Arendt’s Mistake

hannaharendtWhat did you expect?


Oversize incisors?

Green saliva?


– Leonard Cohen, ‘All There Is To Know About Adolf Eichmann’

I’ve just seen the Hannah Arendt biopic at the beautiful Hyde Park Picture House. It’s a good film, lively and objective, and accessible even if you don’t know Arendt. The movie centres on Arendt’s most controversial and divisive work, her book on the trial of SS commandant Adolf Eichmann, in which she portrayed Eichmann as a kind of automaton, with no distinguishing evil or even individual initiative, who simply participated in war crimes out of a bureaucratic obedience. Michael Ezra, via his blog, explains her thesis:

Enormous controversy centered on what Arendt had written about the conduct of the trial, her depiction of Eichmann and her discussion of the role of the Jewish Councils. Eichmann, she claimed, was not a ‘monster’; instead, she suspected, he was a ‘clown.’ He had no ‘insane hatred of Jews’ and did not suffer from any kind of ‘fanatical anti-Semitism.’ She reported Eichmann’s claim that ‘he had never harbored any ill feelings against his victims’ and accepted it as fact. As far as Arendt was concerned, Eichmann simply had ‘an inability to think.’ She concluded: ‘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.’ In a postscript to later editions of the book she added that Eichmann simply ‘never realized what he was doing’ and that his criminal actions were due to ‘sheer thoughtlessness.’

This sounds like a familiar litany of Nuremberg excuses: terrible things happen in wartime, Allies too committed war crimes, they cut our supply chains, this is ‘victor’s justice’, I was misled, and of course, I was ‘only following orders’. Jonathan Littell, in his superb The Kindly Ones, has his fictional SS officer Max Aue take this to its rhetorical conclusion. The narrator recasts World War Two in the style of Greek tragedy where fate is definitive and unavoidable, and explicitly compares himself to Orestes. In the prologue, Aue addresses his reader:

I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I am guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did. With less zeal, perhaps, but perhaps also with less despair, in any case one way or the other. I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, but there’s no chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was.

The Arendt film, and Ezra’s article, evoke the spectacular rows her book ignited in New York’s intellectual scene. The film’s second half is an explosion of broken friendships and emptied rooms. Von Trotta stacks the cards a little in Arendt’s favour here. She’s eloquent even when outnumbered and her opponents are portrayed as smug, wooden preppy buffoons. But the movie is not a complete vindication of Arendt’s thesis. The last word goes to an old friend who feels furious and betrayed by Arendt’s work. The portrait is of a clever and passionate middle aged woman, but one who spent the rest of her life grappling with the pain of doubt.

Arendt insisted the problem was the system rather than individuals, and you cannot put a system on trial. She could not reconcile the ‘huge difference between the horror of the deeds and the mediocrity of the man’. Yet she emphasised the primacy of the individual. In response to the scholar Gersham Scholem, who said that she had no ‘[l]ove of the Jewish people’ Arendt said that ‘I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed ‘love’ only my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.’

And yet her book on Eichmann was the philosopher’s greatest misstep. Eichmann was not simply a thoughtless bureaucrat. He was a senior officer in the SS. The SS were the elite of the Nazi elite. They didn’t take just anyone. Maybe there were some Nazis who were just going through the motions. Eichmann wasn’t one of them. From Ezra’s article: ‘In an interview given in 1957 from his hiding place in Argentina, Eichmann had boasted that his only regret was his failure to massacre all eleven million European Jews. Rudolf Höss, camp commandant of Auschwitz, had confirmed this: ‘He was completely obsessed with the idea of destroying every single Jew he could lay his hands on.’’ Ezra also quotes from a review of Jacob Robinson’s critique, And The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight:

After Robinson’s argument not a single one of Miss Arendt’s main contentions can be credited; and a great many of her minor contentions … have also to be tossed out. She was wrong about Eichmann, she was wrong about international law, she was wrong about Jewish leaders, she was wrong about Jewish resistance, she was wrong about Jewish ‘cooperation’ with the Nazis…. She was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Perhaps it suited Eichmann’s purposes to portray himself as a hapless cog in the war crimes machine. Perhaps he thought this defence would save his neck. If so, Arendt bought it.

Ezra regrets that Robinson’s rebuttal didn’t have the impact of Arendt’s original essay, and puts this down to stylistics: Robinson comes off as a plodding fact checker whereas Arendt had a unique and compelling voice that gave the phrase ‘banality of evil’ to the lingua of posterity. I don’t know Arendt’s works half as well as Michael does but believe that despite everything she had a point, in that evil comes from the will to belong, the communitarian impulse and the instinct to obey, as much as from individual malice and failings – even if, in Jerusalem in 1962, Arendt was conned.


2 Responses to “Arendt’s Mistake”

  1. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Nice piece. I was talking to a mate of mine about Arendt over Christmas. Turned out we were both nostalgic for the days when liberals who ‘went wrong’ did so the right reasons. There was a time when the likes of Arendt or Muggeridge or Lord Longford just couldn’t rationalise the fact that some people are just bad bastards; which probably stems from their rejection of ‘evil’ as a coherent , non-contingent concept…which is fair enough.
    These days when they go bad, they seem to turn into censorious, authoritarian maniacs for whom reason is category error; a culturally specific form of special pleading.
    Whatever you might think of Arendt, you should always remember she meant well and was no relativist.

  2. Olympic Coverage: Soviet Horrors are Being Swept Under the Rug. | pundit from another planet Says:

    […] Arendt’s Mistake ( […]

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