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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.