1961, Jerusalem: Eichmann and
the Aesthetic of Complicity
R. Clifton Spargo
The trial of Adolf Eichmann was a threshold moment of Holocaust memory, ushering in an era of widespread knowledge about the Holocaust as a historical event, distinct from the events of the Second World War. Especially in Israel and the United States, the trial served as a means for retrieving a history that had occurred in a far away place and what in 1961 seemed already, in an ever-renewable and erasable modern world, a far-away time. As Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi has provocatively intimated, the trial may have especially resonated with the Israeli and American publics because of what Eichmann represented – which was in large part a capacity to keep atrocity, even when one is systemically responsible for it, at an imaginative distance from the ordinary workings of the psyche or conscience. In short, Eichmann’s imaginative distance from his own crimes, whether honest or merely selfjustifying, connoted for much of the non-European world a distance from the events of the Nazi genocide that had informed their own original reception of such horrible news.
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s hope for the trial – in refusing proposals to conduct it elsewhere under international jurisdiction, and in wanting the world to see justice executed against Eichmann under Israeli sovereignty – had been unapologetically propagandistic, and Hannah Arendt famously termed the entire affair, with provocative analogy to the Moscow Trials of 1937, a ‘show trial’. In the overreaching tendentiousness of the arguments of the prosecution, Arendt perceived a distorting effect on the very possibilities of criminal jurisprudence. Her arguments about the nationalistic function of the trial, about the enigmatically ordinary aspect of the defendant’s nevertheless spectacular criminality, and about the complicity of the Jewish councils in Nazi deportations of Jews would become every bit as culturally significant as the trial itself. However one understands the value of Arendt’s famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), originally published as a series of articles for The New Yorker, her most basic objection pertained to the tremendous gap between what the Israeli prosecution wished to demonstrate and what a trial concentrating on Eichmann’s criminality ought to entail. She did not worry that Eichmann was not getting a fair trial, and she certainly did not portray him, as critics such as Lionel Abel charged, as more sympathetic than his victims. Nevertheless, Arendt’s arguments about the prosecution’s inability to stay focused on legal matters pertaining to Eichmann’s criminality were almost immediately misunderstood as extenuating arguments, of the moral or political if not legal kind, on the defence’s behalf. She famously objected to the prosecution’s overstatement of Eichmann’s monstrosity, believing that Eichmann’s criminality needed to be expressed within the normalising idiom of his culture. Yet Arendt had hardly invented this line of objection. It was commonplace in the press and among the American general