44 pages 1 hour read

Hannah Arendt

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1963

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Summary and Study Guide


Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is a nonfiction book by political theorist Hannah Arendt, originally published in 1963.

In 1961, Arendt went to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, an assignment she gave herself because “she felt she simply had to attend the trial; she owed it to herself as a social critic, displaced person, witness, and survivor” (xi). Eichmann, a Nazi facilitator of the Holocaust, had been hiding under a false identity in Buenos Aires when the Israelis captured him and brought him to trial in Jerusalem.

Arendt's authoritative report on Eichmann’s trial includes additional factual material that comes to light after the trial, as well as Arendt's postscript directly addressing the controversy that arose over her articles and book. The central objections to her reportage are namely that first, she paints Eichmann as a “terrifyingly normal” man who simply wanted to do well in his position rather than the evil, calculating monster the public needed him to be; and, second, that Arendt challenges the role of the Jewish leaders in helping to keep the evacuations to death camps orderly.

Israel’s Prime Minister Ben-Gurion wants to make an example of Eichmann, teaching all who witness the trial that not solely Germany is responsible for the atrocities that befell the Jewish people during the war. To do so, Attorney General Hausner calls over one hundred witnesses from fourteen different countries and four concentration camps to testify on behalf of the prosecution. Servatius, counsel for the defense, maintains that Nazi laws were the laws at time and the actions they took were “acts of state” so Eichmann had a steadfast duty to obey as a member of the Nazi Party. Eichmann does not deny his involvement but objects to the charge of murder, as he states he never killed anyone, he only aided and abetted the transport of Jews to the camps. Eichmann also denies having any hatred or malice toward Jews; rather, his motivation stems from wanting to do his job and do it well, and that his conscience could only have been bad had he not performed his duties as assigned to him.

Eichmann’s trial runs from April to August of 1961. The judges then take four months to deliberate before delivering their verdict. They drop the charge of conspiracy as it would mean that Eichmann had more standing in the regime than he did, but they do convict him on all fifteen indictments. Eichmann’s lawyer, Servatius, appeals the court’s decision, questioning the partiality and competence of a Jewish court and claiming that Eichmann’s kidnapping by the Israeli government violates international law. His appeal is denied, and Eichmann is hanged on May 31, 1962.

Arendt spends much time illustrating the deliberate and complete dehumanization of German Jews prior to the war, including their isolation in the ghettos and the stripping of their rights to work in certain capacities or to hold office. Their voices are effectively erased from the culture: they are not on the radio, in the theaters, in the newspapers, nowhere. She offers this analysis as a way of understanding how millions of Jews did not rebel during the deportations and evacuations. Arendt also explains that the Jews had no state at the time and therefore no military support. On the subject of the Jewish leaders providing lists of Jews for the German evacuations, Arendt claims it as evidence to the complete psychological and moral degradation achieved by the Nazi’s reign. This degradation applies, too, to Eichmann, who, according to Arendt, is so filled with the language and code of the Nazi regime that he truly cannot grapple with his responsibility in the deaths of millions and millions of people.

The book calls into question many ideas that shook the twentieth century, including how to process, prosecute, and heal after something so horrifying as the Holocaust, as well as who is responsible for such atrocities. While Arendt maintains no one man can be responsible for all of it, she stresses the importance of trying Eichmann for all he, as an individual, is responsible for, and punishing him accordingly. Justice, rather than setting precedent, is to be the court’s focus, says Arendt, and in the end, justice is done.