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.
People blame [übel nehmen] me for one thing—and I can understand that to some extent, outwardly—namely that I can still laugh [about it], right? And I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a clown [ein Hanswurst], and I tell you, I read this police interrogation, 3600 pages, very carefully, and I don’t know how often I laughed, but loudly. Now, this reaction is what people blame me for. I can’t do anything against that. But I know one thing. I would probably still laugh three minutes before [certain death]. And that, you say, is the tone. The tone is widely ironic, of course. That is completely true. That is exactly, the tone is in this case really the human being. When people [reproach] me, then, in this story that I supposedly accused the Jewish people, that is a malicious propaganda lie, and nothing more. The tone, however, is an objection against me as a person; I can’t do anything against that.
Interview with Günter Gaus, October 28, 1964, trans. mine.
The reproach addressed by Arendt in this quote had been expressed, most importantly, by Gershom Scholem in an open letter to Arendt a year earlier, in which he wrote:
So why does your book then leave behind such a feeling of bitterness and shame, and not with respect to that which is reported, but with respect to the reporter? Why does your report cover over to such a large extent that which is brought forward in that book, which you rightly wanted to recommend for reflection? The answer, insofar as I have one, and which I cannot suppress, precisely because I esteem you so highly, (…) [is] what stands between us in this matter [Sache]. It is the heartless, often even derisive [hämische] tone in which this matter that concerns us in the real center of our life is dealt with by you. There is in the Jewish language something that can in no way be defined and is entirely concrete, which the Jews call Ahabath Israel, love for the Jews. Of that, dear Hannah, nothing is noticeable, like with so many intellectuals who have emerged from the German left. (…) I don’t have sympathy for the style of lightheartedness, I mean the English “flippancy,” which you muster all too often (…) in your book. It is unimaginably unbefitting for the matter of which you speak. [Es ist auf unvorstellbare Weise der Sache, über die Sie sprechen, unangemessen]. Was there really no place, at such an occasion, for what one might name with the modest German word Herzenstakt? [“tact of heart”] (June 23, 1963)
Arendt had responded to Scholem’s letter in a letter of her own, dated July 24, 1963. In this letter, Arendt suggests that Scholem failed to get the irony in her writing: “I never made Eichmann out to be a ‘Zionist.’ If you missed the irony of the sentence—which was plainly in oratio obliqua, reporting Eichmann’s own words—I really can’t help it.” But if Scholem may have missed the irony in this particular instance, Scholem’s objection, as Arendt implicitly recognizes in her interview with Günther Gaus one year later, is that it is precisely her ironic tone that is “unimaginably unbefitting.” The interpretation that I want to explore briefly in this blog post is that Arendt’s irony might be precisely the most “befitting” response to the Sache or subject matter, which Arendt analyzes as Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness.”
A free translation of what Arendt lacks, according to Scholem, Herzenstakt, could be “thoughtfulness.” Arendt’s choice of the word “thoughtlessness” was already contested by Mary McCarthy, because Arendt clearly does not mean that Eichmann was not thoughtful (McCarthy’s alternative suggestion, “inability to think,” is not quite right either, because Arendt does not argue that Eichmann could not think but that he did not think). What is at stake for Arendt is thinking.
Amos Elon suggests in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem that Arendt’s sarcasm was “often self-defeating.” According to Elon, “Arendt’s biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has wisely written that Arendt posed the true moral issue but obscured it with needless irony. With chutzpah too, perhaps.” The question, however, is whether Arendt’s posing of the “true moral issue” can be separated from her irony, that is, whether the irony merely adds (possibly counterproductive) flourish to her “posing” of an “issue.” Is her rhetoric nothing but an ornament that obscures the “content,” or a vehicle that fails to deliver the “message”?
(It should be noted that towards the beginning of her discussion of the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem, Young-Bruehl mentions a citation from Bertolt Brecht that Arendt’s husband found years after the trial that “gave him and Hannah Arendt the courage of their convictions.” The beginning of the citation reads: “The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.”)
In her response to Scholem, Arendt makes two frequently cited claims. First, Arendt writes: “(…) in this sense I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.” Second, Arendt states: “What unsettles [verstört] you is that my arguments and my approach are different from what you are used to; in other words, what is irritating [das Ärgerliche] is that I am independent. By this I mean, on the one hand, that I do not belong to any organization and always speak only for myself, and on the other hand, that I have great confidence in Lessing’s Selbstdenken, for which, I think, no ideology, no public opinion, and no ‘convictions’ can ever be a substitute.” It might seem from these two claims that Arendt is opposing the thinking of an independent self to the feelings (love, sympathy, Herzenstakt) of the collective. Irony could then be seen as the means by which the independent individual distances herself from the collective. However, it is important to remember that for Arendt, thinking never happens in isolation. Therefore, a better reading of Arendt’s tone might be that Arendt attempts to position herself, through irony, as a person in public or in a public. If Eichmann’s thoughtlessness reduces language to rationalization and calculation devoid of any orientation towards publicness, Herzenstakt is not going to remedy this problem. Arendt’s irony, on the other hand, might call into being a public, opening up space for publicness where thinking might become possible again.
According to this reading of Arendt’s tone, the idea that Arendt was right about Eichmann but should have communicated her “message” differently for it to be “effective” misses the point. Instead, what is called for is an attunement to Arendt’s writing that does not separate “content” from rhetoric, a responsiveness in the interest of a publicness that does not require tact, sympathy, or agreement, but thinking.
Irony in Eichmann in Jerusalem has recently become a central topic in Arendt scholarship. For further reading, I particularly recommend the chapters on Eichmann in Jerusalem in Lyndsey Stonebridge’s The Judicial Imagination (2011) and in Judith Butler’s Parting Ways (2013).
Have you seen "Hannah Arendt," the critically acclaimed film by Margarethe von Trotta? It has spurred a storm of commentary, including my recent essays in the New York Times and the Paris Review. The best reaction to the film is to re-read Eichmann in Jerusalem itself, the powerful book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann that first unleashed the controversy fifty years ago.
With the movie being seen by hundreds of thousands of people, this is an exciting time for the Arendt Center. I have been speaking around the country at Q&A sessions after the movie. Audiences are hungry to confront the questions Arendt highlighted: the dangers of thoughtlessness and loneliness that together can lead to ideological conformism and unthinking evil.
We have a unique opportunity in the wake of this cultural interest in Hannah Arendt to bring the power of Arendt's thinking to a wider and politically engaged audience. I founded the Hannah Arendt Center to forge a middle ground between partisan think tanks churning out white papers and universities living in a bubble. All my experience since the founding sustains the truth that there is a yearning for passionate thinking about the major questions and challenges of our age.
I turned to Hannah Arendt as a symbol and the embodiment of humanistic thought grounded in thorough understanding. No other American thinker so engages (and, yes, sometimes enrages) citizens and students from all political persuasions, resisting all attempts at categorization on the right or the left, and all the while insisting on human dignity. Arendt's writings attract the minds and hearts of individuals who wish to think for themselves. She is that rare writer who compels her readers to think and re-think their most fundamental ethical and political convictions.
The Arendt Center engages citizens everywhere in Arendt-like thinking: relentless examination of issues from multiple points of view, with an emphasis on unimagined and unintended consequences --"thinking without banisters" is the phrase most closely associated with Arendt's methods; "the banality of evil" is the sound bite by which she is best known. We are continually striving to nurture engaging and thought provoking lectures, discussions, and events. And the next few months will be truly exciting.
- Our sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast: The Crisis of the Educated Citizen" will be happening at Bard College on October 3-4 and will bring together such luminaries as Richard Rodriguez (Hunger of Memory), Matthew Crawford (Shop Craft as Soul Craft), Danielle Allen (Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education), Bard President Leon Botstein (Jefferson's Children), and many more.
- 2013 will see the publication of the second annual edition of the HA Journal which revisits the best talks, essays, and lectures of the previous year.
- "Blogging and the New Public Intellectual"-- our New York City Lecture Series-will continue this fall, beginning with a discussion between Roger Berkowitz and Walter Russell Mead with Media Critic Jay Rosen on Sunday, Oct. 27 at 5pm at the Bard Graduate Center in NYC.
- The great American theatre director Robert Woodruff will be a senior fellow at the Arendt Center in the Fall and teach a course "Performing Arendt," designed to work with students to develop a multi-disciplinary performance piece inspired by Arendt's thinking.
- We will welcome back Senior Fellow Wyatt Mason and three new post-doctoral fellows who will teach courses at the Bard Prison Initiative as well as on Bard's Annandale campus.
- We are editing a volume of essays "Reading Arendt's Denktagebuch," based on a week-long working group we hosted last summer to read and discuss Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, the book of thoughts she kept for over 30 years.
- We will hold our second annual Berlin conference in May of 2014 in conjunction with ECLA of Bard.
- This fall we will launch a new annual series on Bard's campus teaching historical consciousness by focusing on a single fascinating year in history. The first event on September 19-20 features short talks by a dozen scholars about events from the fateful year 1933 as well as a Cabaret featuring songs and food from the period.
- Supported by a grant from the NY Council for the Humanities, the Arendt Center will host a series of public conversations in low-income neighborhoods throughout New York State in conjunction with our fall conference and centered on discussions of Richard Rodriguez's book, Hunger of Memory.
- We expect the NEH Seminar at Bard to continue in 2014 for the third year, directed by Kathy Jones, and bringing 17 high school teachers to the Arendt Center for five weeks to learn how to teach Hannah Arendt's political thinking to high school students.
- The Arendt Center and the Hannah Arendt Library recently acquired the complete transcript of the Trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem—one of only three copies in the United States—and plan on digitizing the transcript as pat of our continuing effort to make the material of the Arendt Library widely available and useful for Arendt scholars around the world.
- As part of a new initiative to encourage scholarship on and explore the enduring question of hate in human civilization, the Arendt Center will sponsor a syllabus competition to spur development of liberal arts courses on human hatred that will be taught in the fall semester 2014.
- If you missed it, take a look at my recently published essay on Hannah Arendt in the New York Times.
- We will continue to bring you thoughtful and timely commentary and content on our blog and website.
All of this and much, much more is in the works. But, we need your help and your support. The Arendt Center nurtures the foundational thinking that encourages the active citizenship that can humanize an often-inhuman world. But this programming comes at a cost.
Today we launch a 10 day/100 member challenge. Please click here and become a member of the Hannah Arendt Center. If you are already a member, we would ask you to renew your membership now. The Arendt Center needs the help of supporters like you, those that understand that we must "think what we are doing."
Learn more about membership here. One exciting new benefit of membership will be our virtual reading group. Members will be able to log on monthly to a live discussion about an essay or chapter by Arendt with members of the Arendt Center community.
We thank you in advance and look forward to seeing you at future real and virtual Hannah Arendt Center events.
Darin Strauss has a thoughtful essay bringing Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil thinking to bear on the Paula Deen scandal, something we at the Arendt Center had thought very little about.
Here’s a relevant fact. We know that Deen said “n-----r,” owned permissive restaurants, about the lady’s crude humor. But we know something else, too. Deen wanted to emulate a party where African Americans — and only African Americans — were made, in a manner reminiscent of the antebellum South, to serve white guests. What’s relevant, what’s Arendtian, is: none of the Stand-With-Paula people dispute any of these facts.
Which is where Eichmann comes in. In Arendt’s most famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she argued that sometimes what we call evil — and what can bring about the most horrible outcomes — can often more accurately and simply be thoughtlessness of a sort. That is to say, people, and communities, are often no good at the kind of abstract thought that helps us understand the experience of others. (Which is a shame, because abstract thought is what separates us from iPhones and hamsters.)
The enlarged thinking by which we can think from the perspective of others is not, for Arendt, abstract thought. It is concrete and engaged thinking. But Strauss’ larger point is a good one. Eichmann’s banality was his unthinking commitment to the truth of the Nazi movement. It is evidence that people depend so strongly on their identity as members of movements or peoples that they will unthinkingly defend and prosecute the goals of that movement, even when those goals contradict their basic moral convictions.
You can read the rest of Strauss’ essay here.
"It is better for you to suffer than to do wrong because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live together with a murderer? Not even a murderer. What kind of dialogue could you lead with him? Precisely the dialogue which Shakespeare let Richard III lead with himself after a great number of crimes had been committed:
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What from myself?"
-Hannah Arendt, ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’
‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’ is one of the most perfect examples of Arendt’s late writing. A distillation of her career-long thinking on thinking, the essay performs what it so elegantly urges: it is an essay on thinking that thinks.
For Arendt, the moral considerations that follow from thinking and, more grievously, from not thinking are profound. Adolf Eichmann’s “quite authentic inability to think” demonstrated to Arendt the arrival of new kind of evil in the world when she attended his trial in 1961. The airy emptiness of his speech was not the stupidity of a loathsome toad: his jabbering of cliché falling upon cliché sounded totalitarianism’s evil in a chorus of thoughtlessness. Shallowness as exemplified by Eichmann cannot be fixed or given depth by reason; no doctrine will argue the thoughtless into righteousness. Only through the experience of thinking, Arendt insisted, of being in dialogue with oneself, can conscience again be breathed into life. Thinking may be useless in itself; it may be a solitary activity that can often feel a little bit mad. Yet thinking is the precondition for the return of judgment, of knowing and saying: “this is not right.” By 1971, Arendt saw no evidence of a resurgence of thinking in the wake of atrocity.
Writing an essay on thinking that thinks and thus performing the experience of thinking is itself an act of defiance. Performing is the right verb here: Arendt knows she is staging her argument as a public spectacle. Her hero is Socrates: gadfly, midwife, stingray, provoker, deliverer and galvaniser of thinking in others. Socrates democratises perplexity. And when he has finished chatting with others, he carries on talking at home, with his quizzical, critical companion, that ‘obnoxious fellow’ with whom we are forever in dialogue -- the two with whom we make a thinking one. Arendt is fully aware that she is making a character out of Socrates. His inveterate dialogism is a model. Just as Dante’s characters conserve as much historical reality as the poet needs to make them representative, so too, she says, with her Socrates. Against the vacant image of Eichmann inanely mouthing his own eulogy in front of the hangman’s noose which opens the essay, we have Socrates: thoughtlessness versus thoughtfulness.
But what of the third character in Arendt’s essay—Shakespeare’s Richard III? The murderer who nobody wants to befriend? The villain who despite his best efforts cannot stop talking to himself?
Richard plays an odd, yet pivotal, role in Arendt’s performance of thinking. On the one hand, he is Socrates’ evil twin. Richard rejects conscience. ‘Every man that means to live well endeavours … to live without it’, he says. This is easy enough to do, says Arendt, because ‘all he has to do is never go home and examine things.’ Except, in Richard’s case, this proves difficult. He may try to avoid going home, but eventually he runs into himself at midnight; and in solitude, like Socrates, Richard cannot help but have intercourse with himself. Alone he speaks with himself in soliliquoys (from the Latin solus – alone and loqui –to speak; Arendt’s beloved Augustine is believed to have first conceived the compound). And this is what makes this villain—one who many have wanted to claim for the calculating murderousness of the twentieth century—much more like Socrates than Eichmann.
Both Socrates and Richard have the capacity to think. True, Richard thinks himself into villainy—he ‘proves himself a villain’—but this is precisely his pathos in Arendt’s drama. If it is better to suffer than to do harm, it is also better to have suffered at the hands of Richard who at least thought about what he was doing, than suffered as a number in one of Eichmann’s filing cards, the pathetic loner who joins a murderous movement not because he’s frightened of who might await him at home, but because he doesn’t even suspect anyone might be there in the first place. For all the ham-fisted productions that want him to be, Richard is not a Nazi villain in early modern disguise. Better that he could have been, of course, because then we wouldn’t have to contemplate the particular thoughtlessness of contemporary evil.
Richard is no Osama Bin Laden, Colonel Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein either, despite comparable violent last stands (and the corpse lust that attended them). This is well understood by Mark Rylance’s recent performance of Richard in the Globe Theater production that played in London last year and that is rumoured to open on Broadway soon. Rylance’s performance of Richard is like no other. It is also a performance that makes Arendt’s thinking more relevant than ever.
Rylance understands that since the War on Terror, post 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, after Guantanamo, rendition and drone wars, it would be a travesty to play Richard’s villainy as safely and exotically other (by contrast, in 1995 it was entirely possible to set the play in a 1930s Nazi context, and have Ian McKellen play the role for its cruel humour with a knowing nod to Brecht). Rylance’s Richard is plausible, pathetic even; he is compelling not in his all-too-evident evil but in his clumsy vulnerability. His creepy teeth sucking, and ever-twisting body mark a silent but persistent cogitation; he is a restless, needy, villain. Like a child, Rylance’s Richard grabs at his conscience— he thinks—and then chucks it away as one more ‘obstacle’, just as he spits in his mother’s face at the very moment he most desires she recognise him. In a neat echo of Arendt’s analysis of how the loneliness of totalitarianism feeds thoughtless evil, the loveless hunchback fights solitude in an effort to avoid the midnight hour; orchestrating collective murder is his defence against being alone with his thoughts. (This was observed by my theater companion who, being ten years old—and a British schoolboy—understands the connection between feeling left out and group violence well). Richard’s tragedy is that circumstances turned him into a serial killer, to this extent he is a conventional villain; his pathos, however, as this production shows, is to be poised between thinking and thoughtlessness, between Socrates and Eichmann.
‘No. Yes, I am/Then fly. What from myself?’ When Rylance speaks this soliloquy he stutters slightly, giggles and looks—as Arendt might have anticipated—a little perplexed. This is not a knowing perplexity; Richard does not master his conscience, nothing is done with the solitary dialogue, but the thinking is there even if Richard himself seems unsettled by its presence. In refusing to play Richard simply as one of the ‘negative heroes in literature’ who, Arendt argues, are often played as such ‘out of envy and resentment’, Rylance brilliantly captures the last moment before evil becomes banal.
To play Richard’s cruelty alongside his vulnerability is not to fail to recognise his villainy, as some have complained; rather, it is to dramatize the experience of thinking in the process of being painfully and violently lost. With pathos, we might think, is the only way to play Richard III today. The Globe’s production is a late, but utterly timely, companion to Arendt’s essay.
The new Hannah Arendt bio picture by Margarethe von Trotta has been released in Europe. It will hit theatres in the US in May, although it is making the rounds of festivals now. The good news: “Hannah Arendt” the film is really wonderful. I’ll have more to say about the film at some point soon, but until then we’ll be passing along the most interesting reviews. To get us started, here is a write up by David Owen, who teaches political theory at the University of Southampton. If you see the film and have some thoughts, pass them our way and we’ll post them on the blog.
The opening scene of the film shows the organised abduction of an ordinary-looking older man on a country road before cutting to a woman, obviously European in her movements, listening to classical music in a room whose decor is clearly American. These people are, of course, Adolf Eichmann and Hannah Arendt – and thus the film signals its central focus, namely, Arendt’s relationship to the event of Eichmann’s Trial in Jerusalem and the questions that Arendt’s report and the reactions to it raise concerning the relations of the private and the public, the personal and the political, and, more specifically, the conditions (and wisdom) of a philosopher speaking philosophically about politics in public.
The film’s portrayal of Arendt is unfolded through her relationships, most notably with her husband Heinrich Blücher, her friend Mary McCarthy, her once class-mate and now friend and colleague Hans Jonas, her old political mentor and friend the Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld, the editor of the New Yorker William Shawn, and her former teacher and lover Martin Heidegger. All except the last of these are played out within a linear dramatic narrative that tracks Arendt’s circle from the capture of Eichmann through the trail in Jerusalem to the composition and publication of, and reaction to, Arendt’s New Yorker articles. The relationship to Heidegger is interspersed into the narrative through flashback’s that are Arendt’s memories of her relationship with Heidegger and his disastrous foray into public political speech in the Rectoral Address of May 27th 1933, a public act which he later spoke of privately as ‘die größte Dummheit seines Lebens’ but which he never publically renounced. This figuring of her relationship to Heidegger within the dramatic structure of the film is unfortunate in a number of ways, not least the portrayal of Heidegger as a clownish naïf, but primarily because through the use and positioning of these flashbacks within the film, von Trotta offers an open-ended analogy between Heidegger’s and Arendt’s acts of public speech. Even if von Trotta means only to raise the suggestion, since these flashbacks are Arendt’s, that Arendt reflects on her Report on the Eichmann Trial through the prism of her personal relationship to Heidegger and his own abrogated stress on the necessity of thinking, it gets in the way of the rest of the film which is a beautifully shot and compelling piece of narrative drama with a strong ensemble cast, not least in the sensitive use of documentary footage in the reconstruction of the Eichmann trial.
In different respects, Blücher and McCarthy are presented as Arendt’s supports. Blücher’s wandering eye and philandering (which Arendt is portrayed as accepting as a fact about which it would be hopeless to rail) are offset by his role as loving companion and sounding board for her thoughts. McCarthy is the female confidant, a blousy American whose insecurity in her personal life and work contrasts with and highlights Arendt’s European roots and location in an older tradition.
By contrast, the relationships with Hans Jonas and Kurt Blumenfeld are offered as both deep but also, finally broken, by Arendt’s writing on Eichmann. This is given early expression in, first, an argument between Jonas and Blücher about Eichmann’s abduction to be placed on trial in Israel which foreshadows the more dramatic rupture between Jonas and Arendt – and, second, Arendt’s visit to Blumenfeld’s family in Jerusalem (on her way to cover the Eichmann trial) in awkwardness and already emerging disagreement are covered over by the depth of their friendship. Later, after the report is published, Arendt will dash to Jerusalem to visit a seriously ill Blumenfeld in his sickbed only for him to turn his back to her. The issue von Trotta raises here concerns not so much whether Arendt’s arguments are right or wrong but rather how much one can reasonably ask one’s friends to bear in respect of one’s own commitment to intellectual integrity. For Blumenfeld, Arendt’s remarks on the role of the Jewish leaders in co-operating with the Nazi organization run by Eichmann and hence facilitating the Shoah are a betrayal of the Jewish people. Arendt’s response — that she does not think of herself as having such an obligation — adds only insult to injury. For Jonas, Arendt’s fault is arrogance — and certainly the portrayal of her relationship to William Shawn, an editor overwhelmed by awe at Arendt which she shows no compunction in exploiting, is given as testimony to this side of her character. This issue is raised for us acutely by the climax of the film to which I’ll come shortly but there are two other features that deserve comment first.
The first is the presentation of the charge made against Arendt by her public critics that she is cold, without feeling, and McCarthy’s defense of her as simply having a courage that her critics lack, in the context of a portrayal of Arendt among students and friends as a caring and humorous person who, at one point, privately breaks down in the face of the reaction to her report. The second is the portrayal of the process of composing her writing of Eichmann which combines two elements: the engagement with a vast mass of empirical material, piles of folders of paper (court transcripts, etc.) are arranged around the study and apartment, and the difficulty of writing: Arendt sits reading and is haunted by voices from the trial, she spends a lot of time lying down on a divan smoking endless cigarettes, she types in a controlled frenzy. Here it seems to me that the film is linking these features in a way that is insightful and important, namely, that Arendt had to steel herself to write her report at all, that she had to set aside her own feelings and relationships to others in order to be able to try to serve truth, that intellectual conscience (redlichkeit) makes demands that are hard to bear. In this sense, the film suggests that the critics (who remind me of Martha Nussbaum on tragedy) are right to see her writing as cold and without feeling but quite wrong in their judgment of the significance of this fact and the courage that the writing required of her. At the same time, her response to William Shawn that her writing about the Jewish leaders was purely factual raises for the viewer the question of whether she has lost the ability to discriminate between her judgment and facts in this process. In making this point, the film does not attempt to adjudicate the question of whether Arendt was right or wrong to write the report that she composed, rather it tries, I think compellingly, to make intelligible how she could come to speak in the way that she did (it may also explain why she was entirely unconcerned that Eichmann was hanged).
Let me now turn to the climax. As the drama following the publication of her report unfolds, Arendt is presented as treating from public space and, against McCarthy’s advice, refusing to engage publically with the criticisms directed at her work by critics for whom she has no intellectual respect (echoes of Heidegger’s postwar silence are raised here). When she returns to The New School, at that time almost entirely a Jewish institution, her colleagues shun her and she is asked to resign from teaching her classes which she refuses to do — but she does acknowledge an obligation to the students, who have supported her (and whom the film portrays her as feeling responsible to, for example, in the scene where McCarthy arrives at her class to tell her that Blücher has had a heart attack and is in hospital, and her first shocked reaction is to return to finish her class). When she has offered her explanation to a lecture hall packed with students and the three staff before whom she was hauled for dressing down and discipline, she rebuts – albeit not wholly convincingly — the charge by a staff member that she is blaming the victims for their own victimhood and is given rapturous applause by the students. As they leave, she sees that Hans Jonas is also in the audience. His face, in a bravura piece of acting by Ulrich Noethen, gives us no clue as to what is to come next but seems to express a process of internal struggle. Arendt goes to him, hopeful that her explanation will have healed the rupture of their friendship, but far from it — Jonas rejects her account, she has gone too far, and, in a bitter expression of the end of their friendship, refers to her as “Heidegger’s little darling”.
The question raised by this film is that of ‘thoughtlessness’. Arendt presents Eichmann as a creature who cannot think, for has abdicated the realm of thinking, and at the same time she sees Heidegger as a philosopher whose movement into the public realm is marked by a shift to thoughtlessness (a view that allows her to continue to engage Heidegger’s philosophical work after 1933 in contrast to Jonas). Is Arendt similarly ‘thoughtless’ is her reflections on the Jewish leaders? The film asks us to consider this question but not, I think, quite in Arendt’s sense of thoughtlessness but in the broader sense that underlies it. Her commitment to understanding, to making intelligible, to truthfulness is given clear expression as too are the demands this makes on her — but what about the demands that this makes on her friends, is there not a kind of thoughtlessness here? Is there not a kind of thoughtlessness in her failure to anticipate the entirely predictable response to her moralized interpretation of the role of the Jewish leaders, whose cooperation with the Nazis, she writes, should strike Jews as the darkest episode of a dark chapter of human action?
I don’t think that the film ultimately takes a stance on this issue – rather it raises for us the question of the relationship of Arendt’s sense of thoughtlessness to our ordinary sense of that word. And it must be noted that while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann. As David Cesarani and, more recently, Bettina Stangneth have compellingly argued, Arendt was — like almost everyone else — taken in by Eichmann’s strategy of self-presentation in the trial as a nobody, a mere functionary, a bureaucratic machine. Yet the evidence of Eichmann’s commitment to Nazism and, contra Arendt, his commitment to anti-Semitism that has emerged in more recent years, especially well-documented by Stangneth’s study Eichmann vor Jerusalem, suggests that Jonas was right — Eichmann was a monster who hated Jews. The film is composed in a context in which we, and von Trotta, know this — and I think the film’s refusal to resolve the issues that it raises is precisely an acknowledgement of this context. In this respect, Thomas Assheuer’s review in Die Zeit which suggests that Arendt’s reading of Eichmann was directed against that of the Israeli Prime Minster David Ben Gurion who represented him as a monster of evil for ideological purposes may have some force but not against the film. Rather the film leaves us with questions concerning the relationship between friendship and the service of truth, of emotional life and the conditions of writing truthfully, and of the conditions and costs of public speech.
“[O]ur newest experiences and our most recent fears…[are] a matter of thought and thoughtlessness – the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty – [This] seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Not thinking was, for Arendt, the increasingly dominant quality of the world in which we live. Thoughtlessness is the negative mirror image of what she called for as the only form of thinking appropriate to period of crisis (indeed, in a strict sense, perhaps to any time) – thinking “without a banister.”
Inherent in this conception is that in ages and at times like our own, when one must think without support, many, perhaps most, will not think, or rather will avoid thinking. They will thus be left without that voice of conscience – like Socrates' daimon who appears at moments of judgment and keeps Socrates from justifying, or even engaging in acts that are evil. Importantly, that something is “true,” means nothing by itself unless it is the subject of thinking.
One might consider here the thoughtlessness that reigned in the general reaction in the United States to the attacks of 9/11, 2001. The analogy was immediately drawn to Pearl Harbor. From this analogy it followed that our response should be analogous to that after Pearl Harbor, despite the fact that Al-Qaeda, unlike Japan, was not a nation-state. Furthermore this enemy was linked to an Axis of Evil against which one was to fight a “war on terror.” Osama Bin laden was Hitler or at least Tojo; Saddam Hussein another totalitarian, linked by an Axis of Evil to the other totalitarians. Yet one cannot fight against terror, only against an enemy – Carl Schmitt had warned of forgetting this.
The result of not thinking about what one has done – whether as a policy maker or a member of the population -- has been a war that has now gone on for ten years with neither goal nor end in sight. Thoughtlessness has consequences: people die as a result of thoughtlessness.
(I discovered similar thoughts in Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters on pages 12-13 after writing this passage and modified my words, as hers are much better: I join others in mourning her passing).