Very recently I came upon a German book on the correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Joachim Fest regarding the Eichmann controversy. I had read Eichmann in Jerusalem, A report on the banality of evil in 2002. The book impressed me a lot, but I was not aware of the fierce controversy it provoked at publication and prior to the German translation. So I wanted to read her book again, and I specially bought a first edition. I am not a collector of first prints, but for some memorable books I like to have a copy as it was first seen in the bookshops.
Why is it still so important for me? Because this book gives a general survey of how the Nazis set about to destroy a complete people. In films (for instance Schindler’s list or The Pianist) you see how they put hundreds of Jews on trains, you see the brutal behaviour of the military.
But there is much more to it. In this book Hannah Arendt analyses a new kind of crime and a new kind of criminal. Because these people had to be gathered, they had to be rounded up, someone needed to make lists, transport had to be provided. There was a whole administration working to this end, hence Eichmann.
There was also a lot of legislation. To make Jews stateless, to let them fill in the necessary documents to facilitate the confiscation of their own goods.
This huge job could not be done by the Nazis alone. They needed help and they organised it through the Jewish councils (Judenräte) and the authorities of the European countries that were in one way or another subjected to the Germans.
This help provided by the Judenräte was a sore point for the Jews after the war. This was the basis for a lot of the controversy. Hannah Arendt was attacked ferociously among many others by Golo Mann.
Another point that caused some unease, was the fact that Hannah Arendt underlined the mediocrity of Eichmann as a person. There wasn’t a ferocious criminal standing in the dock, but a mere pen-pusher. A civil servant with a complete lack of imagination. That was why she coined the sentence: the banality of evil.
The cooperation of European states is interesting. Arendt gives an overview state by state. The Nazis used the step by step approach, tightening the screws. Beside the accumulating measures for humiliating Jews, wearing of the star, barred from restaurants and public places, etc, they used a whole range of legal matters.
The first drastic measure was to make German Jews stateless. When the Nazis approached subordinated countries to help solve the Jewish question they always started with the stateless Jews. Most countries did not have problems with handing them over to the Germans. Things became different when they also asked to hand over their own national Jews. This was the case of France, for instance, where the authorities became very unwilling to help.
The attitude of Denmark made a very deep impression. They refused to cooperate on any level. Asked for the stateless Jews they replied: they are stateless, so what concern are they to you? When the Nazis wanted to introduce the star for all Jews, they were told that King Christian X would be the first to wear the star. Eventually the Germans decided to uproot the Jews with their own manpower, but thanks to an information leak and swift action by Danish civilians, the vast majority of the Danish Jews were transported to safety in neutral Sweden by means of fishing boats and motorboats.
I believe that the Danish attitude was a courageous example. It shows that saying NO is possible and a much more dignified attitude than despondent resignation. For me, this is what Amnesty International still does, to speak out, and that is why I help them in a modest way.
In an epilogue Hannah Arendt analysed the legality of the process and the judgement. She deplores that the judges in Jerusalem did not seize the opportunity to make first steps to a new international penal law.
It is essentially for this reason: that the unprecedented once it has appeared may become a precedent for the future, that all trials touching upon “crimes against humanity” must be judged according to a standard that is today still an “ideal.” If genocide is an actual possibility of the future, then no people on earth — least of all, of course, the Jewish people, in Israel or elsewhere — can feel reasonably sure of its continued existence without the help and the protection of international law. Success or failure in dealing with the hitherto unprecedented can lie only in the extent to which this dealing may serve as a valid precedent on the road to international penal law. And this demand, addressed to the judges in such trials, does not overshoot the mark and ask for more than can reasonably be expected. International law, Justice Jackson pointed out at Nuremberg, ‘is an outgrowth of treaties and agreements between nations and of accepted customs. Yet every custom has its origin in some single act. Our own day has the right to institute customs and to conclude agreements that will themselves become sources of a newer and strengthened international law.”