(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

On May 11, 1960, Adolf Eichmann, who had been masquerading in Argentina as factory worker Ricardo Klement, was captured by Israeli agents and brought to Jerusalem for trial. During World War II, Eichmann, an obedient Nazi bureaucrat, had risen to Obersturmbannführer (a rank equivalent to lieutenant colonel) in the Schutzstaffel (SS), a branch of the state secret police, or Gestapo, headed by Heinrich Himmler. Eichmann became the “Jewish expert” of the branch known as the Head Office for Reich Security. In accordance with Adolf Hitler’s plan for a “final solution” for the Jewish people, Eichmann was put in charge of arranging the mass deportations to the killing centers, which were mainly in Poland. After Germany’s defeat in May, 1945, Eichmann was captured by the Americans but hid his true identity and, with the aid of Nazi sympathizers, eventually escaped to Argentina. For ten years, reunited with his family, he lived a quiet life until his capture.

When the news of Eichmann’s capture and forthcoming trial was broadcast, Hannah Arendt proposed herself as a trial reporter to William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker magazine. Shawn gladly accepted Arendt’s offer, as she had already earned a distinguished reputation as a political analyst through her work The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Also, as a Jew and an early refugee from Nazi Germany (she had escaped in 1933), Arendt was uniquely qualified to cover the trial.

The trial began before the District Court of Jerusalem on April 11, 1961, and continued until August 14. The court announced its judgment on December 11, 1961, declaring Eichmann guilty of most of the crimes in the fifteen-count indictment (including “crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and memberships in hostile organizations”). He was condemned to death and, after the rejection of his legal appeals, was executed by hanging at midnight on May 31, 1962.

Hannah Arendt attended most of Eichmann’s district court sessions and then went home to New York, where she gathered her impressions of the defendant and formulated her analytic theses. The essential form of the book, according to Arendt, is that of “a trial report, and its main source is the transcript of the trial proceedings which was distributed to the press in Jerusalem.” Of the book’s fifteen chapters, the first few include descriptions of the Jerusalem courtroom, the judges, the prosecutor, and the defendant. The second chapter contains a perceptive brief biography of Eichmann, his “normality” (according to the Israeli psychiatric examiners), and his military loyalty. Eichmann had been a poor student and an unsuccessful worker. His last job (from which he was fired) before joining the Nazi Party and the SS in 1932 had been that of traveling salesman. “Already a failure in the eyes of his social class, of his family, and hence in his own eyes as well,” Eichmann could now “still make a career” in the Nazi bureaucracy. Thus, over the course of thirteen years, he rose eagerly from the status of unemployed nonentity to that of SS Obersturmbannführer.

Chapter 3 begins the detailing of how Eichmann became “an expert on the Jewish question.” He volunteered in 1934 for the Security Service of the SS and was put to work in the Information Department. After a few months, Eichmann began to work in the new section concerned exclusively with Jews. He then read Theodor Herzl’s Zionist classic Der Judenstaat (1896; The Jewish State, 1896), which earned for him an assignment as the official spy on German Zionist organizations. Consequently, by March, 1938, Eichmann was appointed organizer of the forced emigration of Jews from Austria. Unfortunately for the victimized Jews, however, entry into British-ruled Palestine was very difficult. In any case, with the beginning of World War II in September, 1939, emigration anywhere for significant numbers of Jews became impossible, so Eichmann began to look for new avenues of career advancement. The opportunity came when the primary responsibility of his office was shifted from forced emigration of the Jews to their deportation to concentration camps for forced labor and death.

By late 1941, the “final solution”—the killing of the Jews in the German-occupied areas—had begun, and Eichmann assumed significant responsibility for deportation of Jews to the extermination camps. He did it with the same diligence that he had previously used in trying to find a foreign country to which the Jews could emigrate. Such faint stirrings of conscience as Eichmann still possessed seemed to pertain only to German Jews and not to their more numerous coreligionists in the countries east of Germany.

At the important conference about the logistics of the “final solution” held in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, in January, 1942, Eichmann noted that none of his superiors, among the most prominent people in the Third Reich, had any hesitancy in embracing the policy of mass killing. At his trial he stated, “At that moment, I sensed a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling, for I felt free of all guilt.” Buttressed by the approval of his social and military superiors, Eichmann became a master of the technique of appointing Jewish councils to fulfill his own ultimately murderous—but well-disguised—purposes. Thus, through deception and bureaucratic skill, he was often able to create a sense of administrative order out of the human chaos of forced deportation.

Helpful to Eichmann, according to his own testimony, was his version of the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, an eighteenth century German philosopher. Kant had maintained that a person should act as if the principle of his action were to become a universal law of nature. Eichmann seemed to follow a distortion of Kant’s universalizing principle: “Act in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it.” Eichmann clung tenaciously to this principle, even when the war was clearly lost and Heinrich Himmler had...

(The entire section is 2478 words.)