Raul Hilberg was known for cultivating enemies. During faculty meetings at the University of Vermont, where he was a professor of political science from 1956 to 1991, the renowned historian of the Holocaust would unfailingly denounce the consensus position, whether it concerned faculty appointments or vacation policy. "He was an intensely stubborn and contrary person," one of his old colleagues told me. In The Politics of Memory, an autobiography published in 1996, Hilberg dedicated a chapter to attacking fellow historians whose work he considered derivative or misguided. Among those admonished was Lucy Dawidowicz, a popular Holocaust scholar and author of the emotional bestseller The War Against the Jews (1975); Dawidowicz provided "vaguely consoling words" that "could easily be clutched by all those who did not wish to look deeper," Hilberg complained.
But no one who wrote about the Holocaust nettled Hilberg more than Hannah Arendt. Hilberg’s anger toward the German refugee and New York intellectual erupted with the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which Arendt told the tale of Adolf Eichmann, the man responsible for implementing the Final Solution, against the backdrop of his trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. (Eichmann was captured by Mossad agents in Argentina in May 1960. His trial in Jerusalem began in April 1961, and he was executed in May 1962.) Arendt’s study was serialized in five installments in The New Yorker in the spring of 1963 and then quickly published in book form in May of that year by Viking Press with its now infamous subtitle, "A Report on the Banality of Evil." The work has attained a mythic status. Penguin publishes it in two inexpensive paperback editions–one a "Penguin Classics" and the other a "Great Ideas" version that, with its matte blue-and-white cover, is attractively designed for display next to cash registers as an impulse buy.
Hilberg died in 2007, and among the private papers he left to the University of Vermont library is a box stuffed with materials about his scholarly antagonists. Folders filled with Arendt clippings occupy half of the tightly jammed container. There is also a brown accordion folder holding two crisp copies of each of the five issues of The New Yorker in which Arendt’s study of Eichmann was serialized. Hilberg was obsessed with Arendt’s dispatches because two years before their appearance, with the Eichmann trial under way, he had published his own magnum opus, The Destruction of the European Jews, a multivolume work that is still widely considered in scholarly circles to be the first great history of the Holocaust and the cornerstone of Holocaust studies. "No other book will ever be, by my hand, annotated to such a degree," Claude Lanzmann remarked in 1993, eight years after the release of his epic film Shoah. "A beacon of a book, a breakwater of a book, a ship of history anchored in time and in a sense beyond time, undying, unforgettable, to which nothing in the course of ordinary historical production can be compared." (Hilberg is the only historian to appear in Shoah, which documents victims’ and perpetrators’ direct experiences of the Holocaust.)
As Hilberg read Arendt’s articles about Eichmann, he noticed a number of striking similarities to his own research. He tallied them on an accounting spreadsheet stored in the accordion folder with the New Yorker issues. At the bottom of the spreadsheet he divided the instances into "cert." and "prob." and penciled hash marks next to each category. Among the flagged passages is Arendt’s account of the plight of Bernard Lichtenberg, a Catholic priest in Berlin who was condemned to a concentration camp after speaking out against the deportation of the Jews. Hilberg noted the page on which Arendt’s version appeared and next to it wrote, in red ink, "verbatim."