Book Review

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt

another entry where i get weirdly pro death penalty

Written 22nd October

Fuck, man, the fucking Holocaust.

That sounds insincere, but it’s not.

It was repeatedly the sentiment I found myself reaching for as I read through this powerful non-fiction book adapted – as so many non-fiction books transpire to be – from a series of New Yorker articles.

The thing about the Holocaust that we forget – that those massive massive massive numbers numbers numbers

No it’s not the numbers we forget nor the fact that the numbers were all individuals that we forget it isn’t this tho sometimes it feels like it’s this

What we forget is how fucking recently it happened.

Like, this was one lifetime ago.

Though none of my grandparents were old enough to be active participants in the Second World War, my great grandparents would have been.

I only know about some of them (and only on my mum’s side of the family) and one was a gamekeeper who test-drove tanks or something and on the other side they were in a thruple so likely busy and war-averse, living some kind of rural hippie love fest. The gamekeeper’s sister-in-law, my nan’s aunt (who died very very old towards the end of my teens so I remember her quite well) was a paramedic in London in the blitz and her whole life seemed to stall forever as a result of whatever trauma she experienced during the bombings. She died in the house where she was born, which is the exact opposite death promised by the twentieth century.

I mean this is fucking facile. Sorry.

Eichmann in Jerusalem is not facile.

Hannah Arendt’s long-feeling 300 page essay was originally published in the New Yorker, and its subtitle “A Report on the Banality of Evil” sums up its tone and its messaging very astutely.

Adolf Eichmann – if you don’t know, as I didn’t – is THE Nazi war criminal who Mossad kidnapped from Argentina and put on a months-long Nuremberg Trials sequel in Jerusalem in 1961 before executing him.

Eichmann was a significant – though not quite major – player in the second tier of the Nazi leadership. He wasn’t a politician, he wasn’t a charmer or a schemer, he didn’t have a lifetime of anti-Semitism behind him, he wasn’t an ideas man and he was not a mastermind.

Eichmann was a competent middle manager: he was reasonably good at getting things done, he was ambitious out of proportion to his talents and – this one the most crucial thing – didn’t really give even the smidgen of a fuck about other people when he had the opportunity to make himself look good to his “superiors”.

Eichmann was tasked with ensuring something happened that was essential to the realisation of genocide, and Eichmann – committed “company man” that he was (he joined the Nazi party when his application to the Freemasons was rejected) – followed his orders and completed his task. Eichmann was the person responsible for making sure the transportation of people from across Nazi-controlled Europe to purpose-built death camps ran smoothly, efficiently and without interruption.

Mussolini famously made the Italian trains run on time. Adolf Eichmann made the trains to Auschwitz run on time. 

In the book, Arendt wrestles with the ethical justification of executing Eichmann, and in his testimonies etc, Eichmann tries to defend himself by saying that he was only doing what he was told, only doing what was “normal” in the context, only trying to be a successful little Nazi and achieve the tasks he was set by other Nazis.

Yes, if Eichmann hadn’t organised the mass transportation of victims to murder sites, someone else likely would have done so. But then that person would have been responsible for those deaths, as Eichmann was because he did it.

Eichmann was an essential cog in an indefensible machine, but he wasn’t literally a cog, he was literally a human, able to decide whether or not his actions were right or wrong, and he knew what he was doing and he continued to fucking do it.

Executing Eichmann was necessary, not just as a pharmakos (a ritualistic sacrifice to purify the masses), but because keeping an enemy locked in a cage for decades until they die naturally is hard to ethically justify. Life imprisonment is cruelty, too: a prolonged, torturous, cruelty, and the righteous/rightful anger felt towards Eichmann had to be confronted and dealt with, and state-sanctioned execution is the purging mob justice that, sometimes, society requires.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll return to my new, strange, opinion regarding execution as a lesser evil than life imprisonment soon, because it’s weird and I am not very good at pretending to be normal for long.

Eichmann in Jerusalem is a powerful book, which very much evokes the depths of horrors that Eichmann worked to facilitate.

Yes, Eichmann was a pen pusher, not a general or a leader or a statesman, but his personal actions made a genocide happen. This is – I agree with Arendt – evil.

Eichmann was responsible for mass murder not through a gunshot, not through explosions, but through being good at admin and letting people just be numbers in a spreadsheet.

Is there a lesson here
for all
middle managers?

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