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The Case of Hannah Arendt


Thirty-five years after its first publication, in 1963, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem—A Report on the Banality of Evil has by now sold some 260,000 copies in English. In the United States, in Europe, and in Israel it continues to attract new readers and interpreters.1 Several factors, among them the collapse of Communist totalitarianism and the rise of fundamentalist nationalism in Israel, seem to have contributed to a renewed interest in Arendt’s work in general and in this book, the most controversial of all her writings published during her lifetime. A large colloquium on Eichmann in Jerusalem and on her other work is to take place in Israel in December.

New interest in Arendt has also been rekindled by the publication, within the past several years, of her multivolume correspondence with Karl Jaspers, Mary McCarthy, Hermann Broch, Kurt Blumenfeld, and Heinrich Blücher, her husband. Only the first two are available so far in English.2 All bear witness to a rare capacity for friendship, intellectual and affectionate. The most recent volume, her correspondence with Blücher (in German), is the record also of a great love affair and a lifelong conversation—a love and a marriage that were the “safe haven” for two hunted fugitives in Dark Times. “It still seems to me unbelievable, that I could achieve both—a great love, and a sense of identity with my own person,” she wrote Blücher in 1937 in what is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable love letters of this century. “And yet I achieved the one only since I also have the other. I also now finally know what happiness is.”

The correspondence sheds a fascinating light on Arendt’s personality, and on some of the feelings that went into the making of her book on Eichmann. “You were the only reader to understand what otherwise I have never admitted,” she wrote Mary McCarthy, “—namely, that I wrote this book in a curious state of euphoria.” Like Arendt’s Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman,3 written during the Thirties before her emigration to the United States, Eichmann in Jerusalem was an intensely personal piece of work. Writing it helped to relieve what she felt was a burden. The book on the Eichmann trial, she told Mary McCarthy, was a “cura posterior,” the delayed cure of a pain that seemed to have weighed on her as a Jew, a former Zionist, and a former German.4

The main thesis of the book was summed up (not very felicitously) in its subtitle. The controversies it set off have not been settled. They die down, only to simmer and then erupt again. A new generation of scholars has recently been taking a new, less partisan look at them—and at Arendt’s scattered other writings on Jewish history, Israel, and Zionism. They are essential for an understanding of Eichmann in Jerusalem. They spell out a conviction (which in the book is for the most part merely implied) that Zionism had outlived the conditions from which it emerged and, like other nineteenth-century nationalisms, ran the risk of becoming a “living ghost amid the ruins of our times.”5 In the Twenties she had been a disciple of the German Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld (the father of “post-assimilationist Zionism”). In the Thirties, she anticipated her later criticism of the ghetto Judenräte by being among the few Zionists who objected to the Transfer of Goods agreement of 1935 between the Zionists and the Nazis, which enabled German Jews emigrating to Palestine to transfer to Palestine, at a highly punitive exchange rate, some of their assets which were frozen by the Nazis in blocked bank accounts. The agreement ran counter to an attempted worldwide Jewish boycott of German goods. The Zionists, citing their Weltanschauung, in which emigration to Palestine was the overwhelmingly important priority, justified this violation as a “dialectical necessity.”

By this time, Arendt had little patience left for all Weltanschauungen. She decried the hollow arguments between Zionists and assimilationists, noting that they only distorted “the simple fact that the Zionists were the ones who sincerely wanted assimilation (to be a people like all others) whereas the assimilationists wanted the Jewish people to retain their unique position.” She became more and more disillusioned with official Zionist policy in Palestine because of its failure to achieve a peaceful modus vivendi with the Arab population.

The spread of religious and nationalist fundamentalism among Jews in our own time makes her early warnings on this issue appear in a new light. Arendt first articulated her misgivings about Zionism and Israel in the Forties and early Fifties. Eichmann in Jerusalem is best read today in conjunction with her other essays and occasional comments written at that time for publications (some now defunct) such as Menorah Journal, the New York German-language refugee weekly Aufbau, Jewish Social Studies, The Review of Politics, and the Jewish Frontier.6 When first published, several of these articles appeared almost as provocative as her book on the Eichmann trial did ten or fifteen years later, particularly in arguing on both moral and pragmatic grounds that future Israelis must share power and territory with Palestinian Arabs. In retrospect, her warnings displayed considerable foresight. Today’s readers may be more willing to accept both her essays and her book on their merits.

This was certainly not the case when Eichmann in Jerusalem first came out in 1963. Readers were bitterly divided. Most Jewish readers and many others were outraged by the book. Friendships broke over it. The Israeli embassy in Washington had not long before successfully convinced the B’nai Brith’s Anti-Defamation League that criticism of Zionism and of Israel was tantamount to anti-Semitism. One result was a memorable attempt by the ADL and other Jewish organizations in the United States to “excommunicate” the author.

In retrospect, the attacks of more than thirty years ago on Arendt’s book are astonishing in their unbridled vehemence. They were by no means restricted to academic circles. Leftists and rightists, young and old, university professors, novelists, columnists, rabbis, Jewish functionaries of all kinds in America, in Israel, and in Europe, Americans, Israelis, and Germans—all were offended by Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Germans were hurt by her disparaging remarks about the so-called German “resistance” which, as she saw it, had been infected by its acceptance of the Nazi regime until almost the last moment. Outrage was at first less pronounced in Israel, where Arendt’s bitter criticism of the collaboration of Jewish communal leaders in Nazi-occupied Europe appeared to confirm Zionist cliché images of diaspora Jews as “passive” or cowardly lambs who had gone meekly to the slaughter. The excess of feeling was noticeable above all in America. Irving Howe claimed in his memoirs that the polemical reactions there were partly owing to hidden feelings of guilt by American Jews, “a guilt pervasive, unmanageable, yet seldom (until then) allowed to reach daylight.” For this reason, he thought, something good came out of the confrontation with Arendt.

Some of the attacks were patently false—for example, the claim that Arendt had “exonerated” Eichmann but had “condemned the Jews”; she had done nothing of the sort. Nor had she attacked the entire court proceedings, as was frequently claimed. All she attacked was the melodramatic rhetoric of the state prosecutor. Contrary to what was maintained, she did not doubt the legitimacy of a trial in Israel by Israeli judges. She was also accused of making the victims partly responsible for their slaughter “by their failure to resist.” In fact, she bitterly attacked the state prosecutor who dared make such a heartless claim. Still, the accusation found its way into the Encyclopedia Judaica.7 In a similar vein she was falsely accused of having claimed that Eichmann had been an enthusiastic convert to “Zionism” and even to “Judaism.” This last accusation is still being made, most recently in a special issue (entirely devoted to Arendt’s book on Eichmann) of History & Memory, a prestigious quarterly published by the University of Tel Aviv. One self-righteous critic draws on the work of another, down to alleged but nonexistent page references in Arendt’s book, which no one seems to have checked.

Several of Arendt’s critics have since expressed some regret at their past vehemence. Arendt herself was no longer alive when such views began to be heard. She died, I think, at a relatively low point in her reputation as a political theorist and an analyst of history. Today, her reputation seems larger than ever. Her work has survived the demise of both doctrinaire Zionism and doctrinaire anti-Zionism, and the breakdown of leftist and rightist conceptions of history, precisely because she subscribed to no isms and mistrusted sweeping theories. Her analysis of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as both being pervasively controlled by centralized dictatorship through terror is still a subject of much debate. The anti-Communist uprisings in Eastern Europe confirmed her view that revolutions are political, not social, events, as the left had claimed. There seems to be more sympathy now for her central intuitions on the nature of political evil, which, as she saw it, need not be committed only by demonic monsters but can be committed—with disastrous effect—by morons and imbeciles as well.

She remains a stimulating intellectual presence today also because of her disregard of conventional scholarship and academic norms. Thirty or forty years ago the mixture of social analysis, journalism, philosophic reflections, psychology, literary allusion, and anecdote that is to be found in the best of her work exasperated and annoyed some of her critics. Today, the same mixture has fascination and appeal.


Arendt went to Jerusalem in 1961 as a court reporter for The New Yorker magazine. The idea was not The New Yorker‘s but her own. She felt she simply had to attend the trial. She owed it to herself—as a social critic, a displaced person, a witness, and a survivor. “I never saw these people,” she wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation, referring to such Nazi officials as Eichmann, “…and this is probably my only chance.” “To attend this trial is…an obligation I owe my past.” She was interested, as she put it, in understanding Eichmann’s mind (if he had one) and, through the testimonies at the trial, exploring “the totality of the moral collapse the Nazis caused in respectable European society.”

The result as it came out—first in a series of articles in The New Yorker and later, in expanded form, in the book—was largely a report on a trial, an attempt to examine the manner in which the court, confronted with a crime it could not find in the law books, succeeded in fulfilling the demands of justice. Combining philosophy and day-to-day observation, the book is reminiscent, and not only in its suggestive style, its sarcasms and its ironies, of Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon III.

The storm broke out mostly for two reasons: first, because of her portrait of Eichmann as a diligent yet “banal” bureaucratic criminal. (The term “banality” actually appears only on the last page but is implicit throughout the entire book.) Eichmann’s mediocrity and insipid character struck her immediately on her first day in court. Her initial reaction, expressed in letters to Jaspers, McCarthy, and Blücher, was impressionistic. He isn’t even sinister, she wrote (Arendt used the Freudian term unheimlich, which can also be translated as “uncanny”). Eichmann was like a “ghost in a spiritualist séance.” What is more, he had a cold and was sneezing within his bullet-proof glass cage.

  1. 1

    See in particular Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Sage Publications, 1996), and “Arendt in Zion,” a paper delivered last June at an international colloquium on Arendt at Potsdam by Idith Zertal of Tel Aviv University.

  2. 2

    Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, Correspondence, 1926-1969, edited by Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner, translated by Robert and Rita Kimber (Harcourt Brace, 1992); Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, Between Friends, edited by Carol Brightman (Harcourt Brace, 1995); Hannah Arendt and Kurt Blumenfeld, “in keinem Besitz verwurzelt”: Die Korrespondenz, edited by Ingeborg Nordman and Iris Philling (Nordlingen: Rotbuch, 1995); Hannah Arendt and Hermann Broch, Briefwechsel 1946 bis 1951 (Frankfurt: Jüdischer Verlag, 1996); and Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher, Briefe 1936-1968, edited by Lotte Kohler (Munich: Piper, 1996). A sixth volume, containing her correspondence with Martin Heidegger, is due in 1998 or 1999.

  3. 3

    Translated by Richard and Clara Winston (London: East and West Library, 1957; Harcourt, Brace, 1974). A critical edition edited by Liliane Weissberg will be published in December 1997 by Johns Hopkins University Press.

  4. 4

    See also the standard biography, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World (Yale University Press, 1982).

  5. 5

    Zionism Reconsidered,” Menorah Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2 (October-December, 1945), p. 172.

  6. 6

    A good, but by no means exhaustive, selection can be found in Ron H. Feldman, editor, The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age (Grove, 1978), a collection of essays written by Arendt between 1942 and 1966. This includes some of her letters to editors after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem as well as her famous exchange of letters on the book with Gershom Scholem.

  7. 7

    The entry “Arendt, Hannah (1906-)” falsely states that in Eichmann in Jerusalem she had claimed inter alia that “the victims were partly responsible for the slaughter by their failure to resist.” Nowhere in the book did she make this claim.

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