Arendt’s report on Eichmann’s trial obviously critiqued the nationalistic thinking that led Germans to endorse the Third Reich’s campaign of war and mass murder across Europe. But, more subtly and far more controversially, Eichmann in Jerusalem also rejected the Israeli state’s incorporation of Eichmann’s trial into a nationalist narrative: it portrayed Eichmann’s punishment as retribution for all Jews against all Nazis. The egregious lies on the part of the Israeli prosecutor and press—as well as the latter’s unabashed attacks on Arendt, a former Zionist, after she initially published this book—demonstrate that Eichmann’s story became a tool for Israel to justify its own existence, its occupation of Palestinian Arabs’ land, and even many of its people’s cooperation with the Nazi regime and surprising contributions to the Holocaust. Arendt’s critique of Germany and Israel intersect in her skepticism of both nationhood defined on ethnic grounds and especially of their propagandistic campaigns to win popular support for their rulers’ absolute authority. One of her central, although more covert, aims in Eichmann in Jerusalem was to warn Israelis against the possibility that their own government was arcing toward totalitarianism.
The Eichmann trial was a litmus test for Israel’s political authority to speak for all Jews. Its function was fundamentally propagandistic: to consolidate the Israeli state’s power by showing that it had defeated its greatest enemy. From the start, Arendt declared Eichmann’s appearance a “show trial” orchestrated by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with the help of the prosecutor and Israeli Attorney General, Gideon Hausner, who gave an inordinate number of press conferences. Everything about the proceedings, from the usher’s shout at the beginning of each session to the glass box in which Eichmann sat, seemed theatrically coordinated to maximize the trial’s dramatic effect on the audience.
Israeli public opinion strongly favored trying Eichmann in Jerusalem over in an international court; because his crime was chiefly against the Jews, Israelis believed that only an Israeli court with Israeli judges could render judgment on him. But Israel also blocked many potential defense witnesses from testifying and prevented Eichmann’s lawyer Robert Servatius from accessing important documents, which meant that—even though the evidence against Eichmann was damning—the trial was still far from fair. According to Arendt, Ben-Gurion wanted to blame “the nations of the world” for the Holocaust and not just Germany; he aimed to position the Holocaust not as a unique horror but as the latest in a long legacy of anti-Semitic persecution, and Israel as the Jewish people’s only legitimate chance of salvation. Hausner emphasized the “heroism” of Israel, arguing that European Jews died silently and without rebellion in order to suggest that Israel has transformed Jews.
The prosecution’s desire to speak with a unified voice on behalf of all Jews led it to numerous lies, omissions, and distortions of the truth that ultimately did a disservice to the trial’s only true aim: justice. Throughout the trial, Hausner foregrounded Jewish suffering—as when the first 53 witnesses described their experiences in Eastern concentration camps where Eichmann had no authority—but ignored stories of resistance, as well as the suffering of other groups persecuted during the Holocaust. Yet he still claimed to “make no ethnic distinctions” with regard to Eichmann’s crimes; Arendt points out that Israel gives Jews disproportionate rights, even forbidding marriage to Gentiles, which ironically mirrors a provision in the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws.
The prosecution’s relentless anti-German tirades also hid the troubling connection between Nazism and Zionism: many of the first Jews who illegally settled in Palestine were wealthy or privileged Europeans who bought their freedom from the Nazis; indeed, Eichmann—an enthusiastic Zionist himself—helped coordinate passage for many of these early migrants, who sold out poorer Jews in exchange for their freedom. In fact, the prosecution consistently tried to hide Jewish Councils’ cooperation with the Nazis: these organizations of prominent and powerful community members drew up lists of people for deportation and were rewarded by the Nazis for their assistance, which Arendt calls “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” And, most significantly, Hausner continually inflated Eichmann’s responsibility for the Holocaust, painting him as its chief engineer even though his job mostly involved coordinating train schedules.
Arendt’s criticisms of Israel are often remarkably similar to hers of Nazi Germany, suggesting that she sees traces of totalitarian governance in the Jewish state she previously spent decades fighting for. She draws clear parallels between Ben-Gurion and Hausner’s rhetorical strategies and the propagandistic “language rules” that Nazis used to win the support of the German population. Israel’s capture of Eichmann in Buenos Aires was also unquestionably illegal under international law, but Arendt suggests that the prosecution and judges might have considered it an “act of state”—the same principle used in Eichmann’s defense—and that Eichmann could ultimately be extradited only because of his “de facto statelessness”—the same principle the Nazis used to decide which Jews to send directly to extermination camps.
Ultimately, Israel’s deepest perversion of justice for Arendt reflects its insistence on putting politics above truth: the Israeli Supreme Court threw out Judge Moshe Landau’s balanced decision that Eichmann was guilty, even if not the Holocaust’s mastermind, and writes a new decision that parrots the prosecution by claiming that he “gave all orders in matters that concerned Jewish affairs,” “eclipsed in importance all his superiors,” and singlehandedly caused the deaths of millions through his “fanatical zeal” and “unquenchable blood thirst.” This uncannily mirrors the way German courts eagerly changed their interpretations and standards to match Hitler’s most recent declarations and expand his power.
Despite Arendt’s criticisms of Israel (which were even more prominent in her later work), she obviously never argued or implied that its misdeeds in any way approached those of Nazi Germany. However, she did show parallels that suggested a deeper, underlying problem in the power structure and ideology of contemporary, ethnically defined nation-states that protect their “own” people at the expense of the rest of humanity. Ultimately, for Arendt, only one factor saved the Jerusalem trial from becoming a complete ideological farce: the remarkable evenhandedness and humanity of the judges, led by Moshe Landau, who remained loyal to justice and the truth above the Israeli state. But, with their judgment overturned and replaced with nationalist propaganda, Israel clearly showed that it was more interested in flexing its power and proclaiming Jews liberated from their persecution than building a new, more humane form of governance than the one that subjected them to the worst genocide the world had ever seen.
Zionism and Nazism ThemeTracker
Zionism and Nazism Quotes in Eichmann in Jerusalem
Justice demands that the accused be prosecuted, defended, and judged, and that all the other questions of seemingly greater import—of “How could it happen?” and “Why did it happen?,” of “Why the Jews?” and “Why the Germans?,” of “What was the role of other nations?” and “What was the extent of co-responsibility on the side of the Allies?,” of “How could the Jews through their own leaders cooperate in their own destruction?” and “Why did they go to their death like lambs to the slaughter?”—be left in abeyance. Justice insists on the importance of Adolf Eichmann, son of Karl Adolf Eichmann, the man in the glass booth built for his protection: medium-sized, slender, middle-aged, with receding hair, ill-fitting teeth, and nearsighted eyes, who throughout the trial keeps craning his scraggy neck toward the bench (not once does he face the audience), and who desperately and for the most part successfully maintains his self-control despite the nervous tic to which his mouth must have become subject long before this trial started. On trial are his deeds, not the sufferings of the Jews, not the German people or mankind, not even anti Semitism and racism.
In this respect, perhaps even more significantly than in others, the deliberate attempt at the trial to tell only the Jewish side of the story distorted the truth, even the Jewish truth. The glory of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto and the heroism of the few others who fought back lay precisely in their having refused the comparatively easy death the Nazis offered them—before the firing squad or in the gas chamber. And the witnesses in Jerusalem who testified to resistance and rebellion, to “the small place [it had] in the history of the holocaust,” confirmed once more the fact that only the very young had been capable of taking “the decision that we cannot go and be slaughtered like sheep.”
In his mind, there was no contradiction between “I will jump into my grave laughing,” appropriate for the end of the war, and “I shall gladly hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth,” which now, under vastly different circumstances, fulfilled exactly the same function of giving him a lift.
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.
Eichmann himself, after “consulting Poliakoff and Reitlinger,” produced seventeen multicolored charts, which contributed little to a better understanding of the intricate bureaucratic machinery of the Third Reich, although his general description—“everything was always in a state of continuous flux, a steady stream”—sounded plausible to the student of totalitarianism, who knows that the monolithic quality of this form of government is a myth.
It quickly turned out that Israel was the only country in the world where defense witnesses could not be heard, and where certain witnesses for the prosecution, those who had given affidavits in previous trials, could not be cross-examined by the defense. And this was all the more serious as the accused and his lawyer were indeed not “in a position to obtain their own defense documents.”
In other words, and despite pages and pages of legal argument, based on so many precedents that one finally got the impression that kidnaping was among the most frequent modes of arrest, it was Eichmann’s de facto statelessness, and nothing else, that enabled the Jerusalem court to sit in judgment on him. Eichmann, though no legal expert, should have been able to appreciate that, for he knew from his own career that one could do as one pleased only with stateless people; the Jews had had to lose their nationality before they could be exterminated.
The judges now stated that “the idea of the Final Solution would never have assumed the infernal forms of the flayed skin and tortured flesh of millions of Jews without the fanatical zeal and the unquenchable blood thirst of the appellant and his accomplices.” Israel’s Supreme Court had not only accepted the arguments of the prosecution, it had adopted its very language.
“You yourself claimed not the actuality but only the potentiality of equal guilt on the part of all who lived in a state whose main political purpose had become the commission of unheard-of crimes. And no matter through what accidents of exterior or interior circumstances you were pushed onto the road of becoming a criminal, there is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done. We are concerned here only with what you did, and not with the possible noncriminal nature of your inner life and of your motives or with the criminal potentialities of those around you. You told your story in terms of a hard-luck story, and, knowing the circumstances, we are, up to a point, willing to grant you that under more favorable circumstances it is highly unlikely that you would ever have come before us or before any other criminal court. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”