Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews?
[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.
The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.”
The point of the joke is clear: Anti-Judaism is as senseless and irrational as anti-bicyclists would be. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat,” Arendt writes, “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well”—even bicyclists. The question, then, is why the Jews? Grafton gives a clue to Nirenberg’s subtle answer:
Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.
Nirenberg’s point is that anti-Judaism has nothing to do with Jews themselves. The negative ideas about Jews are held throughout history by a motley group of Christians, philosophers, tyrants, and martyrs. Shakespeare’s account of Shylock is only one of many examples in which an intellectual employs anti-Jewish stereotypes—the Jew as greedy moneylender—to make a wider social critique, this time of the dangers of capitalism. London is becoming a city of commerce. There are no Jews in London. Yet Shakespeare turns to Jews in order to find a way to criticize the emergent commercial culture.
The use of negative sentiments about Jews to bash capitalism was common, Nirenberg writes, and carries through history from Jerome to Marx. Marx couches his critique of capitalism through the lens of a critique of Jews. Shakespeare does the same with commercial society. Jews stand in for the oppressed in the world, so that oppressing Christians could be seen as making them Jewish. Jews at the same time were seen as powerful bankers and powerful agents of world domination, so that any group of conspirators from Bolsheviks in Russia to media moguls in Hollywood were tarred with the pungent scent of Judaism.
Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. . . . Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.
The only reservation Grafton voices concerns the univocality of Nirenberg’s account. As exceptional as the account of anti-Jewish opinion is, Nirenberg largely ignores other perspectives and examples where real and imaginary Jews were accepted, embraced, and even praised.
As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.
Grafton largely stops there and minimizes his “very small complaints….Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped.” But Grafton’s small complaints deserve a wider hearing, especially as concerns the leading question he and Nirenberg pose, “Why the Jews?”
The overarching argument of Anti-Judaism is one of eternal antisemitism: Anti-Judaism had nothing to do with the Jews themselves. It is an attitude that sees the Jews to be to blame and is concerned with imaginary Jews as opposed to real Jews. Anti-Judaism is powerful and impactful, but it has no rational connection to reality. Here is how Michael Walzer aptly sums up Nirenberg’s argument:
His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.
As Walzer notes in his own review of Anti-Judaism in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Nirenberg includes an epilogue that takes on the most famous opponent of his view of eternal antisemitism, Hannah Arendt. As Arendt understands Nirenberg’s view, “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.” Since anti-Judaism is eternal and unending, it has been normalized. If thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.”
The point is that Grafton’s minor complaint—that Nirenberg offers a magisterial account of Jew-hatred and ignores philo-semitism—is not so minor after all. By claiming that anti-Judaism is omnipresent and omnipotent—by focusing only on anti-Judaism and leaving aside those who embrace or praise Jews—Nirenberg risks normalizing antisemitism. Everyone traffics in Jew-hatred, even Jews. Such a move means, however, that we lose the ability to distinguish those who are antisemites from those who are not. Which is why Arendt argues that the eternal antisemitism thesis is one way to “escape the seriousness of antisemitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm center of events.”
Walzer and Nirenberg condemn Arendt for seriously asking the question “Why the Jews?” She insists that there are reasons for antisemitism, reasons that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews and not the bicyclists. There are such reasons, and anti-Judaism is not simply mysterious and irrational accident. She does not think those are good reasons. She of course never says that the Jews are to blame or that the Jews were responsible for the holocaust as Nirenberg and Walzer wrongly argue. But she does insist we confront the fact that Jews have proven such convenient targets for anti-Judaism, that we seek to understand why it is that over and over it is the Jews who are targeted. There is not one simple answer to that question, Why the Jews? But Arendt asks it seriously and courageously and seeks to come up with a series of potential answers, none of which have to do with her claiming that the Jews are to blame.
If you have The Origins of Totalitarianism on your shelf, take it out and read Chapter One on “Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense.” Then read Grafton and Walzer on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism. It will be a sad but thrilling weekend.
Amidst charges of implanted memories and celebrity arrogance, I have no insight into what occurred between Mr. Allen and the younger Ms. Farrow. One side seems to think that our “rape culture” induces people to disbelieve victims. The other side believes that accusations in the court of public opinion open the door to character assassination. Both are right, which does little to satisfy those seeking a clear path to certainty and moral outrage.
The truth the avalanche of accusations on all sides has brought to light is that factual truth is always contingent and never certain. The drive for certainty leads quickly to ideological simplifications that deny inconvenient facts in the name of coherent narratives. Over and over the facts are being made to fit the theory; such ideological certainty at the expense of reality is the root of fascism and all totalitarian impulses.
This indeed is the point of a wonderful essay mercifully unrelated to the Allen affair and written by Simon Critchley in The New York Times. Critchley is ostensibly writing about the 1973 BBC series “The Ascent of Man,” hosted by Dr. Jacob Bronowski. Specifically, Critchley focuses on one episode titled “Knowledge or Certainty.” Touching on physics and Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the show begins with the premise that while science aims to provide an objectively accurate picture of the world, modern science has proven that such objectivity is impossible. In Critchley’s summation, there is “no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it—whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer—opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility.”
The lesson of modern science is that “There is no God’s eye view.” Anyone who claims to know the truth about the material world (and even more so about the moral or spiritual worlds) is “not just wrong, they are morally pernicious.” The point is that “[e]rrors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible.” And the result of this is that,
For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”
At this point in his essay Critchley inserts a video clip of the end of the episode on “Knowledge or Creativity,” a clip that suddenly shifts the scene “to Auschwitz, where many members of Bronowski’s family were murdered.” We see Dr. Bronowski walking in Auschwitz. He says:
There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts. Obedient ghosts. Or Tortured ghosts. It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some 4 million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how men behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of Gods. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known. We always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell, ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.’
In other words, fascism, fundamentalism, and the holocaust are caused by a poor understanding of science, a confusion of necessarily hypothetical scientific knowledge with a push-button philosophy of certainty.
Even as Critchley and Bronowski beseech us to think we may be mistaken, I detect no suggestion that we should harbor doubts about the fact or the evil of the holocaust. Born in arrogance and certainty, the evil of the holocaust stands as an exception, something we all understand and know to be horrifically wrong. It may be true that “[w]e always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.” At the same time, there are times when to equivocate in our judgment is to refuse to do justice and even to be complicit in the justifications of wrong.
It may be true that science counsels humility and tolerance, but justice in the end requires making judgments. One of the great challenges of our time is the need to judge absent the solace of absolute knowledge or the illusions of certitude. We must at once admit to the uncertainty of the scientific age and insist that certain truths and certain judgments are beyond meaningful dispute. There are facts—that the holocaust happened and that it was a tragedy—that simply must not be denied. In other words, it matters that the Nazis did not win.
It is, of course, possible that had the Nazis won, our view of antisemitism today would be horrifically different. There is no cosmological truth to Nazi evil; but we humans don’t live disembodied in the cosmos. We live here, on this earth. And on this earth in this world that we have made, certain facts like the evil of the Nazi Final Solution are true. This does not mean that they are written in the stars or revealed by a God or carried by the wind. It does mean that such facts are the foundation of the common world in which we live as humans amidst plurality. In Hannah Arendt’s poetic language, these basic truths are told in stories and they are the basic building blocks of the world we share. This common world is what Arendt calls the “truth… we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” In the common world, certain facts matter; the victory of common truths is not trivial if we are to live together in a shared world.
That it matters who wins, which facts we embrace, and which stories we tell to our children brings to mind an interview given by Woody Allen and discussed in a thoughtful essay by Damon Linker. Discussing Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen explicitly defends the main character who kills his lover when she threatens to expose the affair. As Linker elaborates on Allen’s point: “The viewer [of Crimes and Misdemeanors] is left to conclude that Judah got away with his crime scot-free—and that such an outcome is possible for anyone courageous enough to violate accepted moral customs and lucky or clever enough to avoid getting caught by the legal authorities.” Linker then cites this quote from Allen’s interview:
On a lesser level you see it in sports. They create a world of football, for example. You get lost in that world and you care about meaningless things.... People by the thousands watch it, thinking it's very important who wins. But, in fact, if you step back for a second, it's utterly unimportant who wins. It means nothing. In the same way we create for ourselves a world that, in fact, means nothing at all, when you step back. It's meaningless.
The meaninglessness of the world, Allen suggests, means that it doesn’t matter who wins. But that is sports, right? On the cosmic level and as a question of justice, it doesn’t matter if the Seahawks or the Broncos win the Super Bowl. It matters for the players and fans and corporate sponsors, but not in the grand scheme of things.
The problem is that Allen sees the triviality of sports as a metaphor for the meaninglessness of the human world. Here is Allen speaking in another interview in Commonweal Magazine, also cited by Linker:
Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament? That is what interests me the most. I continue to make the films because the problem obsesses me all the time and it’s consistently on my mind and I’m consistently trying to alleviate the problem, and I think by making films as frequently as I do I get a chance to vent the problems.
It is worth asking how sincere we should take Allen to be here. If he really thought the world were meaningless, why would he write about its meaninglessness? Is it simply that he writes for the relief of unbearable urges? Couldn’t he then write about pretty much anything? It does seem that Allen writes not simply to relieve himself but also because he has something to say. That he thinks what he writes matters.
What matters, Allen’s films suggest, is truth. Here is what Allen says later in the same Commonweal interview when asked about the apparent amorality of Crimes and Misdemeanors.
I feel that is true—that one can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, and get away with it. There are people who commit all sorts of crimes and get away with it, and some of them are plagued with all sorts of guilt for the rest of their lives and others aren’t. They commit terrible crimes and they have wonderful lives, wonderful, happy lives, with families and children, and they have done unspeakably terrible things. There is no justice, there is no rational structure to it. That is just the way it is, and each person figures out some way to cope…. Some people cope better than others.
For Allen, his film is about truth, namely the truth that the world has no meaning and that evil can prevail and often does.
Linker labels Allen a nihilist, by which he means the conviction that “There is no justice.” And that seems right insofar as Allen does reject and moral or spiritual meaning.
What is missing in Linker’s analysis is an appreciation of the moral significance of nihilism. Part of the problem is that nihilism signifies two related but different ideas. First, nihilism is a rejection of all certainty; nihilism comes from nihil, meaning nothing. It is the philosophy of nothing. Second, nihilism as it is associated with thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche also takes on the sense of re-valuation of all values. It is thus not merely a negative philosophy but also a call for the creation of new and immoral values. In Linker’s essay, nihilism is understood in the first and strict sense to be a negation of what is. In this sense, however, nihilism is inherent in all critical thinking and in thinking itself.
All thinking must negate what is to free itself for the new. Negation, or nihilism, “is but the other side of conventionalism.” That is why Hannah Arendt saw that “what we commonly call ‘nihilism’ is actually a danger in the thinking activity itself.” What nihilism agitates against is certainty, the “desire to find results that would make further thinking unnecessary.” Thinking, Arendt argues, is “equally dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed.” It is opposed to common sense and all ideologies. Because thinking sets up obstacles truths and opposes settled certainties, thinking is dangerous: “There are no dangerous thoughts,” Arendt writes, “Thinking itself is dangerous.”
In a scientific age that, as Critchley reminds us, is allergic to certainty, nihilism understood as a rejection of dogmas and certainties is not an immoral doctrine so much as it is the truthful insistence that we oppose what Critchley calls the “monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism.” Critchley’s essay touches on the human need for tolerance of meaningful plurality and difference. It is your weekend read.
“There exists in our society widespread fear of judging…[B]ehind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done…Who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”
-Hannah Arendt, "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship"
It’s difficult to know where to begin to counter the errors, misreadings, and plain obfuscations of Arendt’s point of view in this essay by Richard Brody that appeared a few days ago in The New Yorker online. But perhaps the most glaring mistake Brody makes is to confuse what Arendt wrote about “thinking” with some form of “intellectualism.” To begin with, when, in her interview with Gunther Gaus, she makes the point that it was the betrayal by “friends” that she found most shocking this is not because she thought only intellectuals could think or were the only ones to have “ideas” but that they “believed”—without thinking!—the very “ideas” they had fabricated, without considering where these “ideas” might take them. They were “trapped” in their ideas, which is why Arendt, in the same interview, refused to call herself a philosopher, cut off from the world, and insisted she was a political theorist.
Thinking depends on letting the imagination go visiting, and Arendt argued it was Eichmann’s inability to think from the standpoint of anyone else that made him “thoughtless” and hence become unable to distinguish right from wrong. But the same could be said, for different reasons, of the “intellectuals” Arendt referred to and said she’d found so grotesque in the interview with Gaus. And, whether you like where it took her or not, thinking from the standpoint of others was exactly what she practiced in the case of her judgment of the leaders of the Jewish Councils. She imagined they might not have cooperated. Yes, they faced “fear and despair,” as Brody notes, but Arendt imagined it was still possible not to comply even in the face of significant threats and consequences. And the historical evidence indicates this to be the case: not everyone complied.
Yet nowhere does Arendt claim the ability to judge a situation means I myself (or she) necessarily would have done anything differently. The most chilling conclusion she reached from her reflections on the trial is that there are no guarantees “when the chips are down” that I will know the right thing to do, and just do it. And it was her confrontation with Eichmann’s banality—not what he did, but who he showed he was, and “how many were like him” during this time—that led Arendt to warn near the end of the book that once such crimes had entered the human experience it is entirely possible that “similar crimes may be committed in the future.”
In an interview with Roger Errera, from which Brody also quotes, Arendt remarked that her intention was in writing about Eichmann as she did was to “destroy the legend of the greatness of evil. As she was thinking about this issue she said she’d “found in Brecht the following remark: ‘The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.’ " And her “tone” in Eichmann in Jerusalem was an attempt to do just that: expose the criminals to derision.
It was the banality of the criminals—not the crimes they committed—that gave Arendt such a shock she responded with laughter. And it’s a shame Brody doesn’t understand what this signifies: the humanization of perpetrators actually serves to humanize victims as well. She did not equate the responsibility of “persecutors and persecuted” for crimes committed by the Nazi state, as Brody claims. But not to allow victims and perpetrators to occupy the same moral universe is to traffic in the dangerous idea that guilt and innocence are not the result of human behavior but exist somehow independent of what people do.
Let me close with an excerpt from my new book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt:
Many people still find abhorrent Arendt’s claim that Eichmann, the man, was no monster. Everyone knows murder is wrong; certainly, then, murdering millions without a guilty conscience must be the classic example of monstrous behavior. Or madness. Surely only a monster or a madman could commit such heinous deeds. And that’s an understandable reaction. Most of us hold fast to a well-guarded belief that rules and standards used to tell right from wrong, rules we assume to be universal, cannot be easily discarded. Not I, we believers in our own inherent goodness insist; I would never comply with such an order. But Arendt wouldn’t let anyone rest on such a convenient way to avoid having to think for herself.
“The trouble with Eichmann,” she wrote, “was precisely so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied...that this new type of criminal...commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.
The idea that “an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong” defies any ordinary understanding of good and evil. And yet, Arendt observed, “without much notice, all [these rules governing right and wrong] collapsed almost overnight...What happened? Did we finally awake from a dream?” How had it become so easy for so many to behave like Eichmann and participate in carrying out these atrocities?
Arendt explained it this way: the Nazi state had generated a “totality of...moral collapse...in respectable European society—not only in Germany but in almost all countries, not only among the persecutors but also among the victims.” And at that sentence, many people throw her book across the room in disgust, perhaps missing the other point she made: not everyone complied with the system.
But Arendt’s writing has made me wonder why we need to believe a solid wall separates the performers of horrible acts from the rest of us? And what holds that wall in place?
“When I think back to the last two decades since the end of the last war,” she wrote in the mid-1960s, “I have the feeling that this moral issue has lain dormant because it was concealed by something about which it is indeed much more difficult to speak and with which it is almost impossible to come to terms—the horror itself in its naked monstrosity.” Trying to think the unthinkable—the horror of state-ordered, socially coordinated manufacturing of corpses in the twentieth century, or of other genocides in previous centuries and in this one—can take one’s breath away. Not even time’s healing power seems to bring relief.
[T]his past has grown worse as the years have gone by so that we are sometimes tempted to think, this will never be over as long as we are not all dead...This past has turned out to be ‘unmastered’ by everybody, not only the German nation.
Yet Arendt insisted on confronting those concealed moral issues even though they looked like “side issues...compared with the horror.” She pushed past the speechless horror to grapple with the moral implications of the “ubiquitous complicity” surrounding the Holocaust. Because not grappling with those implications would allow Eichmann to gain what the monk Thomas Merton, deeply influenced by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, would have considered a “posthumous long life,” making us all, like it or not, as Karl Plank observed in his essay about Merton, “vulnerable to complicity in deeds of destruction.”
-Kathleen B. Jones
It is now more than 50 years since Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem. It is neither her best nor her most important book, yet it does contain essential and important insights. Above all, it offers us the example of a man who, as Arendt saw and understood him, moved fairly seamlessly from being an anti-Semite to a genocidal murderer. Arendt asked: How is it that Eichmann and others like him morphed so easily from an anti-Semite to a mass murderer?
Arendt’s book is justly famous because it posed this deeply important question and offered an answer that has, over time, come to be seen as persuasively right. In short, it is the case that modern systems of administratively organized murder and criminality depend upon the collaboration and work of many people who, while they support the general goals of the regime, would not otherwise imagine themselves criminals and murderers. These people act out of conviction, but they seek to justify what they do in clichés and bureaucratic language. They take pride not only in their dutifulness, but also in their initiative and support for carrying out the goals of the regime. Ordinary in many ways and far from being cold-blooded killers, they nevertheless willingly and even enthusiastically participate in an administrative machinery of death. They are able to do so, Arendt suggested, because they close themselves off from others and come to think in an echo chamber where they hear and credit no opinions that challenge their own. This shallow thoughtlessness—Arendt elsewhere calls dumbness—is what she names the banality that allows modern regimes of evil to cause such horrifically and decidedly non-banal evil.
What amazes me is how the centrality of her insight is still clouded over by an exaggerated and misplaced anger and contempt. How is it that 50 years after her book appeared and 75 years after Kristallnacht, some American intellectuals still have little better to do than attack Arendt for the tone of her book, the offense of certain phrases, and her use of the word “banal”? Aren’t there more important questions than the ultimately unknowable question of whether Eichmann—the example Arendt used—was or was not truly thoughtless? There must be more important things for intellectuals to be indignant about.
A case in point is the two-part series of essays published by Mark Lilla in the last two issues of the New York Review of Books. Lilla, a distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University in New York, begins the second of his essays, “The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator,” with these reflections:
A half-century has passed since Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was first published. Yet somehow we can’t escape it. Even today historians of the Final Solution do battle with her misguided thesis that Adolf Eichmann, the cold-blooded engineer of the Nazi killing machine, was himself but a cog in it, a self-deceived simpleton who made evil seem banal.
If Lilla is so upset that so much attention is lavished on Arendt’s book, why does he once again begin with it? Moreover, why does he insist on criticizing Arendt for things she never said? Let’s consider Lilla’s characterizations of Arendt’s arguments—characterizations that are tossed off, repeated by many, and quite simply are false.
Lilla first accuses Arendt of calling Eichmann “a cog” in the Nazi killing machine. This is a common complaint, one made famous by Deborah Lipstadt, whom Lilla cites approvingly. But where does Arendt say this? The simple answer is nowhere.
The “cog theory” comes up sparingly in Eichmann in Jerusalem, but wherever it does, Arendt decidedly rejects it. Consider this paragraph from section IV of her report, where she discusses what she calls “Eichmann's muddled general outlook and ideology with respect to “the Jewish question.”” She writes:
Eichmann admitted, as he had in the Sassen interview, that he “did not greet his assignment with the apathy of an ox being led to his stall,” that he had been very different from those colleagues “who had never read a basic book [i.e., Herzl's Judenstaat], worked through it, absorbed it, absorbed it with interest,” and who therefore lacked “inner rapport with their work.” They were “nothing but office drudges,” for whom everything was decided “by paragraphs, by orders, who were interested in nothing else,” who were, in short, precisely such “small cogs” as, according to the defense, Eichmann himself had been. If this meant no more than giving unquestioning obedience to the Führer's orders, then they had all been small cogs - even Himmler, we are told by his masseur, Felix Kersten, had not greeted the Final Solution with great enthusiasm, and Eichmann assured the police examiner that his own boss, Heinrich Müller, would never have proposed anything so “crude” as “physical extermination.” Obviously, in Eichmann's eyes the small-cog theory was quite beside the point. Certainly he had not been as big as Mr. Hausner tried to make him; after all, he was not Hitler, nor, for that matter, could he compare himself in importance, as far as the “solution” of the Jewish question was concerned, with Müller, or Heydrich, or Himmler; he was no megalomaniac. But neither was he as small as the defense wished him to be.
Arendt revisits the “cog theory in her postscript. Here is what she writes there:
We heard the protestations of the defense that Eichmann was after all only a “tiny cog” in the machinery of the Final Solution, and of the prosecution, which believed it had discovered in Eichmann the actual motor. I myself attributed no more importance to both theories than did the Jerusalem court, since the whole cog theory is legally pointless and therefore it does not matter at all what order of magnitude is assigned to the “cog” named Eichmann. In its judgment the court naturally conceded that such a crime could be committed only by a giant bureaucracy using the resources of government. But insofar as it remains a crime - and that, of course, is the premise for a trial - all the cogs in the machinery, no matter how insignificant, are in court forthwith transformed back into perpetrators, that is to say, into human beings. (italics added)
In the only mentions of the “cog theory” in her book, Arendt dismisses it as untrue and shows how even Eichmann rejected the cog theory and took pride in seeing himself as someone driven by conviction rather than by mere obedience. What Eichmann believed in is difficult to discern, which is why Arendt calls his thinking on the Jewish Question “muddled.” By this she means, it is unclear what were Eichmann’s real motivations. At times Eichmann spoke of helping the Jews emigrate (his first job from 1933-1939). At other times he said he “regarded the Jews as opponents with respect to whom a mutually acceptable, a mutually fair solution had to be found.” Arendt assumed he was an anti-Semite as well and discredited his claims of philo-Semitism. In the end, she found his thinking muddled. What was clear, is that Eichmann supported the Nazis enthusiastically. He was hardly a mere cog.
I hope we can put the “cog theory” to rest once and for all. It is repeated ad nauseum. But nowhere does Arendt embrace it. On the contrary, she rejects it.
Lilla also writes that Arendt “made evil seem banal.” One wonders what he means by such a statement. In fact, Arendt contrasts the horrific evil of the Holocaust with Eichmann’s inability to think from the perspective of others—banality not of what he did (evil), but of his person. When Arendt comes to actually offer her own opinion on what should happen to Eichmann—that he must be killed—she argues the true reason he needs to be executed is simply because of the extraordinary evil he has done.
That “evil violates a natural harmony” is, Arendt writes, the non-banal and “supreme justification” for why Eichmann must be executed. Against modern criminal law theories that see punishment as a response to the intent of the wrongdoer, Arendt argues the opposite: that Eichmann must be punished—regardless of his intent—because of the evil he has done. Here is what she says:
Foremost among the larger issues at stake in the Eichmann trial was the assumption current in all modern legal systems that intent to do wrong is necessary for the commission of a crime. On nothing, perhaps, has civilized jurisprudence prided itself more than on this taking into account of the subjective factor. Where this intent is absent, where, for whatever reasons, even reasons of moral insanity, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong is impaired, we feel no crime has been committed. We refuse, and consider as barbaric, the propositions “that a great crime offends nature, so that the very earth cries out for vengeance; that evil violates a natural harmony which only retribution can restore; that a wronged collectivity owes a duty to the moral order to punish the criminal” (Yosal Rogat). And yet I think it is undeniable that it was precisely on the ground of these long-forgotten propositions that Eichmann was brought to justice to begin with, and that they were, in fact, the supreme justification for the death penalty. Because he had been implicated and had played a central role in an enterprise whose open purpose was to eliminate forever certain “races” from the surface of the earth, he had to be eliminated.
The evil of the Holocaust was barbaric. It violated the order of the universe. To say that Arendt saw evil as banal is simply a willful misreading of her book.
The word “banality” appears once in a book of 250 pages that is filled with expressions of shock and horror at Nazi doings of evil. When Arendt does speaks not simply of the “banality of evil,” but of the “fearsome, word-and-thought defying banality of evil,” she refers to Eichmann and people like him who are able to justify their participation in truly evil acts by justifying themselves according to clichés, rationalizations, and deceptions. To do so, she argues, requires a lack of thinking, where thinking is understood as thinking from the perspectives of others. That is the kind of shallow banality that enables ordinary men to do evil. It is hardly to describe evil itself as banal.
Finally, in Lilla’s first essay on Arendt (thinly disguised as a review of the new film by Margarethe von Trotta), Lilla trades in the lately popular fallacy that newly discovered interviews of Eichmann by Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen prove Arendt mistaken about Eichmann. Lilla claims that a quotation full of ellipses offers such glaring proof of Eichmann’s thoughtful monstrousness that, had Arendt known this “new” information, she “would have to concede” she was wrong.
Here is the chilling quotation from the Sassen papers that Lilla offers.
The cautious bureaucrat, yeah, that was me…. But joined to this cautious bureaucrat was a fanatical fighter for the freedom of the Blut I descend from…. What’s good for my Volk is for me a holy command and holy law…. I must honestly tell you that had we…killed 10.3 million Jews I would be satisfied and would say, good, we’ve exterminated the enemy…. We would have completed the task for our Blut and our Volk and the freedom of nations had we exterminated the most cunning people in the world…. I’m also to blame that…the idea of a real, total elimination could not be fulfilled…. I was an inadequate man put in a position where, really, I could have and should have done more.
This quotation shows the ferocity of Eichmann’s character. It shows him to be fully committed to carrying out the Final Solution, which, of course, was one of Arendt’s main arguments—that Eichmann did not simply obey, but supported the Nazi regime. It shows Eichmann was not simply a cog, again a point made by Arendt. It shows that Eichmann put himself under his “Volk,” the German word for Nation or People. He repeats this point often in the Sassen papers, that he was prepared to sacrifice himself, his conscience, his morality, and his life for the good of the German Volk as articulated by Adolf Hitler. And it shows that Eichmann refused to ask for forgiveness for what he had done. He shows no remorse and even feels guilty that he did not accomplish the task eventually assigned to him after 1941, to help exterminate the entirety of the 10.3 million Jews in Europe. In short, these citations show Eichmann to be a god awful man.
Lilla offers this citation to make a different point, however, namely, to accuse Arendt, not simply Eichmann. It is intended to prove that Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. Because of this quote, “we now know [Arendt’s argument] to be utterly indefensible.” What is more, in an astounding act of ventriloquism, Lilla writes: “Arendt, [if] were she alive, would have to concede.”
The problem with Lilla’s assertion is that Arendt was aware of the material he quotes. Partial transcriptions of the interviews—including the quotes Lilla cites—were published in two volumes of Life Magazine in 1960. Arendt read those interviews; she suspected they were not fully reliable, but understood them to give a sense of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, his boastfulness and stupidity—all congruent with the 70 pages of Eichmann’s 1956 memoir written in Argentina that she also read. In short, Arendt had seen many of the damning quotes from the Sassen interviews and concluded that, if anything, they supported her interpretation. If Lilla wants to argue that Arendt got Eichmann wrong, fine: he should make his case on its merits, not on assertions of her ignorance of essentials of which she was not ignorant.
Arendt saw Eichmann as an anti-Semite. Might she have underestimated the extent of his hatred? Perhaps. Having read as much of Eichmann’s writings as I have been able to get my hands on, I am convinced that Eichmann was a virulent anti-Semite. So much so that it is clear to me that his hatred of Jews must have played some significant role in his willingness to participate in the Final Solution. But none of that in any way contradicts Arendt’s argument.
There is a difference between virulent anti-Semitism and genocidal mass murder. Both in Jerusalem and Argentina, Eichmann describes pangs of conscience—not about killing Jews, but about killing. The fact is that from 1933-1940 Eichmann’s anti-Semitism led him to enthusiastically support and carry out first the policy of helping Jews to leave Germany and second the policy of deporting them from Germany. After the Final Solution was decided upon, Eichmann expressed reservations about it in both Argentina and in Jerusalem. He made it very clear that he was against killing and that he never personally killed anyone. This point—as irrelevant as it was to the trial—was important to him. What shocked Arendt was how he so quickly overcame his conscientious resistance to killing. His anti-Semitism—clearly part of the explanation—cannot alone explain how, or why, he so easily overcame his initial resistance to the physical extermination of the Final Solution.
Arendt saw that Eichmann’s original reservations at being involved in mass murder dissipated quickly as he justified mass murder, consoling himself with clichés, and hoping others would understand and forgive him. This dumb shallowness is what Arendt called Eichmann’s banality. Arendt’s point was that Eichmann—beyond being an anti-Semite—thrived upon the power and meaning he got from being a Nazi. There is simply no reason to think that the quotations from the Sassen Papers that Lilla offers—quotations Arendt had read—would make her change her mind. To say they would is to free oneself from the obligation of understanding her argument.
Arendt asked how Eichmann morphed from an anti-Semite to a mass murderer. Her critics owe her the courtesy of engaging the depth of her argument, something Lilla’s false claims of superior knowledge free him from having to do. Fifty years on, it is time to get beyond “gotcha” accounts that dismiss the seriousness of her work and, instead, take Arendt’s arguments seriously.
When all this is said, there is much to recommend in Lilla’s two essays. Especially in his consideration of Claude Lanzmann’s film The Last of the Unjust—a spirited defense of one of the worst of the Judenräte Benjamin Murmelstein. Lilla displays good sense in questioning Lanzmann’s defense of Murmelstein’s rationalizations for his collaboration. Further, in his first essay, Lilla rightly considers and rejects the most slanderous and pernicious arguments that Arendt blamed the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. His discussion of Arendt’s account of the Judenräte is balanced and informative. He rightly sees that the anger over her characterization of the Jewish leaders was largely overblown, based on taking offending phrases out of context.
In the end, it is important to read essays like Lilla’s, if only to understand the liveliness of the sadly-continuing controversy around Eichmann in Jerusalem. Mark Lilla’s “Arendt and Eichmann: The New Truth” and his “The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator,” are your weekend reads.
Hannah Arendt’s life and work defy easy categorization, so I tend to be skeptical when a writer tries to encapsulate her oeuvre in a few catchwords. After all, previous efforts at concise assessment have typically led to reductive if not tendentious misreadings. So I was both pleased and surprised by sociologist Natan Sznaider’s book Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order (2011), which sharpens our understanding of Arendt’s thought by locating her within a specific historical milieu and intellectual genealogy. Briefly put, Sznaider portrays Arendt as both a Jewish and a cosmopolitan thinker, one whose arguments strike a fine balance between the particular and the universal.
This formulation obviously raises questions about Sznaider’s conception of key terms, including “Jewish” and “cosmopolitan.” With regard to the former, he contends that Arendt should be grasped as a Jewish thinker because she was intimately involved in the political debate and activity that defined Jewish life in the years before and after the Holocaust. As Sznaider notes, Arendt defined her Jewishness first and foremost as “a political stance”. She participated in Zionist mobilization when she still lived in Germany and in the founding of the World Jewish Congress during her time in Paris. She retrieved Jewish books, manuscripts, and other artifacts from Europe in her work for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. She spoke and wrote as a Jew when she discussed the nature of guilt, responsibility, and memory after the destruction of European Jewry. And, of course, she stirred controversy in American, German, and Israeli circles for her portrayal of Eichmann and her sharp criticisms of Europe’s Jewish leadership. Sznaider convincingly argues that Arendt’s politics, molded in the heat of twentieth-century Jewish activism, left a deep imprint on her political theory. Without grasping her specific engagements as a Jew, he insists, we cannot comprehend her more general pronouncements on rights, totalitarianism, and a host of other topics.
This point has important implications for Sznaider’s conception of cosmopolitanism. In his view, cosmopolitanism
combines appreciation of difference and diversity with efforts to conceive of new democratic forms of political rule beyond the nation-state…. It neither orders differences hierarchically nor dissolves them, but accepts them as such—indeed, invests them with positive value. It is sensitive to historic cultural particularities, respecting the specific dignity and burden of a group, a people, a culture, a religion. Cosmopolitanism affirms what is excluded both by hierarchical difference and by universal equality—namely, perceiving others as different and at the same time equal.
Sznaider’s rendering fits comfortably within recent discussions of “rooted” and “vernacular” cosmopolitanism. He insists that people only create and live forms of worldliness on the basis of their particular experiences, histories, and identities. He thereby distinguishes cosmopolitanism from “universalist” modes of thought, which in his understanding treat people as abstract individuals and do not recognize their specific attachments. Sznaider identifies universalist impulses in a number of intellectual and ideological movements, but he draws particular attention to the Enlightenment and the nationalist ideologies that emerged in Europe after the French Revolution. Both offer Jews inclusion and equality—but only, it seems, if they stop being Jewish.
In Sznaider’s reading, Arendt’s thought is cosmopolitan in precisely this “rooted” sense. Like a number of other twentieth-century Jewish intellectuals, she relied on Jewish particularity to advance broader, even “universal” claims about the nature of modern life and politics. (I use Sznaider’s language here, although I believe he could have more carefully distinguished the “universal” dimensions of Arendt’s thought from the “universalist” projects that he decries.) European Jewish experiences of persecution, for example, offered Arendt a crucial lens through which to analyze the potentials and paradoxes of minority and human rights. She also relied on the destruction of European Jewry to reflect on the emerging concept of “crimes against humanity”—without, at the same time, losing sight of the Holocaust’s irreducible specificity. Arendt’s attentiveness to both the particular and the universal is evident in her description of Nazi mass murder as “a crime against humanity committed on the bodies of the Jewish people.”
Sznaider provides a particularly good account of the ways that Arendt resisted early attempts to “generalize” the Holocaust. In her exchanges with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, for instance, she resisted the suggestion that the mass killing of Jews was but one “holocaust” among others. She also challenged the notion that the destruction of European Jewry was a paradigmatic modern event that all human beings, in one way or another, shared in common. For Arendt, such claims not only neglected the history of a specifically Jewish catastrophe, but also absolved its German perpetrators of their particular responsibility.
Sznaider’s favorable assessment of Arendt in this case represents an interesting development in his own thought: in a 2005 book that he wrote with Daniel Levy, Sznaider had been a good deal more sympathetic to the formation of a globalized Holocaust memory. At that time, he and his co-author regarded worldwide remembrance of the Nazi genocide as an important means to transcend national frames of reference and promote a cosmopolitan human rights regime. Little of that position remains in Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order. Instead, Sznaider takes critical aim at one fashionable contemporary thinker, Giorgio Agamben, for lifting the Nazi concentration camps out of their historical context and recasting them as the epitome of modern sovereign power.
I sympathize with this reading of Agamben, whose provocative claims tend to outstrip the empirical cases on which they are based. Yet in one respect Sznaider could also be more careful about the generalization if not “universalization” of Jewish experience. He is too quick at a few points to position Jews as the embodiments and carriers of modernity’s virtues, too hasty in his portrayal of the Diaspora as the paradigm for de-territorialization and cosmopolitanism as such. In a 1993 article, Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin—the one a Talmudic studies scholar, the other an anthropologist—cautioned us against “allegorizing” Jews as the exemplary Other, and we would do well to take their warning to heart. Other groups, identities, and histories inhabit the world in which we all live, and we should take seriously the insights that their own particularity might offer to our understanding of cosmopolitanism.
This last criticism notwithstanding, Sznaider’s book provides an incisive re-appraisal of Arendt’s thought. Although its central argument can be stated briefly, it does not narrow our appreciation of her work as much as enliven and expand it.
In response to the my essay on “Misreading ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem,” I have been asked repeatedly how to access the Sassen papers, the more than 1,300 pages of memoir and interview transcripts that Eichmann produced while he was in Argentina. The first answer is simple: Read the two issues of Life magazine from November 28 and December 5, 1960 in which a large chunk of these interviews are excerpted.
To actually read these excerpts is to be struck by how long they are, how detailed, and how chilling. And also it is to become aware of how important they were for Arendt’s own attempts to understand Eichmann.
Historians who now are digging through the Sassen papers are somewhat dismissive of the excerpts. Bettina Stangneth, the very best and most responsible of these historians, writes that excerpts in a popular magazine are not meaningful sources for serious scholars. And in one important sense, she is correct.
The excerpts are of course mere excerpts. Further, they were prepared by Willem Sassen, a Dutch-German Nazi and war criminal who along with others interviewed Eichmann over many months in 1957 in Argentina. Sassen was a journalist and gifted writer, and the original plan seems to have been for him and Eichmann together to publish a memoir or biography and split the profits, along with Eberhard Fritsch. Beyond pecuniary considerations, Sassen and Fritsch hoped that Eichmann would assist them in their aim of denying the Holocaust. Eichmann did not do so and, on the contrary, he confirmed it and boasted of his role in it. The three did not see eye to eye and publication plans were abandoned. After Eichmann was kidnapped and brought to Israel for trial, Sassen assembled the excerpts from the interviews and sold it to Life Magazine. Clearly, such tainted documents need to be taken with some care.
That said, the excerpts published in Life are remarkable documents and as they are widely available on Ebay and in libraries in the U.S., they are easily the most accessible way for English speakers to read Eichmann’s self-justification and self-presentation in Argentina, years before he was brought before Jewish judges in a courtroom in Jerusalem.
In what follows, for your Weekend Read, I offer some excerpts from these excerpts. Here, for example, is Eichmann describing his first encounter with the physical destruction of Jews:
When I rode out the next morning they had already started, so I could see only the finish. Although I was wearing a leather coat which reached almost to my ankles, it was very cold. I watched the last group of Jews undress, down to their shirts. They walked the last 100 tor 200 yards—they were not driven—then they jumped into the pit. It was impressive to see them all jumping into the pit without offering any resistance whatsoever. Then the men of the squad banged away into the pit with their rifles and machine pistols.
Why did that scene linger so long in my memory? Perhaps because I had children myself. And there were children in that pit. I saw a woman hold a child of a year or two into the air, pleading. At that moment all I wanted to say was, “Don’t shoot, hand over the child….” Then the child was hit.
I was so close that later I found bits of brains splattered on my long leather coat. My driver helped me remove them. Then we returned to Berlin. …
Having seen what I had in Minsk, I said this when I reported back to [Heinrich] Müller: “The solution. Gruppenführer, was supposed to have been a political one. But now that the Führer has ordered a physical solution, obviously a physical solution it must be. But we cannot go on conducting executions as they were done in Minsk and, I believe, other places. Of necessity our men will be educated to become sadists. We cannot solve the Jewish problem by putting a bullet through the brain of a defenseless woman who is holding her child up to us.”
Müller did not answer. He just looked at me in a fatherly, benevolent fashion. I never could figure him out.
In another excerpt, Eichmann describes his first experience viewing mobile gassing centers.
A doctor who was there suggested that I look at the people inside one bus through a peephole in the driver’s seat. I refused. I couldn’t look. This was the first time that I had seen and heard such a thing and my knees were buckling under me. I had been told that the whole process took only three minutes, but the buses rode along for about a quarter of an hour. …
When I reported back to Müller in Berlin, he chided me for not having timed the procedure with a stop watch. I said to him, “This sort of thing can’t go on. Things shouldn’t be done this way.” I admitted I had not been able to look through the peephole. This time too, Müller behaved like a sphinx. He forgave me, so to speak, for not having looked. Perhaps “forgive” sounds like an odd expression here.
The executions at Litzmannstadt and Minsk were a deep shock to me. Certainly I too had been aiming at a solution of the Jewish problem, but not like this. Of course, at that time, I had not yet seen burned Germans, Germans shrunken like mummies in death. I had yet to see the heavy, imploring eyes of the old couple in a Berlin air raid shelter who lay crushed beneath a beam, begging me to shoot them. I couldn’t bear to shoot them, but I told my sergeant to do so, if he could. If I had known then the horrors that would later happen to Germans, it would have been easier for me to watch the Jewish executions. At heart I am a very sensitive man. I simply can’t look at any suffering without trembling myself.
Later, in the second Life Magazine excerpt, Eichmann describes his famous final speech to his men in Berlin, perhaps the most quoted line from the Sassen interviews. He says:
I made my last report to Himmler less than a month before the final surrender of Germany. The Reichsführer had been for some time negotiating with Count Bernadotte about the Jews. He wanted to make sure that at least 100 of the most prominent Jews we could lay our hands on would be held in a safe place. Thus he hoped to strengthen our hand, for almost to the end Himmler was optimistic about making separate peace terms. “We’ll get a treaty,” he said to me, slapping his thigh. “We’ll lose a few feathers, but it will be a good one.” It was then mid-April 1945….
During those last days I called my men into my Berlin office in the Kurfürsten Strasse and formally took leave of them. “If it has to be,” I told them, “I will gladly jump into my grave in the knowledge that five million enemies of the Reich have already died like animals.” (“Enemies of the Reich,” I said, not “Jews.”) I spoke these words harshly and with emphasis. In fact, it gave me an extraordinary sense of elation to think that I was exiting from the stage this way.
The Life Magazine excerpts ends with a transcription and translation of Eichmann’s final outburst when, fed up with Sassen’s attempt to deny the Holocaust or to diminish it, he bursts out in a fit of self-justification:
But to sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing. Adolf Hitler may have been wrong all down the line, but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up from lance corporal in the German army to Führer of a people of almost 80 million. I never met him personally, but his success alone proves to me that I should subordinate myself to this man. He was somehow so supremely capable that the people recognized him. And so with that justification I recognized him joyfully, and I still defend him.
I will not humble myself or repent in any way. I could do it too cheaply in today’s climate of opinion. It would be too easy to pretend that I had turned suddenly from a Saul to a Paul. No, I must say truthfully that if we had killed all the 10 million Jews that Himmler’s statisticians originally listed in 1933, I would say, “Good, we have destroyed an enemy.” But here I do not mean wiping them out entirely. That would not be proper—and we carried on a proper war.
Now, however, when through the malice of fate a large part of these Jews whom we fought against are alive, I must concede that fate must have wanted it so. I always claimed that we were fighting against a foe who through thousands of years of learning and development had become superior to us.
I no longer remember exactly when, but it was even before Rome itself had been founded that the Jews could already write. It is very depressing for me to think of that people writing laws over 6,000 years of written history. But it tells me that they must be a people of the first magnitude, for law-givers have always been great.
To read these excerpts is chilling and also illuminating, both about Eichmann and also about Arendt’s report on his trial.
Arendt wrote her articles and her book not simply at the mercy of the trial in Jerusalem and Eichmann’s self-presentation before Israeli judges. She had access to the excerpts in Life and many of her most controversial conclusions are clearly traceable to these pages. It is undoubtedly true that scholars should approach the original documents and not rely on excerpts translated in a popular magazine. But no one who has looked at the originals has made the case that anything published in Life is wrong or misleading.
For those who want more, the best source for learning about the Sassen papers is Bettina Stangneth’s book Eichmann vor Jerusalem. In good news, it will be published later this year or early next year in English. Stangneth’s book is often mentioned in the same breadth with much-less-responsible books by David Cesarani and Deborah Lipstadt, as collective examples of books that use new information from the Sassen reports to prove Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. But this is not exactly right.
Stangneth does write that Arendt “fell into a trap because Eichmann in Jerusalem was wearing a mask;” Stangneth also claims that “Eichmann manipulated Arendt, and the result was that she saw her own expectations confirmed.” Like Cesarani and Lipstadt, Stangneth wants to claim space from Arendt, to say that the new documents allow the modern scholar a wider perspective.
And yet, Stangneth also insists that Arendt “was very aware of the fact that she was not getting the whole picture.” Stangneth writes of her own book that,
Eichmann before Jerusalem is a dialogue with Hannah Arendt. This is not merely due to the fact that my own interest in the topic was aroused many years ago by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. Our understanding of history is dependent on understanding the era and the circumstances in which events occurred, and so a perspective like Arendt's is indispensible. She showed courage in her ability to reach a clear judgment of the situation while aware of the risk, despite her meticulous research, of not knowing enough.
To read Stangneth’s book in its entirety is to see her in continued dialogue with Arendt as she makes her way through the Sassen papers and is to be impressed with her scholarship as well as by her honesty. If you read German, Eichmann Vor Jerusalem is your best way to learn more about the Sassen interviews. It is your Weekend Read if you don’t to wait for the English translation coming soon.
Stanley Kaufmann has a over-the-top critique of “Hannah Arendt” in The New Republic. As with most such reviews, it is driven more by personal animus towards Arendt than by any consideration of the film. Here is one representative graph:
Today at least we can see that there is small point in separating emotions from facts, as Arendt did. The immense horror of the Holocaust washed away any philosophical distinctions. Any sparing of Eichmann would have left millions of people feeling guilty of not fulfilling their duty. (An incidental bother: Before the war Arendt had been the student and lover of Martin Heidegger, who became a Nazi, and Arendt returned to him briefly after the war. This was presumably more a matter of Venus than politics; still it bothered many.) But Arendt’s strict adherence to her views resulted in her discharge from her teaching position, and the picture closes with her defiant parting address to her class.
First, Arendt did not return to her love affair with Heidegger after the war. Why imply she did?
Second, Arendt was not dismissed from a teaching position.
Mr. Kaufmann seems to have slept periodically through the movie and mixed up fantasy and reality in his fertile imagination. These are of course small points, but they are indications of just how deeply some people feel the need to discredit Arendt with personal attacks instead of addressing her ideas.
The Paris Review has just published an essay by Roger Berkowitz on the importance of the new film, "Hannah Arendt," directed by Margarethe von Trotta.
Here's how it begins:
In 1963, The New Yorker published five articles on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi chief of Bureau IV-B-4, a Gestapo division in charge of Jewish Affairs. Written by political thinker and Jewish activist Hannah Arendt, the articles and ensuing book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, unleashed what Irving Howe called a “civil war” among New York intellectuals. While some reviews cursed Arendt as a self-hating Jew and Nazi lover, the Jewish Forward accusing her of “polemical vulgarity,” Robert Lowell termed her portrayal of Eichmann a “masterpiece,” and Bruno Bettelheim said it was the best protection against “dehumanizing totalitarianism.” Across the city, Arendt’s friends chose sides. When Dissent sponsored a meeting at the Hotel Diplomat, a crowd gathered to shout down Alfred Kazin and Raul Hilberg—then the world’s preeminent Holocaust scholar—for defending Arendt, while in Partisan Review Lionel Abel opined that Eichmann “comes off so much better in [Arendt’s] book than do his victims.”
In the years since that fiery time, Eichmann in Jerusalem has remained something to condemn or defend rather than a book to be read and understood. I therefore had some fears when I heard that German director Margarethe von Trotta was making a film about Arendt’s coverage of the trial. But Hannah Arendt accomplishes something rare in any biopic and unheard of in a half century of critical hyperbole over all things Arendt: it actually brings Arendt’s work back into believable—and accessible—focus.
Read the full essay here.