I must confess, I am no Roger Ebert. I don’t write movie reviews for a living. I love movies, and watch lots of them, and often have strong opinions, like most of us. More than that I cannot claim.
But I have been deeply engaged in the life and thought of Hannah Arendt, having recently finished a book on her. And one I thing I can tell you is that at her core she was Jewish and also very American. The problem of Jewish identity was something she wrestled with her whole life, and in a very advanced way. She looked for data everywhere, even among Nazis, and she pulled ideas from everywhere, seeking to invent something new. By identity, I don’t mean just personal identity. I mean the collective identity upon which personal identities stand, and the politics that surround them. The problem for her was how an ethnic identity could be anchored in political institutions, and fostered, and protected, and yet avoids the close-mindedness and intellectual rigidity that seem inherent in nationalism. Thus too much is constantly made out of her apparent "non-Love" for the Jewish people, something which she wrote to Gershom Scholem after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is also a key scene in this movie. Against the backdrop of her own life, however, the idea that only friends mattered sounded just a bit ironic. Arendt was not exactly a "cultivator of her garden." She spent all her time wrapped up in national and international and cultural politics. Jewish politics was a big part of her life.
So as a fan of both movies and Arendt, you can imagine how much I was looking forward to this movie. Unfortunately, I came out deeply disappointed. It’s not simply that this portrait of Arendt is frozen in amber, and celebrates the misunderstandings of 50 years ago, when Eichmann in Jerusalem had just came out. It’s not simply that it ignores the last 15 years of modern scholarship, which re- excavated her Jewishness in order to make sense of the many things in her writings and actions that otherwise don’t. It’s that it turns her story inside out. She becomes a German woman saving the Jews.
I first saw this film in Germany, and I can testify that Germans love the story when told this way. It also seems a story the director loves to tell. After seeing Arendt twice (once in Munich and once in Tel Aviv), I remembered von Trotta’s 2003 movie Rosenstrasse, and was stunned to realize it’s pretty much the same story: German women saving Jewish men. Rosenstrasse, an interesting footnote in Holocaust and legal history ends in a triumphal march with the women bringing their men home, seeming as if they’d risked life and limb. In Hannah Arendt, a similar scene is her big speech at the New School, where the evil administrators (all very Jewish looking) are shamed into submission by her brilliance, while young students (all pretty and Aryan-looking) applaud enthusiastically. Both are archetypal Hollywood “the world is good again” scenes. And both are fundamental distortions of reality, German fantasies being taken for history.
Perhaps that is the key. Perhaps in this age of Tarantino and Spielberg you are free to do what you like. The projection of historical fantasies is now a subgenre. So shouldn’t the Germans be free to enjoy their fantasies about the Jews, about Israel,about German-Jewish relations, about the meaning of German-Jewish reconciliation, you name it? Sure. But, as I’m sure you have noticed, along with passionate fans, these sorts of films always attract large measures of stinging criticism from (a) scholars peeved at gross inaccuracies, and (b) people who hate this fantasy and want a different one. Since for this film I fall into both groups, you should treat my reactions accordingly.
Hollywood conventions may be most visible in the “right with the world” scenes, but they appear throughout the film. The most Hollywood thing about it is that this is a film lionizing thinkers that doesn’t have any thinking in it. We are supposed to know from the camera and the music and the reaction shots that they are having big thoughts and that everyone is awed by them. But if you actually listen to what is supposed to be passing as big thought, Oy. Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy: frivolous advice about men. Martin Heidegger, who hovers over the movie like a Black Forest deity, appears via flashbacks, pronouncing things like “We think because we are thinking beings.” Young Hannah Arendt looks up, clearly smitten by such banalities. Under Heidegger’s cloud, Hannah Arendt is not only Germanized, but turned into a sentimental fool. Which is the last description anyone has ever reached for who had ever met her.
As for the Eichmann trial that frames and forms the core of the film, all I can say is don’t get me started. Arendt’s New Yorker articles and the book that came out of them were the source of endless misunderstanding, both at the time and still today. This movie not only adds to it, it builds on it. For von Trotta, “the banality of evil” is a way of normalizing the crimes of the Holocaust: anyone could have done them. Eichmann is no antisemite. Banality is the thus deepest insight, the final dismissal of charges. And it’s the Jews who miss it, and the German-speaking woman who has to tell them, for their own good, to give up on this grudge business and with it also realize their own guilt in the destruction of the Jews.
So far, so normal. Everyday Eichmann in Jerusalem is being misinterpreted like this in classrooms around the world. But there is one thing I can’t forgive, which gives the film its final conclusion, and that is the completely fabricated scene at the end where she is threatened by the Mossad. It is nonsensical for several reasons, but worse is how it is composed. It is a “walking my lonely road” scene that chimes with the very first scene of the movie, when Eichmann is walking along in Argentina just before he is grabbed. There, the Mossad men overpower him completely; he is helpless and held up to scorn. Here, she stands up to them and tells them off; they slink away, grumbling impotent before the truth. The arc is completed. The Israelis, wrong from the beginning, have finally been cowed by The Truth About How Wrong They Were, by the German speaking Athena. And for good measure she throws in a sneering crack about how the Jewish nation must have too much money if it sent four of them.
Tarantino never made up anything more inverted.
**Natan Sznaider is a Professor at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo. Among his several books are Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order: Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Condition and two books on the sociology of the Holocaust.He was born and grew up in Germany, and is a regularly commentator in the German press. He lives in Tel Aviv.
When Gershom Scholem once wrote to Arendt that her phrase the “banality of evil” was a cliché, her response was swift: As far as she had known, nobody had ever used it before. The banality of evil was no common formulation worn meaningless by overuse. When she coined the phrase, it was a searing and dangerous provocation to thought, a warning to all those who in the face of horrific crimes carried out by bureaucrats would seek to transform those bureaucrats into monsters. To make people like Eichmann into radically evil monsters is, Arendt argued, to mistake an even greater and more insidious fact about evil: that in the modern context of bureaucratic governance, evil depends upon banal people who allow themselves to participate in evil because they are thoughtless and lack the clarity of mind or the courage of conviction to stand up to the mechanized and bureaucratized doing of evil.
One can disagree with Arendt’s thesis, but it was hardly a cliché. Unfortunately, too often today it is used as the cliché Scholem feared it had already become. A case in point is an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by James Taranto.
Taranto is discussing a current case in which Dr. Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murdering seven viable fetuses.
Three associates have pled guilty to third-degree murder and five others have pled guilty to other crimes. Gosnell faces the death penalty. According to the New York Times, whose account Taranto refers to,
Reporters heard testimony from the Philadelphia medical examiner about unsanitary, even filthy conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, from which the remains of 47 fetuses were removed, some in a water jug, a juice carton and a pet-food container.
In earlier testimony, according to several news reports, an unlicensed doctor said that Dr. Gosnell, 72, showed him how to cut the necks of babies born alive to make sure they died, and a young woman who worked at the clinic as a teenager said she assisted in abortions in which she saw at least five babies moving and breathing.
The details are grisly. The main thrust of Taranto’s article is that the liberal media is ignoring the case because it upsets their narrative that abortions are clean and easy. According to experts cited in the Times article, it seems that conservative media outlets have ignored the case as well, and that the Times actually had given it more coverage than more conservative papers, but I will leave that argument to others.
What interests me more is Taranto’s sudden invocation of Hannah Arendt and her thesis of the banality of evil. The context is the guilty pleas of the eight employees of Gosnell’s clinic. They included an unlicensed doctor and untrained aids who worked under difficult and unsanitary conditions where they were trained how to break the neck of living fetuses. An Associated Press wire story described the fate of these workers and concluded: “But for most, it was the best job they could find.” This is what leads Taranto (through the route of a reader’s comment and a 1999 essay in the New York Observer) to compare the AP’s account of eight medical technicians with Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann.
It is not at all clear whether Taranto has ever set eyes upon Arendt’s book, for he cites only an essay on the book. It is, of course, the height of cliché to speak about books and ideas from second or third hand sources. But that is what Taranto does. He repeats the following claims from the 1999 article, all false: first, that Arendt believed that Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic (she reports his claim, but dismisses it as unbelievable, a fact all-too-often forgotten); that she offered the banality of evil as an “overarching theory”; that she “took him at his word” that he was just following orders; that she was a philosopher; and that she was the “world’s worst court reporter”—as if that is what she were.
But what is truly mind-boggling is that after dismissing Arendt’s thesis based on second-hand accounts, Taranto then comes to agree with her. He writes:
And while Rosenbaum [the author of the 1999 article] seems correct in rejecting "the banality of evil" as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power. "Faceless little men following evil orders" surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell's clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.
It's also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell's employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they were born, rather than to "snip" them after they "precipitated" to "ensure fetal demise."
All too often we see this approach to Arendt’s book and thesis. She is excoriated for getting Eichmann wrong and for having the temerity to suggest he wasn’t a monster. And then we are told that actually, she was largely right, and that there is something fundamentally true about the idea that evil is done and made possible as much by thoughtlessness as by fanaticism. In other words, she was right in general but not about Eichmann.
Such an argument has become popular in the wake of David Cesarani’s book on Eichmann, which simultaneously says that Arendt under emphasized Eichmann's anti-Semitism and then accepted her argument about the banality of evil. There is a legitimate debate about how Arendt perceived Eichmann. It is wrong to say that she accepted his claims of being a friend of Jews and it is simply inaccurate to think she thought he was not an anti-Semite. That said, there is evidence of his later anti-Semitism expressed in Argentina that Arendt had not seen. Does that evidence impact her thesis? I don't believe so, but if she had had access to it and included it, such remarks would have given a fuller appraisal of Eichmann. In any case, few who repeat Cesarani's argument have read him or for that matter Arendt herself.
To reject and embrace the banality of evil in the same essay is too simple. It is easy to repeat Arendt’s insight but then protect oneself from the unsettling implications the weight of her thought must bear. To do so, sadly, is to treat the banality of evil as a cliché. She and her work deserve better.
“German Jewry, like Western European Jewry in general, never understood that the simple person is the true center of politics in all democratically governed countries.
And this is also the reason why German Jews often do not understand the just national aspirations of the Jewish people [folk]. Most do not know at all what a people [folk] really is and what it wants. The most beautiful Hebrew in the world will not teach them that. Let the German Jews learn to respect simple person [poshete mentshn], in general, and the simple Jew [yiddishe folks-mentsh], in particular – and then you will be able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”
These are the closing words of an op-ed written by Hannah Arendt in November 1942 for the New York Yiddish daily Morgen Zshurnal. The short piece is a response to an account of recent conflicts between German and Hebrew speakers in the Jewish settlement in Palestine (the Yishuv) written by Aaron Zeitlin, a Yiddish author and regular contributor to the newspaper.
It is, by all evidence, Arendt’s only Yiddish-language publication. (A year earlier, in December 1941, the News Bulletin of the “Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs” published a Yiddish translation of Arendt’s first Aufbau op-ed, “The Jewish Army – The Beginning of Jewish Politics?” But the Morgen Zshurnal piece seems to be the only one that Arendt published exclusively in Yiddish.) Arendt’s Yiddish voice is both familiar and surprising, and, as I shall sketch very briefly here, her exchange with Zeitlin fascinatingly prefigures significant moments in Arendt’s thinking and her dialogue with others later in life, for example her exchange with Gershom Scholem about Eichmann in Jerusalem.
In the fall of 1942, tensions between immigrants from Nazi Germany and the veteran Zionist community of the Yishuv had reached a violent peak with the bombing of a press in Jerusalem, which had been printing a German-language newspaper. Zeitlin bases his account of the event, and of the political atmosphere that led up to it, on a report by Menachem Ben Eliezer, which appeared in October in the Hebrew newspaper Hadoar, published in New York by the Hebrew Federation of America. The Hebrew reporter and the Yiddish commentator both blame the German Jews, known as “Yekkes,” for failing to assimilate into the society of the Yishuv and, especially, for obstinately refusing to learn Hebrew. In Zeitlin’s words, the German Jews are not patriotic because they lack a love of Israel (“ahavat Israel” or, in Yiddish, “ahaves Yisroel”).
Arendt, described in the byline as “a well-known German-Jewish writer and Zionist activist” who, “in 1935, visited the Land of Israel, where she spent three months and had the opportunity to get to know the Yishuv and the new immigration (Aliyah),” responds to the accusations ambivalently. Outraged by the violent act of the Hebrew purists of the Yishuv, she nevertheless concedes that the failure of German Jews to understand the simple Jews of Eastern Europe and their justified national aspirations is a problem.
The brief op-ed piece thus reveals a fascinating moment in the development of Arendt’s identity and her political affinities. Having recently arrived as a refugee from Europe, Arendt was writing for the German-language Aufbau and would soon start publishing in English-language publications such as Partisan Review and Nation. But her attention was evidently also devoted to publications such as Morgen Zshurnal and their Yiddish-speaking readership. As Thomas Wild has recently argued on this website, Arendt’s career would continue to move productively between German and English, for example when she substantially revised the English The Human Condition to produce the German Vita Activa.
And even after this brief stint, the Yiddish language did not disappear from her writing entirely, as I briefly mention below. She would also find opportunities to reflect publicly on issues of language choice, for example in her 1948 dedication of the German book Sechs Essays to her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers, where she explains the difficulty and the necessity of writing and publishing in her native language. But this Yiddish op-ed – written in a language that she had studied as an adult and that was rapidly moving aside to make space for English, not only in her mind but also in the American-Jewish public sphere – is probably the only statement that Arendt made about Jewish language politics.
Interestingly, at this juncture in her own linguistic affiliations, Arendt insists that the battle over languages is a political red herring. “Unlike Herr Zeitlin,” she writes, “I am of the opinion that the entire education and psychology of the world could not successfully separate people from their mother tongue […]. It is a process of a generation or two, and in America we have the best proof of that.” Instead of focusing on the struggle between the languages, Arendt points her readers in two different directions. The piece opens, in a familiarly sarcastic tone, with an expression of Arendt’s interest in Jewish militancy as a form of political response to the current crisis (an interest that was expressed in her contemporary writing for Aufbau): “I am of the opinion that it would be better for the Yishuv to boycott German merchandise rather than the German language, and that the hotheads would do better to save the bombs for Rommel’s soldiers rather than to use them against the Jews for their German language.” But it ends on a different note, with a vision of a post-Babelian politics that grows out of solidarity with the simple people. If the German Jews only understood what a true Jewish “folks-mentsh” is, the conversation could transcend linguistic divisions and one would be “able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”
As Elizabeth Young-Bruehl describes in her biography and as evidenced also in the early correspondence with Heinrich Blücher, Arendt had studied Yiddish with her friend Chanan Klenbort in Paris. But in the absence of further information about the composition process – was the piece written in German and translated into Yiddish? Or did a native speaker aid Arendt, in the way that friends such as Randall Jarrell and Alfred Kazin later helped her with her English? – one can only speculate about the significance of the highly Germanic style of the Yiddish in which the piece is written or of word choices such as “folks-mentsh” and “posheter mentsh.” Reading Arendt in Yiddish can feel like a glimpse through a door to an alternative history. What would have been the circumstances – in Arendt’s own intellectual development, in the history of the Jews – that would have compelled her to keep writing in Yiddish? Would the Yiddish version of The Human Condition have placed the “posheter mentsh” at the center of politics? In other words, the Yiddish op-ed focuses our view on Arendt’s preoccupations and her transformation during her early years in the United States. It also sharpens questions that have already been raised in relation to her writing for Aufbau: Does the writing of this period prepare the ground for her later philosophical and political work? And if it does, how should we describe this ground? Or does the shift of her positions on Zionism rather constitute a break in her thinking?
It is easy to see the continuity between the criticism Arendt expresses here and her sharp critique of German Jewry in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. But there are other, far more uncanny, linguistic continuities, not only in Arendt’s own writing but also in her dialogues and polemics with others. In his famous response to the Eichmann book, Gershom Scholem echoes Zeitlin – most probably unwittingly – when he laments Arendt’s lack of “Ahabath Israel” (as Scholem rather Germanically transcribes the Hebrew expression). Arendt seems to hear that echo when she inserts in her reply to Scholem’s letter a parenthetical inquiry about the history of the term: “I would, by the way, be very thankful if you could tell me since when this concept plays a role in the Hebrew language and scripture, when it first appears, etc.” Indeed, the echo seems to conjure up in Arendt elements of her original response to Zeitlin, and so she returns to the same simple person she had once hoped that German Jewry could listen to, in Yiddish or in “all the languages of the world.” Thus, when she attempts to defend her (to many readers indefensible) position on Jewish collaboration with the Nazis, she explains to Scholem: “There was no possibility of resistance, but there was a possibility of doing nothing. And in order to do nothing, one need not have been a saint, but rather one needed simply to say: I am a simple Jew (ein poscheter Jude) and I do not want to be more than that.”
The Yiddish was excised from the German version that was published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in October 1963 (where it was replaced by “einfacher Jude”) and from the English translation published in Encounter in December 1964 (which refers to “a Simple Jew”). The act of self-censorship is probably as revealing as Arendt’s use of the term itself.
Arendt’s brief foray into Yiddish journalism also has a fascinating postscript on the pages of the Morgen Zshurnal (or rather its continuation Der Tog Morgen Zshurnal). As Richard I. Cohen has described, in 1965 the newspaper carried Aaron Zeitlin’s raging response to Arendt’s Eichmann book, a response in which he described her as the agent of the devil. Zeitlin does not explicitly mention his previous disagreement with Arendt, indeed, he conspicuously avoids mentioning her by name. But, in its emphasis on Arendt’s misnaming of Eichmann when she describes him as a “grey, simple (posheter) average person,” his vitriolic attack can be read as a response to Arendt’s polemic twenty-three years earlier
Based on research and translation conducted in collaboration with Sunny Yudkoff. Many thanks to Barbara Hahn and Thomas Wild, who uncovered the Yiddish piece in the Hannah Arendt archive.
NOTE: This Saturday, February 23, 2013 marks the launch of the Hananh Arendt Center three part series, "Music in the Holocaust: Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism". The series is made possible through the generosity of grant from the Bertha Effron Fund of the Community Foundation of the Hudson Valley. Learn more here.
COERCION, COLLUSION & CREATIVITY - Music of the Terezin Ghetto & the Central European Experience
NATIONALISM, CONTINUITY & SYNTHESIS - Music of Warsaw, Lodz, & other Eastern ghettos
KURT WEILL & THE MODERNIST MIGRATION - Music of Weill & Other Émigrés