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The Formidable Dr. Robinson”: A Reply

Miss Arendt, said Mr. Laqueur in his review of Jacob Robinson’s book And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight (NYR, Nov. 11) “had stumbled on what seemed a hornets’ nest but is in fact a very intricate and painful problem.” This sentence would be true if it read: “She stumbled on what in fact was a hornets’ nest because she had touched upon what seemed an intricate problem and is indeed a painful one.”

Reviewing Robinson’s “full-scale attempt to refute” my report of the Eichmann trial, Mr. Laqueur was so overwhelmed by his author’s “eminent authority” that he thought it superfluous to acquaint himself with the subject under attack. He accepts Mr. Robinson’s basic distortion, contained in the subtitle of his book, “The Jewish Catastrophe and Hannah Arendt’s Narrative,” which implies that I recounted part of “Jewish contemporary history,” while in fact I have criticized the prosecution for taking the Eichmann Trial as a pretext for doing just that. (Needless to say, I would never have gone to Jerusalem if I had wanted to write a book on “contemporary Jewish history.”) Mr. Laqueur believes that I asked “why was there not more active resistance” among the Jews, while it was the prosecution that had brought up this question; I had reported this incident and dismissed the question twice as “silly and cruel, since it testified to a fatal ignorance of the conditions of the time” (pp. 11 and 283 of the second edition). He claims that I have been unaware of the “particular vulnerability” of the Jewish communities in the face of organized persecution, whereas I actually have enumerated these vulnerabilities—no territory, no government, no army, no government in exile, no weapons, no youth with military training (p. 125). He insists that I “argue that justice was not done in Jerusalem,” while I actually argue that despite a number of carefully enumerated irregularities, the very opposite of “countless” ones, justice was done insofar as the trial’s “main purpose—to prosecute and to defend, to judge and to punish Adolf Eichmann—was achieved,” a passage even quoted in Robinson’s book.

Nowhere did I say, as Mr. Laqueur claims, that “Eichmann was hanged…by the wrong court and for the wrong reasons,” or that “irreparable harm was done to the rule of law.” On the contrary, I justified the competence of the court and the kidnapping of the accused (pp. 259-265) and stated that the trial in Jerusalem was “no more, but also no less, than the last of the numerous Successor Trials which followed the Nuremberg Trials.” Finally, Mr. Laqueur—knowing neither my book nor the trial in Jerusalem—believes that I attacked the court proceedings as a whole, whereas what I attacked was the prosecution. (The conflict between bench and prosecution ran like a red thread through the proceedings; I reported it, and sided in nearly all cases with the bench—which was rather common among the members of the press.) Had Mr. Laqueur been at all familiar with the subject matter, he would not have been so naive as to identify “betrayal and collaboration,” for the whole point of the matter is that the members of the Jewish Councils as a rule were not traitors or Gestapo agents, and still they became the tools of the Nazis. (The distinction was made by the witnesses for the prosecution; if the members of the Jewish Councils had been scoundrels, there would be no “problem,” let alone a “painful and intricate” one.)

After misinforming the reader about the subject matter of my book, Mr. Laqueur proceeds to enumerate my opponent’s “formidable credentials.” He deplores that Mr. Robinson’s name is not well known among “students of political science,” which is true, and not “one to conjure with in literary circles,” which is untrue: Since the appearance of my book, Mr. Robinson’s name has become famous, particularly in New York’s literary circles, and especially among writers for Partisan Review and Dissent. Paralleling the publisher’s blurb, Mr. Laqueur draws attention to this “eminent authority on international law” and assures us that “his standing is high among students of contemporary Jewish history” (something of a let-down, for the publisher had claimed eminence for this field as well). He rounds out the picture with praise of “unrivalled mastery of the sources,” “great erudition,” and “aweinspiring,” “almost obsessive” scholarship. Finally, he tells us what Mr. Robinson’s present position is: He “coordinates research between the various institutes devoted to the study of the Jewish catastrophe” (“throughout the world,” as the publisher has it), but he does not tell us what these institutes are. Are they too numerous to be enumerated? Hardly. They are the Yivo (the Yiddish Scientific Institute) in New York, the Wiener Library in London, the Centre de Documentation Juive in Paris, and Yad Washem in Jerusalem. There are reasons not to be too specific in these matters. Mr. Laqueur himself, the reviewer of Mr. Robinson’s book, is Director of Research in one of the co-ordinated research centers, the Wiener Library.

In view of the recent vintage of Mr. Robinson’s “eminent authority” Mr. Laqueur’s information is deplorably vague. Let us see whether we can help the reader. Since Mr. Laqueur so closely follows publishers’ blurbs, we may note that in 1960 when Mr. Robinson’s last book was published, the jacket did not yet know that he was either “eminent” or an “authority.” Then, in the summer of 1963, a couple of months after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, he wrote a propaganda pamphlet for the (Bnai Brith’s) Anti-Defamation League, called Facts, directed against my book. The change in his worldly fortunes was sudden and radical. While on earlier publishers’ jackets he was mentioned as “special consultant on Jewish Affairs” at the Nuremberg Trial, he was now described as “special consultant” tout court—obviously a much greater distinction for an “authority” on international law, especially if one is aware of the minor role the crime against the Jewish people had played at Nuremberg. These still rather modest beginnings—compared to his present status—show already that, while Mr. Robinson recently acquired a number of startlingly new qualities, he also lost a few which up to then had been his very own. Nowhere are we any longer told that Mr. Robinson’s specialty is “Minorities Problems,” that he founded the Institute of Jewish Affairs, sponsored by the American and World Jewish Congress, where, with the exception of an article on the United Nations, all of Mr. Robinson’s contributions since 1940 appeared, and, most surprisingly, nowhere in Mr. Laqueur’s review is there any mention at all of Mr. Robinson’s very important role in Jerusalem. In the A.D.L. pamphlet, the reader is still told of his having been “a special consultant to the prosecution of the Eichmann trial,” on the jacket of the present book he merely “advised the Israeli on questions of documentation and law”—no special connection with the prosecution any longer!—whereas in fact, and according to the Israeli press handouts, giving “brief biographies” of the team of prosecutors, “Dr. Jacob Robinson” ranked directly after Gideon Hausner, the Attorney General, and was then followed by two Deputy State Attorneys; hence, Mr. Robinson was second in importance for the prosecution only to the Attorney General himself. From which one may conclude that Mr. Robinson had a personal interest in “prosecuting” me for a change, and in defending the case for the prosecution. It was, in fact, his own case.

Since Mr. Laqueur believes that the core of the conflict between Mr. Robinson and myself consists of the antagonism of “professional historians” and “amateurs…eager to write a roman à thèse,” he may be surprised to learn that prior to 1963 Mr. Robinson was not a historian—the Israeli trial authorities correctly mention his training as a lawyer—and that the present book, published in cooperation with the Jewish Publication Society, is in fact his first venture into the field of Jewish history. The best way to settle this difficult question of who is the amateur and who the professional is perhaps to consult the Guide to Jewish History Under Nazi Impact, a bibliography covering all languages, including Hebrew and Yiddish, published under the coauthorship of the late Philip Friedman and Jacob Robinson by the Yivo and Yad Washem in 1960. There, Mr. Robinson appears with two entries: a short preface to a book by Boris Shub (1943) and a five-page study on “Palestine and the United Nations” (1947), a subject totally unrelated to the question that came up during the Eichmann trial. But most surprising of all, at that time Mr. Robinson must have thought that I was much more a “professional” than he himself, for I appear there with four items, one of them a book more substantial and relevant to modern Jewish history and to the period in question than anything by the two authors.

II

Shortly after the appearance of my book, Mr. Robinson said he had found “hundreds of factual errors”—four hundred, to be exact, a figure which he later upped to six hundred. However, upon closer inspection it turned out that these were miscalculations; the number of mistakes can be counted only by the number of words I used. This would make it rather difficult to reply under all circumstances but is actually the least of the difficulties. Mr. Laqueur is vaguely aware of certain shortcomings in Mr. Robinson’s book; he ascribes them to a refusal to think, to “pause for reflection between footnotes,” and it is indeed true that the greatest difficulty in dealing meaningfully with this book is its complete lack of consistent argument or point of view. To be sure, Mr. Robinson has one overriding interest, namely, to contradict me line by line, and one overriding ambition, namely, to display his “erudition.” But while the former led him more often than not into a kind of super-quibbling the like of which I never saw in black and white (when I say: “According to international law, it was the privilege of the sovereign German nation to declare to be a national minority whatever part of its population it saw fit,” he replies: no, not at all, except that “there is no prohibition…in international law to declare part of a population a national minority,” p. 73), the latter tempted him into filling countless pages with complete irrelevancies—as for instance a four-page excursion into Hungarian history, complete with “basic sources,” though all his facts could be found in a one-volume Encyclopedia of World History. This is no proof of scholarship but of its very opposite.

In addition to these difficulties, the book displays in all innocence a total unawareness of the most common distinctions in the historical sciences. Such questions as: How many Jews lived in Rome in 1943? (Mr. Robinson’s figure, taken from the year 1925, is certainly too high.) When did the Hitler regime become fully totalitarian? (Mr. Robinson actually believes that this can be found out by consulting a Zeittafel, a chronological enumeration of events.) Are there connections between the Final Solution and the earlier euthanasia program? (Gerald Reitlinger, as I stated, has proved these connections “with documentary evidence that leaves no doubt”; Mr. Robinson prefers to ignore my statement as well as Reitlinger’s evidence, simply ascribing the discovery of these connections to me and claiming that they did not exist.) All these and many more questions are treated on exactly the same level, or rather they are reduced to the level of the first question, an isolated fact which, to be established, needs neither the context of a story nor the support of interpretation nor the judgment of the reporter.

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