The Spectre of Arendt

In the NYT’s Book Review, Barry Gewen looks at David Cesarani’s attempt to refute the lessons that Arendt draws from the life of Eichmann.

Eichmann, responsible for transporting millions of Jews to the death camps, was essentially a bureaucrat, with little more on his mind than pleasing his superiors. He was neither fanatical nor bloodthirsty, in fact had never directly killed anyone. He made trains run on time. Yet he was indisputably a mass murderer, and in the articles she wrote for The New Yorker, as well as in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” the book that followed, Arendt introduced a phrase to describe him that has become part of the modern vocabulary — “the banality of evil.”

“Anyone writing on the subject today works in the shadow of Hannah Arendt,” David Cesarani observes in “Becoming Eichmann,” the first full biography to appear since the 1960’s. It is thoroughly researched, densely factual; there may never be need for another biography of the man. Cesarani, a British scholar specializing in Jewish history, can be a plodder — turf battles among the Nazis are like turf battles anywhere else — but his accounts of Eichmann’s early years, of his escape to Argentina and eventual capture are richly informative.

Cesarani believes his details add up to a portrait at odds with Arendt’s banal bureaucrat, but what is striking is how far his research goes to reinforce her fundamental arguments. No issue is more important to understanding Eichmann than the nature of his anti-Semitism, and Cesarani is quite good on the context of Eichmann’s anti-Jewish upbringing. He was raised in northern Austria, in a conventional middle-class household where conventionality included at least a casual anti-Semitism. But describing a gentile Austrian in the 1920’s as an anti-Semite is like describing a white Mississippian in the 1920’s as a racist; it tells us nothing about an individual.