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Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: The Public, the Private and Evil

  • Shiraz Dossa

Since its publication, Eichmann in Jerusalem has provoked a storm of controversy. With a few exceptions, critics reacted to the substance of Arendt's thesis with considerable bitterness and hostility. This article argues that her detractors badly misunderstood Arendt because they were insufficiently conversant with, or unaware of, her political theory. Fundamental to this theory, articulated at length in her The Human Condition, is the crucial distinction between the public and the private. None of her critics, including those who sympathized with Arendt, have understood that her critical analysis of Eichmann's conduct and of the response of the Jewish leadership to the tragic fate that befell their people makes sense on the peculiar terrain of her political theory and particularly in terms of the public-private distinction which lies at the core of this theory.

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1 Syrian, Marie, “Hannah Arendt: The Clothes of the Empress,” Dissent, 10, (1963), 344–52;Abel, Lionel, “The Aesthetics of Evil,” Partisan Review, 30, (1963), 211–30;Ezorsky, Gertrude, “Hannah Arendt Against the Facts,” New Politics, 2, (1963), 5373;Podhoretz, Norman, “Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A Study in the Perversity of Brilliance” in Doings and Undoings (New York, 1964), pp. 335–53; Gershom Scholem in his letter to Arendt reprinted in The Jew as Pariah, ed. Feldman, Ron H. (New York, 1978), pp. 240–45. This is also the view of Whitfield, Stephen J. in his recent book, Into the Dark: Hannah Arendt and Totalitarianism (Philadelphia, 1980), chaps. 6–7.

2 Arendt, , Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York, 1965), pp. 118–25.

3 Each of the writers, cited in footnote 1 above, committed some of these errors.

4 Arendt, , The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, 1958), pp. 57.

5 Mary McCarthy also thought this was the main reason. She likened Arendt to “somebody who criticizes at a funeral,” in her fine essay on the controversy “The Hue and Cry,” in The Writing on the Wall (New York, 1970), pp. 58, 68.

6 “Arendt's Eichmann and Jewish Identity” in For a New America, ed. Weinstein, James and Eakins, David W. (New York, 1970), pp. 424–25.

7 12 April 1963.

8 Arendt, , Jew as Pariah, pp. 241, 245; for Arendt's view see her “Zionism Reconsidered” in this collection, pp. 131–63.

9 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1965).

10 See Walter Laqueur's favorable review in Arendt, , Jew as Pariah, pp. 252–59. For all his admiration for Robinson's book, he felt compelled to say that Robinson never confronts the real substantive issues.

11 (Chicago, 1961).

12 Arendt, , Eichmann, p. 282.

13 Podhoretz, , “Hannah Arendt,” Doings and Undoings, p. 337. This is one of the more intelligent and rational responses to Eichmann in Jerusalem. In his recent memoir, Breaking Ranks (New York, 1979), Podhoretz has shed more light on his reasons for writing his essay (pp. 161–63).

14 Arendt, , The Human Condition (New York, 1959), especially part 2.

15 For instance, see Arendt, , Crises of the Republic (New York, 1972), p. 64;Arendt, , Human Condition, p. 63;Arendt, , Origins, p. 336.

16 Her essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture,” Social Research, Autumn 1971, pp. 417–46, is a cautious, learned and aporetic exploration of this issue.

17 Arendt, , “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” p. 438.

18 Arendt, , Human Condition, p. 217;Arendt, , Eichmann, p. 279.

19 Arendt, , Between Past and Future (New York, 1968), p. 45.

20 Arendt, , Eichmann, pp. 5051.

22 Melville, Herman, Billy Budd (New York, 1961), p. 37.

23 Arendt, , Eichmann, pp. 26 and 30.

24 Ibid., p. 54.

25 This in essence is the view shared, among others, by Marie Syrkin, Gershom Scholem, Lionel Abel and Gertrude Ezorsky. See Footnote 1 above.

26 “On Misunderstanding Eichmann,” Encounter, November 1961, pp. 3237;Tragedy and Philosophy (New York, 1969), p. 383;New York Review of Books, 13 May 1976, p. 6, respectively.

27 Act and the Actor (New York, 1970), pp. 170–97.

28 Bruno Bettelheim was also struck by this incongruity and he agreed with the substance of her thesis. See his essay in Surviving (New York, 1980), pp. 258–73.

29 Arendt, , Eichmann, p. 276.

30 Ibid., pp. 31–33.

31 Ibid., p. 287.

32 See Arendt's concentrated and arresting analysis of the real nature of Hobbes's political theory in Origins, pp. 139–47.

33 Locke, , Two Treatises (New York, 1963), Second—sections 131, 133, 134, passim.

34 Arendt, , Eichmann, p. 287.

35 Arendt, , Origins, p. 338.

36 Arendt, , Crises, p. 71 (fn. 35);Arendt, , Eichmann, p. 105.

37 Cropsey, Joseph, “The United States as Regime” in Political Philosophy and the Issues of Politics (Chicago, 1977), p. 5.

38 Arendt, , “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility” in Guilt, Man and Society, ed. Smith, Roger W. (New York, 1971), pp. 255–67.

39 Arendt, , Eichmann, p. 25.

40 Ibid., p. 26.

41 Ibid., p. 96.

42 Ibid., p. 137; cf. also pp. 134–36.

43 All that is required of the citizen, and this is true also of liberal-democratic politics, is that he obey the rule of law and the rule of superior orders in a legally constituted state. Liberalism of both the Hobbesian and Lockean variety steadfastly insists on the separation of politics and morality in its definition of citizenship.

44 Arendt, , Human Condition, section 33;Arendt, , Crises, pp. 60, 64, 84, 92.

45 This point is related to Arendt's primary thesis that Eichmann's besetting fault was “sheer thoughtlessness.”

46 Arendt, , Eichmann, p. 116.

47 Ibid., pp. 103 and 108.

48 Ibid., pp. 103–104.

49 This view is implicit in her thought. For example, see Origins, pp. 316, 350–53, 437–52; Human Condition, chaps. 24, 26, passim.

50 Arendt, , Eichmann, p. 279.

51 Ibid., p. 125, passim.

52 Ibid., pp. 11–12, and p. 283; see also Arendt, , Jew as Pariah, pp. 260–61.Shklar, Judith N. has seen fit to repeat this false charge in her article “Hannah Arendt as Pariah,” Partisan Review, 50 (1983), 75.

53 Arendt, , Jew as Pariah, pp. 248–49.

54 Arendt, , Eichmann, p. 125.

55 “The Hue and Cry,” Writing on the Wall, p. 59.

56 The intense controversy surrounding this claim is beyond the scope of this essay: it can be studied in the essays, cited earlier, by Syrkin, Abel, Ezorsky, in Scholem's letter and in Robinson's book. Fruchter's essay, also cited earlier, is an excellent piece of analysis in support of Arendt's conclusion. See footnotes 1 and 6 above.

57 (New York, 1978), p. 70.

58 Bettelheim, Bruno, “The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank,” in Surviving, p. 254; cf. Arendt, , Jew as Pariah, pp. 56, 6162.

59 This theme runs right through Eichmann; see also Jew as Pariah, pp. 232–34 and Origins, p. 338.

60 Arendt, , Eichmann, chap. 7, especially pp. 117–25.

61 Ibid., p. 279.

62 Ibid., p. 49.

63 This view is also to be found in Arendt, , On Revolution (New York, 1965), pp. 27, 256–57.Bakan, M. takes a different view: see her essay “Hannah Arendt's Concepts of Labor and Work” in Hannah Arendt, ed. Hill, M. (New York, 1979), p. 61.

64 Arendt, , Eichmann, p. 279.

65 For example, Bell, Daniel, “The Alphabet of Justice,” Partisan Review, 30 (1963), 428–29;Macdonald, Dwight in his letter, Partisan Review, 31 (1964), 267.

66 For a critical discussion see my essay Human Status and Politics: Hannah Arendt on the Holocaust,” Canadian Journal of Political Science (06 1980), pp. 309323.

67 Arendt, , Human Condition, pp. 33, 35, 38, 5355, passim.

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