Book Review Series – 2

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Murat Yildiz[1]

murat.yildiz@gc4ss.org

Senior Expert
Global Center for Security Studies

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” by Hannah Arendt”

Preamble

It is quite a courage to write a book review. Especially, if one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century is the author of the book, it is almost next to impossible for me to describe the level of anxiety dealing with since the start of my first draft of the book review. Nevertheless, I decided to open the door of my inner world and let my observations, opinions and feelings about the book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” fly around the intellectual circles.

A Brief look into Hannah Arendt’s Life

For those who closely follow the fields of philosophy and political science would agree that Hannah Arendt’s name and legacy is very well known. A prominent figure of the 20th century and a German-born American political theorist, Arendt wrote and published eighteen books and numerous articles, on topics ranging from totalitarianism to epistemology, and had a lasting influence on political theory. “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951) that examined the roots of Communism and Nazism is her first major book. Hannah Arendt holds a Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg. She was very active in the Zionist movement in Europe before the World War II. In 1933, she had to flee from Germany for Czechoslovakia and then Geneva, where she worked for some time at the League of Nations. In 1937, she was stripped of her German citizenship. In May 1940, after the German invasion of France, Arendt was interned as an “enemy alien” in Camp Gurs, but managed to escape before the Germans reached the area. Arendt left France in 1941, traveling via Portugal to the United States. She relied on the visa illegally issued by the American diplomat Hiram Bingham, who aided roughly 2,500 Jewish refugees in this way. Varian Fry, another American humanitarian, paid for her travel and helped obtain the visas. Upon arriving in New York, Arendt became active in the German-Jewish community. From 1941 to 1945, she wrote a column for the German-language Jewish newspaper named “Aufbau”. Beginning  in 1944, she was the director of research for the Commission of European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, and in that capacity travelled to Europe after the war. Since coming to the United States in 1941, she taught at the University of California, Chicago, and at the Colombia, Princeton, and Wesleyan.

The deeper I look into Hannah Arendt’s biography, surprisingly, the bigger similarity I see in the recent human tragedies taking place in Turkey and in other parts of the World. I have the strong feeling that many of you, who have already known Arendt and/or read Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil may appreciate what I mean about similarities. In brief, the history is repeating itself. Sad, but it is true.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

Otto Adolf Eichmann was a German Nazi SS- Lieutenant Colonel and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. He was tasked with facilitating and managing the logistics involved in the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during the World War II. Some survivors of the Holocaust committed themselves to finding Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis, and among them was Jewish Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal learned from a letter shown to him in 1953 that Adolf Eichmann had been seen in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and he passed along that information to the Israeli consulate in Vienna in 1954. Eichmann’s father died in 1960, and Wiesenthal arranged for private detectives to secretly photograph members of his family. Eichmann’s brother Otto was said to bear a strong family resemblance and there were no current photos of the fugitive. He provided these photographs to Mossad agents on 18 February 1960.

Argentina had a history of turning down extradition requests for the Nazi criminals, so Israeli Prime Minister –then- David Ben-Gurion decided that Eichmann should be captured rather than extradited and brought to Israel for trial. On 11 May 1960, the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, captured Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to Israel. He was found guilty of war crimes in a widely publicised trial in Israel and was hanged in 1962. Hannah Arendt followed the trial for The New Yorker and published her book entitled “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”.

 

 

When Adolf Eichmann was brought to trial in Jerusalem in 1961, the eyes of the world were on the courtroom, because of the drama of his kidnaping, the bitter controversies over the jurisdiction, the scope and solemnity of trial and its racial and political undercurrents. Hannah Arendt used all these materials and came up with one of the most controversial books. She wanted to shed a light over a number of questions. For what was Eichmann being tried? Under what law? By what precedent?

In answering these questions, Hannah Arendt brought unmatched qualifications. Her knowledge of German and Germans enabled her to penetrate beneath the surface to the subterranean forces that shaped the trial. Her command of philosophy and politics as well as her study of the Nuremberg trials and the successor ones made it possible for her to isolate the points of international laws and human justice raised in Jerusalem.

Hannah Arendt thought Eichmann appeared to have an ordinary personality, displaying neither guilt nor hatred. Arendt also wrote, “this case was built on what the Jews had suffered, not on what Eichmann had done”.

“Act in a such way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it”

One of the key features of this book is that in presenting, the points raised either by prosecutors, defendant (Eichmann) and/or by judges, Arendt provides her readers with very rich and deep philosophical observations, cross examinations, and analysis. Let me bring one of the examples from the book. Arendt discussed Eichmann’s statement when he stated himself in the court that he had always tried to abide by Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (pp. 135–137). She argues that Eichmann had essentially taken the wrong lesson from Kant: Eichmann had not recognized the “golden rule” and principle of reciprocity implicit in the categorical imperative but had understood only the concept of one man’s actions coinciding with general law. Eichmann attempted to follow the spirit of the laws he carried out, as if the legislator himself would approve (“Act in a such way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it”). In Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative, the legislator is the moral self, and all men are legislators; in Eichmann’s formulation, the legislator was Hitler. Eichmann claimed this changed when he was charged with carrying out the Final Solution, at which point Arendt claims “he had ceased to live according to Kantian principles, that he had known it, and that he had consoled himself with the thoughts that he no longer ‘was master of his own deeds,’ that he was unable ‘to change anything'” (p. 136).

The other observation from the book is about Eichmann’s personal traits. According to the book, despite his claims, Eichmann was not, in fact, very intelligent. As Arendt details in the book’s second chapter, Eichmann was unable to complete either high school or vocational training, and only found his first significant job (traveling salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company) through family connections. Arendt noted that, during both his SS career and Jerusalem trial, Eichmann tried to cover up his lack of skills and education, and even “blushed” when these facts became known.

Arendt concludes on Eichmann’s personality bay saying that “Despite all the efforts of  the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this suspicion would have been fatal to the entire enterprise [his trial], and was also rather hard to sustain in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused to millions of  people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed and almost never reported (p. 55)”.

Arendt suggests that this most strikingly discredits the idea that the Nazi criminals were manifestly psychopathic and different from “normal” people. Many concluded that situations such as the Holocaust can make even the most ordinary of people commit horrendous crimes with the proper incentives, but Arendt adamantly disagreed with this interpretation, as Eichmann was voluntarily following the Führerprinzip. Arendt insists that moral choice remains even under totalitarianism, and that this choice has political consequences even when the chooser is politically powerless.

There are many passages from the book that I wish I could be able to quote in this review. However, as you may appreciate, it is rather not possible. What possible is that, for those who are interested in, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” is available in bookshelves and (e-) libraries waiting for its readers.

I had a privilege of reading the printed version from 1964. It gave me a unique feeling when I held early printed version of the book.  I hope you would also enjoy reading a brilliant and disturbing study of the character and trial of Adolf Eichmann.

[1] Ph.D. Candidate. Philosophy and Educational Sciences

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