Did Hannah Arendt Ever See Eichmann Testify? A Second Reply to Richard Wolin

In his critique of Seyla Benhabib’s account of the Arendt/Eichmann controversy, which I wrote about earlier today, Richard Wolin makes an additional claim I’ve been puzzling over:

Second, a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence indicates that so great was her impatience with the proceedings that she never saw Eichmann testify. Arendt endured chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s lengthy opening statement and, following an absence of several weeks, returned to Jerusalem to witness the final verdict. But, remarkably, she never saw Eichmann himself take the stand. (Here, one suspects that Arendt’s rather brazen disregard for the value of testimony, not to speak of the norms of journalism, is an instance of Germanic philosophical arrogance. As J. G. Fichte said, if the facts fail to accord with the sublimity of the idea, so much the worse for the facts!)

I’ve spent the better part of this evening re-reading Arendt’s letters to her three main correspondents during the Eichmann trial—the philosopher Karl Jaspers, her husband Heinrich Blücher, and her friend Mary McCarthy—and I cannot find any evidence for Wolin’s claims; in fact, there’s much in the letters indicating that they are incorrect.

It helps first to remember three key dates from the Eichmann trial:

April 11, 1961: first day of the Eichmann trial

June 20, 1961: Eichmann takes the stand

December 11, 1961: the Israeli court issues its verdict

Right off the bat, it’s clear that Wolin’s chronology is off: Arendt could not have been in Jerusalem for the prosecutor’s opening statement only, left for a few weeks, and then returned for the verdict. Roughly eight months separate the first day of the trial from the announcement of the verdict.

And indeed, when the verdict was issued in December, Arendt was either in New York, nursing Blücher back to health (he had suffered from a ruptured aneurism), or in Middletown, Connecticut, where she would have been wrapping up a seminar on Machiavelli she had been teaching at Wesleyan that fall. The one place she would not have been was in Jerusalem, as is clear from a letter she wrote to Jaspers on December 30, 1961, and from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography.

But once I started poring over the correspondence, it became clear that Wolin got more than the dates of the trial and Arendt’s attendance wrong. He also seriously misstates what Arendt saw and heard at the trial and her attitude to the trial and its testimony. Most important, the centrally damning claim he makes—that Arendt never saw or heard Eichmann testify—is in all likelihood wrong. What’s more, the very evidence for its wrongness comes from the very sources Wolin cites as evidence: namely, Arendt’s correspondence.

Arendt arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday April 9, 1961, two days before the trial began, and headed straight for Jerusalem. At the trial, she listened intently not only to Hausner’s opening statement, but also to lengthy recordings of Eichmann’s depositions. As she wrote to Blücher on April 20:

Here everything is going as expected…with the ghost in the glass cage listening to his voice sounding from the magnetic tape.

Arendt also heard testimony from a great variety of witnesses for the prosecution, including one of the leaders of the Warsaw Uprising; the father of Herschel Grynszpan, whose assassination of Ernst vom Rath had provided the pretext for Kristallnacht; and Salo Baron, the eminent Jewish historian. In fact, as the days went on, Arendt grew increasingly frustrated by this testimony, as so little of it had to do with Eichmann himself. As she wrote to Blücher on May 6:

The basic mistake—if one can say such a thing—is not only that Eichmann has been completely forgotten, his name often not mentioned for days on end (really typical, e.g.,: After the prosecution put 29 volumes [!] concerning Hans Frank on the table, Servatius [me: Eichmann’s attorney] rose and asked: “Does the name Eichmann appear in any of these volumes!” The answer: “No”)…

Far from being uninterested in what Eichmann had to say, Arendt was profoundly interested in him and his testimony. She watched him closely throughout the trial: “Eichmann is no eagle; rather, a ghost who has a cold on top of that,” as she wrote to Jaspers on April 13. And throughout her stay in Jerusalem and in the time after that, she kept recurring to the six volumes of testimony (more than 3000 pages) he had given in his depositions. Not to mention the lengthy trial transcript she pored over for months as she prepared her articles for The New Yorker.

Then, on May 6, she writes to Blücher that she is leaving Jerusalem the next morning for Switzerland, where she will visit Jaspers. As she’s about to leave, she wonders:

The question is: Should I come back here again for the defense? I imagine I should, but I’m not sure….Of course it also depends on my appointments. Zurich on June 24th—etched in stone!

That date, the 24th of June, was a reference to a long-planned reunion between her and Blücher, who would be meeting Jaspers and his wife, both of whom had played such an important role in Arendt’s life, for the very first time.

As the weeks go by, first in Switzerland with Jaspers, and then in Germany, Arendt decides she must return to Jerusalem. The only question is when. “If I only knew when I have to go back to Jerusalem,” she writes McCarthy on May 31.

Why was Arendt so eager to return to Jerusalem? Simply and solely to see and hear Eichmann testify. And what did she mean by “if I only knew when I have to go back to Jerusalem”? The date that Eichmann was to assume the witness stand. Contrary to everything Wolin explicitly states and implicitly suggests in his piece, seeing and hearing Eichmann testify was a top priority for Arendt between the time of her first and second visit to Jerusalem.

On June 4, Arendt tells Blücher that she thinks she’ll be in Jerusalem by the 17th. And adds, “With a bit of luck, it might happen in the week of June 17 that Eichmann will be called to the witness stand.”

On June 14, a Wednesday, she writes Blücher:

So I’m flying to Israel on Saturday, as I already wrote you. The trial will start again on the 20th, and I’m afraid that Hausner will try to delay matters even further. But I have at least to try to see Eichmann <editor’s note: on the witness stand>….I will leave there on Friday the 23rd, either directly for Zurich, or via Athens—it all depends.

So, that’s all. Here’s my address again, just to be sure: Hotel Eden, Jerusalem till Friday the 23rd. After that, with you: Waldhaus Dolderer, Zurich.

On June 16, a Friday, she writes Jaspers: “I’m off tomorrow morning.”

Unfortunately, the three editions of her correspondence do not include any letters from this second visit to Jerusalem. Probably because she knew she was going to be seeing Jaspers and Blücher, the two people she corresponded with most intently during that time, within days.

What we do know, from Lipstadt, is that Eichmann did indeed take the stand on the 20th of June, and unless Arendt canceled her trip to Jerusalem at literally the last minute (“I’m off tomorrow morning”), we also know that she was in the city when he took the stand. It would seem strange if, after all these expressions of desire to see Eichmann in court, she decided not to stop by.

I should say that I’ve only managed to consult the sources I’ve cited here. There may be other sources out there that would confirm Wolin’s claims. If there are, I apologize in advance. But I would also like to claim an exemption on two grounds. First, I didn’t have access to those sources; I did the best that I could with the books that I have and the books I could access on the web. Second, Wolin himself claims that it was “a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence” that led him to the conclusion “that she never saw Eichmann testify.” Limiting myself to that correspondence, which I read carefully rather than perused, should have yielded at least some evidence for his conclusion. It has not, so I believe I am justified in concluding, that at least by Wolin’s own lights, his claim is not correct.

Update (7:30 am)

I’m getting reports this morning that Deborah Lipstadt, whose The Eichmann Trial I link to above, makes a similar claim as Wolin. I don’t have her book and was able to access those pages regarding the chronology of the Eichmann trial that I mention above only through Google. I’ll try to get a copy of the book and report back what I find. Lipstadt is a careful scholar, so I’ll definitely want to see what she says and what sources she cites. Perhaps Wolin got his claim from her, perhaps she has further information. Anyway, will report back once I have more information.

Update (10:30 am)

I’ve now been able, with the help of Amazon and Google Reader, to find out what Lipstadt says in The Eichmann Trial. The crucial passages are on pp. 178-180. Long story short, she confirms what I said in my post.

First, Lipstadt says that after traveling in Switzerland for five weeks (also Germany, actually), Arendt returned to Jerusalem to see Eichmann on the witness stand. There, she saw and heard Servatius, Eichmann’s attorney, ask him questions.

Second, Lipstadt’s criticism of Arendt is that Arendt did not stay to witness Hausner’s cross-examination of Eichmann. Had she stayed, says Lipstadt, Arendt might have seen something about Eichmann, under Hausner’s withering critique, that she could not have gleaned from the transcript.

None of us, of course, knows if that’s true, but I suspect Lipstadt’s wrong. Given that Arendt was so irritated by Hausner’s and the prosecution’s general line of attack—Arendt felt that rather than trying Eichmann for his deeds, the state was more interested in narrating the larger history of the Holocaust—I suspect that seeing the cross-exam for herself would have only further confirmed Arendt’s premonitions. But that’s speculation. And in any event, immaterial to the larger issue of whether Arendt was ever there to see Eichmann testify. She was.

Third, Lipstadt is very careful to point out that simply because Arendt wasn’t there for part of the trial does not invalidate her conclusions; a great many accounts of trials, Lipstadt says, are based entirely on a reading of the transcript.

So, bottom line: Lipstadt does not provide any evidence for Wolin’s claim.

Lipstadt’s footnotes in this section make reference to Arendt’s correspondence with Jaspers and McCarthy, which I examined carefully last night and the results of which I reported in my post. Lipstadt also refers in her footnotes to p. 149 of Raul Hilberg’s memoir. Hilberg was a historian of the Holocaust. Indeed, he wrote the first genuinely comprehensive history of the Holocaust, from which Arendt drew extensively in her book—much to Hilberg’s chagrin; he felt like he never got the proper acknowledgment from her or from subsequent scholars of the controversy.

On p. 149 of his memoir, Hilberg claims that Arendt stayed in Jerusalem for ten weeks and then left three days before Eichmann assumed the stand. He claims that Arendt’s published correspondence with Jaspers shows this. Hilberg might be Wolin’s source, though I took Wolin’s “a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence” to mean that Wolin had done the perusing. In any event, Hilberg is wrong on all accounts: Arendt did not stay in Jerusalem for ten weeks; she did not leave three days before Eichmann assumed the stand; and her correspondence with Jaspers does not show any of this.

Two other sources.

According to a commenter on the blog, David Cesarini, no friend of Arendt’s, claims in his book on Eichmann that she was there for the first days of Eichmann’s testimony. Which fits with my account and Lipstadt’s.

Daniel Maier-Katkin, a professor at Florida State, has reconstructed the timeline of Arendt and the trial in footnote 44 of this post (h/t Patchen Markell). I don’t know what his sources are (I’ve emailed him to ask but have not yet heard back), but his reconstruction of the chronology largely fits with mine, albeit with some additional details:

The trial was in session between April 11 and July 24. Arendt was present in the courtroom from April 11 through May 8. Between May 8 and June 23 the trial was dominated by sessions on the admissibility of more than 1000 documents; Arendt, who was travelling in Europe during those weeks, had full access to all of those documents. Arendt was present between June 20 and 23 to hear the first sessions of Adolf Eichmann’s testimony, but not for the final two weeks of trial when he was cross-examined by Gideon Hausner, whose approach to the trial as a telling of the story of the Holocaust rather than a juridical inquiry into Eichmann’s role Arendt found tiresome and disquieting.

So, again, nothing in the correspondence even remotely suggests that Arendt was not there to witness personally at least some of Eichmann’s testimony. And much in the correspondence—and now secondary accounts—demonstrates precisely the opposite.




  1. GerardO October 2, 2014 at 7:56 am | #
    • GerardO October 2, 2014 at 7:58 am | #

      apologies for the naked URL

    • Corey Robin October 2, 2014 at 9:07 am | #

      Can you email me the exact statement that Cesarini makes, preferably with a scanned version of the text? I don’t have that book either and don’t have a Tablet or anything by which to download. My email address is corey.robin@gmail.com. Thanks, Corey

  2. realthog October 2, 2014 at 9:15 am | #


  3. Tanya Rostowicz October 2, 2014 at 9:59 am | #

    you can get a copy of the Lipstadt book here in epub form: http://lib.freescienceengineering.org/view.php?id=726331

    crucial passages appear around page 164; she claims that Arendt “heard Servatius examine Eichmann,” but that “she left just before Hausner began his cross-examination.” The remarks are footnoted to pages in the correspondence with McCarthy and Jaspers.

    Just quickly reading, but you are right, it’s a rigorous, carefully-argued, largely balanced and well-documented chapter, and her point about this–which does not seem to support Wolin–is that had Arendt “been present when Eichmann was locked in an adversarial exchange with Hausner,” she might “have gathered some insight from his demeanor and body language” (vs. reading the transcript later)–but that she was present for Eichmann’s main testimony.

    • Corey Robin October 2, 2014 at 10:42 am | #

      Thanks for your comment. See my second update; we were working on parallel tracks!

  4. Rosa October 2, 2014 at 12:20 pm | #

    Hilberg’s statement is actually on page 148.

  5. tomdumm October 3, 2014 at 1:08 pm | #

    For me, one of the most important puzzles of the everlasting debate concerning the banality of evil argument concerns the status of thoughtlessness and its relationship to banality. Regardless of the source for Arendt, Heidegger or Kant, in either case she understood that thoughtlessness is a terrible human phenomenon. Wolin seems to minimize Arendt’s appreciation of the terrible power of thoughtlessness, while Benhabib, while seeming to understand this point, doesn’t explain the connection of thoughtlessness to banality other than through simple assertion. I am not sure Arendt herself does, at least in the pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Perhaps the deeper question for all of us is trying to understand why and how Arendt connects thoughtlessness to banality.

  6. Some guy October 3, 2014 at 7:19 pm | #

    Perhaps the deeper question for all of us is trying to understand why and how Arendt connects thoughtlessness to banality

    Fox News viewers: thoughtless? Or banal?

    You decide…

  7. Roquentin October 7, 2014 at 12:22 am | #

    I read up a bit on Wolin via a Google, just because of this blog. Something about his other works triggered a realization in me. He has this way of trying to turn philosophical debates into battles over sordid personal drama. Did Hannah Arendt see every single moment of Eichmann’s testimony? This is his question. My retort, does it even matter? What difference does it make, even if purely for the sake of argument we say she read portions of his testimony from a transcript? How does this in any way undermine the strength of Arendt’s argument? Are these petty details really what the debate over Eichmann in Jerusalem should focus on?

    These things are so……..not the point. At all. As if what was really at stake were the precise moment in her life she was exposed to Kant or the specific number of days she spent in a courtroom in Jerusalem.

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