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.
She ought to have known better. Hitler would not have cut a better figure under the circumstances. Once out of power, and in the dock, most tyrants and serial murderers seem pathetic or ordinary. Was she perhaps, at this early stage, a victim of what might be called the Fallacy of Physiognomy? We all succumb to it at times. To judge from her private letters Arendt certainly did so on her first day in court. The “science” of physiognomy was a popular intellectual pastime during her youth in Germany. (Her teacher Martin Heidegger, according to Jaspers, imperiously dismissed as nonsense Jaspers’s fears that Hitler might prove dangerous by exclaiming “Just look at Hitler’s hands!”) Arendt was interested not only in physiognomy but also in graphology.
A few days later, however, she consciously moved away from mere exteriors. “[Eichmann] is actually stupid,” she wrote Jaspers, “but then, somehow, he is not” (Er ist eigentlich dumm aber auch irgendwie nicht). It is possible through her private letters from Jerusalem to trace the slow development of her thesis. She plowed through the 3000-page transcript of Eichmann’s pre-trial interrogation by the Israeli police captain Avner Less and gradually came to think that it was mostly, as she first put it, a kind of brainlessness8 on Eichmann’s part that had predisposed him to becoming a faceless bureaucrat of death and one of the worst criminals of all time. She emphasized Eichmann’s moral and intellectual shallowness, his inner void. He was probably not lying when he told Less that he could never be a doctor because he could not bear the sight of blood.
Eichmann’s inability to speak coherently in court was connected, she concluded, with his incapacity to think—that is to say, to think from another person’s point of view. His shallowness was by no means identical with stupidity. He personified neither hatred nor madness nor an insatiable thirst for blood, but something far worse, the faceless nature of Nazi evil itself, within its closed system aimed at dismantling the human personality of its victims. The Nazis had succeeded in turning the legal order on its head, making the wrong and the malevolent the foundation of a new “righteousness.” In the Third Reich evil had lost the distinctive characteristics by which most people had until then recognized it, i.e., as a “temptation.” It was redefined as a civil norm. Conventional goodness now became a mere temptation which most Germans, of course, were fast learning to resist. In this upside-down world Eichmann (one is tempted to say perhaps like Pol Pot four decades later) seemed not to have been conscious of having done evil, in our sense of that word. In matters of elementary morality, Arendt warned, what had been thought of as decent instincts were no longer to be taken for granted.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism she had still held on to a Kantian notion of radical evil—behavior, such as that of the Nazis, which corrupts the basis of moral law, explodes our legal categories, and defies human judgment. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, and in the bitter controversies about it that followed, she insisted that only the good had depth. Good can be radical; evil can never be “radical,” it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor a demonic dimension and yet—and this is its horror—it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste to the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think, she claimed. It defies thought because as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.
Eichmann was ambitious and eager to rise in the ranks, but he would not have killed his superior to inherit his job; nor did he display any distinctive thought of his own. It was his “banality” that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of his time, Arendt claimed. She complained that while in the Jerusalem trial Eichmann had been accused, absurdly, she thought, of having been the very architect, the brain, behind the Holocaust, his essential brainlessness was never discussed. It wasn’t discussed partly because it was so hard to grasp. But it also wasn’t discussed because Eichmann’s trial was a show trial, staged by Ben-Gurion at least partly for political reasons to prove that the Holocaust had simply been the largest anti-Semitic pogrom in history.
Eichmann’s alleged banality was the first cause for the storm raised by the book, at a time when most people assumed that murder was committed by monsters or demons. The second was a brief commentary on the Nazi-appointed “Jewish Councils” (Judenräte). Unable to see through the Nazi scheme, acting in the vain hope that they were serving the best interests of local Jews, the distinguished notables of the Councils, she claimed, had inadvertently become instruments of the Nazi plan to eliminate a maximum number of Jews with a minimum of administrative effort and cost. Neither of the two points, of course, was new. Dostoevsky would not have regarded Arendt’s “banality of evil” as a cheap catchword, as Gershom Scholem did in an open letter to Arendt that attacked her for her heartlessness. When the devil visits Karamazov he turns out to be a shabby, stupid, and vulgar lout. Others before Arendt emphasized the discrepancy between the personal mediocrity of Hitler or Stalin and the vast and horrendous evil they unleashed on the world. Nearly everybody who attended the trials after the war of the mass killers (some of them “respected” doctors) at Auschwitz or Treblinka came away with the eerie, disconcerting impression that the killers looked pretty much like you and me. The Israeli court psychiatrist who examined Eichmann found him a “completely normal man, more normal than I seem to myself.” Simone de Beauvoir said of the French Nazi Pierre Laval that at his trial after the war he seemed commonplace and inconsequential, an unimaginative and feeble little fellow.
Similarly, long before Arendt’s book, many other people in Israel and elsewhere had charged the Judenräte with complicity in the Nazi scheme. Six years before Arendt’s book, in a sensational libel case heard in the District Court of Jerusalem, the presiding judge had spoken far more critically about the Judenräte and about Jewish collaboration with the Nazis than Arendt in her brief passage on the Judenräte. Similar charges had been made for years in several well-known books of fact and fiction, among them Jean-François Steiner’s Treblinka, Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and, of course, Raul Hilberg’s monumental The Destruction of the European Jews, a book that Arendt repeatedly referred to.
What was new and provocative in Arendt’s account was her insistence on raising the question of what Jewish leaders could have done differently. And here her analysis derived from her view of the function of truth in politics. Should the Judenräte have told the Jews the truth, when they knew it, about where they were being deported to? How many might have been saved somehow had they known the truth? Why were the Judenräte notables so disciplined and servile to all authority—to the point of not keeping fellow Jews fully informed?
Some of them were well aware that the deportees were going directly to Auschwitz (and not to some resettlement area in the East as the Nazis claimed). Open rebellion was of course unthinkable under the circumstances. But why didn’t the leaders of the Jewish Councils refuse to accept any responsibilities assigned them by the Nazis? Insofar as they had moral authority, why didn’t they advise the Jews to run for their lives or try to go underground? If there had been no Jewish organizations at all and no Judenräte, Arendt said, the Nazis would have had a more difficult time carrying out their plans.
If the Judenräte had not been so “Germanically” self-disciplined, if they hadn’t compiled detailed lists of potential deportees, if they hadn’t supplied the Nazis with these lists, if they hadn’t collected the keys to the vacated apartments, replete with inventories (for the Nazis to hand them over to “Aryans”), if they hadn’t summoned the deportees to show up for deportation on a certain day, at a certain hour, at a certain place—with provisions for a three- or four-day journey, etc. etc…. If they had not done these things, would not fewer people have died? Others had asked such questions before. Arendt went further when she implied that the Jewish leaders had inadvertently allowed themselves to fall into a fiendish trap in which they became part of the system of victimization.
“The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless,” Arendt claimed, “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.”
It is clear why this sentence was seen by so many as insensitive and shocking. That the Jews did have leaders and notables and local and national organizations was well known. Many had served them well in the past. Many were doing their best to ameliorate suffering up to the very moment of deportation. Few understood the extent of Nazi plans for genocide. What would Arendt have said of these leaders if they had fled abroad, as many of them certainly could have, abandoning the Jews who depended on them? Would her argument have been less shocking had Arendt shown more understanding for the ghastly dilemmas facing the leaders who had remained behind? Would it have shocked less if instead of contemptuously attacking them she had raised questions about their behavior, while recognizing the tendency of beleaguered people to hope against hope that somehow things will turn out better if they can only buy time? Would it have shocked less if instead of attacking she had registered doubt? Would it have shocked less if she had said explicitly that the Jewish leaders were “inadvertently” collaborating in their own destruction? This is certainly what she meant to say.
Walter Laqueur was right when he wrote, early in the controversy, that Arendt was being attacked less because of what she said than for how she said it. She was inexcusably flippant, as when she referred to Leo Baeck, the revered former chief rabbi and head of the Berlin Judenrät, as the “Jewish Führer” (she excised the remark in the second printing). At various points in the book her style was brash and insolent, the tone one of professorial imperiousness. She took a certain pleasure in stating paradoxes, and her sarcasm and irony seemed out of place in a discussion of the Holocaust. A good example was her remark—an obviously ironic one—that Eichmann had become an enthusiastic convert to the Zionist solution of the Jewish problem. It was widely misunderstood and misinterpreted.
The tone of sarcasm often defeated her purpose. Arendt’s biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl wisely wrote that Arendt had posed the true moral issue but obscured it with needless irony. With chutzpah too, perhaps. More often than not she claimed a monopoly on “objectivity” and truth; and not just truth but, repeatedly, “the whole truth”: “The whole truth was…,” “The whole truth is….” She claimed to “understand” Eichmann better than everybody else, freely dispensing advice to prosecutors and defense lawyers (she despised both) as well as to the three judges, whom she admired. Eichmann’s judges—all three were immigrants from Weimar Germany—come off best in her book.
We now know from her private correspondence that she had come to Jerusalem with preconceived ideas about Israel, its political system, its government, and its policies toward the Arabs. She was horrified by Ben-Gurion’s attempt to use the trial as a means of creating a sense of national unity among a mass of demoralized immigrants. But she also had a tendency to draw absolute conclusions on the basis of casual evidence. The Israeli police force, she wrote to Jaspers, “gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew, and looks Arabic. Some downright brutal types among them. They would obey any order.” If she believed this, it is no wonder that she also believed for a while that Ben-Gurion had staged the trial solely to force more reparations money out of the German government. Or that he had a secret agreement with Adenauer not to allow the name of the notorious Hans Globke—a high official in Adenauer’s government who had, under the Nazis, compiled the official legal commentary to the Nuremberg racial laws—to come up during the trial. It did come up repeatedly.
Outside the courthouse doors she decried the “oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country.” In addition, she was horrified by “the peies and caftan Jews [i.e., Orthodox East European Jews] who make life impossible for all the reasonable people here.” Reasonable Israelis, in Arendt’s eyes, were the so-called yekkes, German-speaking immigrants from Germany and Austria, including some of her relatives and old friends from Freiburg, Heidelberg, and Ber-lin. Fortunately, she informed Jaspers, Eichmann’s three judges were of German origin, indeed “the best of German Jewry.” Jaspers answered back in the same vein: “Let us hope the three German Jews gain control,” he wrote.
She overreacted to the cheap patriotism of chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner, who used the court to present a heroic myth of the Holocaust. In a letter to Jaspers she described Hausner as “a typical Galician Jew, very unsympathetic,…boring,…is constantly making mistakes. Probably one of those people who don’t know any language.” What might she have said later when, under the governments of Golda Meir and Menachem Begin, the Holocaust was mystified to become the center of a new civil religion and used to justify Israel’s refusal to withdraw from occupied territory? She certainly had a case when she criticized Israel for being overly nationalistic and too quick in ascribing special moral value to itself; but she overdid it.
In later years, Arendt agreed that her prose style and some of her catchwords had been mistaken, including the most famous or infamous among them, the subtitle on the cover of her book. The phrase “banality of evil” entered popular dictionaries and books of familiar quotations. She was sorry she had used it. It had led her into an ambush. Were she writing now, she told a television interviewer in 1971, she would not have used those words.
By the time she said this, the great uproar was over. She still stood accused of nothing less than exculpating the murderers and offending the memory of the dead. Nor were her comments on the Judenräte—which took up only a dozen out of 312 pages—essential to the book’s main argument. She seems to have added them, almost as an afterthought, after re-reading Raul Hilberg’s book. We now know that she had disliked his book at first, but in the light of what she had heard, seen, and read during the trial, she must have changed her mind. She was outraged when ordinary witnesses at the trial were repeatedly harassed by the self-righteous Hausner with the question “Why did you not rebel?” while the tragic role of the Judenräte was barely mentioned, least of all by the prosecution. This made her suspicious. Her quarrel was not with the murdered Jews but with some of their leaders and with the Israeli prosecution, which she suspected was covering up for them. Two decades after the trial, the deputy prosecutor Gabriel Bach (later a Supreme Court justice) told an interviewer that if all those witnesses from Israel (and elsewhere) had appeared in court and told stories of the Judenräte, “no one would have remembered Eichmann.”
The uproar over her remarks on the Judenräte was at first incomprehensible to Arendt. Then she decided it was because she had inadvertently dragged out a past that had not been laid to rest. She became slightly paranoiac, convincing herself that prominent ex-members of the Judenräte now occupied high positions in the Israeli government. (Yet the only name she was able to cite was that of a low-ranking press officer in a minor Israeli ministry.)
The tone and tenor of the attacks on her book seemed to confirm her worst suspicions. The New York Times picked an associate of the Israeli chief prosecutor to review the book. The editors of the left-wing Partisan Review had lionized her and published her work for years, impressed by Arendt’s wit, her learning, and by what Irving Howe called “the immensities of German philosophy.” Lionel Abel now wrote in the magazine that she had made Eichmann “aesthetically palatable, while his victims are aesthetically repulsive.” Eichmann, Abel claimed, came off better in her book than his victims.
In a circular letter, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith urged rabbis throughout America to denounce Arendt from the pulpit on the Jewish high holidays. A similar accusation would later be made against Rolf Hochhuth for displacing the guilt from the Nazis onto the Pope. Hochhuth, of course, had done nothing of the sort. Nor had Arendt diminished Eichmann’s immense guilt, for which, she felt, he more than deserved to die. The Judenräte had made the task of the Nazis easier—but the Nazis alone had slaughtered the Jews.
The scandal soon grew to outlandish proportions. Saul Bellow excoriated her in Mr. Sammler’s Planet for using the tragic history of the Holocaust to
promote the foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals…. Banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience.
A nationwide campaign was launch-ed in the United States to discredit her in the Jewish community and in the academic world. There was a startling disproportion between the ferocity of the reaction and its immediate cause. A group of lecturers (some of them specially flown in from Israel and England) toured the country decrying Arendt as a “self-hating Jew,” the “Rosa Luxemburg of Nothingness.” Four Jewish organizations hired scholars who went through her text line by line to discredit it, ferreting out mistakes, most of them minor, wrong dates and misspelled names. A review of the book in the Intermountain Jewish News was headlined “Self hating Jewess writes pro-Eichmann book.” Other reviews criticized her for claiming that Eichmann’s trial had been a “show trial.” But to judge from Ben-Gurion’s intentions (when he ordered Eichmann kidnapped and brought to trial in Israel) and from his public statement afterwards, it certainly was a show trial. Its purpose, in Ben-Gurion’s words, was to “educate the young” and the entire world and give the Jewish people a voice in making a historic accounting with its persecutors. In France, the weekly Nouvel Observateur published selected excerpts of the book and asked, “Est-elle nazie?”
The reaction in Israel to Arendt’s comments on the Judenräte was generally milder than in the United States. The first reviews in the Israeli press were not critical. Ha’aretz reprinted long excerpts of the book in a generally sympathetic context. This was not surprising. In admonishing the Judenräte, Arendt had sounded more like the old-fashioned Zionist she had once been. Zionism, after all, had been a movement of Jewish self-criticism.
Months later, the literary critic Shlomo Grodsensky (a recent immigrant from the United States) launched the first Israeli attack on Arendt in the semi-official daily Davar. He started by criticizing Arendt’s willingness to publish her text in The New Yorker between ads for Tiffany jewelry and elegant fur coats. Grodsensky insinuated that she had done so for material gain. He decried the “deadly undermining element in a Jew of Mrs. Arendt’s type…. She is the poison that feeds on itself and wanders with her everywhere, even to Auschwitz and Jerusalem.” To this day there is as yet no Hebrew translation of Eichmann in Jerusalem or any of her other books. But a book-length diatribe against her book on Eichmann, first published in America, was quickly published in Israel.
In an “open letter” published in Encounter Gershom Scholem harshly blamed Arendt for her lack of tact and sympathy (Herzenstakt), especially in her discussion of Leo Baeck and other members of the Judenräte. Many readers today will agree with him about this. But I doubt if as many would also follow him in his appeal to Arendt to show more Ahavat Israel—love of Israel—by which he meant more patriotism, more emotional involvement. That was precisely what Arendt believed she must avoid. And yet a careful reading of Scholem’s public letter to Arendt shows how ambivalent—indeed half-agreeing—he was on the touchy subject of the Judenräte. “I cannot refute those who say that the Jews deserved their fate, because they did not take earlier steps to defend themselves, because they were cowardly etc,” he writes. “I came across this argument recently in a book by that honest Jewish anti-Semite, Kurt Tucholsky [a double oxymoron if there ever was one]…. I cannot deny that [Tucholsky] was right.” Unlike Arendt, Scholem did not presume to judge. “I was not there,” he wrote. Arendt’s answer to this was that the refusal to take a position undermined the very foundations of historiography and jurisprudence.
Would Scholem have reacted as harshly if Arendt had shown more empathy for the situation of the Jewish leaders? If, for example, she had written “Leo Baeck, in his blindness or naiveté,” or words to this effect? Perhaps he might even have made some judgments of his own.
Thinking, judging, and acting were closely linked in this and in other books by Hannah Arendt. Her position was that if you say to yourself, “Who am I to judge?” you are already lost. In her lifetime, Arendt continued to be marked, as it were, by the debate set off by her book. Even though twenty-two years have passed since she died, she is still the subject of intense controversy. One saw this a few years ago when a sensational book was published on Arendt’s love affair, as a teenager, with Martin Heidegger. It pictured her as a self-hating Jew on the one hand and, on the other, as a silly bimbo sexually entrapped for life by her aging Nazi professor. The book gave a crude version of her long and complex relationship with Heidegger; yet some reviewers seemed to take a particular satisfaction in the book’s simplistic account.
As Tony Judt recently wrote in these pages,9 Arendt made many small errors for which her critics will never forgive her. But she also got many of the big things right, and for this she deserves to be remembered. She would have been amused by the renewed interest in her work. A few years before her death she said that the saddest form of fame was posthumous fame. At the height of the scandal over Eichmann in Jerusalem, Jaspers wrote to console her: a time will come, he wrote, which she will not live to see, when Jews will erect a monument to her in Israel as they were just then doing for Spinoza. Or so he thought.10 This has not happened either. But we could be getting there.
November 6, 1997
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
See also the standard biography, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World (Yale University Press, 1982). ↩
“Zionism Reconsidered,” Menorah Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2 (October-December, 1945), p. 172. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
Mary McCarthy would soon take her to task, and not for the first time vainly, for her use of a word—Gedankenlosigkeit—which in English didn’t mean what it means in German. In English “thoughtlessness” stood for forgetfulness or neglect. “Inability to think,” McCarthy suggested, would have been better. ↩
Jaspers to Arendt, October 25, 1963. ↩