Arendt' eichmann' and the politics of remembrance

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On May 11' 1960' Karl Adolph Eichmann' former traveling salesman and chief executioner of the Final Solution' was seized by special forces in a suburb of Buenos Aires. From there he was flown under cover to Israel to face fteen counts of "crimes against the Jewish people' crimes against humanity' and war crimes during the whole period of the Nazi regime and especially during the period of the second world war." The ensuing trial lasted eight months' and on December 5' 1961' he was sentenced to death by a special three-judge panel in the District Court of Jerusalem. In the words of the judges' "[T]he idea of the Final Solution would never have assumed the infernal forms of the flayed skin and tortured flesh of millions of Jews without the fanatical zeal and the unquenchable blood thirst of the appellant and his accomplices." On May 31 of the following year he was hanged and his ashes spread over the Mediterranean.1 From beginning to end the entire episode had been fraught with controversy. The arrest itself was of dubious legal standing-a kidnapping' really-and jurisdictional issues plagued the proceedings throughout. Indeed it was unclear on just what basis an individual could be tried in a country that had not yet existed when his crimes against it were committed. and David Ben-Gurion' who had ordered the capture and prosecution in the rst place' declared that he did "not care what verdict is delivered against Eichmann'" thus making clear his intention to bring the accused to a distinctive and some would say theatrical brand of political justice. Nothing about the trial' however' was to prove so provocative as the role played by a Jewish-American intellectual' refugee' and political theorist who had taken it upon herself to report its proceedings in the pages of the New Yorker. The author of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition' Hannah Arendt was at the time widely regarded as a thinker of stunning originality and insight' and these qualities she unquestionably brought to her task. Once in Jerusalem' Arendt' in the words of Michael Denneny' "received a jolt whose impact was to set the course of her thinking for the next fteen years' for she realized that this trial 'touched upon one of the central moral questions of all time' namely the nature and function of human judgment.' " At the same time' nothing could have prepared her for the onslaught of criticism that followed in the wake of her reports' published shortly thereafter in 1963 as Eichmann in J erusalem: A Repor t on the Banality of Evil.2 The reactions were not all negative. Arendt's friend and correspondent Mary McCarthy thought it "morally exhilarating'" indeed "a paean of transcendence' heavenly music' like that of the nal chorus of Figaro or the Messiah." The poet James Lowell judged it "a masterpiece in rendering the almost unreadably repellent." Lowell insisted that contrary to her critics' he "never felt she was condescending' or hard' or driven by a perverse theory' or by any motive except a heroic desire for truth." Dwight McDonald concluded that the book was "a masterpiece of historical journalism that explained the real horror of Nazi genocide" and admitted that whatever the faults of her analysis' Arendt "tried to learn something from history" and so took "heart in a book like Eichmann in Jerusalem." While disapproving of both the book's "tone and formulation" and its more polemical critics' William Phillips concluded that Eichmann in Jerusalem was a "powerful account of Eichmann's contribution to the nal solution."3 Others' to put it mildly' proved rather less impressed by the work. A review in The Nation claimed that it was little more than a "thin trickle of assertion through a flooded swampland of redundancies'" a book' wrote Klaus Epstein in the Modern Age' "marred by prejudices' special pleading' and attachment to xed ideas." Even her friend Gershom Scholem sadly insisted that it was the "heartless' frequently almost sneering and malicious tone with which these matters' touching the very quick of our life' are treated in your book to which I take exception." Lionel Abel' one of her most vociferous critics' publicly condemned the book for its misapplied "aesthetic" categories' found its argument "strange and shocking'" "perverse and arbitrary'" and nally dismissed the theory underlying it as wholly "invalidated." Indeed' to this day' even such sympathetic readers as Seyla Benhabib concede that Eichmann in Jerusalem "exhibited at times an astonishing lack of perspective' balance of judgment' and judicious expression." 4 That Arendt's "report on the banality of evil" should provoke such disparate' heated' and enduring reactions is noteworthy' certainly' but to those familiar with her work not especially surprising. Virtually every one of her major publications through a career spanning much of the midtwentieth century similarly prompted both criticism and praise' confusion and relief. To acknowledge this fact is to appreciate rst that Arendt represents' among other things' a problem in interpretation: Even her most astute students confess to struggling to decipher just what she means. Bernard Crick notes that readers of Totalitarianism are often "awed' bewildered' and enthralled all at once"; Bikhu Parekh judges the philosophical assumptions at work in The Human Condition "brilliant and valid in some areas but pedestrian and even invalid in others"; while Peter Fuss nds it "[r]ichly textured' astonishingly erudite' and difcult to read." James Miller observes that On Revolution is "a book of paradoxes'" "marked by violent jolts' startling vistas. Shock mingles with surprise'" he writes' "doubt with assent' in a tangled web of response that eludes any comfortable characterization." On receiving the 2000 Hannah Arendt Award Elena Bonner said: "Reading Arendt is frightening even today."5 At least two reasons may account for the challenges Arendt poses to the contemporary reader. One has to do with her resolute but often trying refusal to apply conventional categories and methods derived from disciplinary conventions. As many have observed' Arendt thought in spaces between traditional modes of inquiry' notably political science and political economy. In the words of Melvyn Hill' Arendt "took as her point of departure and her method as a political thinker not the sophistications of behavioral science nor of Marxist dialectics' but simply the perspective of the citizen who views the political world as the realm of freedom needed in order to act with others in matters of common concern." Similarly' Margaret Canovan explains that Arendt's thinking "cannot be categorized according to the accepted labels of 'political science'' 'conceptual analysis'' 'history of ideas'' or 'ideological manifesto.' " "[I]nstead'" writes Canovan' "it evidently purports' in the manner of the classics' to arrive at an understanding of politics which will be true to men's experience of political activity' and which will elucidate the place of politics within human life and the criteria appropriate for making judgments about it."6 A second explanation refers not so much to the singularity of Arendt's approach as to the ways in which she is frequently read' that is' to the habits of reception and interpretation that have shaped our understanding of her thought. So distinctive and formidable have been her major works that they have tended to be taken up as discrete texts; this much is understandable' perhaps' given the labor required to unpack the elusive and unique meaning inhering in each. Recently this tendency has been checked by those who are inclined to see in any given text the imprints and pregurations of others in her works. In any case' some headway may be made against the frustrations of reading Arendt by refusing to interpret her key texts in isolation and assembling' so to speak' companion texts and letting them shed hermeneutic light on each other. Such will be the aim and approach of this essay.7 We are now in the midst of a renaissance in Arendt studies' and that is a very good thing indeed. At the same time it may obscure the fact that with the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem her claim to intellectual preeminence was very nearly extinguished; we need only recollect how quiet was her passing in 1975 to see the apparent damage that work had inflicted on her reputation. In returning to the book' I have no wish to rehabilitate that reputation-beyond my abilities in one case' and not necessary in the other-nor to bury it again-equally foolhardy. I want rather to revisit the text because I think it offers us a fresh way to think through the politics of memory. To do so we need to position Eichmann in Jerusalem strategically between her previous work and the chorus of criticism following its publication. More specically' I hope to show that by placing Eichmann intermediate to The Human Condition and the public reactions it prompted' we arrive at the most illuminating representation of her thought on memory. Read together' these texts lead us to the heart of Arendt's insight about the work of remembrance: That far from being merely nostalgic or retrospective' such work is always and at once new' discursive' and unpredictable. More generally' I suggest that the criticism provoked by Eichmann in Jerusalem may be usefully seen as a dramatic afrmation' however un intended' of Arendt's more theoretical statements on the sources' functions' and ends of memory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFraming Public Memory
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)9780817354909
StatePublished - Dec 1 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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