- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2011


By Deborah E. Lipstadt
Schocken/Nextbook, $24.95, 237 pages

Exactly 50 years ago next month, a trial began in Jerusalem that was in itself an important act of retributive justice. But because the defendant, Adolf Eichmann, was a significant figure in the Nazi apparatus designed to exterminate the Jewish people, it was far more important - legally, culturally and historically - than an ordinary murder trial. As this remarkably incisive but nonetheless extensive and probing account by one of our most distinguished historians of the Nazi genocide demonstrates, it did a great deal not only to shape both Israeli and Jewish identities but transformed the whole way in which the world now views what has become known as the Holocaust.

Fine historian that she is, Deborah Lipstadt reminds us that in the courtroom where Eichmann was being judged and in the world at large alike, that term was not in common use. The Nazis’ own sinister title for their dastardly program, Endlosung or Final Solution, was the generally accepted way of referring to this abomination. Given the unprecedented nature of Hitler’s genocide, it is not surprising that it took decades for a shell-shocked world to come to terms with how to view something so monstrous.

In the end, bureaucratic nomenclatures and dry figures couldn’t do. The infernal word Holocaust, with its connotations of cosmic fiery consumption, began to seem more appropriate, less euphemistic, than clinical technical constructions. And in order to understand the human cost of something on this scale, there needed to be individuals, faces, emblazoned on the consciousness of the human race. Which is where Anne Frank came in, her diary, her talent, the iconic image of a pretty young girl replacing the incomprehensible 6 million lost souls, putting that necessary human face on tragedy.

Ms. Lipstadt shows that, in its way, it was equally necessary to put a human face on the diabolical machinery that had created this mayhem. Of course, ultimate blame has to lie with Hitler, whose fanatical visage will always spring to mind, but the fact is that a huge mechanism had to be developed in order to carry out something on this scale.

The author’s detailed account of the prosecution’s strategy and their stunning accomplishment in that courtroom shows that Eichmann was indeed a key player. She notes that they went out of their way to show his personal, hands-on cruelty as well: an incident in which he murdered a young boy for stealing some fruit from one of his trees giving the lie to his defense that he was merely a cog in a machine, a functionary carrying out orders.

So it is ironic that the best-known and, in many ways, the most academically accomplished observer at the trial should have perpetuated Eichmann’s defense, which was so thoroughly discredited and indeed demolished by prosecutors and finally, by the judges in their majestic, dignified definitive verdicts.

This, of course, was the German-Jewish refugee Hannah Arendt, whose book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (based on the articles she had published in the New Yorker) and whose phrase the “banality of evil” became a byword. Arendt’s work was controversial from the moment it appeared, reviled by many who felt that she let Eichmann off too easy while harshly criticizing the victims in the most cavalier, ignorant and profoundly unsympathetic manner.

But there has never been a more devastating deconstruction of Arendt and her screeds than what Ms. Lipstadt has provided in this book. Superbly informed and passionately engaged, it hones in on Arendt’s ambivalence towards Israel, her hostility to the Hebrew language and to Jews of East European origin, all of which contributed to some of the extraordinary statements contained in her account of the trial.

No stranger herself to the ways of academe, Ms. Lipstadt also demonstrates authoritatively how Arendt’s own political and social ideologies determined her thinking, hope- lessly prejudicing her viewpoint. Yet, amazingly, despite her expose of Arendt’s blinkered approach and of her lax attitude (she was absent for much of the trial, including the most important cross-examination of Eichmann), Ms. Lipstadt is capable of being amazingly fair and even finding remarkable veins of ore amid the better-known dross.

She credits Arendt with a robust assertion of Israel’s right to try Eichmann (itself a subject of great controversy worldwide because Israel had kidnapped him in Buenos Aires, where he had been living under an assumed name) and an equally strong defense of the charge that he would not get a fair trial, despite Arendt’s nitpicking and often trivial criticisms of the chief prosecutor.

What an admirable book this is, reflecting its author’s splendid forensic skills as an analytic historian, while managing still to be intensely personal. This preternatural combination really makes it something truly outstanding.

Martin Rubin regularly reviews books for the Wall Street Journal.

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