It sounds like a sick joke, I know, but my favorite book (aside from Isaac Babel’s Collected Stories, Walter Morrison translation — out of print) is Hannah Arendt’s readily available masterpiece Eichmann in Jerusalem. I’ve read it several times recently and listened to it a few more, in the beautiful reading by Wanda McCaddon, a reading that makes you feel like you’re listening to the author herself (though with an English accent). It is a book many American fascists, on school boards and state legislatures everywhere, would happily ban, based on how bad it makes their German predecessors, many other Europeans and perhaps also present day American anti-Semites, look, how bad it might make their innocent children feel about themselves. Why should the kids feel the sting of being unfairly judged for an honest belief that 91 year-old George Soros is the source of all evil, head of a global cabal of powerful freedom-hating, Christ-denying, child-blood drinking Jewish monsters. Who are they to judge us?
Listening to, or reading, the thoughts of a brilliant thinker who spoke knowledgeably, calmly, frankly and with wit about an extensive historical and legal record she had mastered, and was attacked for decades for her assessment of a trial she attended and followed closely in the original language, I feel each time I open the book that I’ve entered into an ongoing conversation with a remarkable woman. Nobody in the world was better positioned than Arendt, a refugee from Nazism, to analyze that important trial, which is why she petitioned the New Yorker to send her. In verifying just now that it was that magazine that sent her, the first few search results were present day critiques of Arendt. Still. Some Jews are still furious at Hannah Arendt. I wonder how many of her angry critics have actually read her book.
One uncomfortable fact Arendt establishes throughout the book is the utter ordinariness of Adolf Eichmann. He was as ordinary as someone like Jeffrey Clark, the corrupt DOJ official appointed by Trump who was ready to aid Trump in insurrection by making false claims about a stolen election under the DOJ letterhead, or a poisonous troll like Stephen Miller. Every totalitarian needs an army of dedicated bureaucrats like Eichmann, blindly obedient, ambitious followers willing to do whatever they are told, to the extent of their abilities.
Eichmann, as Arendt shows over and over, was, outside of his undeniable organizational ability, something of a dolt. Arendt translates some of Eichmann’s doomed wrestling matches with the German language and concludes that his inability to speak was an outgrowth of his inability to think. Neither educated nor curious, Eichmann, who bemoaned his bad luck throughout the trial, was, to the end, an unquestioning follower of the Fuhrer. Eichmann was certainly not alone in this, every deranged utterance of Mr. Hitler’s immediately had the full force of German law, some of the best legal minds in the world stayed busy transcribing it all into the law books of The Thousand Year Reich.
Still, during the trial in Jerusalem Eichmann was treated as the mastermind of the Final Solution, and tried before the world in a trial intended to show the massive inhumanity of the Third Reich, in revolting detail, as personified in this powerful Nazi monster. The trial was necessary, and, as Arendt described it, effective in directing world attention to Nazi horrors, but Eichmann was no mastermind of anything but filling the trains with victims and carrying out increasingly insane orders from his bosses. Eichmann, to this day is often portayed as the monstrously evil architect of the plan he energetically carried out (he’s described that way in a current Netflix description of a film about him) although he was simply a monstruously ordinary functionary in a morally inverted order, one of thousands, who did their parts to keep the death machine humming. Eichmann had been the industrious head of shipping.
He deserved to die for his role in the mechanized genocide, as Arendt states with no hesitation, as any reader of the book grasps over and over. If anyone deserves hanging, Eichmann certainly did. A big part of Arendt’s literary “crime” was pointing out that there was an element of theatre to the trial which was compromised if the audience learned that Eichmann could have been, rather than a bloodthirsty mass murderer, any banal, blindly ambitious idiot loyal to any powerful, murderous madman anywhere in the twentieth century (and beyond).
Arendt puts her finger on the true monstrousness of Eichmann — how ubiquitous his ambitious, morally debased type is, and how crucial that type is to the reign of every actual monstrous psychopath who bloodies the chapters of human history with their implacable need to dominate and punish others.
Now that we’ve come to that unthinkable place here, in the United States of America, where derangred lies animate millions, books are banned, burned, whole subjects forbidden from history class, insights from books like Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem take on an urgent relevance to our lives. Critique Arendt’s thoughts on the trial all you want, attack a few salty asides about Zionism all day long, but try disputing this bit, a factual, chillingly calm account of the nauseating brutality of the Rumanians under Antonescu:
This horrified even the Nazis, as Arendt informs us. A large group of disparate Nazi rivals, including Eichmann, intervened to make sure the elimination of Rumanian Jews was done in an orderly, efficient and slightly less vomit-inducing fashion.
Deportation Rumanian style consisted in herding five thousand people into freight cars and letting them die there of suffocation while the train traveled through the countryside without plan or aim for days on end; a favorite follow-up to these killing operations was to expose the corpses in Jewish butcher shops.Hannah Arendt
A truly sickening, somewhat complex sentence. Imagine some kid in that Tennessee county where they just banned the graphic novel, Maus, in which a holocaust (conducted by Nazi cats) is carried out against the powerless Jews (mice), trying to get through that sentence of Arendt’s. How nauseating is the image of suffocated corpses displayed hanging in the windows of butcher shops? And the notion that it was a “favorite follow-up” to the mass killings? Makes you want to vomit, unless you believe the victims only got what they deserved, I suppose.
That sickening image is in the same category, I think, as detailed descriptions of countless ships owned by wealthy entrepreneurs carrying naked human cargo, chained and packed like sardines, from Africa to slave markets in the new world, a lucrative live product with a high death rate crossing the ocean. Equally, horrific, the atrocities of the “Peculiar Institution” for the survivors of the infamous Middle Passage and millions more born into slavery. The grim reality of that is as viscerally upsetting as the hideous practices of the Rumanians, who shocked even the Nazis.
Those who would not be troubled by those atrocious things done by our American ancestors must believe that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, that it was a glorious stand for a cherished way of life, fought over States’ Rights (to keep and torture slaves). And, that it was, and is, strictly States’ Rights to decide who can easily vote and, for a century, who could be lynched for trying to vote.
You hear the same arguments today in justifying the filibuster to protect the core group of angry, frightened Americans who feel truly threatened by the predicted demographic future, as well as by the past, when they may well have behaved in ways, or sat by agreeing with things, might still, in their hearts, embrace things that would justify the just punishment Thomas Jefferson trembled about as he equivocated about the ungodly injustice of slavery.
So, as in anything that can cause shame and a wrenching questioning of core values, the best thing, for many, is denial. It runs deep and it can’t be denied. Just one more reason I love Hannah Arendt, she truly didn’t give a fuck about your denial.