Jonathan Cape focuses on how Lyndsey Stonebridge describes the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt’s attempt to understand Adolf Eichmann’s kind of evil, what allowed him to become a key participant in the extermination of six million Jews. The Hannah Arendt Center Virtual Reading Group will begin reading Eichmann in Jerusalem in March. You can view the schedule here. Cape writes:
When Hannah Arendt looked at the man wearing an ill-fitting suit in the bulletproof dock inside a Jerusalem courtroom in 1961, she saw something different from everybody else. The prosecution, writes Lyndsey Stonebridge, ‘saw an ancient crime in modern garb, and portrayed Eichmann as the latest monster in the long history of anti-Semitism who had simply used novel methods to take hatred for Jews to a new level’. Arendt thought otherwise.
Adolf Eichmann was on trial after being captured by Israeli agents in Argentina and brought to Israel to face charges of being a leading organiser of the Holocaust. Arendt was there to report on the trial for the New Yorker. The commission would lead to Arendt’s most famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). Arendt was the ideal woman for the job: she was not just a Jewish refugee who had fled Hitler in 1933, and a philosopher who had studied with and loved the one-time Nazi Martin Heidegger, but also someone who had reinvented herself in America as a journalist and political theorist, and the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, about the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. She was, if anything, overqualified.
But what did Arendt see in Eichmann? Stonebridge tells us that Arendt put on dark glasses in court to shield her eyes, not from the former SS-Obersturmbannführer’s diabolical aura but rather from the TV lights: this was a media event without precedent, beamed live across the world. Eichmann was a mass murderer deludedly vain enough to boast to a court teeming with Holocaust survivors that he had insisted on limiting the number of persons per cattle truck because the conditions were so inhumane. Arendt, relates Stonebridge, was dumbfounded at Eichmann’s ‘lack of moral, social, historical, of human awareness’.
Arendt wrote: ‘The longer one listened to him, the more it became obvious that his inability to speak was closely connected to his inability to think, namely to think from the standpoint of somebody else.’ When Arendt wrote of the banality of evil, the phrase that of all the millions of words she wrote has survived her death in 1975, it was this deficiency she was indicting. ‘Eichmann was not stupid, but rather intelligent,’ she told the historian Joachim Fest. ‘But it was his thickheadedness that was so outrageous, as if speaking to a brick wall. And that was what I actually meant by banality … There’s simply resistance ever to imagine what another person is experiencing.’