Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Eichmann in Jerusalem

I am glad that online bookstores have finally found their way to India. Despite the numerous instances of canceled orders or 'Out of stock' messages that you encounter when dealing with them, they do offer you a chance to get your hands on a few books that remain elusive. Eichmann in Jerusalem was one of those books which I had been hunting for since a long time, and even though published by Penguin, which is a publisher most widely found in India - I had been unable to locate a copy anywhere. (Another book that remains elusive is Nadine Gordimer's collection of stories: Why haven't you written, again published by Penguin and nowhere to be seen/heard of/mentioned.)

I received my copy of this report by Hannah Arendt very unexpectedly from Rediff some time back - unexpected because Rediff had canceled three of my previous orders for some not-so-elusive books after holding on to them (the orders) for about 2 weeks each, so I scarcely expected them to honor this one. I am glad they did - reading the book was worth all the effort I expended in hunting for it.

The book is an account of Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem for his role in the holocaust, and is exactly the way a journalistic account should be - based on facts, raising the relevant questions and unbiased. Hannah Arendt neither accepts Eichmann or any Nazi criminal as a psychopath or homicidal maniac, nor does she absolve them of their role in 'Ha Shoah', on the pretext of being mere cogs in the wheel, for the cog stands as a human in the court of justice . She is, like most people, horrified at the extent to which this criminal 'never realized what he was doing', for his complete thoughtlessness, his apathy towards the moral choice available to him, his banality. She thus stripped these Macbeths, as they are perceived by society at large, to reveal a criminal who is simply a switch in the system, a very compliant switch, quite satisfied with going on and off on command. What she tries to point out is that it is the switch or the banal criminal that is more dangerous than the lunatic, for he is a common, repeatable phenomenon.

This report found itself amidst widespread controversy (something that every un-fearing journalist is likely to encounter at least once in his/her profession). For one, she tried too hard to understand things from Eichmann's perspective, often rationalizing some of his actions, and described him in monochromes of a plainness which most people convinced of Eichmann's acute antisemitism disagreed with. She also questioned Israel's right in holding the trial and to make matters worse, pointed out some of its own laws that were not different from the Nuremberg Laws in essence. What sparked most criticism, however, was her expansion on the role of Jewish Organizations during the Shoah and her remarks on the possibility of far fewer deaths in absence of the Jewish collaboration with the Nazi's in the destruction of their own people.

Some of the criticism seems undeserved - as she did agree with the court's verdict and praised it for delivering justice, and she did believe that despite all rationalizations, Eichmann made a choice to participate and deserved punishment for that. However, you are forced to wonder if her banal, stupid Eichmann is not too much at loggerheads with the other staunch 'anti-semitic expert on the Jewish Question' that the world knows, and whether she did refuse to see the complete reality.

There are times when the report looks too stretched and you feel you are reading the same sentences you had perhaps read in a chapter before. That however does not take away their essence and sometimes even serves to reinforce points. It is those points which make you think of the holocaust in terms outside of sheer horror and disgust and fight the immediate instinct to shut your eyes in face of the Assembled exterminations.

4 comments:

Ubermensch said...

This is information. Where is your judgement?

Madhuri said...

Isn't the choice of information also a form of judgment?

Alok said...

I had written about it too sometime back here

I just wish she had included more of actual quotes from Eichmann and the prosecutors... in other words it were more reportage and less a work of straightforward history. It is still very informative and effective.. certainly a classic.

shiva said...

"What she tries to point out is that it is the switch or the banal criminal that is more dangerous than the lunatic, for he is a common, repeatable phenomenon."

- yes, he is, I sometimes wonder how willfully a person can surrender and abandon his right to choice?