Hannah Arendt’s book is a brilliant and disturbing study of the character and the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, himself, scarcely 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 a cipher. His opinions—even at Jerusalem he held a good many, most of them self-contradictory—did not come out of his personality but out of a kind of non-personality. He wore them like badges which provided him with occasions for boasting. Thus until Hitler decided on the “Final Solution” Eichmann called himself a Zionist, a way of drawing attention to the fact that he had read Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat and learned a little Hebrew. He boasted of these things not only to his S.S. colleagues but even to his Jewish victims. He nurtured the fantasy of obtaining, through emigration or some “political,” as distinct from a “final,” solution, what he called “firm ground” to put under the feet of the Jews. He entered with his “Zionist” enthusiasm into Heydrich’s scheme for forming a “center of emigration” within the area of the Polish swamps under the aegis of Frank’s “General Government.” Miss Arendt cites an S.S. officer’s description of this “Jewish home”:

There are no dwellings, there are no houses. If you build, there will be a roof over your heads. There is no water, the wells all around carry disease, there is cholera, dysentery and typhoid. If you bore and find water, you will have water.

But Eichmann also worked out an organizational plan for transporting millions of Jews in the middle of the war (across waters patrolled by the British fleet) to Madagascar. (He seems to have confused Madagascar with Uganda.) Just as his “Zionism” and “correct behavior” were superimposed on a void of personality, so his organizational gifts could operate, as it were, in a vacuum.

When in the summer of 1941 Heydrich told Eichmann that “the Führer has ordered the physical extermination of the Jews,” Eichmann experienced the emptiness which resulted from having badges of self-esteem stripped off him. Soon afterwards he even gave way to a human feeling and “for the first and last time” acted against orders and had a transport of Jews diverted from Russia (where they would most certainly have been shot) to Lodz where no arrangements for their extermination had yet been completed.


He was further depressed when he visited the headquarters of Odilo Globocnik (one of the most enthusiastic interpreters of the Final Solution) at Lublin. This was one of the few occasions on which he witnessed the real actions which the abstract “language rules” of his organization were describing. At Lwów he saw Jews being pushed into the vans where they were gassed, “the most horrible sight I had thus far seen in my life. The truck was making for an open ditch, the doors were opened and the corpses were thrown out, as though they were still alive, so smooth were their limbs.” He saw too a fountain of blood gushing out of the ground beneath which there was a mass grave.

Yet loyalty to that negation at the center of all the other negations which made up the diabolism of the Third Reich—the Führer’s will—soon converted Eichmann’s feeling of emptiness into elation. He turned his virtuosity to the organization of the Final Solution. Miss Arendt traces the extinction of his conscience to the Conference of the Undersecretaries of State held at Wannsee in January 1942. This meeting was held precisely for the purpose of discussing means to carry out the Final Solution, and it was anticipated that some of those attending might make difficulties. But in fact the Final Solution was greeted with “extraordinary enthusiasm” by all those present. It enormously added to Eichmann’s self-esteem when, in the cordial atmosphere of a luncheon followed by drinks, after the discussion of the “various types of possible solutions to the problem (i.e., the different ways of killing Jews),” he mingled socially with the “high personages” of the Nazi regime, “the popes of the Third Reich” as he called them. It had been his privilege to prepare the statistical material for Heydrich’s introductory speech, setting forth the program for killing 11 million Jews. And Heydrich seemed grateful, because later in the day Eichmann was permitted to “sit down near the fireplace” with his chief, Müller, and with Heydrich.

What we see at the Wannsee Conference is the cordiality of officials as they undertake their unspeakably gruesome tasks, their unbending joviality when they meet together as high-ups, feeling themselves the more human because of the abstractions which cover their inhuman operations.

Miss Arendt’s underlying theme is the corruption of individual or personal values by grandiose, perverted social aims which see people not as individuals but as the object of statistical calculations, as disposable, even interchangeable, social units. The Nazis were of course diabolists, and the Final Solution therefore offers the supreme example of the statistical approach to the human community. But Miss Arendt means to warn us that this abstract way of dealing with people upon bases of statistics, even when attached to less bad or even theoretically good aims, runs into the danger of converting good into evil just because people are looked upon as abstractions and disposed of as such. The Nazis corrupted not only their own followers but also, to a great extent, their opponents and even their victims by their dehumanizing methods of thought and action. In this lies the “banality of evil.”

The most deeply distressing pages in this book—pages which will doubtless give rise to the most bitter recriminations—are those in which Miss Arendt discusses the cooperation of the Jewish Councils and of certain Zionist leaders or representatives with the Nazis. Within the context of war and of Nazi corruption, the interests of the officials representing Nazis and Jews could appear to merge and become at some points the same. The one part of Eichmann’s story which he never abandoned in the trial was that in Vienna in 1938 when he had been in charge of “forced emigration” (i.e. expelling the Jews from Austria), “he and his men and the Jews were all ‘pulling together’…. The Jews ‘desired’ to emigrate and he, Eichmann, was there to help them, because it so happened that at the same time the Nazi authorities had expressed the desire to see their Reich judenrein.” So the Jewish leaders would meet Eichmann in a cordial atmosphere (he even shook hands with them, and seemed in his behavior “perfectly correct”) to arrange, sometimes, for the emigration of the “best Jews” to Palestine. The aims of the Jews and the Nazis coincided at a time when both sides could agree that there were “good Jews” who qualified for salvation, “bad” ones who could be disregarded.


Hence the situation arose that “wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis.” And from this follows Miss Arendt’s appalling conclusion:

The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four-and-a-half and six million people.

The procedure agreed on between the Nazis and the Jewish Councils gave the Nazis lists of the names of all Jews in a particular community, thus making it far easier for them to fill the trains which went to the concentration camps and the gas chambers. This was the result of abstract calculations like those of Dr. Kastner in Hungary, who could claim that out of 476,000 victims he had saved 1,684 people. The promised land becomes the common grave.

The joining of one aim with another, of compromises, abstractions, euphemisms, handshakes in hotel rooms and restaurants, was the outer ring of concentric circles of conditioning, whose outermost circumference was violent death produced by war, and at whose center were the actual victims, behaving with a compliance which was also the result of the surrounding complicity. We get, finally, the spectacle of thousands of Jews digging their own graves and submitting without protest to being shot by mere hundreds of the S.S. Moreover, as Bruno Bettelheim points out in The Informed Heart, the identification of the aims of persecutor and persecuted was even reflected by some of the victims themselves in the camps:

It came about that some of the political groups formed to protect fellow prisoners ended up giving full, if heavy-hearted, cooperation to the extermination of thousands of prisoners in order to save some of their own group.

Miss Arendt points out, however, that in places where the Jewish leaders did not cooperate with the Nazi representatives and refused to provide them with the necessary information, far fewer Jews were apprehended and subsequently murdered. Thus in Belgium it was extremely difficult to collect the Jews partly because their leaders had fled, making it impossible to form a Belgian Jewish Council. But in neighboring Holland, where there was a Jewish police collaborating with the Nazis, the result was a “catastrophe unparalleled in any Western country.” Again, in Denmark, the Danes refused to take action against the Jews. The King of Denmark declared that if the Danish Jews were compelled to wear badges, he would be the first to wear one, and when the Nazis attempted to seize the Jews, the Danes shipped them in the Danish fishing fleet to neutral Sweden. Even some of the German forces occupying Denmark sabotaged orders from Berlin to seize Jews. There is evidence, then, in favor of naive, straightforward and unquestioning refusal to deal with totalitarians; deviousness does not necessarily pay. After all, as Churchill points out in his history of the War, even Stalin was caught in the trap of his own devious dealings with Hitler.

The picture Hannah Arendt paints is extremely depressing with respect to the past, and very alarming for the future. She points out that there is now a historic precedent for genocide, and given the conditions likely soon to confront governments as the result of the population explosion, it is only too possible that excuses will be found to follow the Nazi precedent, covering it over, of course, with the methods of a less primitive bureaucracy, with subtler euphemisms, officialese and new language rules.

Hannah Arendt shows the deep connection between the actions of an Eichmann who could think only in officialese, and whose idea of virtue was loyalty to the clichés of Hitler, and the corruption of the German language by the Nazis. Having lived in Berlin in the late twenties and early thirties, I think that a good deal of what Miss Arendt writes about the corruption of the language applies to the German situation before Hitler. After the First World War, at the time of the inflation, a whole generation of young Germans was brought up to think in political slogans. Political parties, of the left even more than the right, endeavored to politicize people at the earliest possible age. Many of the young grew up to think of murdering their opponents as the necessary if not noble means whereby an abstract “correct” course of history could win out over the “wrong” historic forces. It was extremely noticeable that with the young, abstract clichés of political language which were taught by one party were reversible, and could readily be taken over by its opponents and applied to opposite kinds of action. Thus in the early years of Hitler’s regime, when unemployment was “cured,” many young socialists (including even some English ones who had learned the German ideological language) suddenly, if momentarily, welcomed the regime as a socialist phenomenon appearing, it is true, in a rather unexpected form. In the same way there were political Christians ready to see behind Stalin’s moustaches the bearded figure of Christ.

Nor does Miss Arendt’s critique of banal habits of thinking as a device camouflaging evil apply only retrospectively. She discerns the survival of “language rules” in the speech of Dr. Servatius, the West German lawyer defending Eichmann. Servatius declared the “accused innocent of charges bearing on his responsibility for the collection of skeletons, sterilizations, killings by gas, and similar medical matters.” Interrupted by Judge Halevi, who wished to correct what he thought must be a slip of the tongue, Dr. Servatius replied, “It was indeed a medical matter, since it was prepared by physicians; it was a matter of killing and killing, too, is a medical matter.” And this is a voice from West Germany in the 1960s.

Sadder than this, a heavy suspicion also hangs over the Jerusalem court itself in these pages—the suspicion that the prosecuting counsel—and ultimately Ben Gurion—was not trying Eichmann for what he did (which would have been enough to hang him) but for the Nazi that he was, and, more than this, for the crimes of the whole Nazi regime against the Jews. It would be useless to deny that the whole Eichmann case was prejudged. There are ample emotional excuses or justifications for this, yet when one considers the effects of precedents from this trial and the Nuremberg trials on possible future views of international law, one feels apprehensive. However, these considerations lead beyond the kinds of responsibility which are likely to concern a reader of this article. There are much more immediate responsibilities for intellectuals, writers and educators which surely could be fulfilled.

Eichmann’s mind was ruined by miseducation before it was distorted by politics. And even supposing that a man like Eichmann can get into a powerful position, should not one expect that in a civilized country Eichmann’s clichés, his “language rules,” his evasions and euphemisms would have made him ludicrous to an educated public? Perhaps the greatest delusion of the Germans about themselves is that they are a cultivated, educated people. But then, when it comes to resisting the “language rules” used by politicians (the existence of the H-bomb has created a whole new vocabulary of evasions), who is today resisting?

This Issue

June 1, 1963