Schocken Books’ impressive Jewish Encounters series addresses, in its published and forthcoming volumes, subjects as varied as Maimonides, Birobijan and The Dairy Restaurant.
The series’ modus operandi is to assign a lively subject to an accomplished author, with the goal of offering a short study, light on scholarly apparatus and open to the general reader.
The American Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, who had her own share of unwanted fame when she was sued in British court by Holocaust denier David Irving, has her work cut out for her in The Eichmann Trial. Her challenges include: recounting the events of the trial; examining the influential writings of Hannah Arendt, which were published in The New Yorker in 1963; judging Eichmann’s role in the making of the Holocaust; and undertaking to explore the impact of the trial on postwar Jewish identity, Israeli culture and our knowledge of the Holocaust.
Lipstadt’s finest accomplishment is her description of the trial itself, of the atmosphere in which it was conducted, the behaviour of the defendant, his defence, the prosecution and the three German-born Israeli judges who oversaw the case.
Lipstadt recounts the details of Eichmann’s capture and interrogation with verve and fine detail. She challenges what she judges to be an overly broad indictment, which “charged Eichmann with the ‘implementation’ of the Final Solution, committing acts of ‘extermination’ on Jews in Poland at death camps, murdering Jews in the USSR with the Einzatzgruppen, imposing sterilization and abortions on Jews” and more.
The Eichmann Trial also highlights the decision by the prosecution to include among the trial’s witnesses 100 Holocaust survivors, whose accounts of wartime suffering did not necessarily touch on Eichmann’s own actions, and arguably, were legally extraneous to the case. Yet this approach proved to be among the trial’s key legacies, since it introduced survivors’ experience to world opinion in a lasting way.
Lipstadt’s approach to Arendt’s report on the trial is less successful. Readers might feel that this issue, which consumes the book’s long final chapter, should be the subject of a separate book. Lipstadt introduces us to the questions associated with Arendt this way: “The cover of the Feb.16, 1963 New Yorker featured an artist’s rendering of the recently completed and much-debated Pan Am building looming over the iconic Grand Central Terminal . . . . Inside was the first of a series of five articles by Hannah Arendt on the trial.”
Two of Lipstadt’s authorial decisions raise questions: first, her willingness to discuss Arendt’s contribution through the lens of accusations that characterize Arendt’s work as a scandal, as “wickedness” and distortion; and, second, her decision, after commenting on the influence of the New Yorker on American opinion, to avoid quoting from the essays Arendt published in the magazine. Instead, she relies on the revised and enlarged book, first published in 1964, under the title Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
One gets a far richer and more immediate sense of the trial’s impact through the original New Yorker pieces. (Readers can access the original issues, now available digitally through the magazine’s archive, to appreciate not only the specific character of Arendt’s writing, but the strangeness of reading about Eichmann’s early visits to killing sites such as Treblinka alongside the bonhomie of early 1960s ads for men’s shirts, Ford wagons and RCA electronics.)
Lipstadt’s decision not to refer to the original essays contributes to an overall lack of decisiveness with regard to Arendt, and to a tendency to criticize and quibble without directly grappling with what Arendt published nearly two years after sitting in the Jerusalem court room.
The range of Arendt’s reportage for The New Yorker is breathtaking. Her access to key sources, like the trial itself, court documents, the major early historiography of Raul Hilberg, and original German texts is deeply affecting. Her tone is measured, yet not without irony, and she has no tendency to treat her subject through overwrought language or shopworn moral claims.
Many of Lipstadt’s claims regarding Arendt’s views are offered without support and are too loosely linked to the New Yorker essays and the subsequent Eichmann in Jerusalem. Rather, her discussion is peppered with broad, often misleading claims drawn from the “virulent public debate” surrounding Arendt, rather than from what Arendt wrote. A good example of this is Lipstadt’s unsupportable argument that Arendt “declared” Eichmann to be a “desk-level bureaucrat who showed little initiative and had few talents.” This is a remarkable trivialization of the darkly complicit, self-consumed and amoral figure portrayed in Arendt’s New Yorker articles.
It might be best to read The Eichmann Trial, skipping the chapter on Arendt, focusing instead on Lipstadt’s careful historian’s tableau of Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust and his bizarre second act in a glass booth in Jerusalem.
Norman Ravvin’s new novel is The Joyful Child from Gaspereau Press. He is chair of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.