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Cover of the first edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is a book by political theorist Hannah Arendt, originally published in 1963. Arendt, a Jew who fled Germany during Adolf Hitler's rise to power, reported on Adolf Eichmann's trial for The New Yorker. The work, according to Hugh Trevor-Roper, is deeply indebted to Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews, so much so that the Hilberg himself spoke of plagiarism.[1][2][3]


Arendt states that aside from a desire for improving his career, Eichmann was not driven by antisemitism nor psychological damage. Her subtitle famously introduced the phrase "the banality of evil," which also serves as the final words of the book. In part, at least, the phrase refers to Eichmann's deportment at the trial, displaying neither guilt nor hatred, claiming he bore no responsibility because he was simply "doing his job" ("He did his duty...; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law." p. 135).

Arendt takes Eichmann's court testimony and the historical evidence available, and makes several observations about Eichmann:

  • Eichmann stated himself in court that he had always tried to abide by Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative (as discussed directly on pp. 135–137). She argues that Eichmann had essentially taken the wrong lesson from Kant: Eichmann had not recognized the "golden rule" and principle of reciprocity implicit in the categorical imperative, but had only understood the concept of one man's actions coinciding with general law. Eichmann attempted to follow the spirit of the laws he carried out, as if the legislator himself would approve. In Kant's formulation of the categorical imperative, the legislator is the moral self, and all men are legislators; in Eichmann's formulation, the legislator was Hitler. Eichmann claimed this changed when he was charged with carrying out the Final Solution, at which point Arendt claims "he had ceased to live according to Kantian principles, that he had known it, and that he had consoled himself with the thoughts that he no longer 'was master of his own deeds,' that he was unable 'to change anything'" (p. 136).
  • Eichmann's inability to think for himself was exemplified by his consistent use of "stock phrases and self-invented clichés," demonstrating his unrealistic worldview and crippling lack of communication skills through reliance on "officialese" (Amtssprache) and the euphemistic Sprachregelung that made implementation of Hitler's policies "somehow palatable."
  • Eichmann was a "joiner" his entire life, in that he constantly joined organizations in order to define himself, and had difficulties thinking for himself without doing so. As a youth, he belonged to the YMCA, the Wandervogel, and the Jungfrontkämpferverband. In 1933, he failed in his attempt to join the Schlaraffia (a branch of Freemasonry), at which point a family friend (and future war criminal) Ernst Kaltenbrunner encouraged him to join the SS. At the end of World War II, Eichmann found himself depressed because "it then dawned on him that thenceforward he would have to live without being a member of something or other" (pp. 32–3).
  • Despite his claims, Eichmann was not, in fact, very intelligent. As Arendt details in the book's second chapter, he was unable to complete either high school or vocational training, and only found his first significant job (traveling salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company) through family connections. Arendt noted that, during both his SS career and Jerusalem trial, Eichmann tried to cover his lack of skills and education up, and even "blushed" when these facts came to light.
  • Arendt confirms several points where Eichmann actually claimed he was responsible for certain atrocities, even though he lacked the power and/or expertise to take these actions. Moreover, Eichmann made these claims even though they hurt his defense, hence Arendt's remark that "Bragging was the vice that was Eichmann's undoing" (p. 46). Arendt also suggests that Eichmann may have preferred to be executed as a war criminal than live as a nobody.
  • Arendt argues that Eichmann, in his peripheral role at the Wannsee Conference, witnessed the rank-and-file of the German civil service heartily endorse Reinhard Heydrich's program for the Final Solution of the Jewish question in Europe (German language: die Endlösung der Judenfrage). Upon seeing members of "respectable society" endorsing mass murder, and enthusiastically participating in the planning of the solution, Eichmann felt that his moral responsibility was relaxed, as if he were "Pontius Pilate".
  • During his imprisonment before his trial, the Israeli government sent no fewer than six psychologists to examine Eichmann. Not only did these doctors find no trace of mental illness, but they also found no evidence of abnormal personality whatsoever. One doctor remarked that his overall attitude towards other people, especially his family and friends, was "highly desirable", while another remarked that the only unusual trait Eichmann displayed was being more "normal" in his habits and speech than the average person (pp. 25–6).

Arendt suggests that this most strikingly discredits the idea that the Nazi criminals were manifestly psychopathic and different from "normal" people. From this document, many concluded that situations such as the Holocaust can make even the most ordinary of people commit horrendous crimes with the proper incentives, but Arendt adamantly disagreed with this interpretation, as Eichmann was voluntarily following the Führerprinzip. Arendt insists that moral choice remains even under totalitarianism, and that this choice has political consequences even when the chooser is politically powerless:

[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.

Arendt mentions, as a case in point, Denmark:

One is tempted to recommend the story as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence.

It was not just that the people of Denmark refused to assist in implementing the Final Solution, as the peoples of so many other conquered nations had been persuaded to do (or had been eager to do) — but also, that when the Reich cracked down and decided to do the job itself it found that its own personnel in Denmark had been infected by this and were unable to overcome their human aversion with the appropriate ruthlessness, as their peers in more cooperative areas had.

On Eichmann's personality, Arendt concludes:

Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a "monster," but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this suspicion would have been fatal to the entire enterprise [his trial], and was also rather hard to sustain in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused to millions of people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed and almost never reported (p. 55).

Beyond her discussion of Eichmann himself, Arendt discusses several additional aspects of the trial, its context, and the Holocaust.

  • She points out that Eichmann was kidnapped by Israeli agents in Argentina and transported to Israel, an illegal act, and that he was tried in Israel even though he was not accused of committing any crimes there. "If he had not been found guilty before he appeared in Jerusalem, guilty beyond any reasonable doubt, the Israelis would never have dared, or wanted, to kidnap him in formal violation of Argentine law."
  • She describes his trial as a show trial arranged and managed by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, and says that Ben-Gurion wanted, for several political reasons, to emphasize not primarily what Eichmann had done, but what the Jews had suffered during the Holocaust. She points out that the war criminals tried at Nuremberg were "indicted for crimes against the members of various nations," without special reference to the Nazi genocide against the Jews.

The banality of evil

Arendt's book introduced the expression and concept "the banality of evil".[4] Her thesis is that Eichmann was not a fanatic or sociopath, but an extremely average person who relied on cliché rather than thinking for himself and was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology. Banality, in this sense, is not that Eichmann's actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us, but that his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional.[5] She never denied that Eichmann was an anti-semite, nor that he was fully responsible for his actions, but argued that these characteristics were secondary to his stupidity. This concept has been frequently misunderstood. In his 2010 history of the Second World War, Moral Combat, British historian Michael Burleigh calls the expression a "cliché" and gives many documented examples of gratuitous acts of cruelty by those involved in the Holocaust, including Eichmann.[6] Arendt certainly did not disagree about the fact of gratuitous cruelty, but "banality of evil" is unrelated to this question. Similarly, the first attempted rebuttal of Arendt's thesis relied on a misreading of this phrase, claiming Arendt meant that there was nothing exceptional about the Holocaust.[7][8]


Arendt sparked controversy with Eichmann in Jerusalem upon its publishing and the years since.[9] Arendt has long been accused of "blaming the victim" in the book.[10] Dr. Jacob Robinson published And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight, the first full-length rebuttal of her book.[7] Robinson presented himself as an expert in international law, not disclosing that he was an assistant to the prosecutor in the case.[8] Initially hailed as definitive, after Arendt's response[8] the book fell out of favor and is no longer in print. In his 2006 book, Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes and Trial of a "Desk Murderer", Holocaust researcher David Cesarani questioned Arendt's portrait of Eichmann on several grounds. According to his findings, Arendt attended only part of the trial, witnessing Eichmann's testimony for "at most four days" and basing her writings mostly on recordings and the trial transcript. Cesarani feels that this may have skewed her opinion of him, since it was in the parts of the trial that she missed that the more forceful aspects of his character appeared.[11] Cesarani also presents evidence[citation needed] suggesting that Eichmann was in fact highly anti-Semitic and that these feelings were important motivators of his actions. Thus, he alleges that Arendt’s claims that his motives were "banal" and non-ideological and that he had abdicated his autonomy of choice by obeying Hitler's orders without question may stand on weak foundations.[12] This is a recurrent[13] criticism of Arendt, though nowhere in her work does Arendt deny that Eichmann was an anti-Semite, and she also did not claim that Eichmann was "simply" following orders, but rather had internalized the cliches of the Nazi regime.[13] Most controversially, Cesarani suggests that Arendt's own prejudices influenced the opinions she expressed during the trial. He claims that like many Jews of German origin, she held Ostjuden (Jews from Eastern Europe) in great disdain. This, according to Cesarani, led her to attack the conduct and efficacy of the chief prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, who was of Galician-Jewish origin. In a letter to the noted German philosopher Karl Jaspers she stated that Hausner was "a typical Galician Jew... constantly making mistakes. Probably one of those people who doesn't know any language."[14] Cesarani claims that some of her opinions of Jews of Middle Eastern origin verged on racism. She described the Israeli crowds as an "Oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country."[14] Cesarani has been criticized for his criticism of Arendt. One reviewer argued that his "slur reveals a writer in control neither of his material nor of himself."[15]

See also

  • Little Eichmanns
  • Milgram experiment (Obedience to Authority, 1961)
  • Stanford prison experiment (Zimbardo, 1972)


  1. Nathaniel Popper, 'A Conscious Pariah,' The Nation 19 September 2010:' "She acknowledges her debt," Trevor-Roper wrote, "but the full extent of that debt can be appreciated only by those who have read both. Again and again the arguments, the very phrases, are unconsciously repeated." Trevor-Roper's review was largely forgotten, as was his conclusion that "indeed, behind the whole of Miss Arendt's book stands the overshadowing bulk of Mr. Hilberg's.".'
  2. Deborah E. Lipstadt,The Eichmann Trial, 2011 p.219, n.45.
  3. Raul Hilberg, The Politics of Memory, Ivan R. Dee 1996 pp.147-157.
  4. Bird, David (December 6, 1975). "Hannah Arendt, Political Scientist, Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-03-12. "Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher who escaped Hitler's Germany and later scrutinized its morality in "Eichmann in Jerusalem" and other books, died Thursday night in her apartment at 370 Riverside Drive." 
  5. "Eichmann was Outrageously Stupid". Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations. November 9, 1964. Retrieved 2014-04-21. 
  6. Burleigh, Michael, Moral Combat, Harper Press, 2010, pages 415–417.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Robinson, Jacob (1965). And the crooked shall be made straight. Macmillan. Retrieved 26 June 2014. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Arendt, Hannah (January 20, 1966). ""The Formidable Dr. Robinson": A Reply by Hannah Arendt". Retrieved 26 June 2014. 
  9. "Hannah Arendt," 300 women who changed the world, Encyclopedia Britannica Profiles.
  10. Rosenbaum, Ron (October 30, 2009). "The Evil of Banality". Slate. Retrieved March 11, 2014. 
  11. Cesarani 2006, pp. 15, 346.
  12. Cesarani 2006, p. 346.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Berkowitz, Roger (July 7, 2013). "Misreading 'Eichmann in Jerusalem'". The New York Times. Retrieved June 26, 2014. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Cesarani 2006, p. 345.
  15. Gewen, Barry (14 May 2006). "The Everyman of Genocide". Retrieved 27 April 2012. 


  • Cesarani, David (2006). Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes and Trial of a "Desk Murderer". Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. 
  • Jochen von Lang (de), Eichmann Interrogated (1982) ISBN 0-88619-017-7 — a book referenced in Eichmann in Jerusalem which contains excerpts from Eichmann's pre-trial interrogation

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