Eichmann In Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
Hannah Arendt’s book is a brilliant and disturbing study of the character and the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, himself, scareely seems to be one of the major figures in the Germany that killed six million Jews. He is, rather, an agent, conditioned to follow orders, who had certain gifts as an organizer. In her own summing up, Miss Arendt distinguishes between the responsibility of an agent and the passivity of a mere cog. As the moral argument for Eichmann’s execution, Hannah Arendt writes in her conclusion:
Just as you carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want you to share the earth with them. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.
(This final statement is perhaps the only instance in which one is not entirely convinced of the rightness of the author’s touch.)
Eichmann in Jerusalem sums up for us the immensely complex organization of those branches of the Nazi Party which were concerned with the “Final Solution” of the Jewish question. It studies also the situation in the various countries outside Germany which made it in some places more difficult, in other less difficult, to liquidate non-German Jews; it gives a deep understanding of what was historically unprecedented in the Nazi adoption of genocide as a national policy toward the Jews and toward, potentially, all other nations.
To many of us it may seem that Miss Arendt’s greatest achievement is not just to explain the character of Eichmann within the setting of a monstrous, guilt-laden history, but to translate the guilt into the conscious and immediate language of responsibility. Our guilt for the evil of the world oppresses and hypnotizes us. But Hannah Arendt stresses in her subtitle that this book is her “report on the banality of evil.” The feeling that we all must in some mysterious way share the guilt of the Nazis is a sentimentality she deplores; nevertheless banality is the atmosphere in which our civilization breathes. Given the political situation, the surrounding banality, with its corruption of language, led to the program of mass-killing. Responsibility would have consisted of a day-to-day effort to keep one’s mind free of that banality, from the acceptance of those abstractions which first produced the mind and then the action of an Eichmann. The meaning of this, not only for Germany, but for all of us should be clear.
Eichmann was naturally a type upon and through whom the Nazis could work: one of the low, or lowered, who in the post-war Austrian and German Republics had become meaningless ciphers, and to whom the Nazis offered a life of rhetorical meaning, on condition, though, that he still remain essentially …
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.