I became attracted to Hannah Arendt in 2011, whilst visiting an exhibition on the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was tried – and hanged – for his role in the Holocaust and the trial was what made the world first pay attention to the accounts of Holocaust victims. The exhibition was held in conjunction with the trial’s 50th anniversary.
Arendt, a political theorist of Jewish background who fled Germany to the US when the Nazis took power, covered the trial for the ‘New Yorker’. Having already examined Nazism and anti-Semitism in her influential ‘Origins of Totalitarianism’, Arendt introduced the concept of “the banality of evil” after the trial.
Based on observing Eichmann and studying court transcripts, Arendt deduced that the mass perpetrators of evil acts were not necessarily sociopaths nor genocidal. Instead, under totalitarianism, evil outcomes could result from those who were fervently dedicated to a movement in a mindless, uncritical and dutiful manner whilst abdicating personal moral responsibility.
Her articles and book on the trial were greeted with outrage by segments of the Jewish community.
The prevailing opinion of Nazis in 1951 was that they were all monsters, and so Eichmann must have been lying through his teeth and deceived Arendt. Arendt also pointed out the culpability of some Jewish leaders in the destruction of European Jewry and, instead of acknowledging the Holocaust as a specific act against Jews, elevated it to one against humanity.
The attacks against her were many and vicious and her “banality of evil” continues to be controversial till the present.
Her detractors even slayed the 2012 eponymous film about Arendt and the process of writing about the Eichmann trial.
But under the hand of German filmmaker extraordinaire Margarethe von Trotta, the period and attendant controversy unfolds carefully, juxtaposing the thinker that is Arendt against the non-thinker that is Eichmann, the loneliness that comes with thinking against the communality of public outrage.
In contrast to Arendt’s traits that drew accusations of coldness, arrogance and treachery, the film also shows her as warm and deeply valuing relationships; losing those precious friendships cut deep.
To great effect, the film incorporates actual footage of Eichmann, Holocaust witnesses and the trial, so that the viewer is left to personally judge Eichmann and the process.
Archival footage was also used at the 50th anniversary exhibition I had visited. I was struck then by how pedestrian Eichmann appeared and sounded (but perhaps I was already looking for the dullness).
As Arendt’s oft-quoted line from her book states: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal”. ω
The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College has comprehensive information about Arendt, her work and beyond. This article draws from that source as well as the following sources:
>> Patrick Hayden (2010). The Relevance of Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on Evil: Globalization and Rightlessness. Human Rights Review: 11:451 – 467DOI 10.1007/s12142-010-0157-8.
>> Gewen, Barry (14 May 2006). “The Everyman of Genocide”. The New York Times.
>> Berkowitz, Roger (July 7, 2013). “Misreading ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem'”. The New York Times.
>> Wikipedia entries on Hannah Arendt, ‘Eichmannn in Jerusalem’, Adolf Eichmann (English and German) and ‘Origins of Totalitarianism’.
>> The official website of the ‘Hannah Arendt’ film has synopsis, reviews and biographies of the key characters.