In 1961, the young state of Israel tried and executed the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Hannah Arendt covered the trial for the New Yorker, an account that was published in 1963 as “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Arendt did not set out to write a journalistic trial narrative. Instead, she articulated a series of provocative and critical judgments about the trial, the wartime role of Europe’s Jewish Councils (the infamous Judenrats) and Eichmann’s motives. The book ignited a firestorm of controversy that, 50 years later, still crackles. Her book remains the lens through which people view the Eichmann trial.
With her new book, “The Eichmann Trial,” historian Deborah Lipstadt attempts to refute Arendt’s main arguments. On the cover is an iconic image of Arendt — pearl-bedecked and pensive, a cigarette dangling from her fingers — and an entire chapter of the book discusses her arguments. Although other scholars have re-examined the Eichmann trial — most notably the Israeli historian Hannah Yablonka, in a book published in English in 2004 as “The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann” — Lipstadt aims to reach a wider audience.
Arendt bitterly criticized the Jewish Councils for helping the Nazis compile lists of Jews to be deported. This observation was the one that sparked the violent outrage in American Jewish circles because of her insinuation that the Nazi authorities and Jewish Councils were equally culpable. Lipstadt vehemently challenges Arendt’s argument, noting that the Einsatzgruppen murdered thousands of Jews in the Soviet territories, which had no Jewish Councils. In her mind, this proves that Arendt exaggerated the importance of the Jewish Councils.
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