Israel's Culture of Martyrdom
Arendt arrived in Jerusalem as a reporter for The New Yorker, but her interest in the trial went far beyond that of a foreign correspondent. She saw the trial as an opportunity to re-examine her thesis about the uniqueness and modernity of the Nazi regime and to find answers to the enigmatic question of how it was possible to implement the Final Solution so easily and efficiently. Elaborating on an argument in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she asserted that the bureaucratization and rationalization of the nation-state made possible a new, industrialized kind of mass murder. Sitting at his desk in a sterile office, organizing the logistics of properly managing transportation and extermination camps, Eichmann was, in her view, a symptom of the "banality of evil" rather than a prime mover in the Nazi machinery of organized killing.
As the Arendt scholar Jerome Kohn has argued in an illuminating essay, one of the major reasons for the controversy provoked by her book Eichmann in Jerusalem
was and remains the failure of many readers, both Jews and non-Jews, to make the tremendous mental effort required to transcend the fate of one's own people and see what was pernicious for all humanity. The notion of a "crime against humanity" was introduced in the Nuremberg trials of major war criminals in 1946, but in Arendt's opinion the crime was confused there with "crimes against peace" and "war crimes" and had never been properly defined nor its perpetrators clearly recognized.
In Arendt's view, the Nazi genocide, while "perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people," was a crime that "violated the order of mankind." What stood out for her as a political philosopher was less "the choice of victims" than the extraordinary "nature of the crime."
Unlike some Israeli-Jewish intellectuals, such as Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, Arendt did not object to the trial being held in Jerusalem. She did not argue for an international court, nor did she oppose the capital sentence. She did, however, object to Attorney General Hausner's understanding of Jewish history, and of the nature of Nazism as a form of genocidal anti-Semitism. In his opening speech, Hausner presented Jewish history as a narrative of eternal victimization. Far from being an unprecedented program of mass industrialized killing, the Holocaust was discussed as if it were merely an immense pogrom. The effect of Hausner's speech, in Arendt's view, was to define Zionism and Israeli nationalism as the only guarantors of Jewish survival and continuity. She also objected to the ideologically motivated characterization of Eichmann as the incarnation of the ultimate evil. Arendt in no way sought to diminish the magnitude of Eichmann's crimes. But with her concept of the banality of evil, she sought to underscore the bureaucratic machinery in which Eichmann was a cog (however enthusiastic), and without which he could never have committed his crimes.
However, Arendt did not believe that the rise of the nation-state and its bureaucratization sufficed as an explanation of the Nazi genocide. More controversially, she also turned to an examination of the social structure of the Jewish communities and the nature of their leadership and representatives. Drawing upon Raul Hilberg's exhaustive research in The Destruction of the European Jews (a book that has never been translated into Hebrew and is not quoted in Israel), she provided an unsparing anatomy of the ways in which the European Jewish communities facilitated Nazi purposes--for example, by providing lists and addresses of their members and their property. She also analyzed the ways in which most of the Jewish leadership consciously collaborated with the Nazis. Law-abiding to a fault, they filled out endless forms (about their property), policed themselves, funded the "project of resettlement," went to the concentration points and entered the trains of "resettlement," while most of their leaders were fully aware of the railroad destination. The Nazi officers and clerks were surprised at how obediently the Jews went to their death.
Thus, the Kastner case cannot be considered as an isolated one, but should be seen as part of a syndrome that characterized both Eastern and Western organized Jewish communities. As Arendt pointed out, in cities where the Jews were less tightly organized, or where the leadership warned the population or refused to collaborate with the Nazis, many more Jews survived. Had the Nazis been forced to hunt individuals or families, they would have needed more time and manpower to accomplish their mission. By a uniquely cruel twist of fate, what had been for generations a vehicle of Jewish survival became, in the hands of their enemies, one of the major tools for their physical annihilation. Contrary to Arendt's often vituperative critics, this analysis does not reduce the perpetrators' responsibility--if anything, it makes the Holocaust even more monstrous.