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Friday, July 12, 2013

On Hannah Arendt

This week my wife and I saw the German film Hannah Arendt, which focuses on her coverage of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961-2 for The New Yorker and the heated controversy over the resulting book.  (Curiously, while some scenes appear to feature a very hostile Norman Podhoretz and Lionel Trilling, neither one is identified in the credits by their full name.)  The filmmakers did a remarkable job with a rather uncinematic topic, and they used genuine footage from the Eichmann trial effectively.  They focused, naturally,. on the most controversial part of her reporting, her criticism of the Jewish councils set up by the Nazis, whom she claimed made it much easier to send all the Jews to death camps.  I liked the film but I felt something was missing, and when I spent about an hour last night re-reading Eichmann in Jerusalem I realized what it was.  Arendt, as the very first pages of the first New Yorker article made crystal clear, approached the whole subject of the trial from her own unique perspective, the same perspective that dominates her masterpiece, The Origins of Totalitarianism.  Herself an agnostic German Jew, she received a doctorate in philosophy but left Germany for France during the Nazi period.  Briefly detained in a French camp for enemy aliens in 1940, she escaped and in 1941 managed rather fortunately to get a visa to enter the United States.  Although she returned for some time to Germany after 1945, she became an American citizen and taught at a number of American colleges and universities in the 1950s and 1960s, dying at just 69 in 1975.

One does not have to get to the third page of Eichmann in Jerusalem to realize where Arendt is coming from.  The Israeli government, she explains, designed the Eichmann trial as a show trial designed to educate its own population and the Jews of the diaspora about the mortal threat of anti-Semitism, but the Israeli judges, led by one Moshe Landau, showed at once that they, like Arendt, understood that a real trial had to focus only on the defendant and the crimes that he had committed.   In the same opening chapter Arendt angrily notes that the prosecutor, following the lead of the Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, who had authorized Eichmann's kidnapping in Argentina in order to make the trial possible, argued that only Jews could be trusted to bring the enemies of Jews to justice--the reason why Israel refused even to entertain the possibility of an international tribunal, a kind of reconvened Nuremberg, to handle the case.  And then, on p. 7, she could not refrain from mentioning that Israeli law at that time--and I believe even now--did not allow for civil marriage and thus made it impossible for Jews to marry non-Jews within Israel, similarly, as she herself noted, to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which the prosecutor did not hesitate to denounce as proof of the evil of the Nazis in general and Eichmann in particular.  Nor did Arendt forbear to mention that none of the other newspaper correspondents present took any note of that irony.  Both her merciless sense of justice and her trust in herself were truly Orwellian.  "The trial," wrote Arendt, "was supposed to show [younger Israelis] what it meant to live among non-Jews, to convince them that only in Israel could a Jew be safe and live an honorable life."  Both her devotion to the universal principles of the Enlightenment and her decision to become an American citizen testified to her rejection of that belief.  She also noted the contradiction between the idea of the Jews as a unique people who must depend only upon themselves and the idea of Zionism as a movement designed to give the Jewish people a homeland like that of any other--a contradiction that still plagues the Jewish state today.  The conviction "of the eternal and ubiquitous nature of anti-Semitism," she wrote, "produced the dangerous inability of the Jews to distinguish between friend and foe. . . .If Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, to all practical purposes the head of the Jewish state, meant to strengthen this kind of "Jewish consciousness," he was ill advised; for a change in this mentality is actually one of the indispensable prerequisites for Israeli statehood, which be definition has made of the Jews a people among peoples, a nation among nations, a state among states, depending now on a plurality which no longer permits the age-old and, unfortunately, religiously anchored dichotomy between Jews and Gentiles."

That, however, was not all.  Arendt noted that the trial had forced the German government to take note of certain very prominent former Nazis who had played substantial roles in mass murder and who had been living normal lives in Germany ever since the war--although the sentences they received when convicted, usually just a few years of hard labor, seemed quite inadequate for participants in such crimes.  She also noted that the West German government had not had the courage to ask for the extradition of Eichmann so that they could try him themselves, and later she added that the government minister Franz-Joseph Strauss, in a recent election campaign, had attacked the socialist Willy Brandt, the greatest German statesman of the second half of the twentieth century, for having spent the Nazi years as a refugee outside the country.  Both the Israeli and the West German governments were falling short of the standard she applied to all--the ruthless pursuit of impartial justice--and she didn't care who knew it.

I suspect that these kinds of points, which recur throughout the book, played a great part in inflaming Jewish-American opinion against Arendt, but the actual attacks on her focused upon two other points. The first was her portrait of Eichmann himself, which I confirmed for myself after reading the book by reading the edited version of his interrogation which has now been published in English.  He was both a man without illusions and without apparent feelings.  While he was never the key figure in the Holocaust which the prosecution sought to make him--he had no real decision-making power, and his own preferred solution to "the Jewish question" had been immigration, not extermination--he loyally facilitated mass murder to the best of his ability after it was officially mandated late in 1941 because that was expected of him.  He was not, as his Israeli interrogator evidently had expected him to be, a raving anti-Semite of the type of Julius Streicher, and he had no personal grudges against Jews.  The Israeli psychiatrists who examined him pronounced him remarkably normal,. and so he was, in the sense that he was not the sort of person who would ever have sought therapy on his own.   The question of how so many Germans played, in one way or another, Eichmann's role,. was much better elucidated by another German Jewish woman, the psychoanalyst Alice Miller, about twenty years after Arendt's book, but I will leave that for another day.  The second point which was seized on even more eagerly by her detractors was her observation that the Jewish authorities set up by the Germans, both in Germany itself and in occupied territories, had helped the Germans carried out all their policies, right up until the day when they ordered Polish Jews, for instance, to report for deportation to death camps.  That was painful but true.  It proved that the Nazi experience had stripped almost everyone of their humanity and personal courage, but Arendt emphasized the almost to preserve the hope that human life might prove worthwhile.

In no way did Arendt attempt to exonerate Eichmann, and she concluded her summary of the trial with her own idea of what the trial judge should have said.  "Just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of other nations," she wrote"--as thought you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and should not inhabit the world--we find that no one, that is, no member of the human  race, can be expected to share the earth with you.  This is the reason, and the only reason, why you must hang."  The book is a meditation on the all too widespread moral bankruptcy which the Nazi period unleashed, balanced by an unshakeable commitment to the values that would defeat it.

Near the end of the film, a reporter asks Arendt how she reacted to the United States, and she replies, "Paradise." I have no idea whether she actually said that, and it doesn't sound to me like something she could say.  But I am sure she loved the United States precisely because of its foundation upon the Enlightenment principles in which she so deeply believed--and because she understood that they were the only principles that could sustain modern life on earth.   The world is now forgetting that once again.  To be reminded of those principles, we must reread The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem.


Bozon said...


Wonderful post.

I did not know much of this post WWII history, and still don't, unfortunately.

Re Arendt, I dare say few readers have read Origins, much less the Eichmann work.

Re the enlightenment, a sore point for me lately, someone may think to point out that Ayn
Rand, whose original homeland was also an Arendt topic, in Origins, came here, and flourished, and now has an enormous radical ignorant and ill begotten legacy, based, according to her, on that same ostensibly enlightened political and cultural terrain, and on what she called rational self interest, no doubt a bona fide enlightenment idea, if ever there was one.

Just one of the ironies of enlightenment history, I guess.

all the best,

R J said...

I think that the "Lionel" in the movie was in fact Lionel Abel, who was certainly a fierce critic of Arendt, and not Lionel Trilling.