10/02/2013 12:07 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Eichmann in Jerusalem : 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago, controversy raged over philosopher Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her analysis remains shocking today.

Subsequent research, however, has supported and extended her central thesis. Arendt was not just right about Eichmann's banality. She was right about what we now call the Holocaust, and more generally about the psychology of genocide.

Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped in Argentina by Israeli agents in May 1960 and secretly flown to Israel. There he was put on trial in April 1961, sentenced to death in December 1961, and executed in May 1962 after an unsuccessful appeal.

Recognizing that the trial would be an international sensation, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to report on it. Her report, published in 1963 in a series of articles followed by a book, sparked a firestorm of controversy.

Eichmann was a bureaucrat assigned by Nazi Germany to address "the Jewish question." In that capacity, Arendt wrote, he was immediately "required ... to read Theodor Herzl's Der Judenstaat, the famous Zionist classic, which converted Eichmann promptly and forever to Zionism."

As an expert on Jews in the late 1930s, he testified in Jerusalem, his aim was "a mutually acceptable, mutually fair solution." What the Jews needed, no less than the Germans, was "firm soil under their feet so that they would have a place of their own, soil of their own." Working closely with Jewish leaders, he sought potential homelands for a Jewish nation outside Europe.

Thus emigration was the first solution to the Jewish question. The emigration was to be compulsory, making it a process of expulsion, but convincing Jews to go willingly served both Zionist and Nazi purposes.

The second solution was concentration. As the war made it less feasible to get Jews out of Europe, they were concentrated instead in ghettos and camps. Eichmann's job was to get them there.

The Final Solution was killing. Beginning in 1942, as it became policy to transport Jews to death camps, Eichmann organized those transports.

And here Arendt made her most incendiary observation. It was not just Eichmann who collaborated with the Nazis, and not just Germans. And it was not just anti-Semitic people and governments. Jews also collaborated with the Nazis, and they continued to do so as Nazi policy evolved toward the Final Solution.

It was popular, she noted, to bemoan the fact that Jews were "unorganized and leaderless." It was true that "the Jewish people as a whole ... possessed no territory, no government, and no army." But this was not the whole truth. "Wherever Jews lived," wrote Arendt, "there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis":

In Amsterdam as in Warsaw, in Berlin as in Budapest, Jewish officials could be trusted to compile the lists of persons and of their property, to secure money from the deportees to defray the expenses of their deportation and extermination, to keep track of vacated apartments, [and] to supply police forces to help seize Jews and get them on trains.

Jews "distributed the Yellow Star badges." Jewish Councils (Judenräte) determined who would be sent to death camps, sacrificing some Jews to save others, ultimately failing to save even themselves.

"To a Jew," Arendt wrote, "this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story." If only Jews had been less organized, she maintained, fewer would have died.

Arendt was scornful of Jewish-specific theories purporting to explain the behavior of the victims as the result of a "ghetto mentality" or even a "death wish." She equally rejected German-specific theories purporting to explain the behavior of the perpetrators as the result of pathological anti-Semitism. Eichmann was not a monster and showed no evidence of anti-Semitic motivations.

"The trouble with Eichmann," concluded Arendt, "was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal." Subsequent research shows that her main thesis holds generally for the Holocaust (see especially Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men) and other genocides ("Us and Them: Identity and Genocide").

"Those in power," said Eichmann in Jerusalem, abused his "obedience." "The subject of a good government is lucky, the subject of a bad government is unlucky. I had no luck."

What Eichmann illustrated, concluded Arendt, was "the strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil." In his very banality, Eichmann was the prototypical perpetrator of genocide.