Arendt explains that Eichmann forgot most of the evidence she has presented so far; the crucial moment in his mind was the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which various Ministers in the Nazi government assembled at Heydrich’s request to plan the Final Solution. Heydrich was understandably worried about their willingness to participate, since many of the most irreplaceable ministers were not lifelong Party members, but “he could not have been more wrong.” Everyone was enthusiastic and offered various propositions about how to deport and exterminate Europe’s Jews.
Eichmann’s faulty memory has forced Arendt to reconstruct his trajectory in the Nazi party for herself. He seems to have remembered the Wannsee Conference because it represented a transformation in his own career and function, rather than because of its historical importance in the development of the Final Solution. Again, Nazi leaders were over-prepared for the possibility that they might face moral objections, but underestimated the power of their ideology to shut down others’ sense of morality.
Eichmann was mostly excited at the opportunity to mingle with so many of his superiors, since he was the meeting’s lowest-ranked member and secretary. After seeing his bosses praise the Final Solution, he quickly abandoned all his reservations about it and set about his new job of coordinating “forced evacuation” to concentration camps.
Eichmann’s obsession with social status, always conceived in terms of the Nazi hierarchy, overrode his moral reservations. By creating an opposition between his social and moral consciences, the Nazis ensured that he could be trusted to carry out murder.
The German Foreign Office negotiated with occupied countries to evacuate their Jews, and legal experts ensured that these deportees were made stateless, so that no government could seek to defend them, and their property could be confiscated. Jewish Councils oversaw registration and drew up lists of deportees, who boarded trains to the camps. The operation was well-planned and efficient; few of its functionaries resigned until it became clear that Germany would lose the war.
Under the Third Reich, the law became a convenient tool for Nazi leaders to legitimate their unjust policies; even the system designed to preserve justice became unmoored to its moral values (much as the Israeli government hopes for the Jerusalem court). The Jewish Councils, too, inverted the normal purpose of their local jurisdiction. Instead of protecting Europe’s Jewish populations, they made it even easier for them to die in concentration camps.
Most of all, Eichmann “could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solution.” He was surprised when the Hungarian Jewish leader Dr. Kastner asked him to stop the exterminations—but this was outside his power. For the most part, Jewish organizations were incredibly cooperative and efficient at facilitating deportations, which Arendt considers “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” Throughout Europe, they compiled lists, confiscated property to hand over to the Nazis, selected a few dedicated and prominent Jews to save at the expense of thousands of others, and never told the victims that they were headed to their deaths. Unsurprisingly, the prosecution tries to avoid this question as much as possible, but it is baffling that the defense never brings it up.
Eichmann felt he could not resist the Final Solution because he lost all sense that an alternative would be possible. The terrifyingly mundane fact that he simply mimicked the beliefs of those around him shows the critical importance of independent moral judgment under totalitarianism, as well as the unreliability of socialized values. While it might be comfortable to think that groups of people tend toward better judgment, it seems that (at least within the structures of the Nazi bureaucracy and Jewish Councils) they instead led to groupthink and shut down moral conscience. Arendt’s argument about the Jewish Councils is the most controversial part of her book, since it threatens Israel’s claim to guard the best interests of the Jewish people (as it shows Jewish leaders’ willingness to betray their most disadvantaged community members, but also Zionism’s direct contributions to the Nazi extermination policy).
For the most part, the prosecution lets its witnesses say whatever they like, for as long as they like. One after another, they talk endlessly about conditions at the camps, which had nothing to do with Eichmann. They also mention resistance by Jews of all persuasions. This backfires on the prosecution, which hopes to establish that only Zionists resisted. The testimony of resistors themselves also “dissipated the haunting specter of universal cooperation.” People already know that the Nazis made Jews build and run the gas chambers, usually picking “the criminal elements” to do so.
By transforming the trial into a theater of suffering, Israel again set aside the question of justice in order to push its propagandistic claims of power; but its desire to let the truth come out ended up undermining its own narrative that only Zionism could save Jews from the world’s persecution. Instead, the true stories of resistance show that it fundamentally stemmed not from “idealism” but from individual moral judgment, even if it occasionally turned into collective political action.
The real “moral problem,” Arendt says, is that no one testifies about the Nazi cooperation with Jewish authorities. One of these Jewish authorities is called to the stand, and the audience heckles him as he suggests there was nothing to be done, and escape would not have been worth it—even though, due to his connections, he was able to escape himself. The judges twice ask witnesses about it, but the prosecutor instead asks them, “why did you not rebel?” Had European Jews “really been unorganized and leaderless,” Arendt declares, nowhere near as many would have died.
The audience’s reaction, likely frightening to the prosecution, reveals that Holocaust survivors can easily see through Israel’s distorted narrative and bolsters Arendt’s argument. The witness’s hypocritical justification for sending people to their deaths while he escaped the Nazis suggests that he, like Eichmann, chose to believe obvious lies in order to avoid confronting the moral horror that he sent the weak to their deaths in order to save himself.
This episode, Arendt argues, proves “the totality of the moral collapse the Nazis caused in respectable European society.” Of course, Eichmann was always “overawed by ‘good society’” and reverent toward his social superiors (especially Hitler), who controlled his conscience and led him to the same moral collapse. In Nazi society, there was no way to resist except to withdraw, no matter how many war criminals claimed to be “inwardly opposed” to their orders or merely staying in their jobs to “mitigate” the risk of a “real Nazi” taking over their role.
Arendt is arguing that a sense of moral responsibility collapsed even amidst the Jewish community; “the Jewish people” ceased to act as a unitary collective or look out for one another’s interests, but rather fragmented along lines of power, wealth, nationality, and proximity to the Nazis. Horrifyingly, poorer Jews’ trust in their leaders led them to extermination camps, proving the dangers of prioritizing the “social conscience” just as clearly as Eichmann’s blind trust in Hitler.
One peculiar witness is the Protestant minister Propst Heinrich Grüber, who negotiated with Eichmann to secure the safety of World War I veterans and their widows, then tried to help Jews escape from a concentration camp and became imprisoned himself. At trial, Servatius asks Grüber whether he tried to morally influence Eichmann, and he says that he did not. Arendt calls the protection of certain exceptional categories of Jews—including Grüber’s attempts to save only designated groups—a moral disaster, because it tacitly accepted and therefore justified the general rule of extermination. The Nazis even saved certain prominent and friendly Jews—Hitler exempted 340 people, and Heydrich was actually half-Jewish. even after the war, Germans commonly lament the fates of “prominent” and famous Jews, while forgetting the comparatively better treatment they received.
Arendt never questions Grüber’s incredible courage and selfless motivation to save people arbitrarily condemned to death. At the same time, she shows that even he—a heroic minister—underestimated the power of moral courage and failed to see that, by choosing to save privileged categories of people (of whom he thought the Nazis would be more forgiving), he was actually falling into the Nazi ideology that valued human life differently based on race, religion, and power. Those resisting totalitarianism must sustain their unflinching moral judgment by insisting that all lives are absolutely and equally worth saving.