Hannah Arendt: The woman who saw banality in evil

The New York Times reports: Fifty years ago, a small book called “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” by a New School philosophy professor named Hannah Arendt set off a storm like few books before or since. Among Upper West Side intellectuals it sparked, as the critic Irving Howe put it, “a civil war,” siring vicious debates and souring lifelong friendships. It also sold more than 100,000 copies and reshaped the way people have thought about the Holocaust, genocide and the puzzle of evil ever since.

“The Controversy” — as people simply called the growing dispute — is largely forgotten now, and the intense rancor it inspired might seem improbable. But a new movie about the episode, “Hannah Arendt,” which opens Wednesday at Film Forum, revives the debates and the era.

Its director, Margarethe von Trotta, a veteran of the New German Cinema, was skeptical when a friend suggested she make this film 10 years ago. “My first reaction was, how can I make a film about a philosopher, someone who sits and thinks?” she recalled in a phone interview from her home in Paris.

She and her American screenwriter, Pamela Katz, wrote a treatment that covered Arendt’s whole life, but it was too long and diffuse. They decided to focus instead on the Eichmann affair. “It’s better for filmmakers to have a confrontation, not just abstraction,” Ms. von Trotta said.

In May 1960, Adolf Eichmann — the last surviving Nazi higher-up, who had fled to Argentina at the end of the war — was kidnapped by Mossad agents, flown to Jerusalem and tried for crimes against humanity.

Arendt, a Jewish-German refugee and author of a celebrated tome, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” offered to cover the trial for The New Yorker. (Her book originally ran as a five-part article.)

She made two particularly provocative points. The first was that Eichmann, a senior SS officer, was not the malicious organizer of the Nazi death camps, as Israeli prosecutors charged, but rather a mediocre bureaucrat, “a leaf in the whirlwind of time,” as Arendt put it; “not a monster” but “a clown.” Hence the enduring phrase from her book’s subtitle: “the banality of evil.”

Arendt’s second point was that the “Jewish Councils” in Germany and Poland were complicit in the mass murder of their own people. They helped the Nazis round up the victims, confiscate their property and send them off on trains to their doom. Without these Jewish leaders, Arendt wrote, “there would have been chaos and plenty of misery, but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four-and-a-half and six million people.” She added, “To a Jew, this role of the Jewish leaders” was “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of this whole dark story.” [Continue reading…]

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3 thoughts on “Hannah Arendt: The woman who saw banality in evil

  1. delia ruhe

    I can hardly wait to see this film. It’s part of the shift of the last 15 or 20 years to focusing on the perpetrators of the holocaust, a shift that followed a virtual tsunami of survivors’ memoirs:

    “This focus [on perpetrators] is first of all a reflection of the state of the literature: the development of Täterforschung (perpetrator research), understood broadly not only to mean the biographies of key figures but analyses of organizations and networks of persecution, is one of the most noteworthy developments of the last two decades. But it also reflects my opinion that, if one truly wants to understand the unfolding of the Holocaust and the Nazis’ beliefs that lay behind their decisions, one must examine the perpetrators.” Dan Stone, *Histories of the Holocaust* New York: Oxford UP, 2010, (p. 4)

    The only way to understand “evil” — which our religious traditions have convinced us is outside the boundaries of the human — is to question that supposition. Evil does not exist in nature; it is well within the capabilities of humanity (as is kindness). That is what Hannah Arendt learnt from the Eichmann trial — that any ordinary human is capable of evil, and it is that “ordinariness” which led her to see that evil can be quite “banal.” And with that, she dealt Nazism the biggest insult imaginable. It’s true that she went a bit overboard in ferreting out the complicity of victims and perpetrators alike, but her basic thesis was sound.

    A significant contribution to this recent shift of focus to the perpetrators is Jonathan Littell’s humongous novel, *The Kindly Ones*, a novel by a Jewish American written in French and told from the point of view of a high-ranking Nazi — a novel which scandalized as many people as appreciated it. Arendt would have approved of it, I think. I, personally, couldn’t put it down and read its 1000+ pages in about 3 days. I’d recommend it to everyone who wants to get a sense of what it might be like to live inside the head of a human being living in a landscape of horror and contributing to that horror — and then trying to justify it after the fact as defense against a niggling sensation of guilt.

  2. Norman

    No wonder anyone who doubts the “official” version, is stoned to death, sometimes quite literally. The so-called chosen ones are in fact, not so in the sense they publicly display, but were/are complicit in a coverup. Makes sense why they – the survivors – were given a country that the could call home. Never mind that that homeland was stolen from innocent peoples who had nothing to do with any Jews leaving the area 1,000 + years before. As for the leaders of that 1948 beginning, up to the present time, are they not as brutal in the way they treat the Palestinians, ghettoizing them?

  3. BillVZ

    “As for the leaders of that 1948 beginning, up to the present time, are they not as brutal in the way they treat the Palestinians, ghettoizing them?”
    The story the young men of the IDF in this film I would suggest more than confirms that,Norman-they are ‘someones’ son!
    Posted on 05/25/2013 by Juan Cole-Checkpoint – Every Day Life in Palestine Documentary
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2V_qo2FLHvs&feature=player_embedded#! Palestine

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