Before there was the O.J. Simpson double homicide trial there was the Eichmann trial. Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil provides insight into one of the most publicized "show trials" ever. After the Nuremberg trial hundreds of Nazis were still in hiding or had taken assumed identities outside of Europe. Adolph Eichmann was one of these individuals. The Israeli Mossad kidnapped him and brought him back to Israel to stand trial for "crimes against humanity" for his role in the Holocaust. Eichmann was abducted in Argentina where he was struggling with his anonymity. Eichmann hated losing his identity as a powerful Nazi. After being kidnapped, but before being flown to Israel Eichmann was asked to consent to being brought up on charges against humanity, which he did. Eichmann may have had a difficult time living without his former social standing and identity.
Arendt's book is a landmark in the workings of the Nazi machine that tortured, raped, and killed over 11 million Europeans for their religion, sexual orientation, political ideas, and nationality. However, the Eichmann trial centers more on the role Eichmann had in the "Final Solution" to the Jewish Question. Eichmann was charged with being a key player in the destruction and eradication of European Jewry.
The book and Arendt's theory regarding "the banality of evil" has created controversy since its inception in 1963. In 1963 Arendt was sent to Jerusalem to follow the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker. She published a series of articles over the course of the trial. It is often remarked by critics of the book that Arendt was not present for even half of the trial, yet the book is considered one of the principal books on the trial, if not the primary.
Arendt's basic theory is that Eichmann was a moral eunuch. He was a cog, in a large killing machine that never contemplated his role or developed a conscious to answer questions for himself. He simply followed orders and happened to have an instrumental job in the destruction of world Jewry. Arendt argues that even if Eichmann had not had the job there were hundreds of other German Nazis that would have fulfilled the obligations of his job without a conscience. Throughout the book Arendt patronizes Eichmann as a man incapable of his own thoughts; so prone to using clichés inappropriately, repeating himself, contradicting his previous statements, and utterly incompetent of original thought or judgment. Arendt portrays Eichmann as an automaton only interested in advancing his own career. Arendt does not even fault Eichmann for completing his job, because she thought he was simply following the orders that were given to him.
This was one of the three major controversies that arose with the printing of Arendt's insight on the trial. Arendt also heavily criticized David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minster of Israel, the chief Prosecutor Gideon Hausner, and the European Jewish community.
Arendt believed that the Jewish Community in Europe had meticulous organizational abilities and was instrumental in the destruction of European Jewry. The organizations that the Jews created were able to document and provide comprehensive statistics and efficiency in rounding up Jews and aiding the Nazis. Arendt believed the Jewish bureaucracy was impeccable in its carrying out of these duties. This argument of Arendt's is flawed for a number of reasons. If the Jewish communal leaders assigned these tasks did not fulfill them then other Jews may have, and if not them, then other European citizens might have, which does not completely discredit Arendt. But the fact that does debunk Arendt's theory, that is often described as "blaming the victims not the criminals," is the fact that the Russian Jews were systematically murdered and killed much the same way as much of Central and Eastern Europe's Jews were. What stands to reason is there were no Jewish organizations to augment the efficiency of the Nazis in Russia. The Nazis were able to comprehend this task without the help of any Jewish bureaucracy. The Jewish organizations could not have been much more helpful to the Jews of Europe, Arendt really overplays this theory. Jews were not leading their brethren to their funerals, or simply following orders like Eichmann and other cogs, but were probably trying to alleviate Jewish suffering.
Arendt's criticism of Ben-Gurion's treatment of the trial is precise. There were journalists from all over the world hanging on each and every word of the trial; it was truly a "show trial." Even though Arendt would probably agree that Eichmann was a cog and an automaton, Israel's Premier was able to gain great publicity for the trial.
Throughout the course of the book Arendt restates the arguments made against Eichmann by the prosecution, when they are adequate she leaves them as is. However, when the arguments fall short of Arendt's standards she takes the liberty of showing the flaw of the procedure, the argument, and its role in the trial. At most points this commentary is a necessity, but at others Arendt seems to be showing her mental muscle and belittling the prosecution.
These are the major reasons Arendt's work was poorly received in Israel. Her criticism of European Jewry's role in the Holocaust is rather short-sighted, but her indictment of the prosecutors and Ben-Gurion is profound.
Eichmann in Jerusalem is a classic in the study of human nature, totalitarian politics, and political theory, deservingly. The book has its flaws, but the insightful commentary on one's man adventure inside the totalitarian Nazi destructing machine is a true tour de force.