Early in Eichmann in Jerusalem, her insightful, sober and controversial 1964 book, Hannah Arendt notes that Adolf Eichmann — tried, convicted and executed in Jerusalem for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity during the Holocaust — was a joiner.

As a result, she writes that “May 8, 1945, the official date of Germany’s defeat, was significant for him mainly because it then dawned upon him that thenceforward he would have to live without being a member of something or other.”  Indeed, as Eichmann said:

“I sensed I would have to live a leaderless and difficult individual life, I would receive no directives from anybody, no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me, no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult – in brief, a life never known before lay before me.”

A leaderless life

This, to me, seems to be at the heart of Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann and his import for anyone seeking to understand those who carried out the Nazi-ordered killing of six million Jews and millions of others leading up to and during World War II.  And not just who, but also how and why.

When, on May 11, 1960, Eichmann was kidnapped from Argentina by Israeli agents and flown to Jerusalem for his trial, he was viewed, by the world public, as a “perverted sadist” and a blood-thirsty monster. 

Not only was he a former S.S. official who took part in the infamous Wannsee Conference where the detailed plans of Hitler’s Final Solution were hammered out, but he also played a key role in arranging the railroad transports that took hundreds of thousands of Jews to the places where they were murdered.

Gideon Hausner, the prosecutor at Eichmann’s trial, called forth days and weeks of testimony about “the calamity of the Jewish people in this generation,” telling the three judges and the world-wide audience, “And there sits the monster responsible for all this.”

Arendt, however — watching the pale and ghost-like figure of the defendant in the glass booth that protected him from assassination and reading later the full trial transcript as well as Eichmann’s interviews and writings — could not help but come to a much different conclusion:

“Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.”

“This lack of imagination”

In this report of Eichmann’s trial, which originally ran in several installments in the New Yorker magazine, Arendt refuses to turn away from the ridiculousness of the defendant, a mousy man who sought leaders and bosses to tell him how he needed to live his life, and the horrific crimes which he had a hand in carrying out.

She is willing to recognize that evildoers need not be overtly cruel or enjoy the sight of blood or be mad with a wish to inflict pain.  That they can be dopey paper-pushers, career bureaucrats — in a word, banal.

The subtitle of Arendt’s book is A Report on the Banality of Evil, and she writes, “[W]hen I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial.” 

That phenomenon was a defendant who, of course, was immoral and evil in acting to carry out the Holocaust, but who was able to think that he was not immoral or evil because he never directly drew blood from his victims or was there to force his victims to enter the gas chambers.  Arendt writes:

“Eichmann was not lago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain.’ Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.

“And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. It was precisely this lack of imagination which enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted.”

“No motives at all”

In other words, Eichmann saw his life as centered simply and solely on his career, and that involved following the directives of his bosses to such an extent that he would win a promotion to a higher level in the bureaucracy.  In another life, he might have been working for an insurance company or an accounting firm or a government housing department.

This is a very modern sort of person, someone for whom a large, complex organization is ideal inasmuch as this employee — this cog in the great organizational machine — is willing and eager for instructions about what to do and willing and eager to carry out those instructions with a minimum of fuss and bother. 

On the other hand, perhaps this sort of a person has always been part of the human fabric, someone who does not want to think about what he or she is going to do in life, someone who follows the route of least resistance, someone who doesn’t choose a path but lets circumstances determine the path, whatever it is and wherever it goes. 

Eichmann was not stupid, Arendt asserts:

“It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is ‘banal’ and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.

“It surely cannot be so common that a man facing death, and, moreover, standing beneath the gallows, should be able to think of nothing but what he has heard at funerals all his life, and that these ‘lofty words’ should completely becloud the reality — of his own death.

“That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man — that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem. But it was a lesson, neither an explanation of the phenomenon nor a theory about it.”

“Conformity at any price”

Perhaps this mindset is also responsible for another odd aspect of the story of the Holocaust — the reaction, in at least some cases, of the Nazis to a refusal by some to take part in the killing.

In Denmark, when the local authorities wouldn’t cooperate, those overseeing plans for the eradication of Jews there ended up sabotaging the orders from Berlin, notes Arendt.

“It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their [Nazi] ‘toughness’ had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage.

“That the ideal of ‘toughness,’ except, perhaps, for a few half-demented brutes, was nothing but a myth of self-deception, concealing a ruthless desire for conformity at any price, was clearly revealed at the Nuremberg Trials, where the defendants accused and betrayed each other and assured the world that they ‘had always been against it’ or claimed, as Eichmann was to do, that their best qualities had been ‘abused’ by their superiors. (In Jerusalem, he accused “those in power” of having abused his ‘obedience.’ ‘The subject of a good government is lucky, the subject of a bad government is unlucky. I had no luck.’) The atmosphere had changed, and although most of them must have known that they were doomed, not a single one of them had the guts to defend the Nazi ideology.”

It was one thing to oppress a marginalized, much weakened minority, such as the Jews, Gypsies or other groups, and quite another to go against a mainstream, non-demonized majority in a place such as Denmark when that majority won’t cooperate. 

The Nazi functionaries backed down in this case and some others that Arendt cites.  What implications does this have for those Germans who explained their willingness to permit the Nazis to take away the citizenship rights of Jews and ultimately round them up and ship them to the killing camps? They couldn’t oppose the Nazis, those Germans had argued, or they would have been sent on the same trains as the Jews.  Maybe not.

“If unorganized and leaderless”

And what implications does this have for those Jewish leaders who cooperated with the Nazis in the hope of staving off the worst of the oppression and saving at least some — the better people — of the Jews from destruction?

Arendt was no fan of those who took roles in the Jewish organizations that the Nazis co-opted or established to organize the Jewish communities for the oppressors and even choose who would be sent on the trains.

“True it was that the Jewish people as a whole had not been organized, that they had possessed no territory, no government, and no army, that, in the hour of their greatest need, they had no government-in-exile to represent them among the Allies (the Jewish Agency for Palestine, under Dr. Weizmann’s presidency, was at best a miserable substitute), no caches of weapons, no youth with military training. But the whole truth was that there existed Jewish community organizations and Jewish party and welfare organizations on both the local and the international level.

“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. 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 darkest chapter of the whole dark story”

Arendt points out that some experts had calculated that about half of those who died at the hands of the Nazis might have survived if they had not followed the instructions of the Jewish Councils.  She writes:

“In Holland, where the [Jewish Council] like all the Dutch authorities very quickly became an ‘instrument of the Nazis,’ 103,000 Jews were deported to the death camps…in the usual way, i.e., with the cooperation of the Jewish Council. Only five hundred and nineteen Jews returned from the death camps.

“In contrast to this figure, ten thousand of those twenty to twenty-five thousand Jews who escaped the Nazis — and that meant also the Jewish Council — and went underground survived…”

Arendt writes that, to a Jew like her, “this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.”  She explains:

“In Amsterdam as in Warsaw, in Berlin as in Budapest, Jewish officials could be trusted to compile the lists of persons and of their property, to secure money from the deportees to defray the expenses of their deportation and extermination, to keep track of vacated apartments, to supply police forces to help seize Jews and get them on trains, until, as a last gesture, they handed over the assets of the Jewish community in good order for final confiscation.

“They distributed the Yellow Star badges, and sometimes, as in Warsaw, ‘the sale of the armbands became a regular business; there were ordinary armbands of cloth and fancy plastic armbands which were washable.’ In the Nazi-inspired, but not Nazi-dictated, manifestoes they issued, we still can sense how they enjoyed their new power — ‘The Central Jewish Council has been granted the right of absolute disposal over all Jewish spiritual and material wealth and over all Jewish manpower,’ as the first announcement of the Budapest Council phrased it.”

“Holy principles”

What makes this reality so pernicious is that the Jewish officials weren’t wanting to help the Nazis.  They were well-intentioned but failed to think clearly or deeply.

They were willing to accept each step in the Nazi program to isolate and oppress the Jews, hoping, against appearances, that each new step would be the last — as long as the Jews didn’t anger the Nazis.  Arendt points out:

“We know how the Jewish officials felt when they became instruments of murder — like captains ‘whose ships were about to sink and who succeeded in bringing them safe to port by casting overboard a great part of their precious cargo’; like saviors who ‘with a hundred victims save a thousand people, with a thousand ten thousand.’

“The truth was even more gruesome. Dr. Kastner, in Hungary, for instance, saved exactly 1,684 people with approximately 476,000 victims. In order not to leave the selection to ‘blind fate,’ ‘truly holy principles’ were needed ‘as the guiding force of the weak human hand which puts down on paper the name of the unknown person and with this decides his life or death.’

“And whom did these ‘holy principles’ single out for salvation? Those ‘who had worked all their lives for the zibur [community]’ — i.e., the functionaries — and the ‘most prominent Jews,’ as Kastner says in his report.”

To wrestle meaning

Eichmann in Jerusalem is one of the foundational documents of Holocaust studies. 

In the half century since its publication, much more has been written about the questions with which Arendt grappled in her book. Later writers have supported and challenged her conclusions and have refined her questions and gone deeper into finding answers.

What is undeniable is that, just a decade and a half after the horrors of the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt addressed those horrors and the banality of at least one of its perpetrators and tried to wrestle meaning from the chaos, destruction, death and grief.

It was and is a courageous book, deeply felt and deeply thought.

Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is https://patricktreardon.com/.

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