Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem

Well, it’s been four months of Augustine, and now it’s time for Hannah Arendt. I’m starting with Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is a great little book interrogating how more-or-less ordinary people can do horrific things. It’s going to be listed under my ‘Theology’ tag, which is probably a bit misleading – really, it’s philosophy, and what’s more, Arendt didn’t even like the label of philosophy – she thought of herself as a political theorist, because she was more about people in the world than people as an abstracted theoretical topic of study. Nevertheless, the whole thing is going under theology, because it’s informing my personal theology. I’m entirely at liberty to pilfer things from the philosophers for that purpose, and that’s what I’m going to do. 

So: Eichmann in Jerusalem. It’s hard to know where to start with this book! It’s not formal philosophy – rather, it’s a series of journalistic articles written by Arendt as she watched the Eichmann trial in 1962. Quick background: Eichmann was a high-up Nazi who was hugely involved in the Holocaust. His job was to round up the Jews, take their stuff, put them on trains, and ship them off to various camps. The Holocaust wasn’t necessarily his idea, but yes, he’s probably one of the biggest figures in terms of actually making it happen. Eichmann escaped Nuremberg because he’d fucked off to Austria shortly before the fall of Berlin with some false papers. He ended up in Argentina under a false name, where he was eventually discovered by Mossad, who were quite happy to make his acquaintance. They abducted Eichmann, smuggled him into Jerusalem, and put him on trial for crimes against the Jews – he was executed on June 1, 1962. 

Probably the biggest thing about the book is the whole idea of the banality of evil. The Nazis were often presented as psychopathic monsters, and although some of them were, Arendt’s book is basically to the effect of ‘No, some of them are just fucking stupid.’ You’ve got to really understand the culture of the day here: even almost twenty years later, people are still reeling from the concept that this systematic extermination could’ve happened. It was hard to imagine a world in which there are real people who really seriously tried to kill all the Jews. One of the ways of dealing with that difficulty is to paint the Nazis as sub-human monsters – psychos, not normal people. That way we can all preserve our faith in humanity at large. Arendt’s not having any of that, though.

I’m only part-way through the book, so we’re going to leave the whole ‘banality of evil’ thing for later. There’s lots to chew on in the mean-time though – lots of historical detail that just sort of gives you an idea of some of the nuances and complexities of the Holocaust. For example, Arendt characterises Eichmann’s trial as something of a show trial, an event calculated by the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to highlight the extent of Jewish suffering under the Holocaust. That might sound cynical and exploitative (it is), but consider the position of Israel. It hasn’t even existed as a nation for twenty years yet, the Palestinians are raising hell, the Egyptians aren’t being friendly – it’s a tough place to be. Without taking sides in the whole Israel-Palestine thing, we can simply acknowledge that Israel was in a tough place, and if it was a show-trial, there are clear reasons as to why.

One of the other big (controversial) points is that it wasn’t just Eichmann acting alone in this matter. Arendt argues that the Judenräte, the Jewish councils imposed on various Jewish communities, inadvertently helped the Holocaust process: “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“. Her argument’s both crude and inaccurate, here, and understandably it provoked a shit-storm of controversy – people thought she was victim-blaming, and when you victim-blame the Jews for the Holocaust – well. It’s true that Eichmann’s job was made easier because he had the Judenräte, and the Jewish police under them. These guys helped inventory the property of the Jewish population, and the Jewish police helped round up Jews for the transports off to the camps. Although that’s damning stuff, it’s not a simple situation – we can’t just label the Judenräte as bad and move on.

First off, there are multiple examples where the people appointed to the Judenräte (they were appointed by the Nazis) committed suicide, or refused to cooperate and were promptly executed. The ones who stuck around basically tried to do the best they could with what they had. You might think it’s immoral to provide any form of compliance in that situation, but it’s actually very unclear. Some Jews thought that the leaders who killed themselves were doing the right thing; some thought that it was an example of cowardice and bad leadership. The division between the two seems to be a division between absolute and utilitarian ethics. If it’s always absolutely immoral to cooperate with Nazis, suicide is a moral option. However, the utilitarians might argue that if you’re in a bad situation, you should try and make the best of it. It’s still a touchy question today, and Arendt didn’t really help the matter. Personally I think she made an unintentional mis-step, but that’s by the by. We do know that she prompted a shit-storm, which resulted in a great deal of thorough, nuanced research into the matter.

Anyway, that’s some background to Eichmann in Jerusalem. We’re working up to the banality of evil – next week, we’ll look at a Himmler vignette in the book that is both utterly terrifying and incredibly revealing.

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