Hannah Arendt, a German-born American political theorist who escaped from Germany in her youth, was uniquely qualified to comment on the trials of the notorious Eichmann. Eichmann In Jerusalem—A Report on the Banality of Evil is the result of a synthesis of journalism reports on Eichmann's trial in the 1960s. Eichmann, a high-ranking official of the SS, was accused of being the logistical mastermind behind the Nazi's systematic genocide of the Jewish people in the 1930s and 40s. Writing for the New Yorker, Arendt spent her time in Israel covering the trial before returning to America to shape her thoughts into the book we know today.
Arendt spends the first two chapters painting the picture of the cultural context in Israel at the time of the trial, outlining the tone of the courtroom, and introducing personalities critical to the narrative. The first speaks mainly of the context, the second, of Eichmann himself. The third chapter marks the beginning of her true coverage over the issues.
Central to the book is the question and analysis of Eichmann's nature. The subtitle, A Report on the Banality of Evil, summarizes Arendt's thesis. Eichmann, she argues, is not a sociopath—not a monster. Arendt, taking Eichmann's act of posturing and demeanor throughout the trial as evidence, notes that Eichmann is in fact wholly unexceptional. She claims that Eichmann is not, in any sense of the word, a fanatic or sociopathic monster. Rather, he is extremely banal. Relying on cliches and jaded axioms to defend himself, he claims no true passion for anything. It is this banality that Arendt identifies as the essence of Eichmann's character.
This banality of Eichmann's character opens up into a larger discussion of human nature. Characterizing Eichmann as a "joiner," Arendt notes, "Kaltenbrunner had said to him: Why not join the S.S.? And he had replied, Why not? That was how it happened, and that was about all there was to it" (33). Through her analysis of Eichmann, Arendt boils down the tragedy of the Holocaust to the thoughts of men who carried no concern for their actions. This radical characterization of banality runs centrally throughout the book. Further analyzing Eichmann, Arendt explains that Eichmann was never very intelligent or successful for most of his life. Describing a point in his early life, she writes, "he was now about twenty-two years old and without any prospects for a career; the only thing he had learned, perhaps, was how to sell" (29). Eichmann was, in essence, an "average man," one who did not question the things around him and simply did as he was told. Does this, Arendt wonders, mean that the capacity for this horrifying evil is itself part of our "average" human nature?
It is Eichmann's responses to questioning at the trial that, Arendt argues, are most revealing of the horrifying banality of his crimes, and that most strongly indict the broader social context that made Nazism possible. Early in the trial, Eichmann resorts to trivial responses in defense of his action: "He did his duty, as he told the police and the court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law" (135). He goes so far as to claim that "he had lived his whole life according to Kant's moral precepts, and especially according to a Kantian definition of duty" (136). These claims landed on the ears of many as outlandish and without ground. The utterly gross thing, according to most who were present, was the apparent sincerity with which Eichmann conducted himself. This sincerity and blandness characterize not only Eichmann but also the whole of the Nazi population in Arendt's analysis. Arendt, stepping outside of her role as a simple journalist, provides occasional responses to Eichmann. Commenting on Eichmann's claims to be living according to the Enlightenment philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Arendt argues, "This was outrageous, on the face of it, and also incomprehensible since Kant's moral philosophy is so closely bound up with man's faculty of judgment, which rules out blind obedience" (136).
Eichmann in Jerusalem provides both a shocking and unsettling account as well as an enlightening and invigorating narrative of one of history's most egregious crimes. Uniquely qualified to comment and cover on Eichmann's trial, Arendt brings new light to a commonly-covered subject.