For such a short book, this took me a very long time to read. There was just so much that I wanted to make sure I understood, that I ended up with bookmarks in every second page and the need to research the context of the trial to really comprehend what was happening.
I picked this up because someone mentioned in passing that Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal, was the inspiration for the phrase ‘the banality of evil’. It was that seeming contradiction that caused me to seek out this book by Hannah Arendt. Arendt was commissioned by The New Yorker to report on Eichmann’s trial in 1963, after he was captured by Mossad in Argentina. This book is the amalgamation of her series of five articles.
Adolf Eichmann is recognised as having been an instrumental facilitator of the Holocaust. It was his organisation of the mass deportation of Jews to both ghettos and concentration camps that marked him as one of the most important figures in the Nazi hierarchy. But despite this, Eichmann maintained through his trial that he was simply following orders, and that anyone would have done as he did.
He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of the period. And if this is ‘banal’ and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.
The one issue I had with this book was that at times I was left without any context from which to understand the trial. At the time it was published, I’m sure this was all immediately understood by followers of the trial, but fifty years on I was occasionally left grasping to understand. That said, Arendt’s language is clear and fresh and she offers insight while remaining objective. The edition I read included a postscript that detailed the reaction to the magazine articles on release, which was understandably pretty strong. Information came out at trial that placed the Jewish leadership in partnership with the Nazis in defining categories of people who would be sacrificed, which obviously caused a major reaction. For me, this was actually one of the most shocking parts of the book, as I certainly wasn’t aware of how cooperative some Jewish leaders were in the destruction of their own people. Arendt also delved into other historical factors that went some way to explaining why there wasn’t a more immediate and panicked reaction to the loss of Jewish rights prior to the war.
I found this an exceptionally insightful book while remaining incredibly human. It really made me consider the nature of “evil” – is it worse that someone is simply termed a monster and thereby broken and different to the rest of us, or is the willing abdication of a personal conscience somehow even worse?