication of Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial, and the opening of a new exhibition in Berlin on the trial at the Topography of Terror Museum have prompted reassessment of the trial’s significance and specifically challenged Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of its meaning in her Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Reporting on the exhibit in Berlin, Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times this week that, “Historians like Mr. [Ulrich]Herbert have increasingly been questioning Arendt’s iconic concept of the ‘banality of evil.’ As an underling to ultimate Nazi policy makers like Himmler and Heydrich, Eichmann was following orders, but was also ‘convinced of his actions,’ Mr. Herbert insisted.” And Lipstadt, too, drawing on material David Cesarani first cited in his Becoming Eichmann, insists that Eichmann was aware that what he was doing was wrong. (The Eichmann Trial, p. 164).

But what is Arendt arguing in Eichmann? That Eichmann did not know what he was doing was wrong? Or, is she using him as an example of how it became possible for people otherwise ordinary to become complicit and willing participants in the performance of extraordinarily horrible deeds? And when she writes about this new crime against humanity that entered the world with the Holocaust, does she underestimate the force of anti-Semitism, as Lipstadt claims? Or, was she pointing to something else when she said that “the supreme crime [the court in Jerusalem faced] in the physical extermination of the Jewish people was a crime against humanity, perpetrated on the body of the Jewish people, and…only the choice of the victims, not the nature of the crime, could be derived from the long history of Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism. (p.269)

As one reads Eichmann in Jerusalem, it becomes important to pay careful attention to the tone of Arendt’s prose. What effect does her irony have on how to read her? There is no question that her words are often biting, even cynical. And this can lead an inattentive reader to confuse by things she reports Eichmann with what Arendt herself actually thought.

But the questions she raises about judgment and the meaning of the trial are important, still, to ponder.

For a related discussion on Eichmann and Arendt’s judgment, see Roger Berkowitz’ April and May entries on the Hannah Arendt Center blog.

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