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The Eichmann Trial, by Deborah E. Lipstadt

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 25, Numbers 1–2

The Eichmann Trial, by Deborah E. Lipstadt, Schocken Nextbook, 2011, 237 pp.

Reviewed by Sergio I. Minerbi

Deborah E. Lipstadt is a professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. A distinguished historian who has earned international recognition, Lipstadt in 1993 published her famous study, Denying the Holocaust. In turn, British Holocaust denier, David Irving, sued her for libel in London, and “on April 11, 2000, the British Royal High Court of Justice ruled in favor of Lipstadt.” The judge hearing the case, Justice Charles Gray, concluded his verdict by declaring that ‘Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is antisemitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.’ Subsequently, the courts rejected Irving’s appeal.”1

On the fiftieth anniversary of the 1962 Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem, Lipstadt published an historical reexamination of this important document, adding new information which had not been available at the time and providing a retrospective analysis of its significance. The author’s treatment of Hannah Arendt is riveting. Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem; A Report on the Banality of Evil (originally published in 1963) gave rise to the absurd notion that the Jews themselves were largely responsible for the deaths. This proposition is enjoying in certain circles a revival of sorts. The German director Margarethe von Trotta recently produced a film titled “Hanna Arendt,” and Eichmann in Jerusalem has been widely translated and distributed in Europe.

The reader is also informed of Hannah Arendt’s thinking. We are reminded that Arendt told The New Yorker of her discovery that Eichmann was not a monster, but “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” She based the title of her book The Banality of Evil on this epiphany. In the German weekly, Der Spiegel, Elke Schmitter wrote that “Arendt apparently missed the true Eichmann, a fanatical anti-Semite.” The New York Times quotes Prof. David Owen, of the University of Southampton, who wrote, “While Arendt`s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann.” Further contextualizing, Lipstadt reminds us that Arendt was the product of a “highly acculturated upper-class German Jewish family, in which the word Jew was never spoken.”

According to Lipstadt, Arendt’s goals for the Eichmann trial diverged dramatically with the goals of other leading players in Jerusalem: [The] “expectation that the Eichmann trial would illuminate the nature of totalitarianism, put her at immediate odds with both Ben-Gurion and Hausner. She wanted the trial to explicate how these societies succeeded in getting others to do their atrocious biddings, while the prosecution wanted a laserlike focus on Nazi Germany’s wrongs against the Jewish people.”

Lipstadt writes that Arendt considered the trial a Ben-Gurion-orchestrated and Hausner-executed ‘mass meeting’ designed to affirm Zionist ideology.”
The author reminds us of a culturally based negative bias on the part of the German Jews for Ostjuden and the fact that Arendt seemed to have forgotten that “she had Russian grandparents and that her mother spoke German with Russian accent.” Apparently, the discriminatory inclinations were not limited to Russian Jews. We read that Arendt “showed particular contempt for the Israeli police, many of whom were of Middle Eastern origin.” She charged that Zionists “spoke a language not totally different from that of Eichmann.” For her he was a Zionist, and his project for settlement in Madagascar was an evidence of a pro-Zionist policy.

Letters Arendt wrote during the trial, Lipstadt informs us, indicate that she “voiced a personal disdain for Israel that bordered on anti-Semitism and racism,” complaining that in Jerusalem “honest and clean people were at a premium.” Moreover, Arendt’s view “of how the trial should be constructed was as narrow and formalistic as Hausner’s was expansive. She believed the trial should be limited to Eichmann’s deeds, not the suffering of the Jews, not even anti-Semitism and racism.”

Apparently, Arendt also had little patience for the public airing of ways in which the Jews managed their suffering during the Holocaust. Regarding the testimony of Dinur (Ka-Tzetnik), Arendt wrote: “When he arrived at “the unnatural power above Nature” which had sustained him… even Mr. Hausner felt that something had to be done about this “testimony” and very timidly, very politely, interrupted…Whereupon the presiding judge saw his chance as well… In response, the disappointed witness, probably deeply wounded, fainted and answered no more questions” (Lipstadt, pp. 160–1).

Holocaust deniers, evidently, are not the only ones who twist the facts. Arendt wrote, “the majority of Jews found themselves confronted with two enemies- the Nazi authorities and the Jewish authorities.” This is a clear distortion of the facts, as was her definition of Eichmann as a “desk-level bureaucrat who showed little initiative and had few talents.” For Arendt, Eichmann “exemplified the ‘banality of evil’ in which normal bureaucrats were simply unaware of the evil that they were doing.” But here Lipstadt nabs Arendt, noting that she “failed to explain why, if Eichmann was unaware that what he was doing was wrong, he and other Nazi officials labored to destroy the evidence.”

Lipstadt adds that while Arendt “had unlimited admiration for non-Jews who acted heroically, she seemed unable to find any Jewish heroes.” She supported the death penalty imposed upon Eichmann, though she disagreed with the court’s rationale for it. She argued that Eichmann should have been found guilty, not of crimes against the Jewish people but of crimes against humanity.

Arendt reached a crescendo of criticism in her attack against the Jewish councils. Amazingly, in her view, their “pathetic and sordid” behavior was the “darkest chapter” of the Holocaust, darker than the mass shootings and the gas chambers. Left unsaid is the fact that in 1941–42 the Nazis in Ukraine killed between one and two million Jews without involvement of the Jewish councils. Arendt, it seems, chose her targets with care. While she lambasted the Jewish councils in Europe under Nazi occupation, Lipstadt points out that Arendt maintained that Eichmann supported the Zionist project of bringing together Jews in Madagascar. Arendt also “took aim at the Sonderkommandos, those Jews selected to work in the gas chambers”, and she added, with no historical proof, that “the SS chose ‘the criminal elements for the job.’ ” (This reviewer can attest to the falsity of this statement as he had occasion to meet Martino Godelli, a young man from Trieste, who had been assigned to this work in Auschwitz.) Lipstadt punctuates this point with the words of Primo Levi: “No one is authorized to judge them. I would invite anyone who dares pass judgment to… imagine, if he can, that he has lived for month or years in a ghetto, tormented by chronic hunger, fatigue, promiscuity and humiliation.”

Lipstadt found some kinder words for Arendt when she wrote that “though she was castigated as being anti-Israel, she believed that Israel was justified in kidnapping Eichmann”. Arendt even wrote “we abducted him from Argentina, (…) Israel had as much right to sit in judgment on the crimes committed against their people, as the Poles had to judge crimes committed in Poland.” Arendt also articulated what Israel’s critics ignored: “there was no international court to preside, and no other country, Germany included, wanted to host it.” She notes that Arendt condemned the Vatican for its stance in 1944 as it lent its voice to that of others who demanded that Horthy halt the Jewish deportations from Hungary, but stated at the same time that the demand did not derive from compassion. Arendt is also credited by Lipstadt for writing that “the classic excuse [regarding collaborating in evil] ‘I had no option’ was not true.”

Several years ago I delivered a lecture in Haifa on the subject of the Eichmann trial. My talk was repeatedly and vehemently interrupted by a young Italian woman who admitted that Arendt`s was the sole book on the Shoah she had read, but that she had been deeply convinced of its truth value. This reviewer found the young woman’s sympathy for the Arendt perspective suspiciously convenient, as it was the Jews, rather than the Germans or those Italians who cooperated in their killing, who were implicated in their own genocide.

Lipstadt concludes her most interesting book with the words, “Future generations, those who were not there, must remember. And we who were there must tell them.” Lipstadt has done just that, while simultaneously penning a perspective on Arendt that this reviewer found most compelling.


1.   Deborah Dash Moore, “Deborah Lipstadt,” Jewish Women’s Archives