Was Adolf Eichmann a Mediocrity, or a Monster?

Aug. 30 2018

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.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Norman Podhoretz


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount