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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil » User review

Banality of Evil -- sadly still relevant

  • Aug 22, 2010
Pros: Style, structure, information, general readability

Cons: Turgid prose at times

The Bottom Line: Read it for the contemporary relevance than as history--it's solid history, but its real impact goes well beyond the events it covers.

During war or dealing with its aftermath, op-ed and other columnists reference Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Now that the US has reached “the formal cessation of combat operations” (as the New York Times describes it) in Iraq and confusion about whether it is advisable or even possible to pull out of Afghanistan by the middle of 2011, it is likely that the reference will return soon. However, they will call it by its subtitle: “A Report on the Banality of Evil.” That’s an eye-catching title; it brims with the moral confusion that affects the post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima world. What she reported and how she reported it got her into serious trouble in both the Jewish and academic world. It is an interesting book to read purely for the information; it is compelling, though, because of the exploration of criminal culpability in the bureaucracy of war.

The New Yorker magazine sent Ms. Arendt, a Jew exiled from Nazi Germany, to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Eichmann had been in charge of “forced emigration” and forced relocation of Jews and other undesirables. He put the timetables together for the trains that would take the “émigrés” to destinations like Treblinka and Sobibor for immediate death for all and to Auschwitz for slave labor for some and immediate death for the rest. And when Germany started to lose the war, he negotiated with the army for train cars and time on the rails to move more and more Jews to the killing centers all over Poland.

He never actually killed anyone. Given this, his crime was complex.

The commission of the crime spanned the last half of the Third Reich and covered nearly every country in Occupied Europe. Ms. Arendt’s task was to convey the facts, yes, but mainly to put the facts in an historical context for a history that was still for the most part hidden—today’s open discussion of the Holocaust only began in the late 1970s, so the information that came out at trial uncovered difficult information.

Eichmann wasn’t the monster he was expected to be. He was a mid-level bureaucrat and brown-noser. His desk job was pivotal in the mechanism of the Holocaust and he was present at the Wannsee Conference (a 90 minute meeting where the specifics of the “Final Solution” were outlined). Something like that would take only a couple thousand words at best to explain fully. So Ms. Arendt focused on the concentration of Jews into ghettos and the transports country by country which creates a cultural picture I must admit was surprising, and darkly comic in a couple of instances:

Bulgaria essentially refused to follow the directives until fairly late in the war where “under great German pressure, the Bulgarian government finally decided to expel all Jews from Sofia to rural areas, but this measure was definitely not what the Germans demanded, since it dispersed the Jews instead of concentrating them. “
Romania In Denmark, “the Gestapo began sabotaging orders from Berlin”(thus protecting Danish Jews in essence); in Romania, even the S.S. were taken aback and occasionally frightened” and” often intervened to save the Jews from sheer butchery, so that the killing could be done in what, according to them, was a civilized way.”

While that might be shocking, it isn’t what got her into trouble. One of the things that Eichmann did was to encourage Jewish leaders to create their own bureaucracies within the ghettos such that Eichmann would send only the number of people to be transported; it was up to these leaders to choose the people. This is understood today. At the time, it was not and she not only “exposed” this process, she raised the question of why these men would help concentrate their fellows instead of advising and helping them scatter. As the Bulgarian example shows, where there is no concentration, finding and deporting people is much harder. She implied complicity and asked the question that we will never be able to answer with any satisfaction.

There are a couple of other editorial choices that guaranteed she would be “excommunicated” as Amos Elon (who wrote the introduction to this edition) said. However, while her opinions have been called into question, her facts have not. If these notions create a raw nerve now, then best stay away. Otherwise I highly recommend it.


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Paul Savage ()
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About this book


Hannah Arendt’s authoritative report on the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann includes further factual material that came to light after the trial, as well as Arendt’s postscript directly addressing the controversy that arose over her account.
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ISBN-13: 978-0143039884
Author: Hannah Arendt
Genre: History, Law, Philosophy
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Date Published: September 26, 2006
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