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Footnotes to the Holocaust

And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight: The Eichmann Trial, The Jewish Catastrophe and Hannah Arendt’s Narrative

by Jacob Robinson
Macmillan, 406 pp., $6.95

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 research was based largely upon secondary materials, such as the books of Reitlinger and Hilberg. These are valuable studies as far as they go, but they are based only on Nazi sources. As Mr. Hilberg says in his Preface to The Destruction of the European Jews: “This is not a book about Jews, it is a book about the people who destroyed the Jews.” Can one write about Jewish behavior in the face of the disaster without constant reference to the enormous amount of documentation which Dr. Robinson and others have collected?

Dr. Robinson clearly does not think so; he went over Miss Arendt’s book with a fine-toothed comb and a powerful magnifying glass. His scholarly apparatus is awe-inspiring—about one hundred pages of notes and bibliographical references to both published and unpublished material in many languages. Dr. Robinson proves beyond any shadow of doubt that Miss Arendt has made literally hundreds of mistakes, has used incorrect statistics, and has quoted out of context. The relevance of all these corrections is not, however, always immediately obvious. For example, Dr. Robinson notes that Italy joined the Hague Convention in 1907, whereas Miss Arendt didn’t think so; he devotes four pages—exactly as much space as he devotes to the fate of French Jewry—to the question of whether, from a constitutional point of view, the crown of Hungary went with that of the Holy Roman Empire. There is thus a sense of imbalance, and the impression is created that the lawyer in Dr. Robinson too often gets the better of the historian. From a lawyer’s point of view it is no doubt of decisive importance to discredit a hostile expert by showing that he is not really master of his subject. Now Miss Arendt’s trip to Jerusalem did not make her an expert on contemporary Jewish history, and for a specialist like Dr. Robinson this is not difficult to prove. But there is a tendency to overdo it; even if Miss Arendt gives the name of an SS Obergruppenfuehrer as Hans, and Dr. Robinson promptly points out that it really should be Hanns, this does not necessarily disqualify her from commenting on SS policy.

Dr. Robinson’s intention was to put the record straight and he had therefore to go into considerable detail. But such immersion in detail can be dangerous; he is a most painstaking scholar, but not an infallible one. Had Miss Arendt a team of researchers at her disposal they could, no doubt, find mistakes in Dr. Robinson’s book. They would show for instance that Freisler, president of the Nazi People’s Court, was killed in February 1945 and not in 1944 (as Dr. Robinson says), that Martin Luther (not the Protestant theologian, but a high Nazi official) did not die a natural death, that it ought to be Sudetendeutscher rather than Sudetedeutscher, and so forth. What would it prove? Very little, if anything. It is, I admit, unfair to equate Miss Arendt’s attitude towards facts with Dr. Robinson’s almost obsessive scholarly accuracy. But attacking Miss Arendt’s book mainly in its details is not wholly effective. As a result there is all too often no real confrontation between Miss Arendt, half philosopher and half journalist, with a somewhat cavalier attitude towards facts, and her antagonist, who hardly ever pauses for general reflection between his footnotes. Dr. Robinson is devastating on matters of detail, but less persuasive when it comes to summing up the discussion of the broader issues and their political and moral implications. In his section on “Jewish behavior in the face of disaster,” half of Dr. Robinson’s space is given to quoting an eyewitness account by a Christian Pole who lived in the Cracow ghetto. The same witness had just before been quoted for twelve consecutive pages. However valuable his information may be, at this stage the reader expects the author’s own conclusions.

How important was Adolf Eichmann? Most Jews came to regard him as both the brains and the chief engineer of the final solution: in fact he was only one part of the vast machine of destruction (albeit a very large one). Miss Arendt tried to show that he didn’t really matter very much, that he was a man full of contradictions, and that evil as personified by him was a very banal figure indeed. Dr. Robinson argues that Eichmann was neither without intelligence nor without convictions, and that Miss Arendt by making him more complex than he really was, introduced much unnecessary confusion. Eichmann cut a sorry figure at the trial, which induced Miss Arendt to develop her theory of the banality of evil. But Hitler himself would not have emerged as a hero in similar conditions. Once they cease to inspire fear, dictators and their servants are bound to become pathetic creatures and it is difficult to understand in retrospect how anyone could ever have been overawed by them. Miss Arendt’s appraisal of Eichmann, in brief, is too much influenced, I feel, by his performance in Jerusalem, Men tend to be banal in prison.

The next two sections in Robinson’s book deal with the legal problems of war crime trials in general and the Eichmann trial in particular. Here for once there is limited agreement between Miss Arendt and Dr. Robinson, for both devote what seems to me excessive space to the whole issue. Miss Arendt with great fervor and pathos argues that justice was not done in Jerusalem, that there were countless irregularities and abnormalities, that Eichmann should have been hanged not as hostis Judaeorum, but as hostis generis humani. Dr. Robinson on the other hand, with countless legal references and precedents to war crime trials, reaches the conclusion that the Jerusalem trial was entirely correct and in full accordance with the practices and rules of national and international law. There is a growing, largely technical, literature on this subject and the discussion will go on, I suspect, for a long time, for in legal philosophy there are not the same certainties as in, say, physics. It is difficult to believe that irreparable harm was done to the rule of law among nations because Eichmann was hanged, as Miss Arendt thinks, by the wrong court and for the wrong reasons. These disputations seem of considerably less importance than the discussion of Jewish resistance and collaboration in Nazi occupied Europe. Miss Arendt, it will be recalled, argues that the Judenräte collaborated with the Nazis in organizing the final solution; her indictment of the Jewish leadership is based on the assumption that without this help it would have been far more difficult, perhaps impossible, for the Nazis to kill so many Jews. Her thesis, Dr. Robinson shows, is untenable in this form; by not taking into account the specific conditions in which most Jewish communities were then living, she seems not to be aware of their particular vulnerability. The Judenräte were not essential to the “final solution”; the Nazis managed only too well in those parts of Europe where these organizations did not exist or where they had no part in preparing the infamous lists—USSR, France, Yugoslavia, Greece etc. But why was there not more active resistance? Those who have tried to find out more about the psychological attitudes prevailing among Jews in Europe during the war have all stressed their enormous will to live in the midst of the basest degradation; mere survival was thought to be a victory over an enemy who wanted the extinction of the Jewish people. The time factor was of the greatest importance, as was the naive belief that something would turn up. In the desperate race against time, “convinced that the scales of war would soon turn, the Jews invoked through bribery and procrastination the traditional ways which had enabled their fathers and forefathers to survive the hostility of surrounding populations.”

In the heat of his polemic Dr. Robinson tends to be inconsistent on the subject of “collaboration.” He says at one point that much further study is needed, but on another occasion he implies that there was no collaboration and no treason at all. This is difficult to accept: there were traitors and criminals among Jews as there were among all other peoples; a few of them took advantage of the situation created during the war. As for the Jewish leaders, Miss Arendt’s sweeping accusation is untenable. It could be argued with equal justice that every person of working age in Nazi-occupied Europe “collaborated”—unless he took to the woods, acted as a spy for the Allies, or found some other way to sabotage the German war effort. The borderline between passive resistance and the legitimate defense of Jewish interests, on the one hand, and activities that helped the Nazis to carry out their policy of mass murder on the other, does not appear always very distinct even now—how much less clear was it at the time. To pass judgment on these men is an immensely complicated task requiring, as Dr. Robinson rightly says, the most careful analysis of each individual case and community. It is obvious that there were enormous differences between the situation of Jews in Denmark and in Poland. But even within Poland, Nazi policy varied between one ghetto and another, and so did the behavior of the Jews.

The issue is by no means closed even if Miss Arendt emerges from this as something less than an authority on Jewish contemporary history. She had stumbled on what seemed a hornet’s nest but is in fact a very intricate and painful problem. But a real problem it is; if it were not, the publication of her book would have scarcely caused the outcry it did. I am almost sure that Miss Arendt would have written a different book had she devoted more time to the study of the subject. But it is also true that in the course of such further research she would have come, in all probability, across material bearing witness to betrayal and collaboration—along with other documents giving evidence of heroism and resistance. Not only knowledge, but imagination are needed to decide post factum whether in given circumstances a certain leader or Judenrat did the only thing they could do or whether they should have acted differently. This debate will not be settled by Dr. Robinson’s book; that it continues is shown, for example, by the current heated controversy in Holland following Dr. Presser’s recently published work on the destruction of Dutch Jewry (Ondergang—de vervolging en verdelging van hets Nederlandse Jodendom 1940-45). This huge work, brought out by the Dutch government publishing house, has provoked exchanges very much like the Arendt debate, although at a higher level of factual knowledge and understanding.

The point that cannot be made too strongly is that the whole issue of Jewish survival, of resistance and “collaboration,” must at last be tackled. It ought not to be the happy hunting ground for amateurs or those eager to write a roman à thèse. But neither should a veil be drawn over this most tragic chapter in Jewish history. Twenty years after the end of the war there is still no comprehensive attempt to undertake this task. It is precisely the absence of such works that provoked Miss Arendt’s book and the great debate around it. In this respect Dr. Robinson’s complaints about Miss Arendt resemble the criticism levelled by professional historians at Mr. Shirer as an authority on Nazi Germany and, perhaps to a lesser extent, at Mr. Werth as an authority on the Soviet-German war. It was precisely the reluctance of the professional historians to tackle these large subjects, that induced Messrs. Shirer and Werth to write their books, and assisted in their success. Historians in America and Israel from whom we expected authoritative studies on the holocaust and who have not so far provided them cannot entirely escape responsibility for the emergence of a literature they strongly dislike. They deserve praise for collecting masses of source material, but documentation is not an end in itself. It is not enough to say that there is now a very good dissertation on the fate of Danish Jewry in Hebrew, and that an excellent study has been published in Italy on the fate of Italian Jewry, that a great many monographs in Hebrew and Yiddish, published and unpublished, are available in Jerusalem. So long as the more important studies are not made accessible to a wider circle of students in at least one major language they might as well not exist for the purposes of modern historiography. Those who think it too early to write definite histories have several arguments: the holocaust belongs to the very recent past; the wounds are still open; is it not asking too much of flesh and blood to approach this subject with scholarly detachment? There are technical difficulties as well: certain important materials are not yet available. We do not know enough, for instance, about Allied policies and attitudes in 1942-45; the British archives will not be opened for many years to come. These are real obstacles and I do not wish to belittle them, but the historian’s life is never an easy one. If definitive histories can be written only by historians of a future generation, this should not prevent those now alive from doing their duty beyond the collection of documents. If this does not happen, others less qualified will step in, and will shape the image of that entire period—and handwringing and protests will not help.

I do not know whether this book was necessary, nor how great an effect it will have. On balance it is regrettable that Dr. Robinson’s great knowledge of the period has been employed in a book of comments on another book, rather than in preparation of the major work which is so badly needed. Dr. Robinson has found in Isaiah an apt quotation for his title. I wish he had been guided by the saying from Pirkei Avot: “The day is short and the work is great.”


The Jewish Establishment March 17, 1966

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