Arendt emphasizes that her book is a “trial report” based on the Jerusalem trial’s English translations and sometimes German transcripts (for matters conducted in that language). Other clearly reliable sources were the transcript of Eichmann’s interrogation, the prosecution’s documents, the 16 defense witnesses’ affidavits, and Eichmann’s 70 pages of notes for the Sassen interview. While she regrets that she only included cited materials in her bibliography (as opposed to all background reading), she explains that she has added a handful of new sources that appeared after the first edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Her chapters of historical background information are also based on two respected and exhaustively-researched histories of Holocaust.
As Arendt shortly reveals, she wrote this postscript for the second edition in order to respond to the enormous controversy that Eichmann in Jerusalem created in the international intellectual world (and particularly its Jewish corners). Accordingly, she first emphasizes her sources in order to prove that even her most criticized arguments are verifiable and shared by other well-informed scholars.
Arendt continues that, even before it came out, Eichmann in Jerusalem faced a controversy and “an organized campaign” that overshadowed it, leading reviews to repeat the same criticisms verbatim even in different countries and contexts. She sees this as reflecting the worlds’ inability to fully come to terms with, but initial attempts to finally address, the Nazis’ horrific crimes against the moral order of humanity. This controversy largely surrounded Jews’ (lack of) resistance to the Nazis, which was completely understandable given their situation, but got unfairly exploited in insensitive popular explanations based on the “ghetto mentality” or traits somehow specific to Jews (like “self-hatred”).
Arendt attributes both the controversy and campaign to the same problem on which she blames Eichmann and the German people’s participation in the Holocaust: the insistence on putting collective moral norms above individual moral judgments. While the “campaign” was driven by moral outrage, this outrage was in turn driven by the same political considerations that motivated the prosecution’s biased case against Eichmann. The tendency to blame inherent “Jewish” traits for Jews’ failure to resist, beyond blaming the victims, perpetuating anti-Semitism, and falsely assuming that community norms drive all behavior, also reflects a refusal to attempt empathy or confront the possibility that, from the standpoint of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims, rebellion may have made less sense than hopeful waiting.
The Jewish leadership’s complicity in Nazi crimes has been well-established and was important to the substance of Eichmann’s trial. Most vocal Jewish Holocaust survivors have recognized their leadership’s moral failure, but this leadership’s defenders have lampooned Arendt’s book for mentioning it. Others have absurdly argued that Arendt left out certain resistance movements (which had nothing to do with Eichmann) or even that Eichmann had no right to speak at trial (meaning “that the trial should have been conducted without any defense”).
While Holocaust survivors see how the Nazis created fractures within the Jewish community, Jewish leaders try to erase these differences and insist that there was only one Jewish experience under the Third Reich. This parallels how Israel argues that all Jews were passive victims who went meekly to their deaths, but now all Jews are powerful because they are protected by the heroic Zionist state.
Some intellectuals have exploited the trial as data for their grand theories, but “the book itself dealt with a sadly limited subject”—a single trial about a single man, along with the historical circumstances that surrounded it. Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt emphasizes, is not a history of the Holocaust or Nazi regime, “nor is it, finally and least of all, a theoretical treatise on the nature of evil.” While such general questions are important, the attempt to see “an ‘Eichmann in every one of us’” does precisely what the defense alleged: it turns Eichmann into a scapegoat for all Nazis, all totalitarianism, all anti-Semitism, and perhaps even all human evil. Arendt, on the other hand, knows that Eichmann’s trial was solely about justice.
Like the Eichmann trial according to the prosecution, Arendt’s book is called to stand for much more than it is meant to. Just as the judges insisted on restricting the scope of their judgment to the question of justice, Arendt insists on restricting the scope of her book to the trial in order to prevent it from being twisted to unintended and unproductive purposes through generalizations.
The Epilogue took up some of the general legal and moral problems that emerged from the trial, but Arendt never meant to argue that all evil was banal, only that Eichmann “merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.” He was thoughtless, not stupid; the book offered not an explanation or theory of Eichmann’s banality, but merely the lesson “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.”
The distinction between stupidity and thoughtlessness is that Eichmann understood what he was doing but did not realize it; he consciously knew how the concentration camps and gas chambers worked, but never consciously or morally connected the horror he felt upon observing them to the day-to-day work he did for the R.S.H.A. While technical knowledge can remedy stupidity, only moral reflection can remedy thoughtlessness, forcing people to think through and take accountability for the consequences of their actions.
The nature of Eichmann’s crime was also important: it was not merely genocide, for “massacres of whole peoples are not unprecedented” and indeed are “quite conceivable” in the near future; the Nazis’ “sort of killing can be directed against any given group.” It does not matter if Eichmann was only “a ‘tiny cog’ in the machinery of the Final Solution,” for he was still in part responsible, and totalitarianism functions precisely by making its perpetrators “mere cogs in the administrative machinery.” Psychological or sociological explanations that seek to ascribe responsibility for actions elsewhere are incompatible with a justice system that must be based solely on what was actually done (and not why it was).
Although she is subtle about this distinction, Arendt thinks the Nazis’ actions exceed genocide because they reflect a totalitarian attempt to maintain power through death, fear, and the instrumentalization of others. While anti-Semitism led the Nazis to direct their violence against Jews, the principle of their violence was the notion that murder can be a regular principle of government and not merely a principle of war—indeed, they often “euthanized” their own citizens. As in the Epilogue, Arendt insists that too many observers conveniently replace action-based explanations with motivation-based ones. If, as she has argued, legal punishment is designed to correct violations of a moral order, then they rely not on intent but on acts, even if performed thoughtlessly.
The legal system can deal with the problem of bureaucracy through the concepts “acts of state” and “acts on superior orders.” The former makes little sense—“the most elementary sense of justice” requires that Hitler stand trial for his actions, and indeed the “acts of state” justification is meant to protect illegal actions that are necessary to sustain the normal rule of law and peace within a state, but the Nazi regime was “founded upon criminal principles” and had already violated the rule of law to begin with.
“Acts of state” cannot simply mean that governments may do whatever they wish; the very concept of justice requires that no one stand above the law. The question is not whether “acts of state” excuses state crimes, but rather who has the legitimate authority to try state crimes; Arendt has already argued that this requires an international tribunal. A curious related question is whether “acts of state” can legitimately excuse Israel for kidnapping Eichmann. While this was not strictly necessary to maintain peace in Israel, it was necessary for the sake of justice, i.e. to maintain the moral order.
“Acts on superior orders” further shows the inadequacy of conventional legal concepts. German and Israeli law agree that “manifestly criminal orders must not be obeyed.” Israel convicted its own soldiers for following orders to massacre a village of Arab civilians, since their order was an exception to the normal rule of law, but Eichmann in fact followed the normal rule of law in Nazi Germany by ignoring Himmler’s order to stop the Final Solution.
There are two senses of the word “criminal” at play here. Morally “criminal” acts, like Eichmann’s, should not be obeyed, but under Nazi Germany legally “criminal” acts, like anything that contradicted Hitler’s will, were in fact morally correct.
In fact, the Israeli law states that someone should disobey orders because they are unlawful, not because they violate one’s conscience, for it assumes that these two will always coincide. And, according to this Israeli law, Eichmann therefore “acted fully within the framework of the kind of judgment required of him,” following the law even when it meant ignoring Himmler’s unlawful orders. Under “superior orders,” Eichmann’s sentence would have had to be as drastically reduced as those of the Israeli soldiers who committed a massacre under orders.
Conventional laws like Israel’s seem to think in terms of legal, not moral, criminality. Arendt obviously thinks this must change—Israel gave Eichmann just punishment only by twisting its own unjust laws to stick him with the death penalty he deserved. In fact, the Nazi regime should prove that moral rules must always supersede a state’s law, because the laws of the Third Reich operated in polar opposition to morality.
Conventional laws and legal structures thus simply cannot “deal with the facts of administrative massacres organized by the state apparatus.” The judges clearly ruled against Eichmann because of his “monstrous deeds,” according to precedent (as in the Nuremberg Trials), and not because of his unprecedented crimes against humanity.
For Arendt, it is insufficient that the court arrived at the right sentence by the wrong laws; its convoluted judgment proves that crimes against humanity require an entirely new legal framework, and one great moral challenge posed by the Holocaust is coming up with an adequate one.
Conventional law also holds that people must be able to distinguish right and wrong according to their own judgment, even when everyone around them disagrees. But under the Third Reich, the usual “moral maxims which determine social behavior” had disappeared. Similarly, in the public controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem, commentators seem to have an “extraordinary confusion over elementary questions of morality.”
Arendt sees the characteristic features of totalitarianism as latent in the modern world at large. The erosion of morality, she believes, was not unique to the Nazi state; rather, it seems to be a general trend, and the law’s increasing failure to live up to morality threatens to accelerate this erosion. While stories of resistance prove that individual moral judgment is always possible for some people in some contexts, it seems decreasingly common.
For one, Arendt claims, temptation does not excuse evil. It is also useless to say that people cannot morally judge others whose shoes they have not filled, for this would make both justice and history impossible. Even if someone who condemns another’s evil realizes their own capacity for evil, this does not make their condemnation any less valid. Unlike mercy, justice is about judgment, “and about nothing does public opinion everywhere seem to be in happier agreement than that no one has the right to judge someone else.”
People’s increasing opposition to targeted moral judgment is central to the broader erosion of morality. Justice, it turns out, rests firmly on something of a paradox: people need not be morally pure to render proper moral judgment on others. As part of moral judgment, Arendt certainly values empathy—imagining oneself in another’s shoes—but saying that one must occupy another’s position would mean people can only ever judge themselves.
Popular general theories that “‘explain’ everything by obscuring all details” are attractive but useless when they dissuade people from making necessary moral judgments. There can also be political responsibility—like that of a government on behalf of its predecessors—without people who did not commit a crime needing to feel guilty for others’ actions. Criminal trials, however, are about “individual guilt or innocence” and just punishment in response to the former. Despite its failures, Eichmann’s trial was one such proceeding, and “the present report deals with nothing but the extent to which the court in Jerusalem succeeded in fulfilling the demands of justice.”
Arendt points to the distinction between guilt and responsibility. For reasons of historical accident, one can be responsible for something one is not guilty of causing, but generally not vice-versa. Germans are responsible for addressing the Nazis’ crimes; a doctor is responsible for treating their patient’s illnesses; both are guilty only if they fail, and then only of their failure and not of the original offense. The law is where these two combine: courts take responsibility for determining guilt. But the Jerusalem court was also responsible for determining the criteria for guilt in a case like Eichmann’s, and while its determination of guilt was correct, its failure was its blindness to the proper criteria for it.