And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight: The Eichmann Trial, The Jewish Catastrophe and Hannah Arendt's Narrative
The storm that followed the publication of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem raged for a long time; it provoked violent denunciation or emphatic assent; it even, I am told, poisoned personal relations among intellectuals in New York and to a lesser degree elsewhere. Above all, it drew attention to the many controversial issues in the as yet unwritten history of the Jewish catastrophe during the Second World War. The Arendt debate generated more heat than light; precisely because passions ran so strongly, historical truth at times suffered. It also seems, in retrospect, that a great many people felt impelled to take a position without sufficient knowledge to support their arguments. This does not mean that discussion of the Jewish fate in Europe should be restricted to the professional students of that period; this would be about as absurd as the attempt to confine the discussion of the outstanding political issues of our time to political scientists. But a minimum of factual knowledge is needed to make a genuine contribution to the debate if it is not to turn, as it has done on occasion, into a controversy about moral (or political) dilemmas in general, without reference to time, place, and circumstance.
The author of the present book clearly thinks that Miss Arendt did not have that essential minimum of factual knowledge. Dr. Robinson’s own credentials are formidable; an eminent authority on international law, he brings great erudition, a knowledge of many languages, and an unrivalled mastery of the sources to this full-scale attempt to refute Miss Arendt. Miss Arendt’s name is no doubt one to conjure with in literary circles and among students of political science and the philosophy of history. Dr. Robinson is less well known, but he belongs to a generation that still produced polymaths. His standing among students of contemporary Jewish history is high. Although he does not say so directly, Dr. Robinson was clearly outraged by Miss Arendt’s book. He dissents strongly from her views. He no doubt felt, as many did, that the entire tenor of her work was deplorable, that the murder of six million people was not a fitting occasion for a display of cleverness, occasionally even flippancy. But his rejection of Miss Arendt’s work was also clearly motivated by the resentment felt by the professional against the amateur.
It has been Dr. Robinson’s task to coordinate research between the various institutes devoted to the study of the Jewish catastrophe. He knows probably better than anyone else the complexity of the issues involved, having had to deal for many years with the problems of tracing, sifting, analyzing, and publishing the immense amount of documentation on this saddest of all chapters in Jewish history. More than anyone else he has encouraged the laborious and painful work of collecting such documents as the protocols of local Jewish Councils in Poland, of innumerable eyewitness accounts in Polish, Russian, Hebrew, and many other languages. Most of this immense documentation cannot have been known to Miss Arendt, whose…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.