Skip to main content

Adolph Eichmann stands in a protective glass booth flanked by Israeli police during his trial on April 5, 1961 in Jerusalem.

Getty Images

It's an odd footnote to one of history's great horrors that arguably the most controversial and prominent event associated with the Holocaust occurred 16 years after the liberation of the camps. The 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel following his abduction from Argentina by the Mossad was to that time the broadest public airing of the Final Solution's fine details.

Beyond the international broadcast of the trial itself, the subsequent publication of a series of articles in the New Yorker and a book by the esteemed German-American thinker Hannah Arendt ( Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil) had much to do with establishing this event in the public mind as the pre-eminent expression of justice for victims of the Holocaust (more so even than the war crimes trials at Nuremberg).

Still, for Arendt it was something of a two-edged sword. Her writing about the trial mixed rigorous academic analysis with vivid reportage and a penchant for dark irony. For a subject this fraught, hers was a toxic brew and despite the book's obvious sublimity, reactions were sharply polarized. Still the underlying idea captured in the title (yet mentioned only rarely in the book - a measure of its genius) became a sort of totem for the Nazis' coldly industrial mode of genocide.

Story continues below advertisement

Fifty years later we now find formidable historian Deborah Lipstadt weighing in on the Eichmann trial generally and, in the book's penultimate chapter, on Arendt's take specifically. Lipstadt is one of the more powerful figures in the history of Holocaust studies, if only for having taken on historian David Irving. In 2000 she won a British court judgment finding in essence that Irving was a thoroughgoing Holocaust denier, thereby relegating him to the nutbar margins of serious debate. (Irving was no slouch, having at one time counted Christopher Hitchens among his supporters).

Lipstadt is a clear, concise writer and as a result the book is an excellent introduction to the trial and its machinations. It is in many ways a better distillation of events than Arendt's (and at 203 pages of narrative text half the length). Lipstadt does a neat job of incorporating her experience battling Irving and in so doing suggests a connection between Irving and Eichmann. "There is a link between those who perpetrated these horrors and those who deny them … the indispensable element of [both]is a deep-seated Jew hatred."

If there's a single motivating ambition in Lipstadt's research it is to ferret out evidence of anti-Semitism in every utterance emanating from Eichmann or those who might, even in the broadest sense, apologize for him. In the latter instance Lipstadt's target is clearly Arendt.

Lipstadt criticizes Arendt's failure to recognize the extent of Eichmann's ardent anti-Semitism (and more importantly its connection to the entire history of same). Moreover, it is Lipstadt's contention that Arendt is the classic self-loathing Jew. "In her letters from the trial, she voiced a personal disdain for Israel that bordered on anti-Semitism and racism."

All this combines to provide respectable cover for the sort of smug "polite" anti-Semitism that gave rise to the Holocaust in the first place. "Arendt's comments were embraced by theologians, intellectuals and humanists, among others, who welcomed a universal explanation for genocide and freed them from having to grapple with the anti-Semitic legacy of a European culture they extolled." It's this single-minded emphasis on laying the entire burden of cause and effect on the anti-Semitism inherent in European society that leads Lipstadt to, in my view, a distorted view of Arendt.

On rereading Eichmann in Jerusalem I was struck by the extent to which, in reaching for as broad an explanatory pallet as possible, Arendt was always conscious that the moral failing of Nazism and the prosecution of the Final Solution was embedded in anti-Semitism.

It was more than anything Arendt's curiosity that drove her to explore other possible explanations. Moreover, when driven back to the same root cause time after time, Arendt, rather than wallowing in ethnic self-pity, often resorted to black comedy. For instance, she recounts the story of an elderly German woman in East Prussia who tells a local physician toward the end of the war that Hitler will never allow the Germans to fall into the hands of the Russians. " 'The Fuhrer will never permit it. Much sooner he will gas us.' … The story one feels, like most true stories, is incomplete . There should have been one more voice, preferably a female one, which sighing, heavily, replied: 'and now all that good, expensive gas has been wasted on the Jews.' "

Story continues below advertisement

For all Lipstadt's earnest research and rigour one senses that she simply doesn't have a sufficiently refined sensibility to appreciate Arendt's sensitivity to the comic aspect of even this darkest of tragedies.

Douglas Bell writes a blog on Canadian politics for second reading section of the Globe and Mail website.

Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.