Saturday, September 07, 2019

60. Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt

I found this on the free shelf on St-Viateur.  It's definitely a detour from my normal reading habits, but I did study the origins of WWII and the rise of Nazism in college and given the resurgence of such thought and action today, it piqued my interest. I had also recently read a brief article about the origin of the term "the banality of evil" (basically this book).

It started out as a series of articles for the New Yorker, where Arendt covered the trial of Eichmann in 1961.  He had been found (though wasn't hiding all that well, as we read in the later part of the book) in Argentina and kidnapped by Israeli agents.  He had been portrayed as one of the last free masterminds of the holocaust and his trial was a big public spectacle at the time.  Later, she expanded the articles into this book  It cause quite a controversy at the time.  Interesting to see that outrage culture, minus the internet, was alive and well back then.  People freaked out based on hearsay or bad interpretations of what she wrote, launched campaigns against her and the book.  All the logical fallacies that we see so common today were used:  the straw horse arguments from people who had not read the book, the reductivist arguments where one small statement is blown up out of context to be her entire argument, etc.

From what I can understand, her great sin was to portray Eichmann as a pathetic, unthinking bureaucrat, who was more obsessed with doing his job and getting a promotion than any particularly strong antipathy towards the Jews.  I won't get into it all here, you have to read the book.  To my mind, this understanding of Eichmann is far more terrifying than if he was a murderous racist.  What this book makes you realize is that it only takes a few of those latter to drive on an entire society of more moderate or neutral people to carry out their crimes at a scale that it becomes genocide.  It's the exception, the very rare exception (and it was in all the horror that went on in Europe) that fights for a moral good against the conformity of all of society, no matter what that society is doing. 

As well as going into the trial, there are chapters on how the Final Solution was carried out in each region of Europe.  Though written fairly coldly, these are still very hard to read.  The enormity of it is still hard to grasp.  What hurts are the small details of the logistics and costs, of how people went willingly or were sent willingly by their fellows to a horrible death.  While I cannot excuse how Israel currently deals with the Palestinian people, reading again about what happened to the Jewish people, does make you better understand why they are so bellicose and aggressive today.

On the reading level, I had a hard time putting this down.  She writes a complex, journalistic style, where she is laying out history, complex arguments and painting a picture all at the same time.  It requires some concentration but is much richer than most of the stuff that comes out of the academic world.  The only part where I lost interest were the long sections making legal arguments about whether or not Israel had the right to kidnap Eichmann, whether or not the trial should have been held at an international level, blah blah blah.  She does a good job of laying out these arguments, but it all feels like the same kind of wanking that lawyers and politicians love to do which is basically arguing about how many angels dance on the head of a pin.  The other thing she shows, whose extent I didn't realize, was how many other Nazi criminals were exonerated or received pathetically light sentences in Germany after the war.  At some point, you just realize that power is what makes the decisions and if Israel had to send out some agents to deal real justice, then fuck the legal arguments.

A great book, should be required reading by every alt-right fuck out there today.

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