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Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hanna Arendt: Can We Escape The Banality of Evil?

Updated: Oct 18, 2023



Book Cover of Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt


THE BOOK

  • Full Title: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

  • Author: Hannah Arendt

  • Number of Pages: 312

  • Year: 1963

  • Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir, Political Science

  • Topics: Holocaust, Nazi Germany, Second World War, Jewish Identity

  • Useful Links: Goodreads, Blackwell's


THE BOOK Eichmann in Jerusalem is the fruit of a direct experience of its author, Hannah Arendt, who attended six weeks of the five-month trial held against Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Eichmann, who had been a high officer of the SS (Schutzstaffel) during the Nazi era and one of the main perpetrators of the Holocaust, was judged in Jerusalem by a Jewish-held court and was eventually condemned to death. In her book, Arendt goes beyond the mere report of facts and speeches, but takes the chance to analyze the antefacts and aftermath of the trial, reflecting on its significance and on the origins of the Holocaust, and on the reasons behind the Nazist relentlessness in cancelling the Jewish people. The book, which is considered Arendt's masterwork, was much acclaimed and criticized immediately after its publication in 1963 and has remained controversial ever since.


THE AUTHOR Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a German-born American philosopher and political thinker. Born and raised in Germany, there, she studied philosophy and even engaged with some of the most important scholars of her time. Being a Jew, in 1933 she was forced to leave her homeland and reach France first, and the United States later - she will never stablely return. Instead, she spent the post-war years writing several works and essays on contemporary politics, totalitarianism, democracy and the influence of evil in power. Her most notable work is Eichmann in Jerusalem.



BOOK NOTES: ONCE A CRIME HAS APPEARED, IT CAN APPEAR AGAIN


The disappointment Hannah Arendt felt in 1961 when in Jerusalem to attend the trial against Adolf Eichmann, a former Nazi official, may also sweep over you while reading this book.


Indeed, when reading the memoirs of a trial that involved an exponent of one of the most evil and criminal machines of all time, we expect to recognize a monster, to grasp some extraordinariness, to comfort ourselves with the idea that their very existence has been a little mistake in an ocean of normal and fundamentally good people.


But Eichmann is not extraordinary, he is banal.


In his mediocrity of mind, words and thoughts the banality of evil is evident, and Hannah Arendt lets her book rotate around it:

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. [...] this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together*.

Eichmann did what he did because he was simply following orders.


Did he feel any hatred towards the Jewish people? Not really. He didn't even know their culture very well, he only wished to kick up his career by doing his job better and faster, even if the job was scheming the killing of thousands of people.


And Arendt's target is not always and solely the Nazis or Germany. The writer knows that what was done during the Second World War would not have been possible without the compliance of many others, victims included.


A Jew herself, forced to flee to save her life, Hanna Arendt reflects on how and why her fellow Jews simply accepted their death and often did little to rebel. She also goes through the reactions of other European and non-European countries, sparing no one - for clarification maybe, or for the sake of truth.


Does this bring any relief? Does the trial, which ends with the capital punishment for Eichmann, provide any sense of justice, does it close any chapter?


Hannah Arendt sounds sceptical throughout her whole masterwork, and cynical.


Her lucidity and position - of a survivor and a Jew - allowed her to speak frankly, and that moment in history - the 1960s - was fairly close but far enough from the events to analyze them with what we can call emotional objectivity.


Be aware of the banality of evil, the author warns us in her disenchantment, because if an army of mediocre and banal men had committed genocide and had done it in plain sight, this can happen again:


Whatever the punishment, once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been.

Can we escape the banality of evil then? How long before it appears again?


Hannah Arendt may surely sound a bit too pessimistic, but her voice was that of a person who knew a side of humanity many of us have never seen so far.


The writer left us a great lesson on humanity, and reading this book in 2023 makes it clearest than ever that people will most likely always find a reason to cyclically hate. Poor knowledge and limited understanding of our own context and of others can lead to disaster and sorrow.


Adolf Eichmann taking notes during his trial
Adolf Eichmann taking notes during his trial | Image credits: Wikimedia Commons


WHY READ EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM


Eichmann in Jerusalem can be well considered one of the great classics of the 20th century, and the power of its topic and its writer would be enough to read it. But if we really wish to pinpoint some of the main reasons why it would be great to have it on our shelves, here are a few:


First, always first, memoirs of the Holocaust or of any event related to it are good for our collective memory, which should constantly be refreshed. The moment we forget what happened or we lose grip on its crude reality, Hannah Arendt's words might come true - it can happen again.


And if this concept was rather obvious in the 70s, 80s or 90s, since I was born I have been increasingly feeling it slipping away from my hands and my mind, and I am afraid this may be true for others.


Then, in these weeks more than before (October 2023), Eichmann in Jerusalem can provide some crucial insights into what Israel had meant for the Jews who survived the concentration camps but had their old lives all torn apart; or even for people like Hanna Arendt, who somehow seems to find in the by-then newly-created State of Israel some sort of recognition for the Jewish community, even if her lucidity and usual critical point of view never leave her side.


The ill, the aged, single lonely survivors of families who did not know where to turn. [...] those who had survived the ghettos and the camps [...] had only one wish, to go where they would never see a non-Jew again.

It is undoubted that the creation of the State of Israel involved many more factors than we are able to understand now, and that, maybe, it was the result of a sin of presumption of some who thought this could be the best solution to alleviate the pain of a decimated people but failed to consider the excruciating consequences this would have.


In the end, several of the people who fled to Israel after the end of the war did so with wounded souls and enraged spirits - the prediction of future hatred and violence was maybe impossible to miss.


Hannah Arendt (right) attending Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem
Hannah Arendt (right) attending Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem | Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons



 


References:

*This quote and the next are based on the ebook version of Hanna Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin Modern Classics, 2022.




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