Commentary Magazine

Eichmann: The Simplicity of Evil

The 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, writes the American scholar Alan Mintz, was “pivotal” in turning the Holocaust from “a topic barely spoken of in public discourse” into “one of the dominant subjects of our time.” These words appear in Mintz's introduction to Facing the Glass Booth, a collection of contemporaneous newspaper coverage of the trial by the Israeli poet and journalist Haim Gouri.1 Translated into English four decades after its appearance in Hebrew in 1962, Gouri's book now joins a small shelf of English-language volumes about this event, of which the most important remains Hannah Arendt's controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963).

Indeed, from now on it will be mandatory for anyone interested in the Eichmann trial to read these two books together, since they both complement and clash with each other strikingly. Arendt and Gouri were two highly perceptive observers who sat through the trial's many months while writing about it for the publications that commissioned them: Arendt for the New Yorker, Gouri for the moderately left-wing Hebrew daily, Lamerhav.

Yet in temperament, outlook, and identity, the two could hardly have been more opposed. Arendt, the German-Jewish intellectual and author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, was coolly cerebral; Gouri, a prominent literary figure of the so-called “Palmach generation” that came of age around the time of Israel's 1948 war of independence, was a man of strong emotion. Arendt conceived of herself as a loner, philosophically above the fray; Gouri was socially and politically engagé. And whereas Arendt disclaimed any Jewish allegiances and was not especially well-disposed toward Israel, Gouri was Jewish and Israeli to the core. Between them they represented, as the Israeli historian Anita Shapira somewhat hyperbolically put it in a 2002 article juxtaposing them, “two different Jewish civilizations.”

Each, certainly, saw the trial through a different prism. Arendt concentrated on Eichmann. For her, as Shapira observes, he illustrated the thesis that totalitarian states depend on vast bureaucracies in which unexceptional men and women, working at desks and in offices, are routinely transformed into participants in exceptional crimes. Eichmann's apparent normality as conveyed by his behavior and responses in the courtroom—“everyone could see that [he] was not a ‘monster,’ ” Arendt said of this man who was one of the senior officials entrusted with implementing the Third Reich's extermination of the Jews—was the whole shocking point of the proceedings, what made them “no ordinary trial.” For his role in sending large numbers of Jews to their deaths, mainly by overseeing the transports that delivered them to the concentration camps, Eichmann was clearly guilty. But for Arendt, legal relevance aside,

it was of great political interest to know how long it takes an average person to overcome his innate repugnance toward crime, and what exactly happens to him once he has reached that point. To this question, the case of Adolf Eichmann supplied an answer that could not have been clearer and more precise.

While full of praise for Eichmann's three Israeli judges, whose conduct she considered exemplary, Arendt was highly critical of the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, for carrying out, at the behest of his “invisible stage manager” Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, a “show trial” meant to educate the world and the Israeli public about the Holocaust. The prosecution's case, she wrote, was built on “what the Jews had suffered, not on what Eichmann had done,” and irrelevant witness after witness was called to testify to events with which Eichmann had little or no connection.2 Not only, in Arendt's opinion, did this detract from the trial's legitimacy, whose only goal should have been “the question of individual guilt or innocence,” it also blurred its real lesson—namely, that a man who “never realized what he was doing” [the emphasis is hers] could have become, by a process of “sheer thoughtlessness” that wreaked “more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together,” one of the “greatest criminals of [his] period.”


Yet “what the Jews had suffered” was precisely what riveted Gouri. Having worked as a Hagana emissary with Jewish “displaced persons” in Europe in 1947-48 (about which he later wrote a novel called The Chocolate Deal), he came to the Eichmann trial with a more intimate knowledge of the Holocaust than that of most native-born Israelis. Nevertheless, the proceedings were an eye-opening and emotionally shattering experience for him.

In large measure this was because, when Eichmann was tried in 1961, the personal stories of the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors in Israel and elsewhere had barely begun to be told. The basic facts were of course well-known—so many European Jews murdered, so many communities destroyed, et cetera. But a combination of trauma, grief, shame, the desire to forget, the fear of being blamed for not resisting, even the fear of not being believed—a common reaction after the war was that the survivors must be exaggerating, or mixing fact with post-traumatic fantasy—kept those who had been through the Holocaust from talking about it even to friends, spouses, and children. The trial, Gouri wrote, gave back to its witnesses “what their murderers had taken from them: the right to tell their stories in the first person singular.”

The prosecution's 111 witnesses were chosen (it was this that Arendt complained about) as representative narrators who would present a mosaic of the Holocaust both chronologically and geographically, starting with the rise of Nazism in Germany and ending with Auschwitz. As Gouri listened to their testimonies, some pouring out as from a burst dam, others painfully wrenched from them, he found himself reevaluating many things.

Were the Jews of Europe, for instance, at fault for having gone to their deaths passively, like “sheep to the slaughter,” as Gouri's generation, which took up arms to create a Jewish state, had been taught to believe? “We must ask the forgiveness of the multitudes whom we have judged in our hearts, we who were outside that circle,” he now wrote in Lamerhav, understanding for the first time how mistaken it was to expect resistance from people reduced to shells of themselves

by prolonged hunger; by the exhaustion that wastes and slows one down; by the fear surpassing all fear; by the enervating illusion of “perhaps, in spite of everything”; by the flicker of “it can't happen”; by the bulldogs on every side; by the loaded Schmeisser at one's back; by weaker relatives hanging on one's arm and neck; by the responsibility for hostages . . . by the foreignness of the landscape; by the lack of a “city of refuge”; by the weariness that wants it all to be over, come what may; by the sense of being abandoned to one's fate without anyone else uttering a peep of protest.

And what about the proud, free Jews of Palestine? They too—and with far less excuse—had done pitifully little. “In May 1943, we knew that Jewish Warsaw was no longer. . . . We knew that the Jewish tribe in Europe was coming closer to extinction with each passing day.” Yet life in Tel Aviv and Haifa had gone on peacefully. “Why didn't you [do more to] reveal the truth?” Gouri asked himself and his readers:

Why didn't you sound the alarm? Why didn't you demonstrate? Why didn't you fast? Why didn't you drive the world mad? What answer can you give? Can you honestly say you did what you could to help?

The sheer amount of detail, of horror, overwhelmed him. If this was what 111 stories were like, imagine 6 million:

I must apologize. Like most people, I do not grasp the infinite. How, then, can I express it in a way that will be intelligible to others. . . . We who managed to go on living by turning the extermination into some sort of abstraction or symbol . . . in order to avoid the shock and speechlessness of a face-to-face encounter with the victims as individuals, we have been forced this time to confront the totality the hard way.


Gouri differed with Arendt on the subject of Eichmann, too. It was true, he wrote on the first day of the defendant's taking the witness stand in his specially constructed, bulletproof glass booth, that “the man who has just sworn by Almighty God is not mad, or so the doctors, after examining him thoroughly, have determined.” It was “terribly difficult” to connect Eichmann's innocuous appearance with “deportations, transports, trains, hunger, beatings, shootings, gas chambers, and the smoke of burning corpses.” Yet Gouri did not, like Arendt, therefore deem Eichmann a “clown” whose “inability to speak was closely connected with his inability to think.”

On the contrary, he was impressed by Eichmann's “amazingly quick mind” and “verbal eloquence [that] the obtuse usually do not command,” and considered him too complex “to sum up with hackneyed terms like ‘minor bureaucrat,’ ‘filthy murderer,’ ‘liar,’ ‘hypocrite,’ ‘cynic,’ ‘coward,’ ‘murderously aggressive simpleton,’ or ‘schizoid.’ ” In the final analysis, he wrote, Eichmann remained “an unsolved riddle”—to which he added cryptically, in one of the few sentences of his reportage whose meaning is not immediately apparent: “Perhaps because things are simpler than we think.”


Once it was determined that Eichmann was sane and mentally fit to stand trial, his personality was just what Arendt said it was: of no legal relevance, but of great political, psychological, and even philosophical interest.

Eichmann was not, of course, the first high Nazi official to be brought to justice. The 1945-49 Nuremberg trials had judged and condemned to death men like Rudolph Hess and Hermann Goering, who were higher up in the Nazi hierarchy than Eichmann. Yet Nuremberg's opening phase involved trying 22 top-ranking Nazis in a scant six months, the same amount of time that the court in Jerusalem would devote to Eichmann alone, and Nuremberg dealt with the Holocaust as just one aspect of German “war crimes.”

Moreover, the fact that he was, unlike Hess or Goering, in the second echelon of Nazi officials made Eichmann's case more germane to the question of how the Holocaust could have happened. He was not a man who had accompanied Hitler in seizing and consolidating National Socialist power and to whom could be automatically attributed ideological fervor, fanatical anti-Semitism, or a ruthless drive for power. Rather, he had casually joined the Nazi party on the eve of its takeover in 1932 and risen gradually through the ranks of the SS, gaining his promotions through a combination of hard work, loyalty to his superiors, and administrative skill. Nothing in his previous history suggested a murderous attitude toward Jews. Indeed, as he argued at his trial with some supporting evidence, having worked as a Nazi functionary in the 1930's in the encouragement of Jewish emigration, he may have continued even in the early war years to prefer it to extermination as a solution for Germany's and Europe's “Jewish problem.”

It was this that allowed Arendt to depict Eichmann as a mindless bureaucrat who willingly took part in annihilating Jews only because everyone around him was doing it, too, and who was therefore a paradigm for the average German enlisted by the Nazi killing machine. In answer to the question of how?—how could tens of thousands of ordinary people turn into mass murderers while millions of others watched with approval or indifference?—Arendt answered: look at Eichmann. The most frightening thing about totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany was their ability to crush not only all physical but all mental opposition, so that someone who was not a criminal type by nature could with good conscience have sent Jews by the trainload to Auschwitz. Given the “right” environment, almost anyone could have been made to do the same.

This was not, of course, the point of view of the prosecution, which sought to portray Eichmann as a “wild beast” who, as Gideon Hausner put it, would have “gladly leap[ed] into his own grave if he were told that 5 million Jews had been exterminated.” But neither in Arendt's nor in Gouri's account of Eichmann's testimony, the former confidently knowing in its analysis, the latter puzzled and perturbed, does this beast make even a moment's appearance. Both writers described the defendant—studiously attentive to the proceedings, deferential and polite to his judges, almost eagerly cooperative in answering the questions put to him while standing erect in his dark suit and thick-framed glasses—as though he were an accountant testifying in corporate litigation. The only unusual thing about him was an occasional facial contortion that Arendt referred to as a “nervous tic” and Gouri as his “familiar twitch.”


Recently, I spent several hours pondering this tic or twitch while viewing a little-known 1999 documentary film, The Specialist, that was made from the original video footage of the Eichmann trial by an Israeli cinematographer named Eyal Sivan.3 Little of this footage had ever been made public before, and Sivan's film offers a rare opportunity to see some of it.

Though criticized for tendentious editing that presents Eichmann, in the spirit of Arendt's book, as a mere bureaucratic cog (Sivan has in fact acknowledged Eichmann in Jerusalem as his inspiration), The Specialist shows a defendant who, viewed 40 years later, resembles Gouri's version of him more than Arendt's. Far from seeming mindless, he strikes one as impressively capable of analyzing what he is asked; of detecting its hidden traps; of breaking it down into its components; of rearranging these in new sequences that suit the responses he wishes to give; and of replying in complex and sometimes long-winded sentences over which he keeps full logical and syntactical control. By all appearances an intelligent man, he organizes and communicates his thoughts well—as indeed might be expected of a former SS officer who had succeeded in advancing by his own efforts to the rank of lieutenant-colonel with an important department under his command.

Nor, viewed close-up on the television screen, is Eichmann's “tic” or “twitch” really that. It is something quite different: no mere nervous reflex but a crooked bunching of the lips that comes in response to specific questions or statements by the prosecutor and that twists his face to one side, throwing it askew in a sour grimace. There is annoyance in this expression, and humiliation as well, mixed with hidden anger or rage—an anger or rage that the twisted lips fight to conceal, if not from himself, at least from the scrutiny of his judges.

Does this grimace, contrary to Arendt's view of him, make Eichmann a “monster”? Of course not; but it does hint at submerged depths that tell us there is more to the man than meets the eye. Again and again, the indignity of his position—he, the former Obersturm-bannfuehrer, director of Section IV-B-4 of the Head Office for Reich Security, a once fearful figure to whose brutality several witnesses have testified, now incarcerated by Jews, questioned by Jews, judged by Jews—makes him wince with a revulsion that is at the same time an effort to remain reasonable and well-mannered.

And how well-mannered he is, rising promptly to reply to each question, sitting down again when he is done like a disciplined pupil in a classroom, answering “Jawohl” and “Gewiss” to the three German-speaking Jewish judges by whom he so clearly wants—this mass murderer of Jews—to be respected and liked. Is this simply in the hope of being acquitted? No, he is too clever to have had such a hope, or at least to put much stock in it. He actually looks up to these judges, he respects them, as much for the power they have over him as for the fairness they are trying to show, because he is a man who honors power, and the Jews now have it. Were these judges to command him, with the full authority of the court, to go out and murder a million Germans, one almost feels he would obey, not so much in the expectation of alleviating his sentence as in the desire to be diligent and useful.

Is Arendt not right about him, then?

No, she is wrong.

The personality of such a man, whom Gouri, to his consternation, finds himself once even pitying for the lies he is floundering in, could not have been formed by a dozen years of being a Nazi bureaucrat. He had a father, a mother, a childhood, an upbringing (who knows to which of these he owed the first dark rage? the first deeply injurious humiliation? the desire to please? the worshipful admiration of authority?), as did the other Germans who acted as hideously as he did. He was twenty-six years old when he joined the Nazi party and thirty-nine when World War II ended in 1945 and he resourcefully melted away, at first into the anonymity of a German lumberjack (he was physically strong and not afraid of hard labor) and then into that of an Argentinian mechanic (skillful with his hands, too). No one becomes who he is at age twenty-six.

It was only, one supposes, because Arendt was so entranced by her own theories that she, who left Germany the year Hitler came to power, did not take more into account the fact that the Third Reich ran its course in the briefest of historical moments—long enough, to be sure, to spread death and ruin as far as it could, but hardly enough to make a mindless cog of anyone who was not one beforehand. Nazism was not Soviet Communism, which lasted sufficiently long to raise three generations of children and even to be administered by them. (And we now know what happened to it when it was.) If the Holocaust was the work of bureaucrats, their minds were not formed by totalitarianism. They were formed by the Germany of the Weimar Republic, and of the Kaiser, and of the Christian churches. If they were easily persuaded that the Jews deserved to die, this persuasion came from an older Germany, too.


Haim Gouri was right to be puzzled by Eichmann. Being an imaginative writer and a professional journalist rather than a political theorist writing for the New Yorker (a magazine to whose social snobbery Arendt brought an intellectual snobbery of her own: how boring, how dull the Eichmanns of the world were!), he knew that he was looking at something more complicated than “banality.” Even the most banal bureaucrat, working under the most repressive system, is somebody. He continues to have his likes and dislikes, to think well of or to despise his boss, to do his work with greater or lesser alacrity, to delay or neglect tasks he does not want to perform, to stay away from his desk as much as he can if he hates his job, to gossip about it with his fellow workers.

Reflecting on Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem today, one realizes how much it was a product of the 1940's and 1950's, when—the inner rot of Soviet society not yet evident—the totalitarian capacity for mind-control as depicted in a novel like Orwell's 1984 seemed all-powerful. Today we know that human beings are far more resilient than Orwell credited them with being in the face of totalitarian manipulation. The Nazi machinery of extermination did not work as smoothly as it did because it was carried out in a fit of “sheer thoughtlessness.” It worked because people like Eichmann thought, and having done so, saw nothing wrong with what they were doing.

Eichmann was indeed in this sense paradigmatic—not of the bureaucrat under totalitarianism, but of the ordinary German infected with an anti-Semitism that, even if he was only a carrier of it with no prior symptoms in his private life, found the logic of the Final Solution impeccable. To understand why the Holocaust was possible, it is thus at least as important, as several historians have argued, to understand the specific culture of traditional German anti-Semitism as it is to understand the specific culture of Nazi office life. But this was something that did not greatly interest Arendt, perhaps because it would have meant dwelling, if not on “the suffering of the Jews,” at least on the Jews themselves in relation to their neighbors. She had the higher goal of elucidating the Holocaust's universal significance. Its parochially Jewish one could be left to writers like Haim Gouri.

Unlike Eichmann in Jerusalem, Facing the Glass Booth has no theories about the Holocaust to offer. Gouri's reactions to the trial were impressionistic, spontaneous, contradictory—and therefore more reliable. He gave his attention to each story, Eichmann's too, and conveyed in his reporting that because the Holocaust was the sum of all its stories, only a small fraction of which would ever be told, it would always remain in some sense a riddle. Not even the history of German anti-Semitism can explain why one person took part gladly in killing Jews, another looked on with approval or equanimity, another was troubled but no more than that, and still another—but of these there were very few—had the conscience and the courage to resist. In the end, it was up to Adolf Eichmann to decide which of these he would be. Perhaps this is what Haim Gouri had in mind when he wrote that things might be “simpler than we think.”



1 Translated by Michael Swirsky. Introduction by Alan Mintz. Wayne State University Press, 337 pp., $24.95 (paperback).

2 Which did not prevent her from digressing, rather “irrelevantly” herself, on how Europe's Jewish leadership was to blame for collaborating with the Nazis in rounding up Jews and sending them to their deaths.

3 The two-hour video, made with co-writer Rony Brauman, is available with English subtitles on DVD (Home Vision).


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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