The War Crimes Beat


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On May 11, 1960, the man who had been living in Argentina under the name Ricardo Klement was coming home from his job at the Mercedes-Benz plant when he was abducted by two Israeli operatives. “What’s your name?” they asked him. “Ricardo Klement,” he answered. The next time he was asked, he offered up the name Otto Heninger, a false identity he’d used in the past. The third time, he told the truth: He was Adolf Eichmann. One of the most elusive participants in the Final Solution was finally in custody.

  • Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt. 336 pages. Penguin Classics. $16.

The fact that Israel circumvented extradition law by drugging Eichmann and flying him out of the country under an assumed name meant that the trial for his war crimes — already promising to be quite the production — was now also going to be fraught with controversy. Immediately the questions of whether Israel had any right to host the trial, whether it mattered how many international laws had been broken, and whether Germany was losing an opportunity to right some wrongs drowned out what should have been a victorious announcement: Eichmann is in custody and will be brought to justice.

From the moment Hannah Arendt’s reports on the Eichmann trial started to appear in The New Yorker, the response was deeply divisive. While thought Arendt’s work was the most intelligent writing to come out of the trial, others excoriated Arendt as a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite, a dupe, an intellectual lightweight. Whatever your opinion of Arendt’s assessment, her reporting, collected together in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, set the tone for how the Eichmann trial would be perceived and discussed for decades. It is still the defining document of the event.

The controversy began because Arendt was deeply skeptical about the trial from the beginning, calling it in book’s first paragraphs “a bloody spectacle.” She saw a man not being put on trial, but being used as an excuse to air grievances against all of Nazi Germany. Witnesses who had absolutely no connection to Eichmann testified for hours about the horrors they had suffered and witnessed — Arendt was sympathetic, mostly, but insisted that such testimony had no place in the court of law. “This case was built around what the Jews had suffered, not on what Adolf Eichmann had done,” she wrote, and she found that deeply dissatisfying, if not unethical. That testimony is why that trial still lives on in our imagination, as it was the first international forum in which the survivors could tell their stories. But Arendt’s dismissal was read as callousness. And for good reason.

Arendt is obviously struggling with her own political beliefs as she sits there: a German Jew, she was formerly pro-Zionist but changed her mind after seeing Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens and neighbors and after listening to the rhetoric on which the nation was founded. As an aside, Arendt mentions a pamphlet published after the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court, a case in which two fathers kidnapped their children from other countries and brought them to Israel. The children were sent back to their mothers, “despite the fact that to send the children back to maternal custody and care would be committing them to waging an unequal struggle against the hostile elements in the Diaspora.” It was this kind of thinking, Arendt argued, that was perhaps understandably defensive given recent history, but also a dangerous foundation on which to build a nation. This disgruntled tone, as she is obviously still not sure what to make of the promise of Israel and her disappointment with the reality, pervades, and led many scholars and critics to accuse her of anti-Semitism — an accusation that is still tossed around today.

Arendt claimed intellectual distance, but there is little to be found in her reporting. She was far-sighted enough to understand that this trial was going to rewrite the history of the Holocaust. But she did not trust the participants enough — particularly the prosecutor, who so obviously enjoyed the limelight and allowed the trial to skid out of control — to let that happen without protesting. All of this bleeds through the prose, as does her desire to keep it out of view.

Arendt is either unapologetic for her personal prejudices, or she is entirely blind to them. She is most roundly, and most justifiably, criticized for her laying down of judgment on the Jewish victims. She is so baffled at the inability of six million people to rise up and resist — while simultaneously acknowledging that hardly anyone resisted the Nazis, Jewish or not — that she fails to acknowledge those who did. When faced with testimony by those leading resistance groups, she is unimpressed, seemingly because she believes the actions of those few should have been the baseline for everyone. She equates the actions of Jewish Councils who tried to negotiate with Nazis with those of the Nazis themselves, which is truly unconscionable.

However. It’s perhaps because of these faults that Eichmann in Jerusalem is still essential reading. The Second World War has become Disneyfied into a battle of bad guys versus good guys with all nuance removed. Hell, you can’t even admit there is nuance to WWII without someone accusing you of being anti-Semitic, a Nazi apologist, or unpatriotic (after all, America single-handedly won WWII — never mind those Russian troops over there in the East). Arendt’s book is an account of someone struggling with the meaning, and lack of meaning, of Europe’s near-disintegration. Today you’d be hard pressed to find someone who thinks there is something to struggle with.

Adolph Eichmann was hanged for his crimes, despite his protests that he was simply following orders. And perhaps it is Arendt’s response to his sentencing that is the best example of the thoughtfulness, the passion, and the — as much as she would refuse to admit it — emotion of her work:

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. That is the reason, and the only reason you must hang.

The trial for Eichmann’s life was not a perfect one, nor was Arendt’s account of it. Yet both are important because of what they tried to accomplish, what they failed to accomplish, and what they did. Arendt wrote an account worthy of the importance the trial held. And we can still learn from it, 50 years later. • 19 April 2011