book-reviews

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

by Hannah Arendt

Rating: ★★★

Arendt's book is often described as being about Adolf Eichmann as she observed him during his trial in Jerusalem. This is subtly incorrect. The book is not about Eichmann, the book is about Eichmann's trial. The trial, similarly, was often not actually about the terrifyingly ordinary and shallow bureaucrat responsible in abstraction for at least thousands of Jewish deaths, but about the Holocaust in general.

That is to say, as Arendt does, the trial is a farce, a show-trial, an outlet of grief and mob vengeance being merely dressed up, like Nuremberg, as a legal process. Eichmann was kidnapped from a foreign state that could not have extradited him, pushed to make statements under duress, led to hire a single ineffectual lawyer who made only halting arguments in his favour, and suffered through a trial wherein court communications were available to him only in suspiciously poorly-translated German. Accusations against him ranged from the impossible to the merely grandiose.

Which isn't to say that he wasn't guilty. I think Arendt bought his clown act a little too much, actually, and downplays his obvious effectiveness in his somewhat limited role in the implementation of the Holocaust. She alternates between paragraphs attacking and defending him to such a degree that you could cherry-pick quotes to paint her ardently in either corner. I don't think that's fair either way, her entire approach is nuanced, but I do think she seems to weigh harder for Eichmann's defence than for his condemnation.

As a piece of writing, the book has its limitations. It is quite clearly a series of article which were then made into a book, and many of the earlier chapters are confusing when read sequentially, jumping around the events of Eichmann's trial and life, with surges of connecting themes that then rarely re-emerge later on. The text is insightful at times, but at others seems to devolve into mere description, a cockpit view of the Final Solution in Germany which, aside from an interesting sidebar on the treatment of the Jewish councils that made the Holocaust possible, is not so interesting as the central subject matter of the neurotic, dissembling Eichmann.