When I was checking the listings for the cinema in our little town on Friday, I discovered that small miracles do occasionally happen. They were actually screening a film aimed at an audience older than 17 and with an IQ greater than that, too. The film Hannah Arendt, directed by Magaretta von Trotta and staring Barbara Sukowa had, through some miracle, made it around to our neck of the woods.
For the uninitiated, Hannah Arendt was a German political philosopher (1906 – 1975) and a Jew who had to flee the country in 1933. Reading about her academic career, you can hardly escape coming to the conclusion that she was seriously a genius. After the war she and her husband were able to emigrate to the US where they both became respected professors in New York City universities.
Her book Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, which she wrote after reporting on the trial in 1961, caused a hornet’s nest of trouble for her, especially among the Jews. The subtitle of said book was The Banality of Evil.
I JUST FOLLOWED ORDERS
She judged Eichmann to be a totally mediocre man, not a monster at all. He’d sent millions of Jews to their death by, in his mediocrity, doing his job to the letter as he was ordered to. This by no means meant that he was innocent. He was a “Schreibtischtäter” – a desk criminal who masterminded train schedules to get people to their death on time. Arendt recognized the irony in this; for her, this characterized the Nazi way of doing business. Each bureaucrat was a cog in a wheel – each in itself banal – seen as a whole, the cogs and wheels added up to a death machine. They did their jobs without thinking (probably the most important word in Arendt’s vocabulary) about what they were doing or about the consequences.
Banality that murdered was not what the Jewish public wanted to hear. Nor did they want to hear Arendt’s take on how the Jewish councils in the concentration camps actually assisted the Nazis in achieving their end solution.
Eichmann was dully convicted and condemned to hanging, a result Arendt found just. But when her book was published in the US in 1963, she faced a storm from both close friends and the greater Jewish community. They accused her of being completely insensitive and unfeeling. They were, of course, missing the point of her analysis: that “normal” human beings were capable of participation in such inhuman endeavors. But the Jews in 1963 were just too close to the pain of the Shoah to appreciate the irony she saw.
It took the rest of us 50 years to catch up with achieve the distance she had as a great thinker less than 20 years post-Holocaust. Arendt’s analysis of the banality of evil is one I can understand without allowing the deeds of Nazi criminals to appear as anything but abhorrent.