Friday, May 10, 2013

Hannah Arendt in a false Jerusalem

The other day we went to see the new film about Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta (2012). If you're into Batman films or other Christopher Nolan intelligent flics, this one isn't for you. It's slow, thoughtful, in two languages, and very well made. There is no action of the sort that Hollywood would recognize. It's about Arendt's trip to Jerusalem for Adolf Eichmann's trial in 1961 and the book she wrote about it, Eichmann in Jerusalem (Penguin Classics) - a book with one of the most important subtitles ever: a Report on the Banality of Evil.

Arendt was once a serious presence in my life. It turns out that shortly before she traveled to Jerusalem she spent an evening at our home in Chicago, though given my young age I was probably sent to bed before she arrived. As an undergraduate I read her magnificent The Origins of Totalitarianism (HBK) - easily one of the most intellectually exciting books I'd read. When I submitted my doctoral proposal for research into the decision-making process in the SS, using Eichmann's office as a case study, I noted that a side affect of the investigation would be to bolster Arendt's Banality thesis with solid historical documentation.

Well, that didn't work out. As I ploughed my way through tens of thousands of pages of Nazi documents and secondary sources about it, I was forced to recognize that she had got it all wrong. There was no banality there whatsoever, but there was personal brutality and viciousness, in the context of a profound and all-pervasive hatred of Jews. I eventually published my findings, in Hitler's Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil, which had a pretty good run as turgid history books go, and was published in four languages, but never made the tiniest dent in the popularity of Arendt's thesis. Which is OK, given her stature and my lack of one.

Von Trotta's film tells the story of the creation of the Banality of Evil book and its initial reception; the fun in watching it is that we all know the end of the story: while some folks didn't initially like it, eventually it became one of the more famous books of the 20th century, so that there was a happy ending, even if it took a while to arrive - after the end of the film.

I'm not going to argue with her anymore - I've moved on from that. It's a fine film, and I recommend it.

The point I'd like to make is about one of the most minor scenes in the film. In early 1961 Arendt arrives in Jerusalem. The film puts her in St Andrew's Scottish Church, which I think didn't happen but could have, I suppose. From the balcony there's a great view of the western wall of the Old City, and when she first arrives she meets an old friend, a fellow German-born Jew, and they briefly enjoy the view, while commenting "So this is your Jerusalem!"; the camera pans along the wall of the Old City.

Which is of course nonsense. In 1961 anyone sitting on that balcony looking at the view would have noticed that there was a harsh border running right down the middle of it, with hostile snipers occasionally shooting at each other across it. No one would have celebrated "their Jerusalem"; any sane person would have mourned the tragic tearing apart of one of the world's oldest and most famous cities. Indeed, a visitor to the city would have sought out such vantage points so as to see the extent of the travesty, and the imbecility of dividing a city.

A German film director born in 1942 and thus old enough to remember the division of Berlin and Jerusalem, of all people, could be expected not to be so silly. Or maybe not: maybe that's too much to expect.


Aaron Gross said...

I haven't read Arendt's book on Eichmann, but I've read her letter to Gershom Scholem where she says it's now her opinion that all evil is banal, that there is no such thing as radical evil. (I could give the exact quote if you want.)

Given that "all evil" would include Hitler, Himmler, sadistic concentration camp guards, and so on, I don't think your discovery of the brutality and viciousness in the SS could refute what she meant by the "banality of evil" at that time.

Like I said, I haven't read the book, so I don't know whether her concept of banality changed before she wrote the letter. But the letter was written in 1963, the same year the book was published.

MiK said...

This is what Isaiah Berlin said: "I am not ready to swallow her idea about the banality of the evil. The Nazis were not 'banal'. Eichmann deeply believed in what he did, it was, he admitted, at the centre of his being. I asked Scholem why people admired Miss Arendt. He told me that no serious thinker did so, that people who admired her were only the 'littérateurs', only men of letters, because they were unused to ideas." (Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, London 2000, 84-5.)

Aaron Gross said...

@MiK, she might not have been admired by serious thinkers then, but she certainly is now. Publications on Arendt in political theory have been increasing geometrically. She's taken very seriously by some of the big names in political theory today, people like Juergen Habermas and Giorgio Agamben.

If we take Scholem's words at face value - which we shouldn't, of course - then now it's the inverse of the early days when "littérateurs" like W. H. Auden were her admirers. Nowadays her admirers seem to be her fellow political theorists.

Aaron Gross said...

More to the point of Isaiah Berlin's remark that "Eichmann deeply believed in what he did, it was, he admitted, at the centre of his being": That does not at all contradict banality as I understood it from her writings after Eichmann in Jerusalem (which, again, I haven't read).

Her concept of banality is much closer to thoughtlessness. That, in turn, depends on her concept of thinking, which is different from the everyday usage of the word. Deep beliefs about something at the very center of one's being can be banal. Again: Arendt believed that all evil was banal, which includes people like Hitler, definitely someone with evil beliefs at least as strong and central as Eichmann's.

Andrey Osiatynski said...

Popularity of Arendt's ridiculously dumb thesis about "banality of evil" has always depended on 2 factors:
1. "Sophisticated" (and mostly sophist) arguments "proving" that the our commonsense ideas and moral intuitions "are wrong."
2. Attraction of moral relativism (mostly to the intelligentsia and to the aspiring "intellectuals") -- liberating them from personal responsibility for active or passive support of vicious, group-think movements such as communism (in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s) or - today - international (leftist/socialist) anti-Zionism -- that they "have" to endorse in order to be accepted by the ruling "intellectual" elites -- and, thus, get: published, tenured, granted, etc.
Little Hannah had a nice size skeleton in her own wardrobe (her "undying loyalty" to her Nazi-symphatizer mentor and lover Martin Heidegger) that might be adding a 3rd -- more "personal" motivation and explanation for her "philosophical" analysis.

Jacob Arnon said...

I am admirer of Professor Yaacov Lozowick's work hence I was surprised that he said he admired Arendt's "Origin of Totalitarianism."

I found that book ridden with as many historical mistakes and ontological misjudgments as her Eichmann book.

In all her work Arendt used the phenomenology she learned from Heidegger while adding a good dose of Augustine's notion of evil.

The banality of evil concept she got from the bishop of Hippo and applied it to a notion of History which saw humanity, (real humanity) as home faber.

Her condemnation of totalitarianism has more to do with their embrace of man as a species being (a biological concept) which sees man as organism of nature)

In her day it was more important to condemn totalitarianism no matter the terms one used but in our day we need to ask her texts some pointed questions about her views.

The banality of evil issues from these concepts.

Jacob Arnon said...

Augustine argued, Aaron that a benevolent god could not create evil hence evil is not. All theologies including Jewish theology (see the various answers t the Holocaust given by ultra-Orthodox Judaism) have had trouble reconciling an omnipotent god and a creator with the notion of destruction. Of course each religion deals with the notion of evil in different ways, and Arendt opted for the Augustinian version which to my mind is the easiest to live with.

Just deny evil, you will sleep better at night.

Yaacov said...


I write that back then, when I was an undergraduate, I found Origins fascinating.

About 10 years later, or 12, I heard Prof. Steven Aschheim recommend the book to a class with the interesting observation that "Every educated person should read The Origins of Totalitarianism. Every single one of its thesis and claims is WRONG, but still, everyone should read it!"

Aaron Gross said...

I wasn't a big fan of Origins either. Even so, there was some good stuff in it.

Jacob, as you probably know Arendt started out believing, with Kant, in radical evil. She still believed in it when she wrote Origins. By the 1960s she had denied that such a thing exists. All that time, when she both did and did not believe in radical evil, she was of course a "disciple" of Augustine.

I haven't read Augustine (except for the Confessions), but I don't see what an Augustinian influence is supposed to explain if Arendt believed in the existence of radical (not banal) evil even when she was influenced by Augustine.

Anyway, I'd still like to see an answer to my objection: Given that Arendt believed that all evil including the evil of Hitler himself is banal, how do these historical revelations about Eichmann and the SS refute her position on banality? Was Eichmann more vicious and obsessed than Hitler?

If it matters any, I don't agree with Arendt's view of the relation between thinking, thoughtlessness, banality, good, and evil. I just can't see how these historical facts are supposed to be a refutation of it.

The Stop BDS Team said...

Re: the anachronism.

It is a pretty bad blunder for someone making a historical film. It reveals a lack of research.

On the other hand, it is an unintended commentary and compliment on the seamlessness and success of the reunification of Jerusalem, that the film team was unable to suspect this might have been the location of division.

It also speaks to the resilience of Jerusalem and of the Jewish people. No matter how hurt we are, we conceal our scars.


Yaacov said...


I doubt Arendt wrote that all evil is banal; that would be far too facile a statement for her to her to have made. But anyway, it's not at all what she wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem. In that book, her thesis was that Eichamnn wasn't the monster she and everyone had been expecting to see, rather he was a grey and uninteresting bureaucrat who never thought about what he was doing. True, this was how he cast himself at the trial, but it had very little to do with the reality of the 1940s. Why she managed not to see this is beyond me.

Aaron Gross said...

Yes, I understand (without having read the book) that she said things about Eichmann that others, including you, claim to have refuted. I'm quite ready to believe that you are right about that and Arendt was wrong.

My point is that these mistakes about Eichmann don't contradict the banality of his evil given what she said on that subject outside of that book. You said you doubt that she said all evil is banal. I'll let you evaluate my paraphrase yourself. On July 24, 1963, Arendt wrote [emphasis added],

I changed my mind and do no longer speak of "radical evil"...It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never "radical," that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is "thought-defying," as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its "banality." Only the good has depth and can be radical.

Again, I certainly don't agree with what Arendt wrote here, but I think my paraphrase was fair: her claim is categorical. I could look up other stuff where she goes into more depth on these ideas, and repeats her categorical claim about the banality of evil, if you want. It would probably be too long to quote, though.