Critical Analysis Of Hannah Arendt’s Book Eichmann In Jerusalem

Hannah Arendt (1906 - 1975) was a political theorist who studied and contributed to the study of power and authority and totalitarianism. Her book Eichmann in Jerusalem studies historical evidence available as well as various testimonies presented in court in order to make an objective study of not only the guilt of one of Nazi Germany's most despicable war criminals but also several aspects of the Holocaust.

This book (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil) focuses on the capture and trial of one of Hitler's most powerful bureaucrats in 1961. The trial was supposed to determine Adolf Eichmann's guilt (or innocence, though the prosecution was definitely not going to offer him any hope of redemption) in crimes committed under Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany. She attempts to study the human nature of the accused, while taking into consideration the state of totalitarianism in Germany at that time. She also raises very pertinent questions regarding the legality of the apprehension of Eichmann and the entire show-trial arranged and managed by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion.

Of trials and show-trials

In the first section of her book, Arendt speaks of the 'House of Justice' - a rather sardonic reference to the court that was attempting to bring to justice, a man that was illegally smuggled out of another sovereign country (page 248) namely, Argentina. She confesses her suspicions that the trial is not merely to judge Eichmann on his crimes in Nazi Germany but rather to showcase to the world the nature of the hatred that had become to popular under the reign of Hitler and the Nazis. In the words of Prime Minister Ben-Gurion 'Let world opinion know this, that not only Nazi Germany was responsible for the destruction of six million Jews in Europe.' 

The real purpose of the trial

Arendt also dwells on the concept of a Jewish Consciousness that she believed Ben-Gurion was trying to evoke (page 5) and answer the question of how 15,000 dare not overpower the few hundred guards at concentration camps. She gives the example of the Dutch Jews of Amsterdam in 1941 and their futile attempt at freedom and the reprisal that awaited anyone that dared to challenge the might of the Nazis. She highlighted that fact that it was only among the young that one could find the sentiment that 'they could not go and be slaughtered like sheep.'

According to Stefanie Brearley, it became more and more evident to Arendt that the trial was attempting to focus not only on Eichmann, but also on the sufferings of millions of Jews during the period between 1930s and the 1940s. It was almost as if the prosecution did not care what punishment Eichmann was given, so long as stories of Jewish suffering were told to the world.

Just another cog in the system?

What is most surprising is Arendt's suggestion that the accused was not merely a mass murderer who hated all Jews but merely a bureaucrat who was following orders of the men he reported to. She maintains this stance for both the Expulsion of the Jews as well as the Concentration and Extermination. She thus tries to imply that Eichmann's moral liability and the actions of the Councils of the Jews that deliberately sacrificed lives during the war must be judged in the same scale of justice that Eichmann was to be judged.

Wolin's claim that Arendt seems to 'blur the lines between victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust' with her banality thesis seems to carry some weight. Her insinuation that 'obedient desk murderers and mindless functionaries assumed pride of place (in the Nazi establishment) is not easy to defend. However, it is important to note that her approach is similar to that of several historians in post-war Germany that preferred the narrative that absolved most of the Nazi echelon like Eichmann of the Anti-Semitic ideology that literally powered the hatred against the Jews and eventually led to the Holocaust.

It is very intriguing to observe how Arendt is visibly taken in by a man who was under direct orders of Heinrich Himmler and who played the indirect role of executioner to millions of Jews under the guise of racial supremacy and creating scapegoats to take the blame for everything that went wrong with Germany before the Nazis came to power.

Her proposition that he was 'merely a cog in Hitler's extermination machine' is extremely dangerous in light of the account of one commandant Rudolf Höss who started that Eichmann once told him that 'the Jewish children needed to be sent first to the gas chambers to ensure the elimination of the Jews as a race.'

Pontius Pilate among the Popes

Arendt makes an important reference to the Conference of the Staatssekretäre (Undersecretaries of State) in January 1942 - also known as the Wannsee Conference. The aim of this conference was to first co-ordinate and then oversee all efforts towards the implementation of the Final Solution. She believes that although Eichmann had done his level best as a bureaucrat to help the Final Solution, 'he still harboured certain doubts about such a bloody solution through violence.' She goes on to describe the elation that Eichmann spoke of when he saw Hitler and Müeller and Heydrich among others of the Nazi echelon vying for the honour of the responsibility of the Final Solution. It was the moment that Eichmann felt free of all guilt - almost as if he were a Pontius Pilate among the Popes of the Third Reich.

The probability of insanity

Eichmann may have been many things, but he was neither a madman, not was he a stupid man. It is difficult to understand how Arendt tries to portray a normal image of the man based on a court psychiatrist's assessment when it was known that the man reported directly to Heydrich and Müeller and devoted 13 years of his career to a fanatically zealous nationalist party that believed firmly in a Jewish conspiracy and pledged their lives to the elimination of all Jews as a solution to the aforementioned 'Jewish threat'. His very own statement in an interview with Willem Sassen that he wished that they had killed 13 million Jews instead of the ones they could get their hands on, he would be satisfied and could say that he had annihilated an enemy. Wolin is right in claiming that these are not the words of a 'desk murderer' but of a convinced Nazi. Was Arendt wrong to have believed Eichmann's flawless performance of a facade of innocence at the trial?

Principles and their contradictions

Arendt seems convinced of the fact that Eichmann was merely acting on the Führer's orders and did whatever he did as a law abiding citizen of the Reich. He was not only obeying orders, but he was also obeying the law. (chapter 8) His insistence on the fact that he had lived his entire life according to the principles of Kant and a Kantian definition of duty was outrageous, according to Arendt because of the fact that Kantian philosophy speaks of 'man's faculty of judgement which rules out blind obedience.'

The real expert on the Jewish Question

A young Eichmann was asked how he felt about the rising Anti-Semitism in the Party he had joined to which he replied with the proverb: 'Nothing is as hot when you eat it as when it is being cooked.' The segregation of the Jews, as Arendt puts it - between Jews and Gentiles, was enacted before 1935 and when Eichmann entered into his role in the Nazi machine, he was, in Arendt's words, the recognized 'expert'. 

His bragging during the trial about his role in the various activities of the Nazi offices and authorities was to be his downfall. Arendt's account of the 'Vienna episode' is a clear example of this. She also hints that Eichmann seemed like he would have preferred to die a war criminal rather than die alone without anyone recognizing his passing. This is evident from her account of his final hours where he rejected the priest and final rites while greeting everyone and telling them they would 'be together soon'. 

A critical examination of the execution

Arendt's account of the conviction of Eichmann and his subsequent execution are not lacking in detail and her description of the reactions of the international community pose several questions to the reader. Was the death penalty truly the best option available to the court? Was the death sentence of one lone man (called 'unimaginative' in certain circles) enough to provide respite to an entire race that was almost subjected to total genocide? By presenting the facts of the case, the argument of the righteousness of the death penalty has been left for the reader to discern. 


Arendt's account of the various irregularities and abnormalities of the trial in Jerusalem and the criticism of various attempts by the Israeli government and judicial system as well as the excesses committed by the Israeli Secret Services and their associates form an important part of the trial and have not been studied in great detail in other accounts of the trial.

This makes Hannah Arendt's report of the trial of Adolf Eichmann one of the only truly comprehensive accounts of what can decisively be called the trial of the 20th century. Her series of reports, that were later compiled into a book are important in the study of human behaviour and the relation between power and authority and necessity for special awareness amongst people dispensing power that they must take responsibility for their own actions. Arendt's interpretive approach formed an important part of the understanding of the trial for most of the Western world and it continues to serve as one of the best surviving accounts of the trial of the last century.

16 December 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now