cover of Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem

Arendtís Eichmann in Jerusalem:
The Debate Over the Banality of Perpetrators and Its Significance for the Holocaust and Modern Genocide

by David Klein

December 5, 2005

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust

UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2005
(course homepage, web projects index page)

Introduction and Background
Annotated Bibliography and Linkography
About the
Page Author
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Introduction and Background (back to top)

This project explores the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, relying heavily on Hannah Arendtís controversial yet compelling contemporary assessment of Hitlerís "Jew expert:" Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. I analyze the significance of Eichmannís trial and Arendtís book for our understanding of the Holocaust. After the research, this project concluded that Eichmann illustrates the dangerous effects that a corrupt regime operating on a corrupt bureaucracy can have on its society. Einchmann's trial and Hanna Arendtís Eichmann in Jerusalem are significant because they promoted discussions and awareness on certain aspects of the Holocaust. They also raised the question of how perpetrators of genocide should be legally prosecuted.

The research process entailed a reading of Hanna Arendtís Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil, as well as articles, essays and book reviews regarding Arendt and issues related to her book and the Eichmann trial.

On May 11, 1960, Eichmann was seized by Israeli agents in Argentina, after Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered that Eichmann be found and caught, in order to stand trial in Jerusalem. He was charged on fifteen counts, which included crimes against the Jewish People and crimes against humanity. The main prosecutor was Israeli Attorney General Gideon Hausner. The defense attorney was Robert Servatius, who also defended Nazi War Criminals at the Nuremberg trials. Eichman pleaded non-guilty to all counts and his defense largely consisted of his obedience to orders given to him by the Nazi leadership. He repeatedly argued that he was "cog in the machine" of the Nazi regime. He defended himself as obeying the orders and laws of Nazi Germany. The prosecution argued its case for ten weeks. The trial lasted from April 11, 1961 to August 14, 1961. The judges "convicted Eichmann on all fifteen counts of the indictment, although he was acquitted on some particulars" (Arendt 255). Many of the indictments were based on precedents from the Nuremberg Trials. The conviction carried the death sentence as punishment. After an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court, Israel carried out the death sentence by hanging on May 31, 1962 (Arendt 235-252).

Analysis (back to top)

Hannah Arendt states in her postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil that "the present report deals with nothing but the extent to which the court in Jerusalem succeeded in fulfilling the demands of justice" (Arendt 298). This postscript, published in a revised and enlarged edition of the book in 1964, was necessary because of the widespread controversy over the book upon its release. Arendt reported on Adolf Eichmannís trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Eichmann was the Nazi war criminal responsible for organizing the forced deportation of millions of Jews to the concentration camps during the Holocaust. The Israeli government captured him in Argentina in 1960 to stand trial in Jerusalem for his participation in carrying out the Nazi Final Solution of the Jewish Question. The New Yorker magazine published Arendtís reports of the trial as a series of articles, which were later adapted into a book in 1963. Arendtís commentary on the Eichmann trial stirred up great controversy partly because she raised the issue of Jewish community leadersí cooperation in assisting the Nazi Genocide. It was also controversial because she highlighted Eichmannís "banality" and normalcy, accepting his claim that he did not have evil intents or motives to commit such horrors. This controversy about Eichmannís trial and Arendtís book is significant because it promoted awareness and discussions about certain aspects of the Holocaust. The trial and Arendtís book are also important because they raised questions about how perpetrators of genocide should be legally prosecuted. Specifically, it raised the issue of the trial setting being used to reveal to the world the details of genocide, rather than solely for a judicial process.

Jewish criticism and controversy with regard to the book focused on Arendtís discussion of Jewish cooperation with the Nazis. Arendt contends that certain "interest groups" created an image of her book as if it contained an argument that "Jews had murdered themselves" (Arendt 284). In "Arendtís Judgment," an article by Mark Greif published in Dissent Magazine in 2004, Greif describes the criticism when he writes that "By judging the Judenräte, yet coolly and ironically studying Eichmann, Arendt seemed to her critics to be exculpating the captured Nazi and blaming his victims." Arendt addresses the issue briefly, even mentioning Chaim Rumkowski who was the Jewish leader in the Lodz ghetto because the topic was brought up in the trial with regard to the question of Jewish resistance. The chapter in which this topic appears is called, "The Wannsee Conference, or Pontious Pilate," a reference to Eichmannís quote during the trial that he had a Pontius Pilate feeling of freedom of guilt because he had worked in an environment of cooperation without protest (Arendt 114). Arendt justifies her focus "on this chapter of the story, which the Jerusalem trial failed to put before the eyes of the world" on the grounds that it offered "the most striking insight into the totality of the moral collapse the Nazis caused" (Arendt 125). Thus, Arendt raised questions and sparked a discussion on this aspect of the Holocaust. Arendt defends her discussion of the Jewish community leaders in the book by noting that it was brought up at the trial, thus making it inevitable that some reporter of the trial would bring it up (Arendt 284). The controversy relates to the issue of the Eichmann trial being used as a setting to tell the story of the Holocaust. The prosecution brought witnesses "to testify to the rising in the Warsaw ghetto and to the similar attempts in Vilna and Kovno--matters that had no connection whatever with the crimes of the accused" (Arendt 121). During the trial, only one prominent member of the Judenrat, Jewish Councils, was brought to the stand as a witness. A subtle debate also took place between one of the three judges and the prosecutor over the prosecutorís desire to paint a "general picture" and the judgeís view that indictment was the function of the trial, not "drawing pictures" (Arendt 121). The trial and Arendtís examination of this issue conveys the difficulty of using the trial setting to reveal the story or general picture of the Holocaust without exempting pieces of the story that may be hard for victims to accept. However, the debate continues. Arendt extensively cited Raul Hilbergís The Destruction of European Jewry when describing the Judenrat and Jewish cooperation in the book. However, according to reviewer Berel Lang, Hilberg in his 1997 autobiography "criticizes the equation of his own views with Arendt's charge of collaboration on the part of the Judenrate (Jewish Councils) in the ghettoes. The problem, according to Hilberg, goes deeper than this" (Lang 1). While Hilberg argues that Arendtís addressing of the issue does not discuss its full complexity, she still promoted further discussion of this aspect of the Holocaust with the book.

Arendtís phrasing of "the banality of evil" and her description of Eichmannís normalcy initiated the bookís controversy, but also illustrates the trialís role in sparking interest in the understanding of Holocaust perpetrators. The investigation of Eichmann and the trial itself gave the impression of Eichmannís normalcy and the lack of sinister motives for his actions. In his interviews with the Israeli police and throughout the trial, he repeatedly asserted that he was not anti-semitic. Arendt writes that "he went to considerable lengths to prove his point: he never harbored any ill feelings against his victims" (Arendt 30). Eichmann had Jews in his family and expressed a dedication to Zionism. Arendt describes him as a joiner who needed to be a member of something. She describes his "common vice" of bragging, even about his responsibility for the "death of five million Jews" (Arendt 47). She was particularly intrigued by his constant use of clichés when speaking. She wrote that "his inability to speak was closely connected to an inability to think, mainly to think from the standpoint of somebody else" (Arendt 49). For Arendt, his thoughtlessness was the most specific and greatest flaw in Eichmannís character. In the end, Arendt accepted Eichmannís normalcy, to a degree, and his lack of evil insticts. For her, the banality of evil and the lack of real motives, besides wanting to personally advance his career, stemmed from "the strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil" (Arendt 287-288). Arendt, in her postcript to the book, said she understood that the title of her book would draw controversy.

The "lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil" that Arendt gained from the Eichmann trial and the "normal" man who committed such heinous acts without evil intent or thought to the immorality and evil of his actions is still controversial (Arendt 252). Mark Greif, in his 2004 article, writes that "The disgraceful piling on hasn't really stopped for forty years. Even today Hannah Arendt is misremembered as a betrayer of her fellow Jews." However, many people highlighted Eichmannís normalcy. Greif writes that "Mainstream magazines such as Life, Newsweek, and the Atlantic presented Eichmann's averageness, dullness, and familiarity." Arendt writes of psychiatrists certifying Eichmann as "normal" after interviewing him while in custody. Julian Schvindlerman writes of Peter Malkin, the Israeli secret agent who helped catch Eichmann, being struck by a man who seemed to lead such a normal life. Schvindlerman writes that "Elie Wiesel comments in his memoirs how he couldn't fathom Eichmann as a normal human being, and how he would have expected, even preferred, to see the SS officer as a Picasso portrait--with four ears, two mouths, and three eyes" (Schvindlerman). Thus, Eichmann coming before the court in the trial and being examined and cross-examined, often repeating his obedience defense and his lack of hatred for his victims, put before the world one of the Holocaustís major perpetrators. For Holocaust victims, it was difficult not to see a "monster" or a uniquely malicious human being. Arendt states that "The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly normal" (Arendt 276). The process of the trial and Arendtís analysis is significant because it raised questions and issues about the perpetrators of the Holocaust and their ability to carry out mass murder.

Arendt contends in her postscript that the lesson of the banality of evil was not "an explanation of the phenomenon nor a theory about it" (Arendt 288). In describing Hilbergís criticism of Arendtís view about the banality of Eichmannís evil in his 1997 autobiography, Berel Lang discusses a "pointed malevolence in the policies and actions constituting the Holocaust that was not banal at all" (Lang 1). This debate illustrates the questions raised by Eichmannís trial and its influence on Holocaust studies. The Milgram Experiments, a study in the psychology of human obedience that was inspired by Eichmannís trial, further demonstrates the importance of the trial and Arendtís work in inducing research of the perpertrator aspect of the Holocaust.

Arendt comments on the use of the Eichmann trial as a setting to reveal the Nazi genocide to the world. Arendt criticizes the "show trial" that Israeli Prime Minister David Ben- Gurion concieved of in deciding to put Eichmann on trial in Jeruselum (Arendt 4). She describes Ben-Gurionís intent to use the trial to teach lessons and provide the world with the details of the Holocaust. However, in her view, "The purpose of a trial is to render justice, and nothing else; even the noblest of ulterior purposes" (Arendt 254). While Arendt argues that it was only partially true, there was a feeling by Jews that the Jewish suffering and the complete details of the Holocaust had been left out of the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals (Arendt 258). This conveys that the trial setting is important for victims of genocide to feel that their story and the execution of genocide has been fully reported.

Arendt writes of the "Jerusalem auditoriam," used as a courtroom, and the prosecutorís "theatrics." She states, "The audience was supposed to represent the whole world, and in the first few weeks it indeed consisted chiefly of newspapermen and magazine writers who flocked to Jerusalem from the four corners of the earth" (Arendt 6). Thus, the trial is significant because it raised Holocaust awareness and promoted interest in the Nazi genocide. Arendt also describes the trialís success in instigating the capture of other Nazis. She writes that "for the first time since the close of the war, German newspapers were full of reports on the trials of Nazi criminals, all of them mass murderers" (Arendt 14). Arendtís focus on the topic of justice and its relation to the Eichmann trial is critical of the fact that the trial stressed "general issues to the detriment of legal niceties." (Arendt 18). The Eichmann trial and Arendtís discussion reflect the dilemma of achieving justice in the prosecution of a Nazi perpetrator, or any perpertrator of genocide, in a criminal court without undermining the judical process by portraying the thorough details of history, which may not relate to the defendant.

In a review of Lawrence Douglasí The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust, Hilary Earl describes Douglasí rejection of Arendtís thesis that the purpose of a trial should be to only render justice (Earl 193). She writes that "the Eichmann trial succeeded in advancing both of its goals: exacting justice and constructing a collective memory of the Holocaust" (Earl 195). This was because, as Douglas argues, the Judges did not allow survivor testimony to influence their judgment on Eichmann because it was not relevant to his guilt or innocence (Earl 195). Even Arendt herself notes one "dramatic moment" of testimony in which the Jewish underground member Abba Kovner described the story of Anton Schmidt. Schmidt was a German in charge of collecting German soldiers in Poland who were cut off from their units. He helped the Jewish underground in Poland, at no charge, to get "forged papers and military trucks" (Arendt 230). Arendt and the audience of the court understood that this story highlighted the political importance and lesson of the people who "under conditions of terror" do not comply with illegal and immoral orders (Arendt 233). She expresses the wish that there were more Germans like Schmidt. The question of whether the trial setting should be used to reveal such lessons and history continues to be relevant for potential trials against perpetrators of genocide.

The Eichmann trial and Hannah Arendtís book both illustrate the complexity of Holocaust perpetrators and the procedure a trial of such perpetrators should follow, in order to obtain justice. Arendt argues in her epilogue to Eichmann in Jerusalem that justice was ultimately obtained in the court because the trialís "main purpose--to prosecute and to defend, to judge and to punish Adolf Eichmann--was achieved" (Arendt 273). The intense controversy over her book and the debate over how trials regarding genocide should be conducted and the banality of some Holocaust perpetrators will continue. The importance of the trial and Arendtís book remains in their inviting discussion, interest and questions important to the study of the Holocaust and genocide.

Annotated Bibliography and Linkography (back to top)

  • Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem A report on the Banality of Evil. London: Penguin Books, 1963.
  • Earl, Hilary. "Book Review of The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust, Lawrence Douglas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17.1 193-196. Oxford University Press, 2003. <>.
    This book review by Professor Hilary Earl of Wilfrid Laurier University discusses Lawrence Douglasí arguments about Holocaust trials in his book.
    Published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Holocaust and Genocide Studies is the premier forum for work on the extensive body of literature and documentation on the Holocaust and genocide. It features essays and reviews that cut across the disciplines of history, literature, economics, religious studies, anthropology, political science, sociology, and others. HGS is the only publication to address the related study of how insights into the Holocaust apply to other genocides.
    The articles and reviews in Holocaust and Genocide Studies reflect the opinions of their authors. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council" (
  • Greif, Mark. "Arendtís Judgment" Dissent Magazine. 2004. Foundation for Study of Independent Ideas, Inc. <>.
    This article addresses criticism and controversy of Hannah Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem. It discusses this criticism with regards to recent books published about Hanna Arendt. Dissent Magazine "is a quarterly magazine of politics and culture edited by Mitchell Cohen and Michael Walzer. In the words of the New York Times, Dissent Ďranks among the handful of political journals read most regularly by U.S. intellectualsí" (
  • Lang, Berel. "The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian--book reviews." Judaism. Fall, 1997. Published by the American Jewish Congress. <>.
    This book review discusses famous Holocaust historian Raul Hilbergís autobiography. Judaism is a magazine that examines issues related to Judaism and Israel.
  • Schvindlerman, Julian. "The Twenty Seconds That Made History." Midstream Magazine May/June 2003 edition. Publish date of host website 12 September 2003. Host website is the Hagshama department of the World Zionist Organization. <>.
    This article discusses the capture of Eichmann by Peter Malkin, the Israeli agent who was the head of his captureís operation. Midstream Magazine is a monthly Jewish review sponsored by the Theadore Herzl Foundation.

About the Author (back to top)

David Klein:
I am a junior double majoring in political science and history who is interested in international relations. I have visited the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. I chose to write about the Eichmann trial because I am interested international law.

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