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Roger Berkowitz on Hannah Arendt's Legacy and a New Film

Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem sparked a storm of controversy when it was published in 1963. Roger Berkowitz, a scholar of politics and philosophy and a colleague of WRM’s at Bard, writes that in the years since, it “has remained something to condemn or defend rather than a book to be read and understood.” A new film about the often misunderstood Arendt is now out in some theaters, and it once again raises many of the important questions that linger over over Arendt’s most famous work.

The film, Hannah Arendt, is directed by German director Margarethe von Trotta; Barbara Sukowa plays the title role with a “passionate intensity” that won her a Lola, the German equivalent of an Oscar. Roger reviewed the film, and revisits the story Eichmann in Jerusalem, in the Paris Review:

She [Arendt] was astonished that perhaps the most egregious crime in history was administered not by panting sociopaths but by unthinking buffoons. This is what Arendt means by her famous and famously misunderstood dictum, “the banality of evil.” It is one thing to kill your aunt out of malice; crimes can be committed from barbarous motives. But the distance separating malicious murder from administrative genocide is immeasurable. Arendt’s “banality” suggests that the sacrifice of common-sense aversion to evil and authoritarian obedience cannot happen in absent, thoughtless people like Eichmann. […]

The importance of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is not to be found simply in the rightness or wrongness of her conclusions about Adolf Eichmann. Her book has power because of the original force of Arendt’s thinking. The book is a work of judgment in connection to a trial—the process by which we come to terms with one man’s evil deeds. […]

Hannah Arendt herself might have been surprised to learn that after fifty years of deadening controversy, it is a film that promises to provoke the serious public debate she sought in publishing her book. Although originally entitled The Controversy, von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt would be more appropriately (if less commercially) entitled The Most Sophisticated Reading Yet of Arendt’s Philosophy to Reach the Mainstream.

Read the whole review here. And for readers who live in New York City, the film is currently being shown at the Film Forum in the West Village; this Wednesday, Roger Berkowitz will be there in person to do a Q & A session after the 6:30pm screening. Get your tickets here.

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  • Anthony

    Well, at least NYC beats Texas in one way! Films like this, complete with a scholar on hand, are hard to find in red state america. 🙂

    • Tom

      I think this is a point in Texas’ favor.

  • Luke Lea

    Quoting from the review:

    Arendt concludes: “This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.” The full speech is likely the greatest articulation of the importance of thinking that will ever be presented in a film.

    The thinking Arendt demands requires pride, a feeling of difference between oneself and others—even a kind of arrogance . . .

    Doesn’t this imply that only a tiny elite — those who are able to think — are capable of resisting evil? To me that sounds like an intellectual’s conceit.

    My own view is that it is more about a lack of moral courage and of moral support from one’s peers that makes it hard for people to resist organized evil. Take the current reign of political correctness, the way Larry Summers was mobbed out of Harvard for instance. While there was certainly an unwillingness to think on display this unwillingness sprang not from inability but rather from fear of ostracism — or, in other words, from intellectual conformity — in a highly intelligent and educated community of scholars.

    Imagine what it must have been like when a organized gang of sociopathic killers was enforcing the party line. If Eichmann was just an ordinary bureaucrat following instructions you can be sure the men above him were not.

  • Anthony

    WRM, “it has remained something to condemn or defend rather than a book to be read and understood.” Still, so many years later…

  • Y.K.

    ‘Roger Berkowitz, a scholar of politics and philosophy and a colleague of WRM’s at Bard, writes that in the years since, it ”has remained something to condemn or defend rather than a book to be read and understood.” ‘

    And articles like this show that the book was not condemned enough… At the very least, it is a very weird discussion that mentions the condemnations but never lets the prosecution even begin to make its case.

    To start with, Arendt’s never saw the crossexamination, nor most of the trial. Her historical thesis was blown away very soon after publication [if not earlier by direct quotes from Eichmann himself]. What her book did have, was a very nice way for the intellectual class [and in particular, her mentor] to escape their own responsibility for the horrors of the 20th century, and for that matter, their own prejudices [something that Ardent displayed repeatedly during the trial. One wonders whether all the quotes about the ape-like locals will be reproduced in the movie]. After all, evil is the result of thoughtlessness, and who is more thoughtful than our intellectual betters! No wonder her book was so popular.

  • qet

    That the truth shocks and grates when spoken by an “intellectual” does not make it less true. I think commenters are misunderstanding the meaning of banality.

    • Y.K.

      While Ardent’s book did have a lot of fans in the West, its rejection by people who were and are knowledgeable about the events in question is near total, so insinuating a case of ‘anti-intellectualism’ is a bit much.
      The better question is why some self-described intellectuals keep championing it even though it has been repeatedly demonstrated it has very little relation to the truth [and I have my theory on the matter]…

      If you insist on a more detailed challenge (and refutation to) Arendt’s thesis, there are many places to go. You can for example, get a copy of “Ardent: Half a century of controversy” and read the essay by Prof. José Brunner [an harsh essay pointing out how Ardent’s notion of banality ends up dehumanizing its subjects, and why that makes it useless in explaining the events in question or evil in general. Btw, The essay is somewhat surprising given that the session and later book was written with the aim of rehabilitating Arendt in Israeli circles – and even these people couldn’t find it remotely defensible…]

      • qet

        No, I think your arguments and Brunner’s are tautological. The only people who are described as “knowledgable” about the matters are those who think in a certain way; all others, including Arendt, are therefore not knowledgable, therefore their views are to be discounted if not ignored. I will take Arendt’s observations and conclusions over those of the mental health “experts” any day. And as for people who personally witnessed Eichmann, I would say that the only perspective from which a person can gain a whole view of a matter is from the outside. I also find Brunner’s description of Arendt–“A German born American Jewish philosopher” rather interesting, seeing that she herself fled the Nazis. But highlighting her own connection to the events of which she wrote would not serve the polemical purpose.

        In any case, Arendt presents a thesis, not an experimental proof of a fact of nature, like the wavelength of radiation. It is not dehumanizing to present the nuances of human guilt and responsibility and to speculate that two people might be equally morally reprehensible but fall under different moral categories. By thinking deeply about the matter, Arendt was perceived as apologizing for Eichmann and other Nazi functionaries. It is rather those who see any attempt at a deeper understanding of a phenomenon as QED an apology for what they find abhorrent who are to be held at arm’s length.

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