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An early and abiding Nazi enthusiast: Eichmann in Ayalon Prison, Israel, in 1961

Hannah Arendt affected reluctance before accepting the New Yorker's commission to cover the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Having fled Germany in 1933, she had established herself as a five-star New York specialist in totalitarian ideology. Her youthful, adulterous affair with her Nazi-friendly professor Martin Heidegger had more spiced than damaged her reputation. With all the credentials needed for a judicious revenant, she could be relied upon not to embarrass Gentile readers with any show of partisan emotionalism. She came, she saw, she pontificated. Her conclusive tag-line, that Adolf Eichmann impersonated "the banality of evil", had the ring of laid-back smart-alecry which catered to William Shawn's editorial taste. The phrase has served ever since to encapsulate Eichmann's character. In downgrading him to being, as he claimed in court, no more than a small cog in the machinery of the Holocaust, it has blessed him with the dim aura of a scapegoat.

Arendt arrived in Jerusalem with the preconceived notion that Eichmann should have been tried in Germany, not Israel. She seemed unaware that the Federal German authorities, led by Paul Dickopf, an ex-SS officer (later head of Interpol), had done all they could to impede any investigation of his whereabouts and had no wish to put him on trial. Post-war Germany was full of sleeping dogs, ensconced in comfortably upholstered, state-salaried baskets. According to Bettina Stangneth, "The structures of the Third Reich . . . were supposed to have been replaced by a new state, though there were no new people to administer it." It requires no great wit to see the 1958 Treaty of Rome as a means of restarting the old continent's blood-stained history with a blanched calendar. The last thing anyone wanted was a garrulous return of the repressed truth about Nazi genocide. 

Arendt's scorn for Eichmann's petty bourgeois notion of philosophy and his undistinguished posture in the glassed dock was balanced by her ex-Zionist distaste for Israel, for the too-emotional prosecutor Gideon Hausner and for the attendant horde of what she chose to call "oily Jews". She also shared the New York Times's view that a public trial would "do Israel more harm than good . . . reprisals . . . would be inevitable". Arendt was so determined to be dispassionate that she "bought" Eichmann's performance. It did not occur to her that his affectations of insignificance might be a calculated imposture. The defendant's repetitions and platitudes were assumed to disclose the limits of his world. He was clever enough to depict himself, as Stangneth puts it, "as precisely the type of benevolent humanist and admirer of philosophy that he had sought to destroy when the Nazis were in power". By doing much the same thing, Albert Speer had avoided the gallows and, in time, turned sackcloth and ashes into a comely costume. Both men looked and sounded rather different when dressed in Hugo Boss's well-cut kit.

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