In 1960, the Mossad identified Adolf Eichmann—the SS official charged with overseeing the extermination of the Jews, who was then living under an assumed identity in Argentina—kidnapped him, and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial for his crimes. The philosopher Hannah Arendt, herself a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, covered the trial for the New Yorker, and the series of essays she produced became Eichmann in Jerusalem, which remains one of the most influential books on the Holocaust. Reviewing the book in Commentary in 1963, Norman Podhoretz dissected its central argument that Eichmann was the exemplar of what Arendt called “the banality of evil”—not a monster, but a faceless bureaucrat. Podhoretz’s conclusions, now supported by extensive historical evidence that has come to light in the past two decades, is worth considering as the film Operation Finale puts Eichmann on the silver screen.
[Arendt] says plainly in the closing chapter that [Eichmann] was guilty of participation in mass murder and deserved to hang. What she does do, however, is accept Eichmann’s account of himself and of his role in the Final Solution as largely true. In some sense, [Arendt claims], he was not an anti-Semite; and the degree of his responsibility for the murder of the six million, while sufficient to hang him, was relatively insignificant, and certainly nowhere near what the prosecution claimed. By building Eichmann up into a fiendish Jew-hater and a major Nazi figure, Miss Arendt believes, the prosecution missed the whole point of his crimes, of the system which made them possible, and of the lessons to be drawn for the future.
Taking Eichmann pretty much at his own word, then (except when his own word conflicts with her reading of his character), Miss Arendt treats us to a genuinely brilliant portrait of the mind of a middle-echelon Nazi and, by extension, of the world that produced him and gave him the power to do the things he did. And around this theme of Eichmann’s “banality,” other themes gather: the almost universal complicity of Christian Europe, and especially of the German people, in Nazism (for in diminishing Eichmann’s personal responsibility for the Final Solution, she enlarges the area of European responsibility in general); and the almost total consequent unwillingness of the Federal Republic [of Germany] to prosecute and mete out adequate punishment to Nazi war criminals still at large and in many cases flourishing. . . .
The brilliance of Miss Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann could hardly be disputed by any disinterested reader. But at the same time, there could hardly be a more telling example than this section of her book of the intellectual perversity that can result from the pursuit of brilliance by a mind infatuated with its own agility and bent on generating dazzle. The man around the corner who makes ugly cracks about the Jews is an anti-Semite, but not Adolf Eichmann, who sent several million Jews to their death: that would be uninteresting and would tell us nothing about the Nature of Totalitarianism. Similarly, the behavior of the Jewish leaders under the Nazis, [whom Arendt accuses of complicity], was “extraordinary,” but Adolf Eichmann was ordinary, even unto banality; otherwise, he tells us nothing about the Nature of Totalitarianism. . . .
But what about his famous statement that he would die happy because he had sent five million “enemies of the Reich” to their graves? “Sheer rodomontade,” sheer braggery—to believe it is to learn nothing about the Nature of Totalitarianism. And his decision to carry on with the deportations from Hungary in direct defiance of Himmler’s order that they be stopped? A perfect example of the very idealism that teaches us so much about the Nature of Totalitarianism.
No. It finally refuses to wash; it finally violates everything we know about the Nature of Man, and therefore the Nature of Totalitarianism must go hang. For uninteresting though it may be to say so, no person could have joined the Nazi party, let alone the SS, who was not at the very least a vicious anti-Semite; to believe otherwise is to learn nothing about the nature of anti-Semitism. Uninteresting though it may be to say so, no person of conscience could have participated knowingly in mass murder: to believe otherwise is to learn nothing about the nature of conscience. And uninteresting though it may be to say so, no banality of a man could have done so hugely evil a job so well; to believe otherwise is to learn nothing about the nature of evil.