Thursday, June 20, 2013

Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil

As every student of Holocaust literature knows, Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem remains a book of enormous significance, notable -- among other things -- for Arendt's use of the phrase "the banality of evil" to characterize Otto Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer she saw as shockingly ordinary. Arendt deemed Eichmann a soulless bureaucrat who accepted and endorsed monstrous, genocidal policies, and who helped to orchestrate Hitler's "final solution."

Arendt's observations, first reported in a series of New Yorker articles, seemed to go against the official Israeli and Jewish grain. The Israeli government wanted to see Eichmann as an aberrant monster, a villain worthy of the genocidal crimes he'd help facilitate. Where others saw an examplar of evil, Arendt saw a nobody, a man who believed that in his obedience to orders, he was enacting an impersonal drama made virtuous by his willingness to comply with Hitler's law.

The German-born Arendt arrived in New York steeped in German philosophy and culture. She detested the Nazis, and thought Eichmann should be executed, but she took pains to say that he might be no more guilty than some who were well-situated in the new, post-War German government. She also objected to the show-trial aspects of the legal proceedings that unfolded in Jerusalem in 1961.

Arendt cut her teeth as a political philosopher under Martin Heidegger, a German professor who became known for his support of the Nazis.

As directed by Margarethe von Trotta, Hanna Arendt becomes a study of Arendt's life during and just after the Eichmann trial -- with flashbacks to her growing disillusionment with Heidegger. At one point, she and Heidegger were lovers.

Although Barbara Sukowa, who starred in von Trotta's Rosa Luxemburg, looks nothing like Arendt, she manages to capture the writer's authorial courage and her approach to intellectual life with her second husband, poet and philosopher Heinrich Bl├╝cher, played by Axel Milberg.

Arendt's view of Eichmann -- who's seen in actual footage from the trial -- was not the only source of controversy emerging from her work. As the movie makes clear, Arendt's detractors also objected to her critique of a European Jewish leadership that often cooperated with the Nazis in hopes of saving as many Jews as possible. To Arendt, this was a form of capitulation that served only to enable the Nazis in their insidious labors.

When I first read Arendt's book, it struck me as a revelation. Looking back from a 21st century perspective, it seems that Arendt may have both right and off the mark at the same time. Perhaps a show trial, a public airing of atrocity on a massive scale, was precisely the right response when it came to Eichmann. If the Israeli government used him to tell a Holocaust story, so what?

However one views Eichmann -- thoughtless nebbish or enthusiastic purveyor of genocide -- he was the SS man in charge of the massive logistical effort that moved European Jewery into death camps.

For her part, von Trotta may be less interested in Arendt's conclusions about Eichmann than in her courage as a writer and independent thinker. Toward the end of the movie von Trotta focuses on Arendt's impassioned speech to her students after she was scorned by her colleagues at Columbia University, where she was a visiting professor.

Despite a strong performance from Sukowa, Hannah Arendt tends to come across as a kind of intellectual footnote rather than an impassioned debate about the sorts of people who carried out the crimes of the Holocaust.

Beyond that, Arendt's post-Eichmann fate -- no matter how unfair or unpleasant -- seems insignificant when measured against the magnitude of suffering caused by the Nazis.

It also needs to be pointed out that there's much more to Eichmann in Jerusalem than the movie -- forced to consolidate and concentrate -- can convey. However you regard von Trotta's film, Arendt's work demands re-visiting -- again and again.

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