Carl Schmitt Reads Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: Archival Perspectives on Convergences and Divergences

The forthcoming article “Carl Schmitt Reads Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: Archival Perspectives on Convergences and Divergences” by Sinja Graf is summarized by the author below. 

Israel’s prosecution of Otto Adolf Eichmann in 1961 was one of the most important and iconic trials of Nazi criminals. Scholarship on Eichmann’s trial can hardly avoid grappling with Hannah Arendt’s now-canonical Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). The book is part of her voluminous oeuvre that is formative of 20th century Western political philosophy. Carl Schmitt remains a highly divisive figures in 20th century Western political thinking, not least because his critique of political liberalism sits very uneasily with his public career under the Nazi dictatorship. Given their respective philosophical stature, it is unsurprising that scholars have analysed similarities and tensions between Arendt and Schmitt’s political philosophies. Such discussions have mostly proceeded without evidence of their reading of one another. The exception is an analysis of archival materials disclosing Arendt’s reading of Schmitt (Jurkevics 2017). However, Schmitt’s engagement with Arendt has remained understudied.  

Nonetheless, unpublished archival documents in the Carl Schmitt Nachlass demonstrate Schmitt’s long-standing interest in Arendt’s life and work and his keen attention to the Eichmann trial. Importantly, Schmitt closely read Eichmann in Jerusalem. The archival materials enable a first-time interpretation of Schmitt’s perspectives on Arendt’s book and his views on Eichmann’s trial. An analysis of Schmitt’s copies of Eichmann, of archival documents and Schmitt and Arendt’s published works focalizes convergences and divergences in their assessments of elemental political and legal questions. His attention to Eichmann is therefore of significance to scholars of politics and law. 

Schmitt’s engagement with Eichmann highlights his and Arendt’s theorizations of the capacity of law to capture mass violence and of the character of political community as a spring of law. Across these issues, Schmitt’s attention to Arendt’s conceptualizations of ‘humanity’ and ‘territory’ is especially salient, which is explained by the fact that they developed rival approaches to these foundational terms. As for ‘humanity, Schmitt closely attended to Arendt’s understanding of ‘crimes against humanity’. The latter she sourced from her conception of ‘humanity’ as the irreducible plurality of individual human beings who create mutually shared, lived-in worlds by acting in concert. Based on her understanding of the Holocaust as a crime against the human status, perpetrated on the body of the Jewish people, Arendt defended the legitimacy of Eichmann’s capital punishment. Schmitt, by contrast, argued that Nazi atrocities exceeded law and legal punishment altogether. He also thought of ‘humanity’ as an empty, abstract universal, political mobilizations of which disavow the political principle of enmity and thus enhance pernicious escalations of violent conflict.  

Schmitt’s engagement with Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann’s case compounds the philosophical significance of the trial, which in itself is an exceedingly important historical event. Furthermore, a close reading of Schmitt’s attention to Arendt’s book invests Eichmann with the coordinates of a unique philosophical landscape that remains inaccessible to analyses of their published works.  

About Author: Sinja Graf is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at London School of Economics and Political Science. Their research “Carl Schmitt Reads Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: Archival Perspectives on Convergences and Divergences” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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