Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann Trial

I was surprised last Saturday when we went to the 5  p.m. showing of “Hannah Arendt” at Washington’s Avalon Theater and found an audience exceeding 100.  The film, released earlier this year, and directed by German director/biographer Margarethe von Trotta, tells the story of Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial in Jeruselem in 1961 against the backdrop of her life story.  The film is well acted (in German and English), with Arendt played by Barbara Sukowa very effectively.

Arendt comes across as a difficult, and only somewhat sympathetic, character.  This is probably true to life.  Born to Jewish parents and educated in Germany, where she had an early affair with one of her teachers, well known German philosopher Martin Heidegger, she emigrated to France with the coming of Hitler.  There she worked for a number of Jewish and particularly Zionist organizations, and eventually imprisoned in the infamous Gurs concentration camp in southern France, she escaped and was eventually, with the help of Varian Fry and Hiram Bingham, was one of the German Jewish intellectuals who were admitted into the United States.  She spent the rest of her life in New York (except for short teaching times elsewhere), where she wrote and taught.

Her 1951 book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, won her fame and admiration.  Focusing on Communist Russia and Fascist Germany, she described the difference between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and the effect of living under these differing systems on the inhabitants of these varying places.  Under the totalitarian system, by design, the individual lost  or her individuality and was absorbed in an all pervasive (i.e., totalitarian) society.

When Israel kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for much of Hitler’s Final Solution, in Argentina and brought him to Israel for trial, Arendt was hired by the New Yorker to cover the trial and write it up for the magazine.  This was clearly a coup for the New Yorker which, then as now, had a large Jewish readership which would clearly be interested in the trial and in what Arendt would have to say about it.

The film uses actual trial film interspersed with the story line quite effectively.  It shows Arendt as being unhappy with the way the trial is progressing and being handled, and shows an Israeli society composed of German refugees (many of whom she had known growing up) with very different opinions as to the trial and what its outcome should be. When Arendt goes home at the end of the trial, waiting for the court’s decision (which takes many months), she brings with her the trials transcripts and sits down to write her articles.

This turns out to be not so easy (for whatever reasons) and her work is delayed and delayed and delayed.  When it finally appears (I think it takes two years), it is published in five long installments.  Because of her scholarly and personal reputation, the magazine editors tread very lightly on her copy, and even when they suggest that she tone down one section, she refuses, and the articles are printed.

According to the film, they create a firestorm.  Arendt is accused of being anti-Israel, a self-hating Jew, a closet supporter of the Nazi regime (her ex-lover Heidegger having joined the party) and worse of all as one who accused the Jews of Europe, and particularly the Jewish leadership, of collaborating with the Nazis to make their job that much easier.

Arendt denies all of this (except for the collaboration of the leadership, which is the section that the magazine begged her to drop), and she is viciously attacked in the press by all of the country’s Jewish organizations, loses a large number of her close friends and colleagues, and finds her career totally thrown off course.  (Throughout all of this, her relationship with her husband and with her best friend, author Mary McCarthy, remain strong.)

Even in this movie, assuming no other context, the attacks on Arendt seem over the top.  To me it makes the Jewish community seem very petty, because the movie does not show Arendt to be any of the things she is accused of being.  And it made me wonder what really happened.

Well, in fact, I don’t know.  Obviously, there was a strong reaction to the writing, but whether or not it was as portrayed, I don’t know.  But I did want to find out if Arendt’s text warranted strong criticism, so I read, over the past several days, her “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, which was published in 1963 (and later updated), and which is an expansion of the New Yorker pieces.  (I should say that some of the reaction against her also came from her defense of Heidegger, some from her abandonment of Zionism and her criticism of Israel – which the movie did not address in detail – and some from her personality – what had been thought of as her German-Jewish intellectual arrogance.)

The writing itself is quite dense.  From this, I would take it that many of the people who criticized her (or who joined in the criticism from others) probably did not read the New Yorker pieces.  In fact, this is alluded to in the film.  The writing is also quite detailed; there is a lot of substance in it.  Reading the book in 2013, none of this substance is particularly shocking, but in 1963, when Holocaust studies were just beginning, much of it may have been.  (In fact, with 90 Holocaust survivor witnesses testifying at the trial, the public began to see, for the first time, what so many people lived through.)

The articles show that Arendt was no fan of Nazi Germany.  She was no fan of Adolf Eichmann.  She thought that Israel had a right to try him (this was a major legal issue for any number of obvious reasons), and that they had the right to execute him.  But she also did not think that Eichmann was a monster.  She pointed out that several , psychiatrists who examined him declared him sane.  She pointed out that he said, time and time again, that he was just following orders, and in fact said that he had no remorse for any thing he did, but that it would have been psychologically devastating for him if he had not followed orders and had to live with that fact.

She also, again and again, talked about how she did not believe much of what Eichmann was saying, but that it fit the pattern of what she thought about living in a totalitarian society.  Eichmann was a normal person, a non-entity by design, and what he did was banal.  Hence the subtitle of her book “A report on the banality of evil”, a phrase by which she is now well known .

Arendt did blame the Jewish leadership, the member of the Jewish councils, for the aid they gave the Nazis – keeping the Jews quiet, identifying who was Jewish, selecting people for shipment to the death camps.  At the time, this was beyond shocking.  Today, it has been the subject of much discussion.  But, to Arendt, again it fit her pattern – the Jews too were living in a totalitarian society, often doing what they thought was best, although it turned out not to be the case.  Her claim is that it would have been much more difficult for the Nazis if, say, the Jews of Europe had all gone into hiding, changed their identities, forced the Nazis to search them out one by one.  Probably true, probably impossible.

She did not like the way the trial was handled.  Some of her reasons were relatively petty – why did everything have to be done in Hebrew, when so many people spoke to Hebrew and virtually everyone involved in the direct trial were fluent in German?  Why, when they had simultaneous translations into a number of languages, was the German translator so poor, making it so hard for German listeners.  Why did they need 90 Holocaust survivors to tell their stories – virtually none of them had any contact with Eichmann whatsoever?  The trial was simply a show trial, arranged by Ben Gurion for his own political purposes, having little to do with the defendant.

Eichmann’s position was interesting.  He hardly put on a defense.  His lawyer did not cross examine any of the survivors.  In fact, Eichmann said that he had no reason to believe any of the survivors were not telling the truth.  He also said that he was not anti-Semitic, that he had Jewish friends and that his wife had a number of Jewish relatives with whom he got along.  He was following orders, that’s all.  He was in charge of transit.  His job was to get the trains for the Jews (and gypsies, etc.) to take them to the camps.  He did not murder anyone. He was a middleman simply doing his job.

This may (or may not, so many of the Nazi documents were destroyed during the last days of the war) have been the case, but Arendt points out how crucial the job of transportation coordinator was.  He could determine how many people could be accommodated (bad word, I know) on the railroads, and where the railroads would take them.  He may not have been involved in rounding up the Jews or anything that took place before they set out on their journeys, but his role was crucial.  And, when it came to Hungary in 1944, one of the war’s saddest stories, when 400,000 Jews were removed from the country in a matter of weeks, his role was clearly paramount.  (In Hungary, he had also become involved in failed negotiations to trade Jews for armaments – something that, perhaps for the first and only time, took him beyond the role of the travel agent.

But Arendt’s critics were apparently vicious.  She did not write the articles they expected to read.  I believe there is one more reason for this…….Hannah Arendt was not a journalist.  She didn’t know how to write a journalistic piece.  She wasn’t writing for the New Yorker’s audience.  She knew she was not writing a scholarly work – she wound up in between.  She needed a good editor – something that she clearly had no patience for.

Arendt claimed that, in following orders and being a representative of a subject of a totalitarian regime, Eichmann had simply stopped thinking.  My wife believes (and I agree with her) that in not realizing who her New Yorker audience was and not taking into account what their reaction to her writings was likely to be, Hannah Arendt was guilty of the very deficiency of which she accused Eichmann.

It’s a fascinating topic – Arendt’s article and the (Jewish) world’s reaction.  I’d be interested in reading/seeing more on the subject.  In the meantime, I’d recommend the film as an introduction to the topic, and reading “Eichmann in Jerusalem” as the next step.  I am not sure where to go from there.


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