Eichmann in Jerusalem – A report on the banality of evil – Hannah Arendt
Eichmann Before Jerusalem – The unexamined life of a mass murderer – Bettina Stangneth
I don’t remember when I first read Hannah Arendt’s book, probably because it never made much of an impact. I read too much Holocaust material, and this was just one book among many.
I also don’t remember when I first saw or became aware of the heated debate about the book, and her attitude to Eichmann, banality, Ben Gurion, Zionism, and Israel. But I do remember wondering how I had missed out; sure, there was stuff in the book I did not agree with, and some stuff I did not like. But it was her perspective, her opinion, and that was all. For others, there were important stands to be made. Fair enough.
When I heard about Bettina Stangneth’s book, I decided it was time to reread the Arendt book, and weigh the situation again with the benefit of these twin perspectives. What follows are my personal opinions and feelings on the matter. I do not hold them out as universal truths, but as material I want to record for my own sake. I may read these books again. There may be others on the same or similar topics. I can look at this post and remind myself what I thought.
Here we go:
Arendt’s book featured these themes:
- Eichmann was a bit player in the Holocaust, not one of its masterminds. He was a paper shuffling bureaucrat, not a scheming destroyer. To that extent, the evil that existed was banal, routine, normal, as a part of somebody else’s grand scheme.
- The leadership of the Jewish Councils had, by their behavior, made things easier for the Nazis to perpetrate their mass killings.
- Ben Gurion, Israel’s then prime minister was described as the man behind the stage, directing proceedings so as to best benefit the Zionist enterprise – like some evil puppet master.
Eichmann as the bit player
This part of her narrative is, unsurprisingly, supported by what she reports in her book. It’s this part that Stangneth’s book deals with. I don’t think you can read Arendt alone and say she is wrong; it might feel wrong, though.
Her criticism of the Jewish Councils seem like a classic case of armchair analysis, completely missing the reality facing the people at that time. In other words, she judged them harshly when, in all likelihood, she would have done the same things. These poor people did not have the benefit of hindsight. They were tragically trapped, alone, and powerless. Arendt was being harsh. I often wondered if there was a personal score being settled.
To me, this was political and personal. It’s that simple. Whatever Ben Gurion did, she would have found a reason to fault him. Probably, harshly. It was hate. Sometimes, I got the impression that her language was not a million miles away from that of the worst anti-Israel spokesperson. It was as if she wanted to establish her credentials.
So now we get back to the part of Mr Eichmann: bit player, or antisemitic superstar?
Stangneth’s book is based on years of work on the Eichmann archives, focusing on the records – some handwritten, some audio recordings – of the salon style conversations Eichmann had with several Nazis while he was living in Argentina. (There, he was a farmer called Ricardo Clement.) Arendt did not have access to that material when she wrote her book.
Stangneth gives a chilling insight to someone definitely not banal in his character. Eichmann reminisced for the good old days, and defended National Socialism. There was an inevitable war, and the Jews had to be exterminated. Not only did he complain about the unfinished Final Solution, but was ready and willing to plan for the return of National Socialism and the demise of the Jews.
With Stangneth’s work, the banality is in the way he and the other Nazis discuss the war against the Jews. It was routine, ordinary, and perfectly acceptable. (Though they are astute enough to shepherd away some wives and girlfriends who blanche at some aspects at one point.) Stangneth believes that the Eichmann in these records is the real character: “a highly skilled social manipulator with an inexhaustible ability to reinvent himself, an unrepentant murderer eager for acolytes to discuss past glories and vigorously planning future goals.” Certainly, that’s what comes across from reading her book. It’s a convincing case, well documented and scrupulously backed up with source material notes.
I felt the Eichmann in Stangneth’s book was more real, though I did wonder how much of his character was constructed – again, deliberately by him – to fit in with his status in Argentina’s Nazi community.
Because I never took Arendt’s book as some tablet of stone excuse for evil, I was less troubled by the controversy. I do feel I have a better assessment of Eichmann after reading both books – something I recommend for those interested in the mindset of evil. But be warned; Arendt’s writing style is a challenge. Her sentences can take the form of a long distance trip, and her phraseology adds to the opacity of it all. It’s a shorter book, but the tougher read. Stangneth’s book, translated from the German, has occasional rough patches, but on the whole is clear and persuasive. It takes its time, but does not bore.
Eichmann? He was a Nazi, through and through. He was an integral part of the Final Solution, and deserved his fate.
Arendt? Controversy sells. Liberal journalism was popular then, and is popular now. There’s a feel good aspect to it. The righteousness of the left. She took the opportunity to portray things as she saw them, through her political prism. She could never be described as objective.
Stangneth? If there’s a political slant here, I missed it. It appears to be good, solid reportage. The opinions offered seem reasonable – even if I do not agree with them all. Her book is a very welcome addition to the available material. (I don’t subscribe to the view that this is all you need to read.)
Almost unbelievably, there are still several documents about Eichmann, held by the German authorities, that have not been declassified. There doesn’t seem to be any logical reason why that is so, though Stangneth suggests it is because they disclose inter agency co-operation that they do not want to reveal. Hardly convincing. Is there a blockbuster of a secret about how he made his escape, and how he avoided capture until the Israelis took action? Is there a famous westerner with a dirty Nazi secret? I’m not into conspiracy theories, so I’m erring on the side of bureaucratic bungling. The secret may be that there are no more secrets.