Newspaper article International New York Times

50 Years after Hannah Arendt's 'Eichmann in Jerusalem'

Newspaper article International New York Times

50 Years after Hannah Arendt's 'Eichmann in Jerusalem'

Article excerpt

The objections based on arguments she never made.

Rivka Galchen

In "Eichmann in Jerusalem," Hannah Arendt shows us an Adolf Eichmann who, describing a trip he took to Bratislava to arrange for the evacuation and extermination of Jews, brags of bowling with the minister of the interior. He speaks at length and unironically to a Jewish policeman about why he should have been promoted further within the SS. And when he repeatedly, and self-destructively, says, "I will jump into my grave laughing," because having the deaths of millions of Jews on his conscience gives him "extraordinary satisfaction," he seems to do so mostly to cut what in his mind is an impressive figure. One gets the sense of a man, amid genocide, still and above all concerned with keeping up with the Joneses.

Of course, "to cut an impressive figure" and "keeping up with the Joneses" are both cliches. As is, now 50 years on, Arendt's famous phrase "the banality of evil." Through its own epigrammatical forcefulness, it has lost its force, and its suggestiveness makes it easy for us to think we know what Arendt argues in her unsettling and always intelligent essay, even when we haven't read it with care.

Arendt does not argue that the Holocaust and its unspeakable horrors are banal. She does not endorse or believe Eichmann's presentation of himself as a man beset by the tricky virtue of obedience. And she does not say that the evil she saw in Eichmann is the only kind of evil. Many of the objections to her work are based on arguments never made.

But Arendt does find Eichmann, the man, abysmally laughable (and some still find her laughter's proximity to atrocity intolerable). She argues that he is a kind of evildoer -- "evildoer" is now a dead metaphor, courtesy of our recent history -- unlike the sort we tend to find in literature, where evil is most often a fallen angel, a brilliant devil. Eichmann, in Arendt's view, is second-rate and a buffoon. Of Germans who saw figures like him as ingenious monsters, she said: "They possibly understood this as a way of creating a certain alibi for themselves. If you succumb to the power of a beast from the depths, you're naturally much less guilty than if you succumb to a completely average man. …

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