Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Eichmann in Jerusalem

Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil is Hannah Arendt's interpretation and analysis of the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, Nazi bigwig, for crimes against Humanity, war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people, etc. The case was sensational and notable because it took place nearly two decades after the Nuremberg Trials, because Israel had kidnapped Eichamann from Argentina in order to try him, because the trial was in several respects without legal precedent, and because Eichmann himself was terrifyingly both a mass murderer of inconceivable scale and also quite clearly an Everyman.

To cut to the chase, the trial lasted about half a year and found Eichmann guilty of several mortal crimes. The appeal was comparatively brief and found him even more guilty, and Eichmann was swiftly executed.

Eichmann in Jerusalem is extremely difficult to reduce:

Firstly it's a significantly technically involved work: If The Oxbow Incident can be considered a mature introduction to the concepts of Justice, Jurisprudence, and Due Process, then E. in J. could be a doctoral thesis on those topics. Many of the significant things Arendt has to say here approach meaningless in reduction, but unfortunately they're significant nonetheless.

Secondly it deals with what i think is probably the most emotionally entrenched and charged material i've yet encountered; it's pretty much impossible to have a discussion about some of its topics unless the other person has also read the book, and even then. Part of this is definitely due to my own emotional entrenchments and flimsy grasp of history.

So i'm going to aim even lower than a Cliff's Notes, and just summarize a few things about the book.

For starters, Arendt's prose voice is abysmal. I'm a big fan of long and convoluted sentences, but i realize now that i've been spoiled by certain authors who lack a flair for utter butchery. I was extremely close to disowning readership of this book within the first chapter, but fortunately Sarah encouraged me to persevere. The following gives you an idea of what the reader is up against. This is straight quoting:
... The basic idea that made all this possible was of course not his but, almost certainly, a specific directive by Heydrich, who had sent him to Vienna in the first place. (Eichmann was vague on the question of authorship, which he claimed, however, by implication; the Israeli authorities, on the other hand, bound [as Yad Vashem's Bulletin put it] to the fantastic "thesis of the all-inclusive responsibility of Adolf Eichmann" and the even more fantastic "supposition that one [i.e., his] mind was behind it all," helped him considerably in his efforts to deck himself in borrowed plumes, for which he had in any case a great inclination.) The idea, as explained by Heydrich in a conference with Göring on the morning of the Kristallnacht, was ...

- As my eleventh grade english teacher Ron Lowe would have written in red: "Huh?". However, Arendt is nothing if not intentional, and altho you may have to read most passages four times, they're usually worth the effort.

Regarding actual content, Arendt said many things which gave me pause, but as mentioned, most of them are far too complex [for me] to reduce or simplify without gross distortion. One question which she does not actually directly present but which occurred to me in the reading is disarmingly simple: why did the Nazis want to exterminate the Jews ? I typically have found it useful to analyze most conflicts and exercises of power in economical terms: where is the money ? Asking this question usually provides digestible answers. The Mexican American War, the American Civil War, The American War of Independence (if you're a Zinn subscriber), obviously the various American - Persian Gulf Wars, the CIA-backed Iranian Coup of the 60s, the Crusades, Colonialism, et the list goes on. In general, large-scale exercises of power have a dollar-sign on one side of them. But i'm having difficulty finding the money behind the policy of extermination of the Jews. The disenfranchising of the Jews: obviously; there's money there. The deportation of the Jews concomitant with the confiscation of their property: obviously; there's money there. But pretty early in the course of the holocaust the policy switched from getting the Jews out of Germany to keeping them in and killing them; and further than that, to actually importing them and killing them. These incredibly mass transportations of people required vast expenditures of energy and money on the part of the German government. Since Jews had already been deprived of their property and were struggling to leave the country, where was the economic gain in collecting & killing them ? Unfortunately i'm coming to the conclusion that there wasn't one, that the collection and killing were not economically motivated. The motivational void left by the absence of economics is what is chiefly terrifying me about Arendt's summary of the haulocaust. The alternative seems to be hatred, but i'm loathe to ascribe mere emotion as the motivating force behind such huge actions.

So i'm stuck in that department. Probably i just need to become more cynical.

The other huge uncomfortable take-away i got from Eichmann in Jerusalem is even more difficult to talk about: the notion of Jewish complicity.

Because i know i can't approach a proper treatment, i'm going to make this brief and crude, again just sampling things from the book. to wit, When making an area judenrein ("free of jews"), the nazis regularly relied on and received the assistance of the leaders of the jewish community. This is, i think, most commonly explained as the leaders attempting to minimize the destruction which they knew was impending. But i found it disturbing and uncomfortable that this apparently well-known item of history was, well, so unknown. Certainly i'd never heard a whisper.

Apologies for the length of the following quote. This is the bulk of page 118:

In Amsterdam as in Warsaw, in Berlin as in Budapest, Jewish officials could be trusted to compile the lists of persons and of their property, to secure money from the deportees to defray the expenses of their deportation and extermination, to keep track of vacated apartments, to supply police forces to help seize Jews and get them on trains, until, as a last gesture, they handed over the assets of the Jewish community in good order for final confiscation. They distrubuted the Yellow Star badges, and sometimes, as in Warsaw, "the sale of the armbands became a regular business; there were ordinary armbands of cloth and fancy plastic armbands which were washable." In the Nazi-inspired, but not Nazi-dictated, manifestoes they issued, we still can sense how they enjoyed their new power - "The Central Jewish Council has been granted the right of absolute disposal over all Jewish spiritual and material wealth* and over all Jewish manpower," as the first announcement of the Budapest Council phrased it. We know how the Jewish officials felt when they became instruments of murder - like captains "whose ships were about to sink and who succeeded in bringing them safe to port by casting overboard a great part of their precious cargo"; like saviors who "with a hundred victims save a thousand people, with a thousand ten thousand." The truth was even more gruesome. Dr. Kastner, in Hungary, for instance, saved exactly 1,684 people with approximately 476,000 victims. In order not to leave the selection to "blind fate," "truly holy principles" were needed "as the guiding force of the weak human hand which puts down on paper the name of the unknown person and with this decides his life or death." And whom did these "holy principles" single out for salvation ? Those "who had worked all their lives for the zibur [community]" - i.e., the functionaries - and the "most prominent Jews," as Kastner says in his report.

* what is "spiritual wealth", and how does one dispose of it ?

So that's obviously troubling stuff.

Every time i learn more about the Holocaust, fewer and fewer groups seem to emerge untarnished. If you're interested in losing a bit more faith in humanity, i can't recommend Eichmann in Jerusalem enough. Indeed, a report on the banality of evil.


Post a Comment

<< Home