First published in 1963 as a series of articles in The New Yorker, this is philosopher Hannah Arendt’s report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. Eichmann admitted to being one of the major organizers of the Holocaust but denied any guilt in the criminal sense because he had only been following orders in a system that did not allow disobedience. He was sentenced to death and executed by hanging in 1962.
Huge controversies broke out over this account of the trial and Arendt was accused of blaming the Jewish people for their fate or of excusing Eichmann’s actions. None of this is true, but there are some uncomfortable facts that Arendt examines closely, for instance the role Jewish councils played in regards to the deportations. Were they complicit or just self-deluded about what they were doing? It is a fair question to ask but naturally a painful one. The report is overall a critical and opinionated analysis of the subject matter and that some parts of it incited controversy is understandable, even if its magnitude seems disproportionate.
The historical background provided is thorough and shows the scope of anti-Semitism in Europe and examines deportations in many countries. Arendt also details what exactly Eichmann’s work as a “special expert on Jewish affairs” entailed and how it progressed from emigration to deportation and then to extermination. He was responsible for the logistics, for instance organizing the trains without disrupting the war effort, financing these operations, or dealing with confiscated property. He was a bureaucrat that made sure that this machinery of destruction ran as smooth and efficient as possible, and what this made him was a mass murderer that had never killed and, as Arendt thinks, would have never had the guts to kill. The bureaucracy behind the whole operation dehumanized not only his victims but led Eichmann to liken himself to just a cog in the wheel that could have easily been replaced by someone else.
Herein lies the crux of the matter: Not only were moral, political, and legal questions raised by this trial, the legal system as a whole seemed entirely ill-equipped to deal with a criminal like Eichmann. He did not kill with his own two hands, was not one of the leaders of the regime, and only a lieutenant colonel by rank, but he directly and knowingly contributed to the death of millions of people as a Schreibtischtäter or desk murderer. Knowing this, the discussion of legal intricacies and concerns can seem callous, but for a philosopher like Arendt they are important and the points she makes are valid, even though it is difficult to really care about them in light of so much horror.
As for the portrayal and assessment of Eichmann’s character, Arendt saw in him the embodiment of what she called the “banality of evil”; he is depicted as an ordinary man that was only interested in his own career and had little empathy for others. This view of him has been contested since then, but the question is why it should even matter. Was Eichmann a monster? Arendt denies this, but I think this opinion is debatable because no matter how ordinary or how uninterested in the ideology he may have been, his actions speak for themselves, and in a case like this, the source of his motivation seems a negligible factor to me. Can we learn something about the human condition or human behaviour from him? Probably that there are more people capable of indescribable evil than we like to think.
There is so much thought-provoking material packed into this book and the subject matter is so heavy that reading it is both incredibly depressing and rewarding, and its importance is undeniable. At the very end, Arendt states that her account of the trial is only concerned with “the extent to which the court in Jerusalem succeeded in fulfilling the demands of justice.” I think it can be agreed that it offers so much more than that.