Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) is one of the most controversial books of the second half of the twentieth-century. Hannah Arendt’s complex narrative –which originally was prepared as a trial report for the New Yorker – moves at multiple levels: historical, philosophical, psychological and legal. At the historical level, the book was one of the first times after the end of WWII that an extremely detailed historical account of the Jewish extermination policies of the Nazis was laid bare; furthermore, Arendt questioned the role of the Jewish Councils in this process. Philosophically, Arendt struggled with the question of evil and the relationship of evil to the activities of thinking and judging. Psychologically – and this is the aspect of Arendt’s analysis which gained most notoriety – Arendt introduced the term ‘the banality of evil,’ to characterize Adolf Eichmann’s personality. Legally, the Eichmann trial raised deep questions about international jurisdiction, crimes against humanity, and punishing the perpetrators of genocide.
This lecture will give an overview of the Eichmann controversy. Although some of Arendt’s claims concerning Eichmann’s personality and activities, as well as her analysis of the Jewish Councils are historically inaccurate, Professor Benhabib will argue that her book leaves us with some enduring questions about human responsibility in extreme conditions.