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Eichmann and the Banality of Evil


It is almost sixty years to the day since Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Final Solution, was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death.  Eichmann’s capture and trial have captivated international audiences and imaginations, inspiring numerous films, plays, and books.  The most influential and well known of these accounts is perhaps Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil.  Arendt, a political theorist and writer for the New Yorker, argues that Eichmann was not a particularly genius or evil person by nature.  Rather, Arendt argues, Eichmann was simply a “joiner,” someone who follows a crowd and ideology for his own mental security.  Arendt views this apathetic conformity as a leading contributor to the Holocaust.  This view was the basis for Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiment.  Though influential, Arendt’s view was also widely contested.  Many felt that Arendt’s views on conformity and resistance placed at least partial blame for Nazi atrocities on collaborating Jewish victims, groups such as the Judenrat or the Kapos.  Reprinted below are two editorials by Yeshiva University faculty members, both published in The Commentator shortly after the release of Arendt’s book, which present opposing viewpoints on the extent that the Judenrat contributed to the Nazi’s cause.

Jewish Resistance—

Or Cooperation?

By: Dr. Abraham Duker

December 18, 1963


So much has been written and so much more could be written about Hannah Arendt’s book that I shall touch on only a few points.  Dr. Arendt has the reputation of being one of the most brilliant woman writers and scholars.  To this I heartily subscribe, on the basis of my personal contact with her.  However, Dr. Arendt is also what I call an Ipcha Mistavranik, a common phenomenon among intellectuals.  In her case, her search for contradictions is expressed in going to town on a point, sometimes a minor one that lends itself to some obtuse and sensational and therefore presumably brilliant interpretation, in the eyes of half the initiates.

A good example of this is her treatment of the Judenrat, the Councils, established by the Nazis to carry out their orders in the Jewish community.  Dr. Arendt claims that the Jews should not have lent themselves to any organized self-rule under the Nazis or any negotiations which she terms collaboration with them.

Generalizations are easy.  For example, the outstanding Marxist historian of the catastrophe, Arthur Eisenbach, in his first edition of his Hitlerowska Polityka Eksterminacji Zydow (The Hitlerian Policy of Extermination of the Jews in the Years 1939-1945 as One of German Imperialism) (Warsaw 1953), classified the Judenrat as an instrument of Nazi strategy “to force the enemy to destroy itself with its own hands.”  He continues: “Eventually, all demoralized, opportunistic elements in the local bourgeoisie came to cooperate with the Hitlerians.  Similarly, among the Jewish population the Hitlerian authorities captured many Sanacja (Pilsudskiite) leaders bourgeois elements, right-wing Zionists, clericals, whom they exploited as instrument in carrying out their criminal plans.  Out of these fears were recruited agents, informers, and servants of all types.  Eisenbach describes the demoralization of the Judenrat, leaning very much on the characterization of the Warsaw council in its last stage by the martyred historian, Emanuel Ringelblum, his own brother-in-law…

Often, in Poland, the Judenrat began as the continuity of the democratically elected Jewish Community Council.  Some authorities had to deal with the Nazis, and East European Jews, accustomed as they were to self-government in a number of areas naturally continued their councils.  The ghettos had to be fed.

It was much better to recruit forced labor in an orderly manner than to permit the Nazis to kidnap people indiscriminately in the streets.  Dealing with the Nazis was not pleasant, and many Jewish Judenrat leaders were the first to be killed.

I am not asking for complete objectivity in the evaluation of the Hitler holocaust.  Objectivity in such a case is impossible and inhuman.  However, a historian is responsible for thorough research and an evaluation of comparative situations.

This is where Dr. Arendt flunks her test.  Her brilliance achieved at the cost of ignoring facts in favor of easy generalizations is, to judge by public reaction, a source of delight to the escapist Jewish intellectual reader, who can further justify his own escapism by maligning the victims of Nazism and thus weakening his identification with them and the Jewish people…


Personal Culpability in an Evil Society

By: Mr. Lee Taubes

December 18, 1963


One of the most disturbing things about Hannah Arendt’s book - and it contains much that is disturbing - is its subtitle. It is difficult enough to comprehend the vileness, the suffering, the atrocity, but the mind naturally rebels against the combination of the words banality and evil. How can wickedness be insignificant? How can enormity be trivial? In a moral world where every act has a spiritual value, where every deed has repercussions in infinity, where every impulse, good or bad, can affect eternity, surely it is absurd to describe evil as mere banality.

And yet Dr. Arendt is right. The banality that she discusses is not a depreciation of evil but a disparagement of the evil-doers; the proportions of the evil were monstrous, the extent of the misery indescribable, but the perpetrators were mean, their status contemptible, their actions shabby. And it is a symptom of the great disease of our time that such distinctions can actually be made…

Dr. Arendt has been bitterly attacked for showing sympathy to Eichmann and trying to deny his guilt by minimizing his activities and spreading the blame over a larger area. She has done neither. Her “sympathy” was sarcasm, which only the most obtuse reader could fail to recognize, and her “minimizing” of Eichmann’s activities left her completely convinced that he deserved death. What she did accomplish was to focus the issue; her concern was with the banality of evil, the horrible banality incomprehensible to the mind that knows great evil only as a positive, powerful, and sometimes majestic force. She condemns Eichmann unequivocally, but also the world that produced him, a world so devoid of grandeur, of nobility, of meaning, that its greatest crime bears the marks of pettiness and triviality…

The most strenuous attacks on Dr. Arendt resulted from her attempt to show that the cooperation of Jews was an important factor in the effectiveness of the extermination program…Is this theory really so inconceivable? Eichmann and others acknowledged the importance of the various Jewish Councils. [One witness] was accused by an Israeli court of having sold his soul to the devil. When a member of the Jewish Council of Budapest was on the stand, he was stunned by the hatred from the spectators; and the insensitive, even brutal questions that Mr. Hausner (the Prosecutor) asked each witness, “Why did you not resist?” was clearly meant to imply that the victims to some extent cooperated in their own destruction.