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Notes from Limmud 2011

Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann Trial: "Self-Hating Jew" or Insightful Analyst?

Deborah Lipstadt

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

Hannah Arendt came to cover the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker magazine. She published a five-part series that was then made into a book: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Banality of Evil. The controversy this book has generated is unparalleled. Hitler's Willing Executioners generated controversy, but it died down; Arendt's book remains controversial.

The contemporary reaction to her work was strongly polarised: "Tasteless", "wicked", "inaccurate", "curiously unfeeling", "gratuitous", "distorting", "arrogant", "half-truths", "sympathetic to Eichmann and filled with claptrap".

On the other hand, Stephen Spender, later Poet Laureate of the USA described it as "brilliant", the then Poet Laureate as "A masterpiece"; "splendid and extraordinary," "the attacks on her were the like of a pogrom," "Jews were critical of Arendt and non-Jews were able to see the bigger picture." On being asked about non-Jews who did not like it, she called them "special cases"; Dwight McDonald called them "honorary Semites".

Her perspective on both the victims and the perpetrators for many people constitutes not just the prism through which the Eichmann trial was refracted but also the Final Solution itself.

Who was Hannah Arendt? A German Jew, the product of a highly acculturated Jewish family. In her home, the word "Jew" was never mentioned. She studied and got her Ph.D. at the Univesity of Heidelberg, on the subject of St. Augustine. She was a student of (and had an affair with) Heidegger. Bernard Wasserstein described her educational career: "She absorbed a view of Jewish history that ends shortly after the Destruction of the Temple and with the rise of Christianity."

When the Nazis came to power she was working for the Zionist organisation [sc. World Zionist Organisation?], but received word towards the end of '33 that because of her work it was possible she was going to be arrested. She fled to Paris, where she worked for Youth Aliya.

In 1940 she was briefly incarcerated, then managed to come to the US under a special visa for intellectuals, artists, etc (having fled without passport or anything).

In the US she worked for Aufbau, the German language Jewish newspaper. She worked for ???Shoggem Press.

Many Zionists felt Jews should have a Jewish Army in World War II. She fought for this, but not as a Zionist: She said you can only defend yourself as the person you are being attacked as. For Jews to fight as Englishmen or [lacuna] would not be defending herself.

After the war she worked for JCR, Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, which worked to find Jewish communal possessions/artefacts from communities that were destroyed and distribute them to other communities.

In 1951 she published The Origins of Totalitarianism. This made her scholarly reputation. "By totally dominating all aspects of a person's life [lacuna] are capable of not only making people capable of horrendous acts but making them essential." [ish—why do speakers always double their speed when they're quoting?]

When in May 1960 Ben Gurion announces Eichmann had "come into Israel's hands" (i.e. not admitting he was captured by the Israelis), and is going to stand triual under the 1950 law against Nazis and their collaborators, Arendt determines that she must be there. For her it becomes an intellectual and personal excursion.

She first approaches Norman ??? the editor of ?? magazine, who turned her down; so she went to the New Yorker, which was edited by William Sean. It was the epitome of the WASP magazine. It had just published a five-part series on African-Americans. Sean maybe thought this would be his next big series.

Arendt wrote to Sean that to be in Jerusalem at the trial is a chance for her not only to validate her theories on totalitarianism, but "an obligation to my past".

From the very outset, she has a very different perspective on how this trial should be from Ben-Gurion and Hausner. For them this act of antisemitism is part of a long chain of antisemitism. As Hausner said in his opening address:

As I stand before you שׁוֹפְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל to lead the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, I do not stand alone. With me at this hour stand six million accusers. But they cannot stand and point at the man in the glass cubicle and say "J'accuse". [...] Their blood cries out but their voices are not heard.

There are references here to the Bible, the Dreyfus affair, Cain and Abel. Later on, he draws parallels to Pharaoh, Haman, etc. This was for him a crime against the Jews.

For Arendt, however, this was a crime against humanity perpetrated on the Jews. For her Eichmann was a participant in a revolutionary new crime rather than being a link in the chain of antisemites.

She also says that Eichmann's trial should be limited simply to what he did. Hausner thought he was the architect of the Final Solution (which he wasn't), so you could bring in any part of the Final Solution. So there were many witnesses at the trial, and many incidents raised, which had nothing to do with Eichmann.

There's also something else further; had this been so it would not have raised such a Sturm und Drang. What unleashed an avalanche of [criticism was that] where others saw intimidation of the Jews, she saw a cooperation if not collaboration. Despite the fact the Germans held all the playing cards, and this was anything but a level playing field, she treated it as such.

Her criticsm began with the Zionists in the pre-war period. The Nazis considered the Zionists decent Jews because they thought in national terms, as the Nazis did.

She's very critical of the Chavurah Agreement, which was not secret at all. It was that Jews in Germany and later in Austria were prevented by the Germans from taking much of what they owned out from Germany (and in time, they could take less and less).

So the WZO reached an agreement with the Germans that a portion of the blocked assets could be used to buy goods that the Yishuv desperately needed—tractors, etc—and when such Jews arrived in Palestine they could get some credit for them. Arendt considered this an act of collaboration, despite the fact the Germans held all the cards.

However, what really earned her such vituperation was her comments on the Judenrat, the "Jewish Councils" the Nazis established as intermediaries between themselves and those in the ghettos. If they needed a thousand workers, the Judenrat decided who, which could mean the difference between life and death. And if they needed a train filled to the death camps, the Judenrat would decide who went on it. Some were more honourable, some less honourable. At the beginning many were filled with the established Jewish leadership. As time went on, many traditional leaders stepped down, so the leadership changed. The Judenrat were [lacuna]

In summary: Chaim Rumkowski, the leader of the Łódź Ghetto, had a strategy, which was to turn the Łódź Ghetto into a money-maker for the Germans, for the SS. The factories and workshops would churn out goods and make the ghetto so valuable to them that they could not afford to destroy it. Hence when the time came to deport, he wuld deport the young and the old and the sick: the people who consumed but did not produce.

At one point he gathreed the Jews in the main square, and said "Fathers and mothers, give me your children. I need to cut off the limbs so that the body can survive. Common sense dictates that those must be saved who can be saved."

Lipstadt was raised to think of Rumkowski as a scumbag, but a survivor of the ghetto said to her, "To me he is a hero: If it hadn't been for him, I would not be alive today."

The Łódź Ghetto was liquidated in August 1944, the was last ghetto to be liquidated. The Russians were across the river; had they moved in faster, there might have been 40–50,000 people still alive, and then Rumkowski might have been regarded as a hero.

Arendt is very angry with Hausner for avoiding the subject of the Judenrat. And Hausner had, deliberately, because he said he wanted this to be a trial of the perpetrators, not the victims, after what happened during the Kasztner affair.

Members of the Judenrat were not the only people she condemned: sonderkommandos, the Jews who worked in the death camps, hurrying people off the train, separating them into men and women, pushing people into the gas chambers, removing things from the bodies, and then after several months they were murdered because they knew too much. Arendt says this is no moral problem because, she says with no proof, the SS chose the criminal elements for this job. She doesn't point out that they were all killed afterwards.

Primo Levi writes, as if he is writing in response to Arendt:

No one is authorised to judge them, not even those who lived through the experience of the camp, and definitely not those who did not. I would invite anone who did to try and imagine as if he [lacuna] had seen die around him one by one his beloved [lacuna] and finally is loaded onto a train, eighty to [lacuna], and is thrown at last inside the walls of an indecipherable inferno.

She is cavalier in her judgement.

She is wrong on so many things. Yechiel De-Nur wrote borderline pornographic novels about the Holocaust, very popular in Israel. He had met Eichmann and was asked to give testimony. He was very nervous, and doesn't eat for four days.

He tried to testify under his nom de plume, and was stopped. He talked about how Auschwitz was another planet and [lacuna], and Hausner tries to stop him, and De Nura goes on, and De Nur collapses.

"He started off as he had done at many of his public appearances with an explanation of his name. [lacuna?] In response the disappointed witness, probably deeply wounded, fainted and gave no more evidence."

Actually he was in a coma for the next two weeks. And she said he knew nothing, when he had actually met Eichmann.

She also had bad things to say about R. Leo Baeck. Baeck had a number of opportunities to leave Berlin, but refused to leave his flock. When the Gestapo came to arrest him in 1942, he wrote a letter to his daughter in London and pays his utility bills, and then is taken to Terezin.

He failed to inform the victims of their fate, and had their arrest organised by Jewish policemen because he assumed they would be more gentle with them, whereas in fact they were more brutal because more was at stake with them.
Leo Baeck was considered in the eyes of both Jews and Gentiles the Jewish Führer.

To call him this was beyond the pale. (And comes close to plagiarism; the term originated in Hillburg's The Destruction of European Jewry, applied to one of Eichmann's men.)

She seems to go easy on Eichmann. She talks about him as a clown, as a puppet, as banal. She doesn't think of what was done as banal, but that Eichmann and his like were no ones. She saw him as what he was then, rather than what he was during the Holocaust itself.

But she also wrote some things which are powerful and different to the portrait above; for example:

For the first time since the year 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, Jews were able to sit in judgement in crinmes committed aginst their persons by others. For the first time they did not not need to appeal to [lacuna] the compromised phraseology of the rights of man [lacuna]

Ben-Gurion could not have stated it more powerfully.

She believed in the rights of man; but if you had the institutions to enforce your laws, you didn't need to depend on waving the banner of the rights of man.

Moreover, when she was subjected to all the attacks afterwards, she was approached by a very anti-Zionist group, and was battered by anyone who was the least bit Zionist. She writes:

You know that I was a Zionist, and the reason I broke with them is [lacuna]. I am not against the State of Israel. I am very much against certain Israeli policies. I know that should catastrophe overtake this Jewish state for whatewer reason, this could be the final catastrophe for the whole Jewish people.
While Israel had to ferret out criminals and murderers from their hiding places, the murderers were [lacuna] flourishing in the public realm. Those few whom West Germany decided to try, received fantastically lenient sentences. When West Germany said relatively few people were Nazis, the opposite was the case.

Hausner would not say that. Ben-Gurion made sure every time he would say "Germany" he said instead "Nazi Germany", because he wanted to make clear that the Germany of the present day was different. He was negotiating with West Germany for arms.

Eichmann claimed to be a tiny cog in the wheel, but if you take out a small cog from a machine, the machine won't work, same as if you had taken out a big cog.

Where she is really out of touch is where he says he is not an anti-semite, he was just following orders.

What's striking is that she is not in the courtroom when Hausner cross-examines Eichmann (though she does read the transcripts). This is the highlight of the trial. Eichmann actually nearly bests Hausner; Hausner flubs many of his arguments.

[lacuna] demonstrates how Eichmann had tracked down thousands of Jews, [lacuna?] but how he goes after individual Jews. He gets a letter from the foreign ministry at one point about a Jew married to an Italian Catholic, and the father-in-law is a member of the [lacuna]. Eichmann immediately has her deported.

Hausner says: All they did was ask, and you immediately had him deported.

She's wrong on that.

When Abba Kovner comes to give his testimony, he does not testify. He stands up and gives the speech he normally gives about the Holocaust. Hausner keeps trying to interrupt him, but he ignores him. Afterwards, ???? excoriated Hausner for this.

Arendt hated this too. However, there is one moment which makes a big impression on her:

Anton Schmidt was a a German sergeant, and as such he supplied Jews with money, with arms, with forged papers, and helped the resistance. When Kovner tried to pay him, he refused. And eventually he was caught and executed.

A hush settled over the courtroom. It was as though the crowd had decided to observe the two minutes silence in honour of Anton Schmidt... A single thought s[?truck me]: How utterly different everything would be today , in Israel, in Europe, in all of the world, if only more such stories could be told.

If there any lessons to be gleaned from the Holocaust, this is the central one.

She contrasted Eichmann's "I had no choice" with Schmidt's behaviour:

Many Germans, perhaps an overheleming manjority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to silently abett their neighbours being deported.

But, God knows, they learned how to resist temptation.

Of the Bulgarians:

Most people [lacuna] The Final Solution could have happened in many places. But it did not happen everywhere.

In conclusion, Hannnah Arendt was a woman who failed to see many things in this trial, mostly due to her own emotional baggage. She [lacuna]

But there are moments, where she captured certain things in this trial.

So she deserves acknowledgement for this, for being more variegated, than she is often recognised as being.

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