restricted access “Drama and Narrative in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem
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“Drama and Narrative in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem

Although Hannah Arendt does not question the legitimacy and the conclusions of the Eichmann trial in Eichmann in Jerusalem, she argues that the Israeli court fails to think through totalitarian thoughtlessness when they cast Adolph Eichmann in the role of a Shakespearean evil-doer who desires “to prove a villain” when he is in fact “terribly and terrifyingly normal” in his lack of moral reflection (276). Arendt concludes that, “The failure of the Jerusalem court consisted in its not coming to grips with … a clear recognition of the new criminal who commits this crime” (274). Consequently, Arendt attempts to rescue the story of Eichmann from what she believes to be the court members’ lack of imagination—their own thoughtlessness—by creating a more complete narrative out of the drama of the Eichmann trial. Rather than reject the spectacle of courtroom drama, however, Arendt draws upon the inherently theatrical nature of a trial as an opportunity to think critically through problems of interpreting history. While Arendt agrees with the court’s verdict, she fears that by miscasting Eichmann as a traditional dramatic villain who must be purged from the state, the trial threatens to purge an opportunity to contemplate the consequences of totalitarian consciousness. In her belief that totalitarianism will return if the story of Eichmann remains incomplete, Arendt feels morally compelled to construct from the dramatic elements of the [End Page 41] trial a meaningful narrative about how the lack of independent and critical thinking resulted in the Final Solution.

In the first two sections of this essay, I will investigate Arendt’s keen awareness of the ironic implications involved in courtroom theatrics. Any trial is inherently dramatic, but Arendt criticizes the Israeli court for turning the Eichmann trial into both melodrama and revenge theater because it is unable to consider new and critically effective ways to understand an unprecedented criminal. For Arendt, the post-Holocaust world urgently needs an enduring narrative concerning the role that Eichmann and others like him played in the Final Solution. When the court resorts to theatrics, particularly in their efforts to project upon Eichmann the role of the traditional stage villain, they efface the possibility of a narrative that can make sense of history and allow for a more healthy future. As Arendt argues, however, theater does offer the ability to dramatize politics and history. Further, by recognizing the relationship between theater and politics, drama and life, one can become self-conscious of one’s own theatrical nature. In the following sections, I will explore how Arendt reveals the devastating consequences when individuals lack the dramatic self-awareness of the roles that they play in the Final Solution. The theatrics of Nazism—the disguises that the historical players wear and the ways in which they stage subversions of Judeo-Christian morality—entail real consequences. At the same time, Arendt juxtaposes stories in which Nazis and other individuals become self-conscious of their roles, allowing them to think beyond a morally subverted perspective. These are the stories that Arendt believes the Eichmann trial fails to investigate. After forcing us to become spectators to the drama of both the Eichmann trial and the history of the Final Solution, Arendt interpolates her own judgment of Eichmann as a means to become a participant in the drama. By the concluding section, I argue that, although the Holocaust makes telling a story increasingly impossible, we must become intellectually critical spectators of history by becoming more self-conscious of the roles that we play in the world.


Arendt opens Eichmann in Jerusalem by depicting the courtroom as a stage, making “The House of Justice” immediately ironic when she claims, “clearly, this courtroom is not a bad place for the show trial David [End Page 42] Ben-Guiron … had in mind when he decided to have Eichmann kidnapped in Argentina and brought … to stand trial for his role in the ‘final solution of the Jewish question’” (4–5). Judge Landau “sets the tone,” and the proceedings “happen on a stage before an audience, with the usher’s marvelous shout at the beginning of each session producing the...