This Day in Jewish History

1963: The New Yorker Starts 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' Series

Hannah Arendt simply wanted to understand how a sane man can oversee mass torture and murder, but her 'report on the banality of evil' stirred up terrible passions.

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On February 16, 1963, The New Yorker magazine published the first of five parts of an article by Hannah Arendt called “Eichmann in Jerusalem.”

Three months later, the Viking Press brought out the series in book form, with a subtitle long since elevated to cliché status, “A Report on the Banality of Evil.”

Taken together, her articles and book remain one of the most controversial works written on the subject of the Holocaust.

Escape from Vichy France

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was herself a secular, German-born Jew, who left her native country in 1933, with the rise of Hitler. She took refuge in a series of states in Western Europe before, in 1941, escaping Vichy France for New York.

By then, she was already a well-known intellectual, who had studied political philosophy with both Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, the latter of whom oversaw her doctoral thesis in 1928 at the University of Heidelberg.

Arendt was imprisoned, briefly, by both the Gestapo, in 1933, and in Vichy France, in 1940. Both in France and in New York, Arendt was active in working to help other Jews escape from Nazi-occupied Europe, and was involved with Youth Aliyah, the Zionist movement-sponsored program that rescued Jewish children and brought them to Palestine.

Despite her bona fides as a Jewish victim of Hitler, however, when Arendt wrote her opus on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, the so-called architect of the Final Solution, many Jews felt betrayed. Even her old friend Gershom Scholem wrote her from Jerusalem to accuse her of lacking “love for the Jewish people.”  

Hannah Arendt, political philosopher and scholar, smoking a cigarette. 1969.
AP

A student of totalitarianism

“Eichmann in Jerusalem” was not intended to be a Holocaust history nor a portrait of Jewish suffering. As a student of totalitarianism (Arendt had written a 1951 book comparing Nazism and Stalinism), she wanted to understand what it was about Eichmann -- and about Nazism – that made it possible for him to oversee the systematic torture and murder of six million Jews, and yet to appear to lack regret for his actions.

Eichmann was especially remarkable because six different Israeli psychologists had examined him before his trial, and found him to be eminently sane and “normal.”

Not mad genius but plodding bureaucrat

By calling Eichmann’s evil “banal,” she wasn’t minimizing its significance. She was saying that he was a plodding bureaucrat more than a brilliant mastermind, who relieved himself of responsibility for his actions by arguing that he was just following orders.

In fact, more recent historical research has revealed that Eichmann, in unpublished interviews with a sympathetic journalist given while in exile in Argentina in the 1950s, was far more virulent in his Jew-hatred than he let on at his trial, and that his main regret was in not having finished the job of destroying them. Arendt had had only partial access to those interviews.

She also offended many by focusing on those Jewish leaders -- like Chaim Rumkowski, in the Lodz Ghetto, and Theresienstadt’s Benjamin Murmelstein, among others -- whose cooperation with the Germans crossed the line, at least in Arendt’s opinion, into collaboration. Many readers felt that Arendt was overly harsh in her judgment of Jewish victims who made morally questionable choices under impossible conditions, or who simply didn’t fight back.

Arendt was away in Switzerland for the first half of 1963, and missed the publication of both the articles and the book. But New Yorker editor William Shawn, who had done the principal editing to the piece that appeared in the magazine, excising some of the author’s less judicious remarks about the Jewish community’s response to the trial (comments that remained in the book version), and other friends, kept her informed of the dust-storm she had stirred up: Shawn cabled her on March 8 that “People in town seem to be discussing little else.”  

Arendt claimed to be surprised by the strength of the responses, some of which seemed to deliberately misrepresent what she had written, others of which zeroed in on minor mistakes to undermine her entire project, and felt that she was being portrayed as “enemy No. 1,” in place of either Nazis or Jews. For the most part, though, she allowed friends or colleagues to respond on her behalf.