Sparking a flurry of heated debate, Hannah Arendt's authoritative and stunning report on the trial of German Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann first appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker in 1963. This revised edition includes material that came to light after the trial, as well as Arendt's postscript directly addressing the controversy that arose over her account. A major journalistic triumph by an intellectual of singular influence, Eichmann in Jerusalem is as shocking as it is informative - an unflinching look at one of the most unsettling (and unsettled) issues of the 20th century.
©1963 Hannah Arendt (P)2011 Tantor
A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.
This book is amazing. In it, Arendt struggles with three major issues: 1) the guilt and evil of the ordinary, bureaucratic, obedient German people (like Eichmann) who contributed to the attempted genocide of the Jewish people, 2) the complicity of some jews in the genocide (through organization, mobilization, passive obedience, and negotiations with the Nazis, 3) the logical absurdity the Eichmann and Nuremberg Trials, etc.
In this book (and the original 'New Yorker' essays it came from) Hannah Arendt isn't going for easy, cliché answers. She isn't asking rhetorical or weightless questions. While some of her positions might not be fully supportable, the very act of asking tough questions (that don't fall into easy boxes) is a gift to humanity. Arendt's tactic of giving no one an automatic free pass, while also not allowing people like Eichmann to become cartoonish characters of evil, allows her the room to push the idea that the potential for evil exists not just in dark, scary places, but in well-lit, and very efficient bureaucracies and we all (even Israel) might be asked to push or pull a lever if we aren't paying close attention.
This is a very worthwhile read for the very troubling questions it raises about the shaky moral foundations of modern civilization. Hannah Arendt was sharply criticized by many for her approach to this book, including the subtitle “… the banality of evil.” I fully agree with that particular criticism. She was referring to the banal personality of Adolf Eichmann, who does appear as a self-deluded individual who found recourse in empty, rather “banal” clichés to justify his conduct and defend himself as a fundamentally decent person. The evil depicted in the book is, however, anything but banal. It was the unfathomable and almost incomprehensible mass murder by the Nazi government of all Jews they could capture in Germany and in other European countries they dominated.
The troubling question raised by the Eichmann case is how he (and so many like him) as a decent German “everyman” could have so lost his moral bearings that he became a willing instrument of state-sponsored mass murder directed at innocent civilian populations. He justified himself as following the established German legal order as directed by a great leader (Hitler), that obedience to state authority was a sacred duty as a German citizen, that he did what he could to lessen the sufferings of those whom he was transporting to death camps, and that he did not personally dislike Jews nor ever kill anyone himself. He had seen the death camps. He knew what was going on. Still, his main frustrations and worries seemed to center on bureaucratic confusion and infighting, slights to his authority as chief SS officer for transportation to the death camps, and his slow rate of career advancement given all that he had contributed to a smooth implementation of the transportation aspects of the “final solution” policy.
How could a truly decent person adapt his career priorities, personal talents, and otherwise normal day to day concerns to an enterprise that was fundamentally an instrument of incalculable evil and of untold and immeasurable sufferings? The answer in Eichmann’s case seems to have been a perversion of his moral sense such that the supreme and overriding good was to follow the dictates of Nazi government policy despite its flagrant violation of fundamental tenets of right and wrong he must have known since childhood. Wartime conditions, post Versailles feelings of resentment in Germany, the “stab in the back” myth as a supposed explanation for the German surrender at the end of World War I, a long German and Austrian history of anti-semitism no doubt played important roles. However, those circumstances do not excuse nor fully explain Eichmann. His story suggests that all human beings are fallible, subject to corruption of their moral sense, and capable under certain conditions of becoming untroubled instruments of horrible crimes.
We see such people today amongst the violent jihadists. We should best be on our guard against all political movements that seek to place some particular goal or policy above all considerations of right and wrong that have guided enlightened mankind throughout history.
This work was (and is) highly contreversial and has lost none of it's power to offend. Hannah Arendt, no doubt felt that she was being honest and straightforward. Her narrative often seems far more critical of Israel than the perpetrators of The Holocaust. This is a hard, cold and uncaring narritive. There is an almost complete absence of sympathy for the victims of The Holocaust - only the flippant dismisal that is only appreciated by those who exercise it. It is easy to see why Arendt is often portrayed as a "self lothing Jew". Her unrelenting theme seems to be: this was a ridiculous and unneccesary show trial and look at all the bad and silly things that Israel is doing. Why - how dare Israel kidnap Eichmann and take him to Israel. When she occasionally manages to put her axe aside, the details are useful. Apart from this the "Banality of Evil" can easily be applied to Hannah Arendt herself.
Arendt was severely criticized over her opinions, as expressed in this book. Rather than demonize Eichmann or give him a pass as one who was following orders, she showed the banality of his crimes. Monstrous deeds carried out by a mid level bureaucrat sitting behind a desk,. With the passage of time readers, unlike those in the 1960s, can read this work and use a collective knowledge of the Shoah, which was not available when it was first published.. I suggest serious students of history read about all Eichmann's crimes before reading this narrative of how he was called to account by the Jewish people. Arendt gets full marks for courage to swim against the stream of the public opinion of her time.
Ad nauseam is a Latin term used to describe an argument which has been continuing "to [the point of] nausea". Everyone and everything is inferior to Hannah Arendt in her world. If everyone just had her insight and intellect the world would get it right the first time everytime. This is not so much a book about Eichmann in Jerusalem as an excuse for Arendt to show how bright she is in her own mind. Hannah Arendt, like all contraians, desperately seeks attention through manipulation, Don't bother getting sucked into her convoluted, self-agrandizing, attention seeking arguments. Save your money and just learn about Eichmann and his trial through Wikipedia.
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