Revisiting the Woman Who Saw Banality in Evil ; Film Examines the Furor over Hannah Arendt's Book on Adolf Eichmann

By Kaplan, Fred | International Herald Tribune, May 28, 2013 | Go to article overview

Revisiting the Woman Who Saw Banality in Evil ; Film Examines the Furor over Hannah Arendt's Book on Adolf Eichmann


Kaplan, Fred, International Herald Tribune


A film revisits the furor over Hannah Arendt's book on Eichmann.

CORRECTION APPENDED

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 as few books have done before or since. Among intellectuals on the Upper West Side of Manhattan it incited, 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," has revived 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 the 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."

For these ideas, Arendt was pilloried as a self-hating Jew. The Anti-Defamation League sent out letters urging rabbis to denounce her on the High Holy Days. Jewish organizations paid researchers to peruse her book for errors. Some of her closest friends didn't speak to her for years, if ever again.

Israel was just 15 years old: tiny, weak and impoverished. The prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had ballyhooed the Eichmann trial to build support for his fledgling state and to educate people about the Holocaust. In America, Jewish professionals, especially in academia, were just coming into their own, as blacklists and quotas withered away. And here was the great scholar Hannah Arendt downplaying their great catch and airing their dirty laundry.

Some of the attacks on Arendt -- that she sympathized with Eichmann or demonized the Jewish victims more than their Nazi killers -- were over the top. But some of her views were over the top as well, not least her portrait of Eichmann. Her "banality of evil" thesis rests on the premise that Eichmann committed his deeds with no awareness of their evil, not even with virulent anti- Semitism. …

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