Jimmy's Reviews > Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
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's review
Mar 26, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: western-philosophy, european-history
Read in September, 2009

Objective analysis of ethically devastating periods in history often seems less popular than it should be. Surely this applies to the Holocaust more than any other commonly mentioned, or generally well known genocide. As if there were some sort of a priori understanding that these events were undoubtedly exercised by the minds and wills of evil men. There is much truth to that; people rarely argue that it's possible that these people are anything but evil, or at least devoid of any sort of moral restraint. Of course, this is really too general an assessment of bad things happening to really help anyone understand the various circumstances which seem to influence the existence of certain historical tragedies such as the Holocaust. In other words, genocide, or various other crimes against humanity are caused by several different factors. This is part of Arendt's central thesis, or at least applicable to it. She wants not only to understand the psychological motivations for Eichman's actions, but what circumstances lead him to do the things that he did. Which makes Eichman in Jerusalem one of the most controversial statements made on the nature and motivating force behind evil men and their violent actions in the history of writings on the philosophy of ethics. Adolf Eichman, a meek salesman who eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of the Schutzstaffel truly was a perfect subject through which Arendt could examine the nature of evil. Turns out it's actually pretty boring, as we learn that in the end, he was just being a "good soldier", and basically just desired a high-paying job.

Eichman in Jerusalem is in so many ways, a difficult book to analyze. On the whole it's an historical account of the holocaust, particularly the bureaucratic complications that Jewish deportation entailed. She also runs through the trial itself. And at times it's a philosophical treatise on the extent to which the law is truly capable of trying someone for war crimes (especially in the case of the Eichman trial since it was in Israel). Many controversial questions arise. Was this man simply following orders? Why did the Jewish people not rebel in the concentration camps? Was the Holocaust itself, merely the bureaucratic, logical conclusion that came after realizing that deportation of the jews was financially, as well as logistically, impossible?

The Jewish intelligentsia polemically raped Arendt, decrying her as a "self-hating Jewess" and the "Rosa Luxemburg of Nothingness". Several groups of Jewish scholars scrutinized the text for tiny mistakes; the result being a few misspelled names and incorrect dates. The great American novelist Saul Bellow wrote Mr. Sammler's Planet as a direct criticism of Arendt as an example of the gall that certain intellectuals have when analyzing such morally taboo subjects. She lost many of her good friends. And the fact that she once had an affair with Martin Heidegger, a Nazi, and the supreme jackass of continental philosophy, didn't really help her intellectual reputation The question is; is it really necessary to excoriate a woman's moral character simple because she investigated some of the less desirably defined aspects of evil, even going as far as to coin the term the "Banality of Evil". This is all very problematic.

Furthermore, in reading it, it's often difficult to gauge how sympathetic Arendt truly is to a tragedy such as the Holocaust. The tone of her writing is extremely wry and sarcastic. And there is rarely a passage in the book that suggests a deep ethical concern about the plight of the Jews. Still it's ultimately impossible to actually believe that Arendt truly thinks that the Jewish people were meek, willfully walking directly into mass slaughter. She asks questions that, as I've mentioned, are so of off limits when talking about the Holocaust.

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Reading Progress

09/20/2009 page 56
09/25/2009 page 231
74.04% 2 comments
10/04/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Jimmy This should be fun ...

message 2: by Jimmy (last edited Feb 22, 2010 08:01PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jimmy Not exactly finished. I have internet access at home, and am trying to work myself back into writing, and apparently apologetically explaining why I'm especially not trying hard enough. Sheesh, the internet sure makes me neurotic. Also, this is a fucking tough book to review.

message 3: by Nick (new)

Nick Styron uses Eichmann's notion on the banality of evil to drive an important part of the narrative in Sophie's Choice. I thought he did quite well with it, in fact. Read it?

message 4: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Jimmy! You are a wonderful writer. I mean that. Very impressive review.

Jimmy Thanks, Stephen. It's sort of haphazzard. I read this book back in September, and even immediately after finishing I was at a loss in adequately explaining it. My analytical apprehensiveness was in no small way influenced by the realization of just how vague Arendt's ethical agenda seems throughout most of the book.

In the end though, I just have this gut-feeling that it should be defended for its intellectual audacity as how perfectly written it is. And as a character study of Eichman, it feels dead on and completely believable.

message 6: by Stephen (new)

Stephen She was tackling a very, very tough subject, too. Imagine the nerve it took to ask the questions she asked! I think she knew it was going to cost her.

Jimmy Agreed.

Dave Russell I didn't realize that about Mr. Sammler's Planet.

message 9: by Stephen (new)

Stephen I'm learning that Jimmy is a deep, and interesting man.

Jimmy Dave wrote: "I didn't realize that about Mr. Sammler's Planet."


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