Thursday, 6 March 2008

Review: Eichmann and the Holocaust by Hannah Arendt

Eichmann and the Holocaust
This is the third book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 40 in the list (the last one!!) and part of series two (the blue series).

Hannah Arendt was a German (and Jewish) political theorist (not philospher), who fled both Germany and then France before travelling to the United States during World War II. Like both of the 'great ideas' I had read before this, 'Eichmann and the Holocaust' is not an original work in itself. Instead it provides excerpts of Arendt's commentary on Nazi Adolph Eichmann's trial, first printed in the New Yorker and then published as Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963.

For me the book suffered from a lack of context. Arendt is reporting on current events and she assumes her reader is familiar with the Eichmann trial and also the actions Eichmann carried out as part of the Final Solution. Whether this would be less of a problem in Eichmann in Jerusalem is hard to tell, but either way it's this is hardly Arendt's fault. Instead blame should probably be laid at Penguin's feet for the way it has packaged the book - or at mine for being not well-enough informed...

Still, there is much of interest in this book. Arendt's arguments are razor sharp and her description of Eichamnn as an arrogant but thick-headed dolt, and his embodiment of the 'banality of evil' is very thought provoking. Perhaps even more thought provoking, however, was her criticisms of prominent members of the Jewish community, who also cooperated with Nazi Germany and justified sacrificing 'less worthy Jews' as a means of saving others (when in fact very few Jews were saved by their actions in comparison to the thousands who died) . Arendt also criticises Israel for holding the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, argued that holding the trial in a more impartial state would have led more credence to the final judgement.

Despite her criticims, Arendt concludes her book:

'And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations - as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world - we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.'

Perhaps the best part of this book is the final postcript, in which Arendt answers criticisms leveled at Eichmann in Jerusalem, particularly for her attitudes towards Israel and those Jews who colluded with the Nazis. Because it was written 'after the fact', Arendt's summary of what she has previously written is clearer and more consise than the previous excerpts and I was very glad it was included in the book.

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