Eichmann in Jerusalem, 1961–1963
“Going along with the rest and wanting to say ‘we’ were quite enough to make the greatest of all crimes possible.”—Hannah Arendt, interview with Joachim Fest, 1964.
Afterward, when Hannah Arendt published her book-length account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the fugitive Nazi SS officer who had helped to implement Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution, the tumult the book created deeply shocked her. “People are resorting to any means to destroy my reputation,” she wrote to her friend Karl Jaspers soon after the book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, appeared in 1963. “They have spent weeks trying to find something in my past that they can hang on me.” The Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations, the editors of influential magazines she had written for, faculty members at colleges where she earned a precarious living as a visiting professor, and friends from every period of her life objected to her characterization of Eichmann, who had been popularly branded “the most evil monster of humanity,” as “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Many were infuriated by her depiction of Nazi-era European Jewish leaders—some of whom were still alive and highly regarded—as having (“almost without exception”) cooperated with Eichmann in sending ordinary Jews to Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Chelmno. Where only months earlier Arendt had been celebrated as a brilliant, original, and deeply humanistic political thinker, she was now attacked as arrogant, ill-informed, heartless, a dupe of Eichmann, an enemy of Israel, and a “self-hating Jewess.” “What a risky business to tell the truth on a factual level without theoretical and scholarly embroidery,” she wrote to her best friend and steadfast defender Mary McCarthy. But the trouble with her book was its theory—namely that ordinary men and women, driven not by personal hatred or by extreme ideology but merely by middle-class ambitions and an inability to empathize, voluntarily ran the machinery of the Nazi death factories, and that the victims, when pushed, would lie to themselves and comply. The book launched a pitched battle among intellectuals in the United States. It blunted Arendt’s reputation at its height and has cast a shadow on her legend ever since.
Hannah Arendt was seated in the press benches when the Eichmann trial opened to a tidal wave of publicity on April 11, 1961, in a makeshift courtroom in west Jerusalem. The State of Israel was only thirteen years old. No Israeli courthouse was big enough to accommodate the spectacle, so a brand-new performance theater called the House of the People was taken over for the proceedings. It seated 750 people, but interest far outpaced capacity. In the opening days, as many as seven hundred reporters from three dozen countries, international politicians and celebrities, jurists, Israeli and European camp survivors, historians, and tourists competed to squeeze into the arena for a glimpse of the notorious Nazi. Arendt was on assignment for the New Yorker, and on many days she brought along her seventeen-year-old first cousin once removed, Edna Brocke, née Fuerst, who had grown up in Israel. Taking notes nearby were former war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, representing the Atlantic Monthly; Elie Wiesel, writing for the Yiddish-language American Jewish Daily Forward; former deputy judge advocate general Lord Russell of Liverpool and Oxford professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, both writing for the London Sunday Times; along with reporters from the New York Times, Der Spiegel, and the Washington Post. Cables and electrical wires crisscrossed the courtroom floor to transmit the first continuous live television feed and videotaping of a judicial proceeding for an international audience, and transcripts were distributed daily. Later, Arendt’s critics would claim that she attended too few courtroom sessions and depended too heavily on tapes and transcripts, and in fact she was on hand in Jerusalem for a total of only five or six weeks of the five-month trial. But others also came and went, while the world watched on television.
The indictment against Eichmann was read by the chief judge on the first day of the trial; it ran to fifteen counts. These enumerated “crimes against the Jewish people” and “against humanity” that had been committed or caused by Eichmann between 1938 and 1945, beginning with his alleged participation in the murderous Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938 and encompassing the forced transportation and extermination of the majority of Jews then living in Germany, the Axis countries, and the nations occupied by the German army during the war years. The indictment listed the concentration and death camps to which Eichmann “and others” knowingly sent Jews for the purpose of mass murder, the approximate number of Jews sent to the camps, and the dates during which the camps operated. At the end of the reading, Eichmann, asked if he understood the indictment, spoke for the first time. “Yes, certainly,” he said in German. Asked how he pleaded, he answered, “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment.”
There were a number of reasons for the almost hysterical interest in the Eichmann trial—the international equivalent of the O. J. Simpson trial in its day. At the end of World War II, hundreds of fugitive Nazi officers were rumored to be hiding in towns and cities around the world, evil phantoms abetted by right-wing governments and networks of fascist fellow travelers. Eichmann and his bosses in the notorious SS, or Schutzstaffel—Heinrich Himmler’s elite paramilitary corps, which was directly responsible for carrying out Hitler’s plan to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe—had either disappeared, been murdered, or, in the case of Himmler, committed suicide and thus escaped prosecution and sentencing during the historic war crimes trials at Nuremberg in 1945 and 1946. Partly as a result, the destruction of as many as six million Jewish men, women, and children—murder on a scale previously unknown in history—had not been thoroughly adjudicated or even acknowledged at Nuremberg or in the successor tribunals of the late 1940s, which had focused on Germany’s illegal actions against other sovereign states in Europe. With Eichmann now in the seat of judgment in Jerusalem, the full story of the Jewish Holocaust, including, for the first time, the testimony of concentration camp survivors, would finally be heard. Or so the young State of Israel expected.
Another reason was that a year earlier, in May 1960, Israeli secret service agents had extracted Eichmann from his hiding place in Argentina, sedated him, kidnapped him, and brought him to Jerusalem in a dramatic, extralegal maneuver that had been cheered, criticized, and generally debated around the world for months before the trial. The compelling attraction for most observers and for Arendt, however, was the mysterious figure of Eichmann, who, for his own protection, sat sealed in a bulletproof glass cage at the foot of the judges’ raised platform for the duration of the trial. Slight, balding, bespectacled, with a runny nose and a compulsive twist of his thin and bitter mouth, he looked more like “a ghost who has a cold on top of that,” as Arendt aptly described him in a letter to Karl Jaspers, than the representative of a self-appointed master race. He had been the head of the Office of Jewish Affairs of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, as well as a midranking lieutenant colonel in Himmler’s murderous SS, and he was considered the most wanted war criminal alive in the early 1960s. The Israeli and American newspapers of the period characterized him not only as monstrous and “bloodthirsty” but also as Hitler’s foremost architect of and technician for the implementation of “the Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” a particularly repellent Nazi euphemism for unprecedented genocide. This last characterization of Eichmann turned out not to be entirely credible, as Arendt and others made clear at the time.
Everyone agreed at the outset that Eichmann was a strangely anemic-appearing exemplar of demonic evil. A high school dropout and a failed traveling “vacuum-oil” salesman, he was “the déclassé son of a solid middle-class family,” Arendt recorded in Eichmann in Jerusalem, although a German historian named Bettina Stangneth has recently cast doubt on his black sheep status and painted his whole family in a darker light. He told Israeli interrogators that he had joined the Nazi Party in 1932, a year before Hitler seized power, for no particular reason except that a party official who was also a socially prominent family friend had suggested it. Soon thereafter, he was fired from his sales job, and the friend, one Ernst Kaltenbrunner, offered him a paid position in the elite SS corps of the Reich security police. By Eichmann’s own account, in the following years he discovered in himself a gift for navigating large bureaucracies and orchestrating complex administrative tasks, and by the late 1930s he had caught the eye of Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler and had been promoted from the position of a minor SS functionary to become the chief operational officer and supervisor of the transportation network that carried Jews from Germany and central Europe to concentration and extermination camps in Poland, while also establishing cooperative relations with Nazi-appointed local Jewish leadership councils and cataloging and sending to Berlin huge caches of money and property left behind by victims going to their deaths. Captured by Americans in 1945, he slipped out of a prisoner-of-war camp and, using a series of false names, followed a fantastic escape route beginning in north Germany and ending in an unelectrified house on a dirt road outside of Buenos Aires. There he lived for a decade as Ricardo Klement, hydraulic engineer, rabbit farmer, laundryman, mechanic, husband, and father. His wife and sons, who joined him from Germany in 1952, kept the Eichmann name, which—in conjunction with his fondness for recounting past exploits in company with other escaped Nazis—allowed Israeli secret agents to find him and thus abduct him and fly him to Jerusalem, where, after eleven months of interrogation, he sat in his glass cage. An old boast to his subordinates, recounted at Nuremberg and repeated by him to Nazi cronies in Argentina, that “I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction,” was published in Life magazine and broadcast around the world before the trial began. Eichmann was a “moral monster,” Gideon Hausner, the Polish-born Israeli prosecutor, told reporters. Seeing him in court, however, Martha Gellhorn, anticipating Arendt and many other commentators, asked how it was possible that “a little man with a thin neck, high shoulders, [and] curiously reptilian eyes” committed such “unrepentant, unlimited, planned evil”? It was a question that Arendt was particularly well equipped to answer.
She was fifty-four years old that spring, a short, chain-smoking intellectual celebrity with an impeccable pedigree and an enormous capacity for work. Born and raised in Germany, she was the child of middle-class, assimilated German Jewish parents. She had been exquisitely well educated in German literature, classical Greek, and ancient and modern philosophy by the great thinkers of the Weimar age, including her friend Karl Jaspers and the charismatic Martin Heidegger. She recognized and escaped the Nazi peril early, fleeing first to Paris in 1933 and later to New York City, where she lived with her husband, a German gentile called Heinrich Blücher, and spent her leisure hours joyfully cogitating with a “tribe” of distinguished intellectual friends that included Hans Morgenthau, Hans Jonas, Paul Tillich, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Robert Lowell, and Mary McCarthy. She had collected prizes for her books and essays ranging from a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952 to the prestigious Lessing Prize of the Free City of Hamburg, Germany, in 1959. But she was best known and most deeply respected for her great and difficult work of political history, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, in which she had traced the rise of the twentieth century’s two totalitarian monoliths, Nazism and Stalinism, and analyzed the motives of the men who created them and the men who willingly operated their machinery of murder, especially in Germany. She called these men and their objectives “radically evil,” adopting a phrase used by Immanuel Kant, insofar as they attempted to render human individuality—even human law and human existence—“superfluous,” without meaning either for the regimes’ foot soldiers or their victims.
Arendt had approached the The New Yorker for an assignment to write about the Eichmann trial in part to test her theories. She wanted to witness the shape of justice as it would be meted out to one of the Nazi thugs—the deplorable “mass men” and “isolated individuals in an atomized society” who longed to become players in a larger cause, as she described such men in Origins—about whom she had thought so long and so deeply, albeit from a distance. “Don’t forget how early I left Germany and how little of [the Nazi regime] I really experienced directly,” she wrote to Jaspers, explaining her desire to cover the trial for the The New Yorker. The elderly philosopher, living in Switzerland, responded with a list of reservations, warning, “The Eichmann trial will be no pleasure for you. I’m afraid it cannot go well.” He fretted that the accused might decide not to defend himself but merely say, “Here I stand. It can happen that an eagle falls into the hands of clever trappers,” in which case world anti-Semitism, still active if driven belowgroundbelow ground, would gain a martyr. Jaspers feared lest a young and vulnerable Israel suffer political harm as a result of the kidnapping and trial, and he cautioned that simple human wisdom might fail when confronted by the historical, political, and legal wrangling that was bound to complicate the trial. “What you will hear will, I fear, depress you and outrage you,” he warned. She shared his doubts about potential pitfalls in the conduct of the trial but wrote, “I would never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t go and look at this walking disaster [Eichmann] face to face.”
She was as celebrated in Jerusalem as she was in America and Europe. She spent evenings with her old friend the former president of the Zionist Federation of Germany Kurt Blumenfeld, her cousin Edna Brocke’s family, or Israeli dignitaries. She and Blumenfeld shared a private dinner with the trial’s chief judge, Moshe Landau, who—“Marvelous man!” and “the best of German Jewry!”—didn’t ordinarily meet with reporters, and she argued deep into the night with Golda Meir, then the Israeli foreign minister, about the need for an Israeli national constitution, like the U.S. Constitution she deeply admired, that would guarantee separation of church and state and equal rights to all.
Arendt had strong confidence in her ability to identify moral principles in the midst of outrage, and she had no particular quarrel with the kidnapping of Eichmann or even with Israel’s broadly disputed right to try a German fugitive, whom she considered hostis humani generis, an enemy of the human race. One thing she did object to, strongly, was Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s boasts to the world press that the trial would be conducted as a “show trial” with a triple purpose: to establish a permanent record of the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust, as distinct from other war crimes; to influence world opinion in favor of Israel and against its hostile Arab neighbors, whom he characterized as “disciples of the Nazis”; and to instruct young Israelis—born too late to remember Hitler but in time to have watched Israeli soldiers win two regional wars—as to why their parents did not more forcefully resist the Nazi scourge. Additionally, even if the trial were conducted well, she wrote to Jaspers, “I’m afraid that Eichmann will be able to prove, first of all, that no country wanted the Jews (just the kind of Zionist propaganda that Ben Gurion wants and I consider a disaster) and will demonstrate, second, to what a huge degree the Jews helped organize their own destruction.” As it turned out, it was not Eichmann but Arendt who emphasized the last point. She had an old grudge against Ben-Gurion and an even older antipathy to seeing Jews portrayed as defenseless pawns and victims.
About some things, she and Jaspers need not have worried. Eichmann mounted a defense, a surprisingly wily one.
Excerpt from Hannah Arendt: A Life In Dark Times.
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