A new exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which ran in Jerusalem for nine months beginning in April 1961, continues this critical rethinking. "Facing Justice -- Adolf Eichmann on Trial," at the Topography of Terror, which documents the Nazi apparatus in the Third Reich, brings it back for updated reflection, with photographs and videos of witnesses, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges.
While the victims get a strong voice in telling of their suffering, Eichmann remains the central figure, who in his own words captures our attention for his matter-of-fact distortion of truth and his self-satisfied lack of remorse. If ever there was a man who gave definition to George Orwell's word "doublethink," it was Eichmann, director of "Section IV D4" for "Jewish affairs" in the Reich Security Main Office.
Hannah Arendt occupies a small part of this exhibit, presented in a photograph and in excerpts from the pages of the New Yorker magazine, for whom she reported the trial. But the exhibition is an accumulative refutation of her thesis that Eichmann reflected the "banality of evil" -- the ordinariness of a bureaucratic criminal merely following orders, and not the anti-Semitic zealot he was, carrying out the Nazi program of extermination of the Jews with pride, pleasure and perniciousness.
He explained his actions for getting rid of Jews with dull understatement, but he was considerably more than a small cog in the vast Nazi machine, who claimed to fear for his life if he refused to execute policy.
In fact, as this exhibit makes clear, no one who objected to following orders in the extermination of the Jews was severely punished. Arendt regretted using the phrase "banality of evil" in relation to Eichmann -- which was the subtitle for her book about the trial -- because there was nothing ordinary or boring about him. He fascinates as he hides in plain sight, manipulating through rhetorical tricks a revisionist history of his past. One scholar puts it succinctly in the catalogue that "Arendt had been hoodwinked to a degree by Eichmann's staging of himself at the trial as an obedient 'receiver of orders.'"