In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Hannah Arendt comes to the conclusion that the Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichman deserved the death penalty not for what he thought, or did not think, but merely because of what he did: facilitate the death of millions of Jews during Germany’s Third Reich. In resolving the issue as such, Arendt dispels all potential criticism against the verdict, including that the punishment was unjust, or inappropriate, or that Eichmann was not responsible for his actions because he was merely following orders, or had no intention to commit the crimes of which he was accused. Arendt argues that all that is irrelevant in the face of the atrocities that Eichmann committed. In the end, for Arendt, Eichmann had to die because he had orchestrated the death of so many others, and for no other reason.

“Politics is not the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same.” (Eichmann: 375) By this Arendt means that one cannot claim, in the adult world of politics, no responsibility for one’s actions. Further, this statement means that following orders and supporting an action are inseparable: one who follows an order, is obedient to it, and must necessarily support it.

Before offering this opinion, Arendt examines closely some of Eichmann’s philosophies, as evidenced from his own statements during the period of his interrogation and trial in Jerusalem, and offers Eichmann’s own opinions to support this “nursery” statement. Eichmann, according to his own definition, was an “idealist” – one who would have sent his own father to his death to show what an idealist he was. (Eichmann: 318) And for Eichmann, an “idealist” was a man who lived for his idea. (Eichmann: 318) This means that, as the nursery quote implies, that ideals (one’s ideas) and belief in one’s own ideas (sending one’s own father to his death), were inseparable for Eichmann. Similarly, obedience and support would be inextricable. The implication would be that one cannot obey an idea without supporting it: obedience and support are the same.

Arendt offers this philosophy because she wishes to dispel any possible defenses that Eichmann might have presented to diminish or vacate his responsibility for what he did. For example, Eichman definitely tried to use the common ‘Nuremberg Defense,’ that he was merely following orders. Yet Arendt opines clearly that this makes no difference: that it does not even matter that Eichmann “never made a decision on his own.” (Eichmann: 329) Similarly, it does not matter for Arendt that the “overwhelming majority of the German people believed in Hitler.” (Eichmann 333) What mattered for Arendt was that “a great crime” had been committed which “cried out for vengeance.” (Eichmann: 373), in other words that “guilt and innocence before the law are an objective matter.” (Eichmann: 374) What Eichmann means, and I agree with her at least in instances of great crimes such as mass murder, is that there can be no justification whatsoever for such acts. Where such atrocities are committed, and can be traced to a party, a great penalty must be exacted.

The excuse that one’s superiors, or even society as a whole, approved of an act is no justification, according to Arendt, and again, I agree. For example Arendt rightly points out that those people who happened to be against Hitler and his actions were not motivated by “moral indignation” or by the knowledge that “other people had been made to suffer,” but merely because of a fear that Hitler was leading the county to a path of “defeat and ruin.” (Eichmann: 335) Indeed, Eichmann comments on the fact that when the Nazis gassed to death the mentally ill, the populace and as well some dignitaries from the Church so remonstrated that the killings actually stopped, “whereas no such protests were voiced when the program switched to the gassing of Jews.” (Eichmann: 342) This means then for Arendt that it does not matter if one’s actions are supported by others, or not supported, what matters is whether the act itself is right or wrong. This makes sense to me.

Arendt uses this intrinsic notion of justice (right and wrong) to go beyond what the Jerusalem court had done, which had not defined Eichmann’s offenses as she viewed them to be: crimes against humanity. Arendt stated that the court had failed to address the possibility that exterminating Jews might be more than a crime against merely Jews(1), that it would be a crime against humanity. (Eichmann: 373) Arendt felt that the trial, and execution, had to take place “in the interests of justice and nothing else;” (Eichmann: 378) that the fact that Eichmann carried out a “policy of mass murder” was enough to justify the death penalty and guilt in the eyes of the law. Arendt believed that the focus of the court should have been to tell Eichmann (and the world) that, “we are concerned here only with what you did, and not with the possible noncriminal nature of your inner life and of your motives.” (Eichmann: 374) Indeed, Arendt allowed that “everbody could see that Eichmann was not a ‘monster;’” (Eichmann: 328) that he was “neither perverted nor sadistic” and was in fact “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” (Eichmann: 373). Arendt asserts, once again, that none of these inquiries into Eichmann’s inner self are required, and returns once again to the justification that in such cases of great wrong (mass murder), intent to do wrong was not even central to the guilt finding process. (Eichmann: 373) In the end, Arendt offers her own assessment of what the court should have done: found Eichmann guilty and sentenced him to death because of what he had done, plain and simple.

In making such a bold statement, Arendt also brushes past any qualms that others might have had with imposing the death sentence on Eichmann. She refutes any general “principle” against the death penalty. (Eichmann: 364) She gainsays the notion that “Eichmann’s deeds defied the possibility of human punishment.” (Eichmann: 363) I would have to agree with Arendt there, that this crime was not so intrinsically unusual that there could be no proper punishment for it(2). Arendt of course allows that Eichmann was a mere “tiny cog” in the machinery of the Final Solution. (Eichmann: 380) But, this is irrelevant, Arendt contends, because even though it would be “preposterous” to claim that the total losses suffered to the Jews came from this one man, (Eichmann: 322) it is enough that Eichmann was responsible for what she calls, “more and less than common murder.” (Eichmann: 367) It is perhaps because it was a unique form of murder, carried out with indifference(3), that Eichmann should be held so supremely responsible, because he was “clearly” a “new [kind of] criminal,’ (Eichmann: 371), who did what he did not out of spite or being a “monster,” but in a drearily “terrifyingly normal” (Eichmann: 373) fashion.

Ultimately, then, for Arendt, and for me, Eichmann was guilty and deserving of the death penalty because he caused mass murder. Really, nothing more should be considered in the wake of such a monstrous offense. And none of his defenses were valid: “manifestly criminal orders must not be obeyed,” (Eichmann: 383) and “even if eighty million Germans had done” as Eichmann did, Arendt was convinced that the court should still have imposed the death penalty. The act was enough to justify the penalty.



(1) Eichmann was prosecuted under The Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law of 1950, which primarily addressed only crimes against the Jews.

(2) For example some felt that Eichmann should have been forced to toil in slave labor rather than be executed. (Eichmann: 363)

(3) A “banality of evil.” (Eichmann: 365) – “more and less than common murder” (Eichmann: 367)