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Hannah Arendt. A Review.

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Hannah Arendt. A Review.

Hannah Arendt is one of the twentieth century’s “greatest political philosophers.” The response of the Editor of the New Yorker to a colleague who queries sending her to report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 signposts the difficulties underlying Margarethe von Trotta’s film. How can thought be put on the screen?

Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), that assembled the resulting magazine pieces, is the hinge of the film. She famously doubted the right of Israel to judge one of the central actors in the Endlösung. Arendt made an appeal for a different, International, Tribunal to judge crimes against Humanity.

But there was more than this. The political thinker evoked her understanding of the history of the Shoah and asserted that, “recognised Jewish leaders” had, “almost without exception, cooperated with the Nazis”. An uproar followed the articles.

Hannah Arendt is, like Trotta’s Rosa Luxembourg (1996), an intimist film. Hannah, played by Barbara Sukowa – who also Rosa – teaches in University, and lives with the former Sparticist and anti-Stalinist Henreich Blücher. Close friends, including Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), who will come to her defence, surround them. Politics passes the threshold of their New York flat into heated discussions at get-togethers, not through active political engagement.

Windows into other worlds open during the trial itself, and the ferocious reaction from Arendt’s colleagues to her opinions on the “role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people.” Saying that she “blamed the victims” left loose a flood of charges against her. When the Eichmann controversy is at its height Hannah receives threatening letters, and a note from a “nice old gentlemen” on another floor in her apartment block, calling her a “Nazihure” (Nazi whore). Dramatically perhaps the most telling moment is when an old friend breaks with her, dismissing Arendt as arrogant and typically “intellectual”.

Hannah’s attachment to Heidegger – from a youthful affair, her enduring acquaintance, to her dismissal of his “silly” pro-Nazi proclamations – is introduced through flashbacks. This might remind the audience of the controversies that followed Victor Farais’ Heidegger et le Nazisme (1987) and Hugo Otto’s Martin Heidegger. A Political Life. (1994). In the film Arendt’s enemies are keen to remind people of this association with the Rekor-Führer who spoke of Hitler as the “German reality, present and future, and its law”.

Intense movements, sharp exchanges, and coherent arguments, mean that Hannah Arendt is a dramatic success. The cast displays depth and warmth. But the film leaves many yawning political and philosophical gaps. That is, we have to read what she said, not only hear parts of her work. Cinema can only go so far.

From the Film to the Politics.

Eichmann in Jerusalem remains the object of passionate dispute. Perhaps too many people have heard of the “banality of evil”. But behind it lies Arendt’s complicated, and structurally unfinished work on the “moral collapse the Nazis caused in respectable European society”, and the “elementary structure” of totalitarianism. Her writings touch upon the 19th century birth of Imperialism, Militarism (influenced by, amongst other, the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg), and Mass Society, as well as Nazism and Stalinism.

Arendt’s views on Eichmann’s role in the Nazi bureaucratic extermination machine might be considered in terms not just of these “criminal organisations”. That,is, he was not merely guilty because his bastardised ‘Kantian’ defence, that he was acting according to a ‘universal’ moral law, failed to accept Kant’s rule that we should treat other people as ends in themselves, not means. It was not only this flaw, psychological or not, that was the problem. As Mary McCarthy said, “calling someone a monster does not made more guilty; it makes him so by classing him with beasts and devils”. The problem is deeper. One response may be to say that many political ideologies can permit killing, but German National Socialism made material a language in which mass murder was a must.

On the surface that is on the arguments of Eichmann Arendt is open to a number of serious charges. In her defence Arendt stepped back a little, (1964), “until 1939 and even until 1941, whatever Jewish functionaries did or did not do is understandable and excusable. Only later does it become highly problematical.” This looks very weak. Michael Ezra has shown that she was simply wrong to sweep together the ‘Jewish authorities’ into one bloc. (The Eichmann Polemics: Hannah Arendt and Her Critics). Citing Jacob Robinson he says,

Arendt had attempted to substantiate her claim that Jews would have been better off without leadership by asserting that in Belgium there was no Jewish Council and ‘it is not surprising that not a single Jew was ever deported.’ Robinson showed that in Belgium there was a Jewish Council and Jews were deported. Moreover, in Russia, Jews not governed by a Jewish Council were slaughtered even faster than in Poland where there were Jewish Councils. In France, Yugoslavia, Greece and other countries where there were no Jewish Councils, the Nazis still managed to carry out the ‘Final Solution’ effectively. Arendt had claimed, in her letter to Scholem, that Jewish Council members could ask to be relieved of their duties ‘and nothing happened to them.’ The reality, according to a non-Jewish witness of the Cracow ghetto, was that ‘To resign [from the Jewish Council] was equivalent to signing one’s own death sentence.

Arendt was critical of the procedures of the Israeli Court, the absence of a real space for defence, of the Israel Court, the absence of a space for real defence. She doubted the right of the Jewish People to indite Eichmann. The whole political spectrum of Zionist thought would quickly recall her doubts about the constitutional basis for their Country (she had been a qualified believer in a federation with a new state for the Arab population). Her call for an International Tribunal on Crimes Against Humanity has a greater echo today – when there is a United Nations War Crimes Court. In this she followed her enduring friend, Karl Jaspers, who stated that a verdict on Eichmann could be “handed down only by a court of justice representing all mankind”. Whether this answered Arendt’s own belief that full human rights had to come attached to states is not clear, and not all states belong to this Court.

In her later books on political theory (On Revolution 1965, the posthumous Life of the Mind 1978, amongst others), Hannah Arendt defended the idea of the freedom of the political realm. This she contrasted with the politics of interest dominated by “labour” by the “social question” by (even) “compassion”. – a world for Marx dominated by necessity, or for humdrum liberalism, by deal-making. The twentieth century saw mobs turn into totalitarian political parties, run by conspirators who held truth in contempt, and tried to rub out all these differences.

We can, she believed, escape this fate. Within its proper boundaries politics may be marked by, “joy and the gratification that arise out of being in company with our peers, out of acting together and appearing in public, out of inserting ourselves into the world by word and deed, this acquiring and sustaining our personal identity and beginning something entirely new.” (1)

Arendt asserted this liberty of the ancients to write about the trial of Eichmann.

She discovered, though never recognised, that the company of her peers was not always joyful, that not everybody was prepared to act together with her, and that sustaining her personal identity isolated her from whatever crooked – but living – form politics took in her time.

(1) Page 574 The Portable Hannah Arendt Edited by Peter Baeher. Penguin 2003

This review relies heavily on Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World 2nd Edition. 2004.


Written by Andrew Coates

October 11, 2013 at 12:20 pm

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