Roger Berkowitz: Misreading ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’

tags: Holocaust, New York Times, Hannah Arendt, Roger Berkowitz, Eichmann in Jerusalem




Roger Berkowitz is associate professor of political studies and human rights, and academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, at Bard College.

The movie “Hannah Arendt,” which opened in New York in May, has unleashed emotional commentary that mirrors the fierce debate Arendt herself ignited over half a century ago, when she covered the trial of the notorious war criminal Adolf Eichmann. One of the pre-eminent political thinkers of the 20th century, Arendt, who died in 1975 at the age of 69, was a Jew arrested by the German police in 1933, forced into exile and later imprisoned in an internment camp. She escaped and fled to the United States in 1941, where she wrote the seminal books “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “The Human Condition.”

When Arendt heard that Eichmann was to be put on trial, she knew she had to attend. It would be, she wrote, her last opportunity to see a major Nazi “in the flesh.” Writing in The New Yorker, she expressed shock that Eichmann was not a monster, but “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Her reports for the magazine were compiled into a book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” published in 1963.

The poet Robert Lowell proclaimed Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann a “masterpiece,” a “terrifying expressionist invention applied with a force no imitator could rival.” Others excoriated Arendt as a self-hating Jew. Lionel Abel charged that Eichmann “comes off so much better in her book than do his victims.” Nearly every major literary and philosophical figure in New York chose sides in what the writer Irving Howe called a “civil war” among New York intellectuals — a war, he later predicted, that might “die down, simmer,” but will perennially “erupt again.” So it has.

This time, a new critical consensus is emerging, one that at first glimpse might seem to resolve the debates of a half century ago. This new consensus holds that Arendt was right in her general claim that many evildoers are normal people but was wrong about Eichmann in particular. As Christopher R. Browning summed it up recently in The New York Review of Books, “Arendt grasped an important concept but not the right example.”...



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