Eichmann in Jerusalem, an expanded version of the serialized report Hannah Arendt produced for “The New Yorker” in 1963, covers the trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann before an Israeli court 17 years after his crimes. In his 10 years at the S.S., Eichmann became a resident expert on Jewish affairs and ended up coordinating the deportations of millions of Jews to concentration camps in Eastern Europe, where the vast majority were murdered. After the war, although he was detained by American forces, he managed to conceal his identity until he could escape and flee to Argentina, where he lived a modest life—but didn’t try to cover up his past—until the Israeli intelligence service kidnapped him in 1960 and brought him to trial the following year. Arendt argues that, while Eichmann’s sentence—death by hanging—was a just punishment for his crimes, the court missed “the central moral, political, and even legal problems” raised by his trial. Led by Israeli Attorney General Gideon Hausner, the prosecution claimed that Eichmann was a bloodthirsty, anti-Semitic murderer who was not merely responsible for the Final Solution policy that left six million Jews dead, but in fact one of its primary architects. Arendt repudiates this narrative and suggests that it is unfaithful to the facts of the case, serves as a propaganda tool for Israel to claim it has achieved vengeance on behalf of the Jewish people, and—most importantly—hides the horrifying truth: that Eichmann was not a criminal mastermind but a thoughtless, loyal bureaucrat who sought to impress his superiors and simply “never realized what he was doing” (in a moral sense, not a technical one). According to Arendt, Eichmann participated in horrendous crimes—and is guilty for his contributions—because he shut down his conscience and refused to ethically reflect on his actions. This was compounded by the Nazi regime’s commitment to eroding moral values and replacing them with the singular value of blind obedience, which transformed German law into the inverse of morality. Arendt ultimately takes Eichmann’s trial as demonstrating not only the profound value of moral conscience and resistance to totalitarianism, but also the international community’s obligation to develop unprecedented criteria and procedures for responding to unprecedented crimes like the Holocaust.
The book begins with a court usher’s shout: “Beth Hamishpath,” or “the House of Justice.” Despite this pretense, the courtroom is more like a theater and the trial more like a show orchestrated by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who ensures that the Jewish people’s suffering—not merely during the Holocaust but in fact throughout the entire historical record—and the Israeli state’s heroism are aired for the world to see. Fortunately, the court’s three judges—all German Jews, led by Moshe Landau—easily see past the prosecution’s ulterior motives and do their best to ensure that the trial focuses on justice alone.
In the second chapter, Arendt notes that Eichmann’s indictment prosecution and defense focus on seemingly irrelevant questions—whether Eichmann killed anyone with his own hands and whether his crimes can be excused as “acts of state”—because the indictment requires him to have acted “out of base motives and in full knowledge of the criminal nature of his deeds.” But evaluating psychiatrists saw him as “normal,” and indeed, his early life was mundane: he failed out of multiple schools and had a lackluster career as a traveling salesman, then joined the Nazi Party on a whim simply because he wanted to “start from scratch” and feel like he belonged to an organization.
In Arendt’s third chapter, she explains how Eichmann rose up in the S.S. to become an expert on Jewish affairs, in large part because of his love for Zionism and early success coordinating Jewish emigration from Vienna. But, despite his belief that Jews should have a homeland, he was unable to see their point of view—or, indeed, that of anyone else at all. He was confined to speaking in clichés and forgot almost everything that happened during the Third Reich, except for his own career landmarks. In the fourth chapter, Arendt explains how he worked with Zionists to grant Jews safe passage to Israel, which also gave the Nazis what they wanted: fewer Jews in Europe. But, with so many Jews emigrating, other countries were decreasingly willing to accept them, and Arendt then traces Eichmann’s naïve attempts to actually create a Jewish homeland in Poland, Madagascar, and then the Czech village of Theresienstadt, which instead became a concentration camp under his command.
With the Nazis increasingly eager to rid Europe of Jews but Eichmann’s resettlement plans untenable, in the sixth chapter Arendt recounts how the defendant learned about Hitler’s new plan for a “Final Solution to the Jewish question”: mass murder. While Eichmann was taken aback at first, especially when he visited the killing centers firsthand, by 1942 he had given up on his conscience and doubled down on his absolute loyalty to the Nazi Party. In her seventh chapter, Arendt covers this transformation, which largely took place at the Wannsee Conference, where Eichmann acted as secretary while the Nazi leadership planned out its genocide in detail. Realizing that none of his respected superiors had any moral qualms about their plans, Eichmann set aside his reservations—as did much of Europe, including the Jewish Councils that drew up rosters of potential deportees and helped the Nazis round them up. In chapter eight, Arendt shows that Eichmann actually believed blind obedience was the right thing to do. The disturbing fact that he saw himself as a “law-abiding citizen” even led him to continue carrying out the Final Solution even once the head of the S.S., Heinrich Himmler, ordered it to stop: Eichmann conceived Hitler’s word as law and refused to follow orders that contradicted it. While he had long abandoned his moral conscience, his insistence on continuing to murder Jews was actually a direct result of the legal conscience he adopted instead.
After covering Eichmann’s character and mindset up to the end of the war, in the next five chapters Arendt turns to the consequences of his actions. She moves region by region, starting with the Reich itself, where the Nazis tested their transport infrastructure and other countries’ willingness to step in and save their Jewish citizens living abroad. In the German-occupied parts of Europe, Jews’ fate varied widely, depending on their home countries’ degree of political autonomy and national values. Some countries, like France and Hungary, had no problem with Nazis deporting foreign Jews from their territory but drew a line as soon as Eichmann tried to deport citizens; others, like Croatia and Greece, dutifully complied with the Nazis’ orders and remained indifferent toward their Jewish residents’ fate; others still, like Italy and Belgium, resisted the Nazis passively, by ensuring that orders were not followed, deportees could escape, or most Jewish residents were exempted from deportation because of technicalities. The most horrifying turn of events was in Romania, whose extremely anti-Semitic government murdered 300,000 Jews in their own territory before Eichmann could even plan their deportation to extermination camps. The most extraordinary stories were those of Norway, Bulgaria, and especially Denmark, which managed to save nearly all of their Jewish residents through impassioned campaigns of popular protest. Arendt sees this as proof that totalitarianism cannot overcome organized moral resistance; in fact, even some Nazi officials in these countries resigned their posts when faced with objections from the native population. This suggests that such moral resistance can even show the agents of totalitarian evil the conscience their ideology has instructed them to ignore.
Arendt deliberately looks at “the East” last, in order to show the prosecution’s remarkable disconnect from the truth. For the enormous initial portion of the trial, Hausner called various witnesses to testify about their suffering in Eastern Europe—where Eichmann had no jurisdiction or influence. By instead examining Eastern Europe last in their decision, the judges showed that they knew this was irrelevant and propagandistic—but they also inexplicably decided to find Eichmann guilty of crimes in “the East,” which Arendt thinks should have had no bearing on his ultimate punishment.
In the penultimate chapter, Arendt gives a bird’s-eye view of the trial’s timeline: despite the prosecution’s procession of irrelevant witnesses, who usually told stories about their suffering and seldom mentioned Eichmann, the defendant himself was the most important witness, and the judges gained the most by simply questioning him directly. But she also notes the “dramatic moment” that fell over the courtroom when one of the prosecution’s witnesses mentioned a German Army officer named Anton Schmidt, who secretly helped Jews escape from Poland until he was executed, and emphasizes “how utterly different everything would be today […] if only more such stories could have been told.” Resistance, she holds, is never “practically useless.” When it lives on in stories, it can prove that totalitarianism is never total, that some people will always fight injustice, and that everyone is capable of taking the moral stand necessary to do so.
In her final chapter, Arendt summarizes Eichmann’s life after the war and escape to Argentina, where he openly talked about his past and even interviewed with a prominent Dutch Nazi journalist before Israeli agents kidnapped him in 1960. In fact, this kidnapping poses difficult legal questions, since in undertaking it Israel violated Argentina’s sovereignty and therefore international law. Ironically, Arendt notes, Argentina only looked the other way because Eichmann was not a citizen—like his victims, he could be deported against his will only because he was stateless. She then turns to the decision: Eichmann is found guilty of “crimes ‘against the Jewish people,’” “crimes against humanity,” and membership in Nazi “criminal organizations.” The court had little interest in the prosecution’s insistence that Eichmann killed with his own hands: the Nazi regime and Holocaust, it explained, were unique because responsibility was diffused through a bureaucracy and so “the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.” But, when Eichmann appealed his case, the Israeli Supreme Court threw out Judge Landau’s logic and agreed wholeheartedly with the prosecution’s false claims that Eichmann was secretly at the top of the Nazi hierarchy. Of course, it upholds Eichmann’s death sentence, and he is executed soon thereafter.
Much of Arendt’s most insightful and original commentary comes in her Epilogue, which directly addresses the Eichmann trial’s inadequacies and consequences for the law and the future. Most importantly, she argues that the Jerusalem court, just like at the Nuremberg Trials, failed to grasp the unique character of “crimes against humanity.” She sees crime not as a targeted harm done to a victim but rather as the violation of a community’s moral order; the attempt to exterminate a whole people is a crime against human diversity as such, and therefore against the entire community of humanity. But the Israeli court, she suggests, was regrettably more willing to follow than set precedents. The court identified the unique horror of genocide but did not establish that it violated the moral order of humanity, for this would mean that trying such a crime would require an international court, and Israel wanted to claim jurisdiction for itself. Since genocide has unfortunately become a precedented and increasingly likely possibility in the future, however, establishing such an international court is imperative. In failing to see the unique character of “crimes against humanity,” the court also failed to see the horrifying fact that Eichmann committed such crimes despite being “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” As a thoughtless bureaucrat, he may have lacked the intention to harm that is central to most normal concepts of criminal behavior, but this is yet another reason to think in terms of a moral order, for Eichmann’s acts, not his intentions, are what make him guilty.
In her Postscript to the second edition, Arendt responds to the enormous uproar her book created among critics and especially the global Jewish diaspora. She insists that her focus is Eichmann alone—the singular trial of a singular man—and criticizes readers for trying to generalize her notion of the “banality of evil” into a broad theory or explanation, when it is really just a 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.” She sees the courts’ refusal to develop a new framework for addressing genocide and the public’s reluctance to place individual moral blame as symptoms of the same moral erosion that allowed Nazi extermination policies to continue while the German public turned a blind eye.