Events have the last word. Journalists report them, historians contextualize them, and philosophers interpret them. But whether war or revolution, assassination or inauguration, deeds and their doers routinely escape the grasp of their chroniclers. Even in the works of the greatest analysts—Hobbes on the English Civil War, Marx on the Paris Commune—events have a way of evading their command.
Sometimes, however, a writer does get the last word. Do we know of a Trojan War that is not intimately Homer’s, a Richard III who is not Shakespeare’s? This is especially true of trials. Socrates has no apology apart from Plato’s; Gary Gilmore, no song that is not Norman Mailer’s. It’s not clear why a trial should be more hospitable to a writer’s control than other events. Lawyers and witnesses tell stories, too. Why should a writer’s story endure, but not theirs? Any writer whose narrative of a trial outlives that of its protagonists has achieved something rare.
Hannah Arendt’s five articles on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann by the state of Israel appeared in The New Yorker in February and March 1963. They were published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil later that year. The book immediately set off a controversy that a half-century later shows no signs of abating. Just this past fall, the intellectual historian Richard Wolin (a colleague of mine at the CUNY Graduate Center) and the Yale political theorist Seyla Benhabib fought bitterly over Eichmann in the pages of The New York Times and the Jewish Review of Books. The book has become the event, eclipsing the trial itself.
The Eichmann fires are always smoldering, but what reignited them last fall was the appearance in English of Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem, first published in Germany in 2011. Eichmann Before Jerusalem aims to reveal a depth of anti-Semitism in Eichmann that Arendt never quite grasped. Stangneth bases her argument on the so-called Sassen transcripts, a voluminous record of conversations between Eichmann and a group of unreconstructed Nazis in Argentina in the 1950s (only a portion of the transcripts were available to Arendt, who read and discussed them in Eichmann). Yet Stangneth’s is merely the latest in a series of books—including Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial, published in 2011, and David Cesarani’s Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a “Desk Murderer,” which appeared in 2004—arguing that Eichmann was more of an anti-Semite than Arendt had realized.
There’s a history to the conflict over Eichmann in Jerusalem, and like all such histories, the changes in how we read and argue about the book tell us as much about ourselves, and our shifting preoccupations and politics, as they do about Eichmann or Arendt. What has remained constant, however, is the wrath and the rage that Eichmann has aroused. Other books are read, reviled, cast off, passed on. Eichmann is different. Its errors and flaws, real and imagined, have not consigned it to the dustbin of history; they are perennially retrieved and held up as evidence of the book’s viciousness and its author’s vice. An “evil book,” the Anti-Defamation League said upon its publication, and so it remains. Friends and enemies, defenders and detractors—all have compared Arendt and her book to a criminal in the dock, her critics to prosecutors set on conviction.