Adolph Eichmann: Funny Man?

One of the criticisms often made of Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial was that she found Eichmann to be so unintentionally funny. Throughout Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt can barely contain her laughter at the inadvertent comedy of the man. Many at the time found this distasteful; since then, her ironic appreciation of Eichmann’s buffoonery has been a sign, to Arendt’s critics, of her haughty indifference to the suffering he inflicted.

Yet, in reading about the trial, it’s quite clear that Arendt wasn’t the only one who found Eichmann funny. So did the courtroom, which periodically broke out into laughter at the accidental hilarity wafting down from the witness stand. As Deborah Lipstadt reports:

This was not the only time Eichmann seemed oblivious to how strange his explanations sounded. Servatius [Eichmann’s lawyer] asked him about a directive he had issued ordering that trains deporting Jews carry a minimum of one thousand people, even thought their capacity was for only seven hundred. Eichmann claimed that the seven-hundred figure was calculated on the basis of soldiers with baggage. Since Jews’ luggage was sent separately, there was room for an additional three hundred people. The gallery erupted in laughter.

Laughter, Arendt observed in a 1944 essay on Kafka, “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.” Those moments of laughter in Eichmann in Jerusalem—and in the courtroom—did not reflect an indifference to cruelty or suffering but a will to divest them of their unearned gravitas.

Laughter does not minimize evil; it denies evil the final word.


  1. MIchael McLendon October 22, 2014 at 1:19 am | #

    Interesting. While I am not overly familiar with the debate, I do recall her detractors arguing that she was taken in my Robert Servatius’ defense of him. Perhaps this suggests otherwise. I always thought she viewed him as more idiot than banal–her contempt for him is obvious. Ridicule,as she points out, is the most effective way to de-legitimize an opponent.

  2. escott October 22, 2014 at 9:56 am | #

    Laughter, Arendt observed in a 1944 essay on Kafka, “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.”
    Associating Eichmann to this quote, I’d alter the quote above to read – “permits man to maintain a outlook necessary for survival, requiring indifference to his failures and to atrocities that would otherwise wreck his normal psychic comfort relating to reality”.
    “Freedom” in the Arent quote is artfully associated to indifference (serene superiority), changing the meaning of the word.

  3. Edward October 22, 2014 at 8:28 pm | #

    People laugh until goofballs like this get into power. I remember an antiwar event I attended before the invasion where a cooky marine captain showed up wearing a “Rumsfeld is God” billboard. Everybody was laughing at the ignorant questions he was asking some speakers. I was thinking, though, you wouldn’t be laughing if this man was in charge of a platoon and pointing a rifle at you.

    Stupidity works if you have a rifle and no one else does. The right wing military dictatorships the U.S. government loves so much seem pretty stupid as well as brutal.

  4. Roquentin October 23, 2014 at 7:40 am | #

    I have to say, I really don’t understand the need to have Eichmann be serious as cancer. Arendt was quite right to portray him as a buffoon. What kind of swine do people think would rise to the top in an organization like that. Crass, hopelessly corrupt careerists, who don’t give a shit about anything or anyone else. People watch sentimental nonsense like that Valkyrie movie Tom Cruise put out without batting an eye, but they don’t mention that the men who attempted to assassinate Hitler were perfectly fine with everything….so long as it looked like they were winning. It was only late in war, when no one could deny they were losing and it was all but certain Stalin would have them all killed, that they decided all that stuff about a thousand year reich wasn’t so great.

    I think she really captures the tragic stupidity of it all. Eichmann just through it was better than selling vacuum cleaners. The rest was window dressing.

  5. lawrence serewicz November 9, 2014 at 3:46 pm | #

    Thanks for an interesting post. One must always remember that ridicule is not a refutation. The most direct way to put this is that victims of the Final Solution did not laugh their way to the gas chambers or the firing squads. Even if they did, what would it prove? They were dead and the Nazis were alive.
    I expand on these points in my post found here:

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