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…]