As the 5oth Anniversary of the Eichmann Trial is upon us, there will be many opportunities to revisit and rethink the case itself as well as Hannah Arendt’s account of it. This is a good thing.
Unfortunately, there will be all-too-many essays that use and abuse Arendt’s writing. One case in point is the recent essay by Thane Rosenbaum in The Forward.
Professor Rosenbaum’s main critique is that Arendt thinks the system of Nazism is to be blamed, not Eichmann himself. He writes:
The banality of Arendt’s argument, however, is that it is the system that must be blamed and not the people who simply become introduced to a new moral order. [read more]
Nowhere in Eichmann In Jerusalem does Arendt say that the system is to be blamed and not the individuals. On the contrary, her effort in the book is to articulate the political and legal grounds to justify executing Eichmann for his wrongs–grounds she believes the trial court in Jerusalem failed to provide.
As with so many of Arendt’s critics, Professor Rosenbaum does not bother to cite from the book. I assume he read it. But I suggest it is time to read the book again.
Arendt’s argument is nuanced and strong and has been responsibly defended and criticized by many. It is, in short:
1. That Eichmann’s monstrous deeds, his evil deeds, cannot be explained by appealing to his inner monstrosity. Arendt asked that we take seriously the fact that normal people (and normal is not the same as innocent) can participate in and do horribly evil acts. The enduring impact of her book is based in the power and truth of that insight. To disagree with her is one thing. To say that she argued that Eichmann was innocent and not to blame is to fully mischaracterize her argument. It is to offer cliché as fact.
2. Arendt’s own judgment of Eichmann was that he should be hanged. Here she agreed wholeheartedly with the Court in Jerusalem.
3. Her disagreement with the Court was only on the why. For the Court, Eichmann was guilty of breaking the law. Specifically, the Court found Eichmann guilty of was violating Section 23 of the Israeli Code Ordinance, a code which makes it a crime to give counsel or advice to others or to aid and abet others in a criminal act. In effect, since the Court found no evidence of Eichmann having actually killed anyone (his job was to make sure the trains and mechanisms of transport led the Jews to their destruction), he was guilty of aiding and abetting mass murder. The Israeli Court recognized, as did Arendt, that it was somehow wrong to convict Eichmann of the crime of aiding and abetting—Given what he had done, aiding and abetting seemed meaningless. The Court struggled to articulate a different standard, but it was, Arendt saw, constrained by the law and powerless to do so.
4. Arendt argued instead that the Court should have departed from legal reasoning and realized that Eichmann represented a wholly new form of criminal, one whose wrongs were so extraordinary as to demand an extraordinary verdict. Arendt’s departure from the Court was thus occasioned by her sense that Eichmann must be found guilty, but that his guilt transcended legal categories. It is for this reason that she appeals to “long-forgotten propositions” of revenge; and it is for this reason that her own judgment, the one she says the Court should have “dared” to give, avoided all legalities and judged that Eichmann must die simply because he, Adolf Eichmann, “carried out, and actively supported, a policy of mass murder.” This is a radical claim, that a Court should have dared to issue a judgment outside the law in recognition of the extraordinary nature of the case. And yet that is her argument.
To say that Arendt does not blame Eichmann is simply to not read these lines. Over and over Arendt’s book has been attacked by people who discredit her without reading her. But the book remains one of the most important and provocative accounts not only of an extraordinary trial, but of the need to maintain moral judgments in an age of totalitarian mass movements. There are few more important books of our time. So let’s all agree on one thing. Before you tear it apart, read the book.
To read a longer account of Arendt’s approach to the Eichmann Trial, download Reconciliation, Non-Reconciliation, and the Building of a Common World by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities.