The Trial That Never Ends

Hannah Arendt's "Eichman in Jerusalem" in Retrospect

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Richard J. Golsan, Sarah Misemer
German and European Studies
  • Toronto, ON: 
    University of Toronto Press
    , March
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Editors Richard J. Golsan and Sarah M. Misemer introduce The Trial That Never Ends by justifying the relevance of the Eichmann trial even after so many years have passed. They revisit the whole set of arguments raised against Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and the arguments that consequently came as a response to Arendt’s defense. The Eichmann trial was crucial because it gave voice to the Jews who were on the receiving end of the horrendous crimes of the Nazis. It is interesting to see that while most of the critiques of Arendt’s work turned out to be ad hominems based on the presupposition that she divided “guilt equally between Eichmann and the Jews,” other critiques proved to be a defense of Nazi concentration camps. Although Arendt’s theorization of Eichmann’s trial has given life to concepts like the “banality of evil,” it has also been misinterpreted.

In “Judging the Past: The Eichmann Trial,” Henry Rousso asserts that since the Eichmann trial took place in 1961, sixteen years after the end of Nazi regime, it offered an opportunity to look at it afresh. As time passed, consciousness regarding the atrocities committed by the Nazis became more apparent. The trial contributed to reinforcing national sentiment in young Israel. I feel that through positing the common enemy, the “other”—Eichmann, in this case—the collective “self” of Israeli identity became strong. The Jewish state’s approach to seeking justice for the Jews did not culminate in revenge, which would have included widespread violence.

In “Eichmann in Jerusalem: Conscience, Normality, and the ‘Rule of Narrative,’” Dana Villa states Arendt’s position in Eichmann in Jerusalem and mentions Shoshana Felman’s critique of Arendt’s perspective on the trial. According to Felman, Arendt viewed the trial in “conservative legal” terms. But Arendt’s point in Eichmann was not to describe the deeds of the Nazis; rather it was a deeper philosophical question: how sane people can consider the massacre of innocent lives norm-al.

The third chapter “Banality, Again” by Daniel Conway focuses on the “motives and mind of the accused.” The mass murder of the Jews seemed normal to many of the people of Europe. Conway notes Arendt’s description of Eichmann as a “new type” of criminal. She tried to introduce a kind of evil that was not noticed in Europe earlier. The new kind of criminal, who is banal, may appear to be a traditional criminal, but actually is not, because traditional villains know the nature and intensity of their evil.

In the next chapter, Valerie Hartouni reports the indifferent attitude of Eichmann during the trial and his evasion of responsibility. He brings this out by asserting the nature of the juridical proceedings which sought the “why” of the genocide, whereas Arendt managed to grasp the “how” of genocide by following the trial.

In the polemic section “Arendt’s Conservatism and the Eichmann Judgment,” Russell A. Berman looks at Arendt’s Eichmann by placing it within her broader political thought. I found this departure from the conventional reading of the trial very interesting because it highlights Arendt’s “conservatism” as a thinker. The fact that Arendt was against “desegregation” in America can foster an epistemic break in the minds of the readers regarding Arendt’s image. Nevertheless, I think Berman is unfair while conflating Arendt’s personality with her academic and political works.

In chapter 6, “Eichmann’s Victims, Holocaust Historiography, and Victim Testimony,” Carolyn J. Dean is critical of Arendt’s distinction between “innocent victims” and “Jewish community leaders” who were complicit in the condition of the Jews. Dean feels that Arendt lacked solidarity with the victims. She uses Friedländer to assert that one need not exaggerate the horrors of a brutal Holocaust nor does one need to offer a valorized historiography about the victims, but one can redefine the concepts such that the “powerlessness of voices” is construed as heroism of a different kind.

“Truth and Judgment in Arendt’s Writing” by Leora Bilsky provides a particularly novel approach to reading Eichmann’s case by exploring its relevance in international law, which Bilsky describes as the “didactic approach.” Bilsky defends Arendt against the legalist objection raised against her.

The penultimate chapter, “Arendt, German Law and the Crime of Atrocity,” by Lawrence Douglas, highlights Arendt’s call for capturing “state-sponsored atrocity” in legal terms. According to Douglas, Arendt’s critique of the judgment passed in Eichmann’s case did not imply that it was an injustice to the accused; rather it meant that the legal concepts employed in the framing of judgment were “inadequate.”

In the final chapter, “Whose Trial? Adolf Eichmann’s or Hannah Arendt’s? The Eichmann Controversy Revisited,” Seyla Benhabib revisits the criticisms Arendt received for her.

The essays in this book look at Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem afresh and explore issues such the nature of justice after a horrendous crime and the delivery of justice by the Jews’ sovereign state of Israel. The book does not attempt to give a final answer, but goads one to rethink and review the Eichmann episode because it is a wound that can never be healed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sania Ismailee is a doctoral fellow in the department of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard J. Golsan is a university distinguished professor in the department of international studies at Texas A & M University. He is also the director of the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research.

Sarah M. Misemer is an associate professor in the department of Hispanic studies at Texas A & M University. She is also the associate director of the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research.


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