he war over history begins where the war in history leaves off, which may be why Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann caused more anguish in New York literary circles 55 years ago than the trial itself. That trial in Israel began on April 11, 1961, the death sentence was pronounced on December 15, and Eichmann was hanged at midnight on May 31, 1962. When Arendt’s report appeared the following year, many worried that her judgment might subvert the one that was rendered in Jerusalem. They had good reason for concern: Arendt’s work, published in book form under the title “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” constituted the first serious sign that the Nazi war against the Jews was no longer safe from moral revisionism.
At the end of the Second World War, the international military tribunal that met in Nuremberg for the trial of 22 major war criminals did not focus directly on the extermination of the Jews, in part because Eichmann had not been apprehended. Eichmann had headed Section B4 of the RSHA (Reich Main Security Office, or Reichssicherheitshauptamt), the branch charged with transporting the Jews of Europe to the death camps. With the help of the Nazi network, he had fled to Argentina, where he was joined by his wife and children and lived under an assumed name until his capture by the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, in April 1960. Some details of the capture were withheld for many years and were not yet public when Eichmann was brought to trial.
To apprehend prominent Nazis who had escaped judgment at Nuremberg, the German government created the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes. However, competing interests in Germany also favored obscuring the past, as every accused official was liable to implicate others who had attained respectability. It is now known that the Germans and the CIA were aware of Eichmann’s whereabouts and never acted on their information. When Fritz Bauer, a member of the German investigative commission, realized that his superiors were contriving not to go after Eichmann, he got the information to the Israelis, who captured him in Argentina and flew him to Jerusalem.
The trial itself was without precedent or parallel. The Israeli poet Natan Alterman wrote that it “would fill an eerie void that has been hidden somewhere in the soul of the Jewish people, in the history of its lives and deaths, ever since it went into exile.” The void he referred to could not have been filled previously because the Jews had never been in a position to prosecute their murderers. Now they were. Given that this was the first and, as seemed likely, the only time that Jewish survivors would be able to confront one of the individuals responsible for the murder of their relatives, the event assumed outsized importance.
When it became known that Hannah Arendt would be covering the trial for the New Yorker, there was great anticipation. “A foolproof choice,” wrote Marie Syrkin, one of American Jewry’s leading intellectuals. “Who better qualified to report on the trial in depth than Hannah Arendt, scholar, student of totalitarianism and of the human condition, and herself a German Jewish refugee who came to the United States after the rise of Hitler?”
Indeed, of all the German refugees who had been admitted to America just before or at the start of the war, none was better known or more widely admired than Arendt, who had been accepted by the New York intelligentsia not merely as one of their own, but as prima inter pares. Hence the shock when her articles appeared in February and March 1963 and then in the expanded book later that year. Rather than report on the trial as a journalist or observer, Arendt used it as an occasion to expand her theory about totalitarianism—the subject of her most ambitious book.
It was she who had approached William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, and her “coverage” did not appear until a year and a half after the trial had ended. By that time, Eichmann was stale news. What made it newsworthy was Hannah Arendt. She did not exonerate the defendant, as some would accuse her of doing. Instead, she redirected attention away from the evidence, trial, and indictment to her interpretation of the proceedings.
One does not read far in Arendt’s account before noting what provoked the hail of protest. Her opening paragraph assumes authority over the court and finds it wanting:
“Beit Hamishpath”—the House of Justice: these words shouted by the court usher at the top of his voice make us jump to our feet as they announce the arrival of the three judges, who, bareheaded, in black robes, walk into the courtroom from a side entrance to take their seats on the highest tier of the raised platform.…Directly below the judges are the translators, whose services are needed for direct exchanges between the defendant or his counsel and the court; otherwise, the German-speaking accused party, like almost everyone else in the audience, follows the Hebrew proceedings through the simultaneous radio transmission, which is excellent in French, bearable in English, and sheer comedy, frequently incomprehensible, in German. (In view of the scrupulous fairness of all technical arrangements for the trial, it is among the minor mysteries of the new State of Israel that, with its high percentage of German-born people, it was unable to find an adequate translator into the only language the accused and his counsel could understand. For the old prejudice against German Jews, once very pronounced in Israel, is no longer strong enough to account for it. Remains as explication the even older and still very powerful “Vitamin P,” as the Israelis call protection in government circles and the bureaucracy.)
Signaling her command over all the relevant languages—French, English, and German as well as Israeli slang (“Vitamin P”)—Arendt grumbles of unfairness to the defendant: With so many great German speakers available, why wasn’t he served as well as all the others listening to translations, especially as the matter concerned him? Besides disparaging Israel’s prejudices and culture of nepotism, she hears in the usher’s call to stand for the court an echo of militarism, “making us jump to our feet.” The implied parallel between Nazi Germany and Israel is picked up again when the prosecutor remarks that “we [i.e., the court] make no ethnic distinctions.” She is outraged by such a claim in Israel,
where rabbinical law rules the personal status of Jewish citizens, with the result that no Jew can marry a non-Jew; marriages concluded abroad are recognized, but children of mixed marriages are legally bastards (children of Jewish parentage born out of wedlock are legitimate), and if one happens to have a non-Jewish mother he can neither be married nor buried.…Whatever the reasons, there certainly was something breathtaking in the naiveté with which the prosecution denounced the infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which had prohibited intermarriage and sexual intercourse between Jews and Germans.
There is indeed something breathtaking about a German-trained philosopher’s equation of Jewish religious practice with Hitler’s racial laws. Judaism’s religious civilization from biblical times to the present places Jews under special obligation to live as a people apart—a responsibility that may be shared by anyone who truly wishes to become a Jew (as did Ruth the Moabite, who became the progenitor of the Royal House of David) but is not binding on anyone else. Likening a people that behaves as the Jews do in history to the regime that intended to erase them is as odious as it is ignorant. At another point, Arendt referred to the German Reform Rabbi Leo Baeck, who accompanied his German community to Theresienstadt, as the Jewish “Fuhrer”—an impropriety that aroused so much indignation that she removed it in the revised edition of her book.1
What strikes one all these years later is Arendt’s rhetorical aggression and overt hostility to the proceedings. Still in the opening pages, Arendt observes that the auditorium being used as a courtroom
is not a bad place for the show trial David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel, had in mind when he decided to have Eichmann kidnapped in Argentina and brought to the District Court of Jerusalem to stand trial for his role in “the final solution of the Jewish question.” And Ben-Gurion, rightly called the “architect of the state,” remains the invisible stage manager of the proceedings. Not once does he attend a session; in the courtroom he speaks with the voice of Gideon Hausner, the Attorney General, who representing the government, does his best, his very best, to obey his master.
A show trial, the hallmark of Stalinist injustice, is a propaganda charade in which authorities have already determined the guilt of the innocent defendant. Arendt’s use of the term implies that the proceedings were rigged to prove the guilt of the accused. The phrase “invisible stage manager” conveys her sinister view of this trial—and, indeed, of the trial more than of the man on trial. One reviewer wondered what objection Arendt might have raised had Ben-Gurion attended the trial and influenced the outcome by showing up as the head of state. Arendt exempts from her contempt only the three judges. But for the rest, she makes it obvious that while she is persuaded that Eichmann deserves the death penalty, she is more personally invested in pointing out the legal flaws, irrelevance of much of the evidence, backwardness of the country (then only 13 years old), self-importance of the prime minister and prosecutor, and, as we shall see, the behavior of the Jews who were Nazism’s victims. Dyspeptic annoyance is the tone of the book throughout.
For a little perspective, we can compare this treatment with the reporting of the Israeli poet Haim Gouri, who published daily dispatches in a left-labor newspaper that were later collected into a book, Facing the Glass Booth. Gouri deliberately flattens his language to situate himself as a naive member of the press
He entered the glass booth at 8:55 a.m. with no warning. He just went in and sat down. Tall, thin, dressed in a dark suit, a well-pressed white shirt, and a tie. A tight-lipped policeman at either side. That was all.
A silence fell over the packed hall. No one called out. No one shouted. All eyes were fixed on him. People got up, took out notebooks, started to write without looking at what they were writing.
He sat still as a statue. What do we have here, an iron will to remain silent or the obtuseness of a man who does not realize who he is?
All stared at him, as if bewitched: Israelis and Europeans and Americans and Asians and Africans. Among them, many of his own people. Germans.
The silence lasted a full five minutes.
Like Arendt, Gouri is struck by the contrast between Eichmann’s apparent impassivity and the evils he is known to have committed, and, like her, he too later becomes agitated when the witnesses for the prosecution describe Jews herded to their death “like sheep to the slaughter.” But the report tracks his evolution. “Like everyone else present, I felt close to the line separating sanity from madness, but in my case it was for the first time,” he writes. “I felt I was beginning to comprehend the incomprehensible, however wide the gulf separating me from those who were there for even a single day.” Gouri is humbled as he follows the proceedings: “[We] who were outside that circle of death have forgiveness to ask of the numberless dead whom we have judged in our hearts without asking ourselves what right we have.” To state only the obvious, Gouri came to gain understanding, Arendt to impose her understanding on the trial. Gouri’s account follows the sequence of developments. Arendt surmises, synthesizes, and summarizes.
Gouri was writing for a Jewish readership in a Jewish language in a Jewish country, Arendt for the New Yorker. She did her research relating to the trial in Germany and most of the writing as a research scholar at Wellesley College. In her book on the Eichmann trial, the historian Deborah Lipstadt points out that Arendt left Jerusalem on May 10 and missed five weeks of witness testimony; she was also absent for the prosecution’s cross-examination when Eichmann was at his sharpest.
There were several kinds of objections to Arendt’s book. Specialists were appalled by her mistakes. These included the jurists Michael Musmanno, who had served as a presiding judge in the U.S. military court at Nuremberg, and Jacob Robinson, adviser to the American prosecutors at Nuremburg and one of the drafters of the 1952 reparations agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany. Musmanno wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the many errors of fact mean that the book “can hardly be accepted as an authoritative historical work.” Robinson, who came to America as a refugee from Lithuania about the same time that Arendt arrived from Germany, undertook to identify each and every one of those errors. Taking his title “And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight” from Isaiah 40, Robinson corrected not only her hundreds of “historical fallacies” but also Arendt’s references, asides, and literary effects.
Miss Arendt objects to calling Eichmann a “monster.” She tells us that the Attorney General charged, “And there sits the monster responsible for all this” (p. 6). In fact, he did not use the expression “monster,” nor did Mr. Hausner ever characterize Eichmann as “the most abnormal monster the world had ever seen” (p. 253). The Attorney General’s phrase (“a cruel and fanatical man, implacable in his enmity, this evil Eichmann”) was a paraphrase from the Book of Esther: “An adversary, an inimical man, this wicked Haman.” But even assuming the word “monster” had been used, it is difficult to accept Miss Arendt’s repudiation of the word as applied to Eichmann, and to believe with her that “Everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster’” (p. 49). How should we describe a man who, with fanatical zeal, tried to catch every last Jewish woman and every single Jewish child so that they might be butchered? The picture is even more horrifying if we accept Miss Arendt’s statement that Eichmann “had been shocked out of his wits” when he actually had to watch the executions in 1941 (p. 85). To have been present at such horrors and then to have seen to it that not a single family should escape the same fate—what word should we use to describe such a man?
Arendt found him banal.
One might have expected Robinson’s 400-page tome, 92 of them footnotes, to destroy Arendt’s standing, if not as a thinker then as a thinker on this subject. Yet far from damaging Arendt’s reputation, the torrent of corrections was interpreted by her defenders as proof that she was important for having provoked dispute where others believed the truth was settled. They considered the genius who dared to question received ideas ever so much greater than the scholarly Robinson who wanted to “help set straight the history of a tragic and difficult period.”
A second array of critics was stunned by Arendt’s moral and political inversion of prosecution and defense. The question of collaboration was everywhere the most distressing aspect of Nazi conquest, whether in France, Norway, Hungary, or in the Jewish ghettoes from which the Germans herded the Jews to the death camps. The most wounding part of Arendt’s report was her view of the Jewish Councils that the Nazis established in the countries they conquered. Marie Syrkin, who had so eagerly anticipated the report, said Arendt had transformed the trial of the Nazi henchman into an indictment of his victims, and she quoted Arendt in her own words to prove her point:
[The] whole truth was that there existed Jewish community organizations and Jewish party and welfare associations on both the local and the international level. Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and these leaders, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between five and six million.
Many others cited this same passage to contradict Arendt’s twice-repeated whole truth. It was pointed out that when the Einsatzgruppen, the SS mobile killing units, invaded Ukraine, they killed a million and a half Jews without the benefit of councils or “Jewish leaders.” In some places, the actual Jewish community leaders were the first to be murdered, and by the last stages of the war, over 80 percent of those installed by the Germans had not been in positions of leadership before the war. The playwright and intellectual Lionel Abel, roused to anger by the charge that Jewish communities had cooperated in their own destruction, wrote, “One might as well accuse the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima for having made their own deaths possible, since they lived in cities, and cities make the best targets.”
Scholars most closely identified with the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe felt personally stung by Arendt’s accusation. Isaiah Trunk, chief archivist of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (the main repository of Eastern European Jewish history), undertook what became the definitive study of the Judenrat, the German term for the Jewish Councils they established. Though Trunk’s book, Judenrat, contains much more damaging details than Arendt even hints at, its account of the varieties of local conditions exposes the crudeness of her generalization. Lucy Dawidowicz had more than Arendt in her sights when she wrote her magnificent 1975 history, The War against the Jews 1933–1945, but she, too, was driven to correct the malignant judgment of what were on the whole uncommonly decent communities. Even during the war, as Dawidowicz shows, diarists and historians had felt responsible for getting their own story out to the world; Arendt’s book demonstrated the urgent need to defend dead Jews from historical defamation.
Critics also zeroed in on the contrast between Arendt’s condemnation of the Jews under Nazism and her moderating impression of Eichmann. It must be said that in its eagerness to represent the entirety of the “Final Solution” in the courtroom, the prosecution had burdened the accused with more than his personal measure of culpability. The enormity of testimony by witnesses from the ghettoes and death camps pertained to more than the solitary individual in the dock. But stripped to its essentials, the trial portrayed an ambitious and able man who in the late 1930s had turned himself into an expert on “the Jewish question” by reading works of Zionism, visiting Palestine, and negotiating with officials in the Jewish community. By January 1942, Eichmann had become one of the key officers at the high-level Wannsee gathering where the extermination of the Jews was officially decided upon, and it was he who coordinated the transportation of the Jews to their places of execution.
Yet in place of this committed and zealous executive, charged with having caused, together with others, the deaths of millions of Jews, Arendt saw a dullard who remembered “only moods and the catch phrases he made up to go with them.” Her Eichmann was the dim-witted product of totalitarian bureaucracy. His admission of damning evidence merely convinced her that he had been too robotic to conceal it. The mass murderer who wanted to persuade the court that he was not the agent of his crimes found an ally in a philosopher who, to make her thesis work, needed to prove he lacked moral agency.
The least predictable reaction to Arendt’s book came from the intellectual circle around Partisan Review and Commentary, where she had flourished. During the late 1930s, the cohort that Irving Howe would later dub the “New York Intellectuals” had been conspicuously silent about the fate of European Jews and the embattled yishuv in Palestine, but by 1963, significant numbers of them had come to terms with their Jewishness. Many also looked up to Arendt as their better-schooled German-Jewish intellectual counterpart. They had never studied with, let alone befriended (or slept with) Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, or Karl Jaspers. Her Zionist credentials were likewise far better than theirs. Arendt had spent the years of their indifference involved with the work of Youth Aliyah, helping to get German youngsters to Palestine, out of Hitler’s reach.
One can therefore imagine their shock at her display of the anti-Jewish prejudices they had outgrown and by her contempt for the State of Israel they had come to admire. An article in Dissent by Michael Ezra notes that the group discovered in its ranks a previously unrecognized fault line between some of its Gentiles who defended Arendt and the Jews who criticized her.2 Ezra cites Mary McCarthy’s suspicions—“all too familiar in the context of today’s debates about the demonization of Israel—of a coordinated effort to conflate criticism with anti-Semitism.” What McCarthy actually witnessed in her Jewish colleagues was that they had come to care about being Jews and her friend Hannah had not.
One of the most enduring items in those polemics is the September 1963 Commentary essay “Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A Study in the Perversity of Brilliance,” by Norman Podhoretz, then editor of this magazine. It identified a new anti-Semitism igniting in the embers of the old. Podhoretz follows Arendt’s lead by noting exactly what sort of modern mind—namely, her modern mind—might have led to her conclusions:
What she has done…is translate this story for the first time into the kind of terms that can appeal to the sophisticated modern sensibility. Thus, in place of the monstrous Nazi, she gives us the “banal” Nazi; in place of the Jew as virtuous martyr, she gives us the Jew as accomplice in evil; and in place of the confrontation between guilt and innocence, she gives us the “collaboration” of criminal and victim.
Podhoretz draws attention to her technique of inversion by replicating her technique. Arendt said of Eichmann: Don’t think monster, think functionary; don’t think mass murderer, think organization man. Of Arendt, Podhoretz cautions the reader: Don’t think genius, think knee-jerk contrarian; don’t admire her originality, distrust her cleverness. Arendt found the Jerusalem court too parochial to appreciate the human condition. Podhoretz finds her universalistic distaste for the Jewish people perilously close to Nazism’s xenophobic aversion to the Jews. In sum, her report on the banality of evil demonstrated to him “the perversity of [her brand of] brilliance.”
Take Arendt’s claim that Jewish leadership cooperated with the Nazis “to a truly extraordinary degree.” Why consider it extraordinary? The policy of appeasement had been used by Western leaders as a perfectly traditional diplomatic tactic. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s mistake in applying it to the Nazis stemmed from the failure to recognize the “unprecedented and revolutionary nature of the Nazi regime.” Similarly with the role of the Jewish leaders forced to deal with Nazis bent on the destruction of their own people, “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” But no Diaspora Jewish community ever survived without institutions that cooperated with the powers that be, and Jewish communities were organized communities, thus inadvertently facilitating the Nazis’ work, because that is how Jews behave. “Why,” Podhoretz writes in astonishment, “she is saying that if the Jews had not been Jews, the Nazis would not have been able to kill so many of them—which is a difficult proposition to dispute.”
No less contrary was Arendt’s presentation of Eichmann as a novel type of totalitarian man:
[There] could hardly be a more telling example than this section of her book of the intellectual perversity that can result from the pursuit of brilliance by a mind infatuated with its own agility and bent on generating dazzle. The man around the corner who makes ugly cracks about the Jews is an anti-Semite, but not Adolf Eichmann who sent several million Jews to their death: that would be uninteresting and would tell us nothing about the Nature of Totalitarianism.
Do we not have Eichmann recorded saying, “I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of 5 million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction?” Arendt dismisses that as the vice of bragging, which she thinks was Eichmann’s undoing. What about Eichmann’s insistence on carrying on with the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz even against the orders of his higher-up Heinrich Himmler that it be stopped? Arendt says he had become the thoroughgoing “idealist” who had really internalized his machinelike role as a functionary of Hitler’s regime.
No, says Podhoretz. “It finally refuses to wash. Only a vicious anti-Semite and eager murderer could have done what he did.” Later historians with fuller access to Eichmann’s taped interviews would conclude with Richard Wolin that “Eichmann gave the performance of his life, and Hannah Arendt was entirely taken in.”
Intelligence, cleverness, genius—these are the terms that intellectuals value, but Podhoretz is horrified by the corrupting use to which they have been put: “Now, if we are not to lose our own minds in the act of trying to penetrate into the psychology of the Nazi mind, we must be very careful to keep it clear that this item of the Nazi program—the ‘cleansing’ of Europe, and ultimately the whole world, of Jews—was literally insane. It is one thing to hate Jews, but it is quite another to contemplate the wholesale slaughter of Jews; it is one thing to believe that no nation-state can be healthy when it contains ‘alien’ elements, but it is quite another to decide upon the murder of eleven million people…as a means of achieving ethnic homogeneity.”
The more ingeniously Arendt substitutes her theory of dullness for evil and coerced compliance for cruel agency, the more clearly Podhoretz gets back to the categories of right and wrong and the distinctions—not the similarities!—between them.
Arendt’s book alerted these members of the American Jewish intelligentsia to how conservatively they thought by comparison. Lionel Abel emphasized her substitution of aesthetics for politics and morality: “To make moral or political judgments one has to investigate and discuss the actual political and moral alternatives, and this Miss Arendt has not done…” Himself a writer on art and aesthetics, Abel asks, when it comes to the extermination of millions, “does it seem proper that the executioner and his host of victims should be judged in aesthetic rather than in moral or political terms?” Typically, the Americans insisted on maintaining the categories of truth and justice even when there was no possibility of attaining any semblance of justice for the murdered Jews.
Arendt’s report was likewise one of the sparks that drove Saul Bellow to create as the protagonist of his 1969 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a Jewish Holocaust survivor on New York’s Upper West Side who can speak with an insider’s authority about the war. Artur Sammler, named for the philosopher Schopenhauer, is an intellectual in his own right whose niece is keen to discuss with him Arendt’s thesis about Eichmann. “The idea being, that here is no great spirit of evil. Those people were too insignificant, Uncle,” Sammler’s niece argues. “They were just ordinary lower-class people, administrators, small bureaucrats, or Lumpenproletariat. A mass society does not produce great criminals. It’s because of the division of labor all over society which broke up the whole idea of general responsibility. Piecework did it. It’s like instead of a forest with enormous trees, you have to think of small plants with shallow roots. Modern civilization doesn’t create great individual phenomena any more.”
However reluctant the gentlemanly Mr. Sammler may be to antagonize his relative, he cannot restrain his (or his author’s) anger: “The idea of making the century’s great crime look dull is not banal,” Sammler responds.
Politically, psychologically, the Germans had an idea of genius. The banality was only camouflage. What better way to get the curse out of murder than to make it look ordinary, boring, or trite? With horrible political insight they found a way to disguise the thing. Intellectuals do not understand. They get their notions about matters like this from literature. They expect a wicked hero like Richard III. But do you think the Nazis didn’t know what murder was? Everybody (except certain bluestockings) knows what murder is. That is very old human knowledge. The best and purest human beings, from the beginning of time, have understood that life is sacred. To defy that old understanding is not banality. There was a conspiracy against the sacredness of life. Banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience. Is such a project trivial? Only if human life is trivial. This woman professor’s enemy is modern civilization itself. She is only using the Germans to attack the 20th century—to denounce it in terms invented by Germans. Making use of a tragic history to promote the foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals.
Bellow ascribes to Sammler his own disgust with the “woman professor” who had been Bellow’s own academic colleague at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. German intellectuals had stopped recognizing the sanctity of life before Hitler came to power, and independently of his reign. Their and her way of talking about the murder of so many innocent people as a function of the modern totalitarian mentality was itself morally reprehensible because it failed to acknowledge that human beings know the power of taking a human life. Bellow uses Sammler to insist, in American terms, on a moral response to a moral problem.
Hannah Arendt did something impressive in the history of ideas by transforming the Eichmann trial into the “Eichmann polemics” and putting into dispute the verdict of evil about what had been assumed to be the clearest example of evil on record. If Natan Alterman had hoped that the trial “would fill an eerie void that has been hidden somewhere in the soul of the Jewish people” by bringing to trial one of the worst in the long history of antagonists, Arendt came “in the tradition of German philosophy” to reopen the Jewish national wound. When Arendt volunteered to report on the Eichmann trial, it was presumed that she was doing so in her role as a Jew—indeed, there is no question that the New Yorker’s editor, William Shawn, would have been happy to publish an article that portrayed the Jewish state’s conduct in glowing terms.
But Arendt actually traveled to Jerusalem for a deeper purpose—to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction like Bellow’s that “everybody…knows what murder is.”
Arendt was to remain the heroine of postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, relativists, and internationalist ideologues who deny the stability of Truth. Not coincidentally, many of them have also disputed the rights of the sovereign Jewish people to its national homeland. Indeed, as anti-Zionism cemented the coalition of leftists, Arabs, and dissident minorities, Arendt herself was conscripted, sometimes unfairly and in ways she might have protested, as an ally in their destabilizing cause. They were enchanted by her “perversity” and were undeterred in their enthusiasm by subsequent revelations, like those of the historian Bernard Wasserstein, who documented Arendt’s scholarly reliance on anti-Semitic sources in her study of totalitarianism, or of revelations about her resumed friendship with Martin Heidegger despite his Nazi associations.
At the same time, however, the Arendt report on the Eichmann trial became one of the catalysts for something no one could have predicted—an intellectual movement that came to be known as neoconservativism. A cohort of writers and thinkers, many of them Jews from immigrant families who had turned to leftism as naturally as calves to their mother’s teats, but who had slowly moved away from the Marxism of their youth during the Stalin years and the Second World War, now spotted corruption and dishonesty and something antithetical to them in some of their very models of the intellectual life. They and their Gentile colleagues had constituted the only European-style intelligentsia to flourish in America. Most of them were only one generation removed from Europe, after all, so what could be more natural than for them to serve as the conduit of European intelligence to America? Arendt’s ingenious twist of the Eichmann trial showed them how Jewish and American they actually were—and how morally clear they aspired to be.
There had never yet been a fully conservative Jewish intellectual tradition in America. It began to crystallize in the 1960s, and Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial helped bring it into being. Perversely.q
1 Raul Hilberg, whose history The Destruction of European Jewry Arendt had used as a main source, wrote, “The Jewish Fuhrer, as one of Eichmann’s people called Rabbi Leo Baeck…” Arendt used the term without ascribing it to its hostile source.
2 Michael Ezra, “The Eichmann Polemics: Hannah Arendt and Her Critics,” Democratiya 9 (Summer 2007). Democratiya merged with Dissent.