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The Arrest of Eichmann

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To mark the publication of Stuart Jeffries' Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School in paperback, we're publishing excerpts and pieces related to Frankfurt School thinkers. Here: Max Horkheimer's 1960 essay on the arrest of Adolf Eichmann, collected in Critique of Instrumental Reason


A subordinate in the ranks of National Socialism, Eichmann by name, who was specially charged with the elimination of the Jews in Germany and in German-occupied countries, has been arrested in Argentina by Israeli nationals and brought to Israel. There he is to be tried and judged. The number of Jews murdered at Eichmann’s orders is variously estimated at from three quarters of a million to four or five million. He was proud of his role in the “final solution” and, indeed, was on the side of the law according to the prevailing unjust law. If the Israeli court wants to prove itself competent, it will declare itself incompetent.

It is evident that the formal grounds given for the proceedings are untenable. Eichmann did not commit his murders in Israel, and Israel cannot want the arrest of criminals inside the sanctuary which they have, rightly or wrongly, obtained, to become the rule. Punishment is the means by which a state forces men to observe the law within its own boundaries; its purpose is deterrence. All other theories of punishment are just bad metaphysics. To suppose, however, that punishment inflicted in Israel will deter possible imitators of Eichmann is nonsense. Indeed, whatever be the sentence passed on Eichmann in Israel, it will prove the weakness, not the strength, of Jews’ awareness of their rights; it will be a usurpation, not a legitimate manifestation, of civil authority. Everyone knows, moreover, that it is only because of the present political situation that people are letting pass this kind of arrest in a foreign country; the procedure itself recalls the methods used in states quite different from Israel.

The internal grounds given for the arrest and trial are no less inadequate. The trial, it is claimed, will make the youth of Israel and other nations aware of the true nature of the Third Reich. If, however, such knowledge must win the place it ought to have in the consciousness of present and future generations, not by way of the solid literature that is now available in scientific as well as in generally accessible form in all the major languages, but only by way of up-to-the-minute trial reports and international sensationalist journalism, then prospects for that knowledge are poor indeed. The mind upon which the death of the Jews under Hitler can make an impression only through new headlines has very little depth and is hardly likely to retain any recollection of what it reads. It is difficult to foresee the real effects of repeated references during a trial to the elimination of the Jews; it is difficult, that is, to foresee the real political and psychological effect on various peoples. The youth of Israel and many people in other countries whom the authorities hope to win over will entertain the frustrating suspicion that the dead are here being used as a political or even a pedagogical tool, a tactical weapon or a piece of propaganda, even if in the pursuit of a very praiseworthy national purpose. The opposition of the forces of good to those of destruction around the world will be paralyzed, because here the opposition is using the very intellectual weapons which the the enemy takes for granted. Criminal trials for calculated ends belong in the arsenal of antisemitism, not in that of Judaism. Such trials will certainly not stop the many evil men among the nations of the earth from such crimes as can occur without the earth opening up to swallow the perpetrators.

The expectations of the Israeli authorities concerning the influence of the Eichmann revelations are incorrect. Persecution and mass murder are basic themes of world history. Seldom have they frightened off future Fuhrers and their camp followers. Political systems that use terrorism often become repugnant for a time when they have been defeated by domestic or foreign enemies, but the abhorrence passes and enthusiasm for terrorist methods is kindled anew. For decades after Waterloo no one dared defend Napoleon, to say nothing of the great Revolution. But when Louis Philippe’s economic miracle came to pass, Napoleon’s casket was brought to Paris and the infamous man finally mounted the new imperial throne, until the Prussians defeated him a second time. Yet at the end of the century France was regarded as the protectress of freedom. The power of forgetfulness is great; it has grown and is still growing with the spread of communications. One novelty drives another from the limelight of press and radio, but the old continues to exert its influence in hidden and uncontrolled ways.

As a final (or foremost) reason for the trial, we hear reparation mentioned as though it were an obvious human necessity. I have a deep distrust of the term reparation. It seems to me to arise in an alien world and to conceal sinister impulses; it reminds me of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition. The very idea that Eichmann could “atone” for his deeds according to a human standard and the sentence of a human judge is a mockery of the sacrifice the Jews made, a gruesome and grotesque mockery. I can much more readily understand the open determination to seek revenge, however poor that revenge would be in comparison with the crimes being avenged. If someone who had lost father and mother because of Hitler’s order had ambushed the scoundrel in Argentina and killed him in the street, he would not be acting as a tactician or a pedagogue but as a human being with whom anyone could sympathize. But the trial in Israel, however carefully prepared, in fact precisely because it is being so carefully staged, offends right feeling.

The desire to prevent Eichmann from taking part in the plans of the more recent agents of fascism is understandable, but the desire to punish him for his criminal deeds is beneath Israel’s dignity. No people has suffered more than the Jews from that kind of mentality. The refusal to accept violence as a proof of the truth is a perennial trait in Jewish history, and Judaism has turned the suffering it endured in consequence of this refusal into a factor in its own unity and permanence. Instead of either leading to redemption or giving rise to some special malice or vileness (traits not lacking, after all, in Jews any more than in other peoples), injustice has in their case become a mode of experience. Suffering and hope have become inseparable in Judaism. At one point in their history the European peoples became aware of this connection and, in their confession of the martyred redeemer, introduced into the godhead itself the torments which Jews were willing to suffer for the sake of that ultimate future they could not abandon. The acceptance of destiny became a religion. Jews, however, are not ascetical people, as the first Christians were; they have never glorified or worshipped or sought or praised suffering but only experienced it. Yet more than for other peoples suffering is inextricably intertwined with their memory of the dead. According to the Jewish law men cannot become saints through suffering, as in Christianity; suffering simply colors remembrance of the dead with an infinite tenderness that does not depend on the consoling thought of eternal life. The Jew in whom the sight of the imprisoned Eichmann arouses a desire to see him suffer has not reflected seriously enough on his own existence. “An eye for an eye,” says a legal principle in the Bible. But even if imagination were not forced to admit its inadequacy in attempting to apply the principle to Eichmann, history has provided religion with instructive experience: to undertake an unnecessary punishment of Eichmann amounts to treating him in the way that earns the Jewish dead the love of their people.

The Israeli politicians who must guide the new state in a rapidly changing world are too caught up in activity to dwell on the thoughts we have been suggesting. The philosopher is not a practical man. He argues the incompetence of the court and asks that Eichmann be returned to the country from which he was spirited away. The philosopher believes that no good can come of the trial, either for the security or the situation of the Jew in the contemporary world, or even for Jewish self-awareness. The trial is a repetition: Eichmann will cause harm a second time.