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Hannah Arendt's Eichmann Controversy as Destabilizing Transatlantic Text

  • Adam J. Sacks (a1)

The controversy surrounding Hannah Arendt's reportage on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and the subsequent book cannot be underestimated. For Arendt personally, the trial was the decisive event in the second half of her life and amounted to nothing less than a second exile. On the world stage, it marked not only a critical turning point in international consciousness of the Holocaust, but also both initiated and reflected a critical shift in intra-Jewish representations and expression. Arendt's book could in fact be considered as a master text for Judaic studies in the second half of the twentieth century. To mention two of many possible consequences, the controversy may be seen as a pivot point from which the culture of the public intellectuals of New York argued itself out of the spotlight, as well as a primary catalyst for two of the most significant works on the Holocaust penned by women: Lucy Davidowicz's The War against the Jews (1975) and Leni Yahil's The Holocaust (1987).

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1. Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Penguin, 2006).

2. “I think the war between me and the Jews is over,” See Letter 394, March 26th, 1966, in Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, Correpondence, 19261969, ed. Kohler, Lotte and Saner, Hans, trans. Kimber, Robert and Kimber, Rita (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992).

3. Syrkin, Marie, “More on Eichmann,” Partisan Review, 31 no. 2 (Spring, 1964): 253–55.

4. Abel, Lionel, “More on Eichmann,” Partisan Review, 31 no. 2 (Spring, 1964): 270–01.

5. The exact term employed by Arendt to illustrate her understanding was the possibility of doing nothing. Quite interesting is that in delivering her explanation in a famous letter to Scholem, Arendt makes one of her very few known recourses to Yiddish: “Es gab keine Möglichkeit des Wiederstandes, aber es gab die Möglichkeit, nichts zu tun. Und um nichts zu tun, brauchte man kein Heiliger zu sein, sondern man brauchte nur zu sagen: ich bin ein poscheter Jude und ich will mehr nicht sein.” (“There was no possibility of resistance, but there was the possibility of doing nothing. And to do nothing, one does not need to be holy, on only needs to say, I am a simple Jew and I don't want to be anything more than that”) see Knott, Marie Luise, ed., Hannah Arendt Gerschom Scholem Der Briefwechsel (Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 2010), 441. Interestingly that later in the letter Arendt actually does employ the English term (underlined in original) “non-participation.”

6. For exceptional and anecdotal defense of Arendt coming from Jewish circles, please see, Syrkin, Marie, The State of the Jews (Washington DC: New Republic Books, 1980), 411.

7. Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973), 290.

8. Aschheim, Steven, ed., Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem (Berkeley: University of California, 2001), 5.

9. Arendt, Hannah, Essays in Understanding 19301954: Formation, Exile and Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken Books, 1994), 12.

10. Just before this statement Scholem, who himself, unlike Arendt, was against the execution of the death sentence upon Eichmann (because he did not want to lighten the burden of the past upon the German people), states that the accent of Arendt's book is only on the point of the weaknesses of the Jews: “In Ihrem Buch ist in allem Entscheidenden nur von dem Punkt der Schwaeche der juedischen Existenz die Rede, gerade wo es um Akzentuierung geht.” Scholem then poses the rhetorical question of why Arendt's book leaves behind such feelings of bitterness and shame not with regards to its contents but rather with regards to the author herself. Scholem's answer is then precisely the question of the tone (which he deems “…herzlose, ja oft geradezu haemische Ton”) which one may maintain is a category with not unimportant gender implications. Also of interest, is that Scholem makes his accusation in the context of a larger anti-leftist statement. It is finally in this context that Scholem makes his rhetorical leap for his key term “Ahabath Israel”:Es gibt in der juedischen Sprache etwas durchaus nicht zu definierendes und voellig konkretes, was die Juden Ahabath Israel nennen, Liebe zu den Juden. Davon ist bei Ihnen, liebe Hannah, wie bei so manche Intellektuellen, die aus der deutschen Linken hervorgegangen sind, nichts zu merken. See Knott, Hannah Arendt Gerschom Scholem, 429. Of note, is that in her letter of response about one month later, not only does Arendt dispute the claim that she “came out of the German left,” but also beseeches Scholem to inform her of the history and origin of this “Ahabath” term. Finally, Arendt actually does not dispute in the slightest Scholem's claim, (with the implication that any kind of collective love is politically problematic) and states that were she to have such love, it would be “suspect.”

11. Sacral core may be understood as a concept related to what Giorgio Agamben has recently termed “the glory,” or the ceremonial and liturgical apparatus, often of divine character that accompanies power. Please see Giorgio Agamben The Kingdom and the Glory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) The classic iteration of this concept has its roots in Durkheim who came to the conclusion that through the “collective” and its rituals individuals worship society itself. See Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Carol Cosman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

12. See Richard I. Cohen, “A Generation's Response to Eichmann in Jerusalem,” in Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem, 258.

13. See Eichmann introduction (5–11, in particular) “…how the Jews had degenerated until they went to their death like sheep, and how only the establishment of a Jewish state enabled Jews to hit back…” Notably, Arendt contrasts the “lessons” Ben-Gurion attached to the trial, to the entirely unforeseen (and unmentioned by Ben-Gurion), yet dramatic outcome that the trial would “trigger the first serious effort made by Germany to bring to trial at least those who were directly implicated in the murder.” (14) Finally in her most clear indictment of the “Hegelian” nature of the trial, on page 19 soon after followed by a direct reference to “an allusion to Hegel and the school of historical law,” Arendt states “For it was history, that, as far as the prosecution was concerned, stood in the center of the trial.” She adds, “This was the tone set by Ben-Gurion and faithfully followed by Mr. Hausner…”

14. Susan Neimann, “Theodicy in Jerusalem,” in Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem, 70.

15. Leon Botstein claims there is an implicit America-Israel contrast running throughout the Eichmann book and that her increasing sense of comfort in America is what made her even more doubtful about Zionism. Overall, Bostein asserts that Arendt found her concept of politics vindicated in the American political tradition, namely that of the flourishing of a “distinctly secular Jewish nation in a democratic Christian Diaspora,” which runs counter to the historical logic of Zionism. Though Bostein remain ambiguous about the precise Christian nature of the American context, others have been more explicit. See, for example, Evans, M. Stanton, The Theme is Freedom: Religion Politics and the American Tradition (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1994), which argues that the unique American attachment to freedom is based on on a morality inseparable from religion. More hyperbolically though evocative, is Norman Mailer's statement after an anti-war march on the Pentagon, “…we are burning the body and blood of Christ in Vietnam. Yes, we are burning him there, and as we do, we destroy the foundation of this Republic, which is its love and trust in Christ.” See Mailer, Norman, The Time of Our Time (New York: Random House, 1998), 1239.

16. See Mazie, Steven V., Israel's Higher Law: Religion and Liberal Democracy in the Jewish State (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2006), Segev, Tom, 1949: The First Israelis (New York: Free Press, 1986) and Gorenberg, Gershom, The Unmaking of Israel (New York: Harper Collins, 2011) all of which discuss at length the history and ramifications of this fateful compromise of Ben-Gurion with the religious sector.

17. Neimann, “Theodicy in Jerusalem,” 81.

18. Neimann, “Theodicy in Jerusalem,” 87.

19. The abyss, as she termed it, created by the “final solution” was not its status as the most extreme or unique manifestation of antisemitism in history, nor for the unprecedented number of victims, but rather for the advent of “‘corpse factories:’…es war wirklich, als ob der Abgrund sich öffnet…Dies hätte nie geschehen dürfen. Und damit meine ich nicht die Zahl der Opfer. Ich meine die Fabrikation der Leichen und so weiter…” Please see “Günther Gauss im Gespräch mit Hannah Arendt” October, 28th, 1964, Rundfunk Berlin Brandenburg.

20. See Mosse, George, German Jews Beyond Judaism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).

21. See Heschel, Susannah, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

22. Syrkin, The State of the Jews, 254.

23. Hermann Broch referred to liberalism in Austria as Gallert-Demokratie or “gelatin democracy,” implying only a liberal veneer. As Michael P. Steinberg helpfully indicates, “The history of Austrian Jewish modernism runs through two, perhaps three generations; the history of German-Jewish Enlightenment and modernism courses through at least double that number” see his Judaism Musical and Unmusical (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 24.

24. On the topic of the complications in finding state forms for the German-speaking world, see Winkler, Heinrich August, Germany: The Long Road West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Conrad, Sebastian, The Quest for the Lost Nation: Writing History in Germany and Japan in the American Century (Berkeley: University of Californa: 2010); or for titles that have themselves become historic, Plessner, Helmuth, Die Verspaetete Nation (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer Verlag, 1966) or Wehler, Hans-Ulrich, Bismarck und der Imperialismus (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1984).

25. See Arendt, Hannah, “Portrait of a Period.” The Jew as Pariah. ed. Feldman, Ron. (New York: Grove Press, 1978), 112–21.

26. See Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: The Viking Press, 1961), 253.

27. See Stefan Zweig and Jews in the World of Yesterday,” in Hannah Arendt: the Jewish Writings, ed. Kohn, Jerome (New York: Schocken, 2007), 317.

28. For the most astute elucidation of this pre-war North/South German (Jewish) divide see the work of Steinberg, Michael P., in particular, “Hannah Arendt and the Cultural Style of the German Jews,” Social Research 74 no. 3 (2007): 879902.

29. Beahr, Peter, “Banality and Cleverness: Eichmann in Jerusalem Revisited,” in Thinking Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics, eds. Berkowitz, Roger, et al. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 139.

30. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 338.

31. Richard J. Bernstein, “Is Evil Banal?: A Misleading Question” in Thinking Dark Times, 131.

32. Omer Bartov, personal communication, November (2009).

33. Please see again the previously cited letter between Arendt and Scholem. Peter Beahr, “Banality and Cleverness,” 139.

34. I would like to thank the invaluable help of Professor Nancy Sinkoff in generating these insights.

35. Brunner, Jose, “Eichmann, Freud and Arendt in Jerusalem: On the Evils of Narcissism and the Pleasures of Thoughtlessness” History and Memory 8 no. 2 (1996): 18.

36. Arendt applied this term only in the version of her account published in The New Yorker. It did not appear in book form. See Cohen, “A Generation's Response, ” 261.

37. See Council of Jews from Germany, eds., Nach dem Eichmann-Prozeß – Zu einere Kontroverse über die Haltung der Juden (New York: Council of Jews from Germany, 1963).

38. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 183.

39. The Eichmann text itself contains numerous references to the popularity of the regime in Germany and abroad and the lack of even a single instance where genocidal non-complicity was punished. See Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 37, 103, 137 where she ironically remarks that “…no secret in the secret-ridden atmosphere of the Hitler regime was better kept than such ‘inward opposition’.” Elsewhere, Arendt draws a parallelism between Jews and the SS, that both had the possibility for non-participation, in particular that the SS members did not have to fear punishment. See Letter 133, Der Briefwechsel.

40. Benhabib, Seyla, “Identity, Perspective and Narrative in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem,” History and Memory 8, no. 2, (1996): 51.

41. Grafton, Anthony, Worlds Made by Worlds: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 279.

42. See Cohen, “A Generation's Response.

43. Grafton, Worlds Made by Worlds, 279.

44. See Yaacov Lozowick. “Malicious Clerks: the Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil” in Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem, 214; and Kohn, ed. Hannah Arendt: the Jewish Writings, 482.

45. Please see Ruth Bettina Birn: “Fifty Years After a Critical Look at the Eichmann Trial,”, also Zertal, Idith, Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 108.

46. Grafton, Worlds Made by Worlds, 280; See also Bernstein, “Is Evil Banal?” 131.

47. On this point one may consult Aschheim, Steven, Brothers and Strangers: the East European Jew in German and German Jewish Consciousness, 18001923 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982) or Boyarin, DanielUnheroic Conduct: the Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

48. Leon Botstein, “Liberating the Pariah: Politics, Jews and Hannah Arendt,” in Thinking Dark Times, 171.

49. Botstein, “Liberating the Pariah,” 94.

50. See Zertal, Israel's Holocaust.

51. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 18.

52. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 267.

53. See Botstein, “Liberating the Pariah,” 174–5.

54. Grafton, Worlds Made by Worlds, 286.

55. See Arendt, Hannah, Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1971).

56. King, Richard and Stone, Dan, eds., Hannah Arendt and the Uses of History: Imperialism, Nation, Race and Genocide (New York: Berghan Books, 2007), 161.

57. Arendt, Hannah and McCarthy, Mary, et al. Im Vertrauen: Briefwechsel 1949–1975 (Munich: Piper, 1995), 233–4, 238–9.

58. Kohn, ed. Hannah Arendt: the Jewish Writings, 511.

59. Kohn, ed. Hannah Arendt: the Jewish Writings, 487.

60. Cohen. “A Generation's Response,” 259.

61. Cohen. “A Generation's Response,” 277.

62. Engel, David, Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 166.

I wish to thank the Center for Jewish History and in particular the archivists at the Leo Baeck Institute and the YIVO Institute. I would like to express my special gratitude to Michael P. Steinberg, Nancy Sinkoff and Xerxes I. P. Malki. I gratefully acknowledge the timely and valuable feedback of Stanley Mirvis and the anonymous readers of the AJS Review.

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