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Wrestling with Hannah Arendt’s “Banality of Evil”

Ralph Seliger
May 18, 2016

by Ralph Seliger

fullFROM ITS very opening, the “Day of Learning” on Hannah Arendt’s work on Adolf Eichmann — organized by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and hosted at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan — challenged my assumptions and preconceptions. I learned much that day (May 8), including things I had missed in my reading, years ago, of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In this article, I report on aspects of what the featured scholars presented, along with some of my own evolving thoughts.

With her introductory lecture, the program’s lead presenter, Dr. Samantha HIll, a political scientist who specializes in critical theory, disabused me of the notion that Arendt had been unaware of a 1960 interview of Eichmann recorded in Argentina by Willem Sassen, a Dutch veteran of the Waffen SS and a Holocaust denier. Sassen unwittingly elicited a boastful confession of Eichmann’s anti-Semitic zeal and prideful pursuit of his genocidal mission. Hill indicated that although Arendt was aware of the interview (and referred to it in her book), she may not have heard or read the entire text — a matter later analyzed in a lengthy volume by Bettina Stangneth (originally published in Germany in 2011, and in the U.S. in 2015 as Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer). Stangneth’s book was widely hailed as proving Eichmann’s deep-seated hatred of Jews.

Part of the day’s closing panel engaged the participants in a discussion of whether Arendt actually thought Eichmann was anti-Semitic. The challenge in approaching Arendt is not just in learning what she wrote, but also in interpreting what she meant. In counterpoint to CUNY political scientist Corey Robin’s impression that she never denied Eichmann's anti-Semitism, Dr. Hill found a quote (p. 26, Penguin Classics edition, 2006) seeming to indicate otherwise:

His was obviously also no case of insane hatred of Jews, of fanatical anti-Semitism or indoctrination of any kind. He “personally” never had anything whatever against Jews; on the contrary, he had plenty of “private reasons” for not being a Jew hater....

In defense of his point, Prof. Robin mentioned Arendt's use of ironic quotation marks, making it difficult for readers to discern whether she was ridiculing Eichmann or taking his statements at face value. She apparently didn’t regard him as an ideologically-motivated anti-Semite, ascribing his embrace of anti-Semitism to a good career move within the Nazi and SS hierarchies. This may have been a reasonable observation for an academic analysis, but it seemed noxious when melted down in the mass media and popular culture. Even Margarethe von Trotte’s 2013 biopic, a sophisticated effort to portray Arendt’s life during and after the Eichmann trial, staged a scene of Arendt in an Israeli cafe shocking her friends by provocatively declaring that he wasn’t anti-Semitic, as if to excuse him.

A 2011 Haaretz news article not only indicates that Sassen’s Eichmann tape factually undercut his legal defense, but also countered Arendt’s argument that he was an unthinking bureaucrat:

At his trial, Eichmann's attorneys claimed that he was a low-level cog in the Nazi system who simply followed orders. "It was not my desire to kill people," he said. "The mass murder is the fault of the political leaders only."

Yet Eichmann is heard on the tape saying: "I was no ordinary recipient of orders. If I had been one, I would have been a fool. Instead, I was part of the thought process. I was an idealist."

Still, he made statements under interrogation cited by Arendt to substantiate her thesis as to Eichmann’s “banality”; they clearly exposed the moral vacuity of the man (Prof. Robin observed that Eichmann comes off as “narcissistic”). For example, there’s his story about agreeing to meet with an official he knew from the Jewish community of Vienna, Kommerzialrat Storfer, who appealed on the basis of friendship to be freed from Auschwitz. Eichmann insisted in transparently cynical terms that he did all he could, helping his “friend” by arranging for better conditions in his forced labor assignment; Arendt notes that Storfer was shot to death six weeks later.

Dr. Hill explained that Arendt never fully defined the “banality of evil,” but argued that evil was committed by ordinary people, not monsters, and this truth should be a warning to all of us. Yet it was odd to me that Arendt would have expressed surprise that Eichmann appeared so ordinary at the trial. Fighting for his life, or at least to justify his life’s work, would not such a person in the dock want to seem anything but monstrous?

THE GRIEF caused her by the book’s subtitle was compounded by her seeming to criticize the Jewish victims themselves for the collaboration of the Judenräte (the Jewish councils) in managing the ghettos and facilitating an orderly selection of Jews for deportation to the death camps. Arendt actually pointed out in passing that the compliance of Jews to Nazi orders was not unique among occupied populations, but we know that the odds for Jews to escape the Nazi juggernaut — especially in countries where anti-Semitic prejudice was widespread — were woefully short.

Prof. Robin expressed some surprise that only about ten pages on the Judenräte caused so much outrage among Jews, but this ignores the deep emotional scar lingering from horrific events less than twenty year before. In the new documentary, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, Richard Bernstein, a colleague of hers at The New School for Social Research, claimed that in retrospect, Arendt expressed regret on the way that she had written about the Jewish councils.

In general, Arendt wrote very well, but she was also somewhat opaque, as in her “banality” concept — which surely contributed to the popular backlash against her. It would undoubtedly defy common understandings of her work that she actually supported Eichmann’s execution.

Arendt was one of a kind. She prided herself in not allying with any political movement, as she explained in a famous exchange of letters with Gershom Scholem, photocopied for the class (an Israeli philosopher, originally from Germany, he is mostly remembered for his writings on the Kabbalah). But she was a Zionist functionary in Paris in the 1930s, helping German and Polish Jews get to Palestine, and only broke with the movement after the Zionist Congress voted in 1942 to strive for an explicitly Jewish state in Palestine, as opposed to the bi-national federation or confederation that she preferred.

Finally, a remarkable aspect of this day was in meeting the impressive young scholars from the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Dr. Hill is completing a manuscript of Hannah Arendt’s poetry (who knew?), edited and translated into English for a volume entitled Into the Dark: The Collected Poems of Hannah Arendt. Her colleague, Dr. Suzanne Schneider, is a historian whose research interests include Jewish and Islamic modernism, and the history of modern Israel and Palestine. The Institute’s director, Dr. Ajay Singh Chaudhary, also participated; his interests include comparative philosophy, political theory, cultural theory, and modern Jewish thought.

The Eichmann trial was at bottom a show trial — although without the trumped-up charges and forced confessions of Stalin’s purges — planned by Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion to advance ideological aims. To Dr. Schneider, this means emphasizing the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history, which focuses upon the manifold disasters suffered by Jews throughout history, with the Jewish state as a necessary and justified response.

This perspective was first identified and critiqued by the late Columbia University historian Salo Wittmayer Baron. To be sure, seeing Jewish history outside of Israel as only a parade of disasters is one-dimensional. But considering how many expulsions, massacres and other instances of ill-treatment Jews have experienced under the thumb of hostile regimes and at the mercy of non-Jewish majorities, it’s not simply a Zionist distortion. Sadly, given Israel’s still unresolved existential conflict with Palestinian Arabs — compounded by the broader region’s current state of chaos and violence — it remains to be seen if even the Jews of modern-day Israel will long remain independent, secure and free.

Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, and currently blogs for Ameinu, The Third Narrative, and Partners for Progressive Israel.