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Hannah Arendt, Guilty Pleasure

Thrill to the Jewish Philosopher Queen as she does battle with boring Nazis, The New Yorker, and Mossad

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Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt in Hannah Arendt, a film by Margarethe von Trotta. (Zeitgeist Films)
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Hannah Arendt’s Draft of History

The edited typescript of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” reveals New Yorker editor William Shawn’s meticulous work

The trial gets a few scenes, with Von Trotta’s use of reaction shots amid archival footage cueing Hannah’s dismay when confronted with testimony regarding the Jewish Councils that were forced or obliged to cooperate with Eichmann, although this is information that she was far more likely to have absorbed from Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews. In any case, her Israeli friends are concerned. “Your quest for truth is admirable but this time you’ve gone too far,” one says, while Blumenfeld uneasily defends her by explaining that it is Hannah’s nature to make people angry. Flashback to Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) telling the young Hannah (Friederike Becht) that “thinking is a lonely business.” (Were Hannah Arendt true socialist realism, that mantra could serve as the movie’s subtitle.) Back in the USA, The New Yorker is shaken by Hannah’s report. Shawn questions her over-the-top characterization of the Jewish Councils; snooty Francis turns abruptly ethnic. Playing pool with Mary, Hannah wonders if her tone was too “ironic”—which is one way to characterize it.

For all its studied objectivity, Eichmann in Jerusalem reads as a highly personal, even traumatized, work. What some described as Arendt’s “arrogance” was a mind-blown absence of self-censorship. The author outs herself in the book’s very first paragraph by citing the “old [Israeli] prejudice against German Jews.” She seems to regard Eichmann’s incapacity for thought as his worst crime, and, in the book’s notorious 11-page section on the Jewish Councils, effectively popularized Hilberg’s then-shocking research. (Hilberg who, like Arendt, was a Central European Jew who escaped to America on the eve of the Holocaust, never forgave her for stealing his thunder even as she replaced him as a target for the ADL, the New York Times, and Dissent alike.)

True, Arendt’s judgment on the Jewish Councils was harsh. Accused, in the movie, by one old friend of insufficient love for the Jewish people, hard-hearted Hannah logically replies that as she had “never loved any ‘people’ ” in the abstract, she cannot love the Jews. “I only love my friends—that’s the only love of which I’m capable.” Meanwhile, friends are dropping like overripe fruit amid the piles of hate mail, some of it sent by her neighbors via the doorman in her Upper West Side apartment building. Colleagues excommunicate her. She is savaged in the journals for which she used to write. Lionel Abel contributes a hatchet job for Partisan Review. Norman Podhoretz publishes an attack called “The Perversity of Brilliance” in Commentary. Both men are represented—although not named—in the movie to be dressed down by loyal Mary McCarthy. (Arendt was hardly a feminist but it’s impossible to miss the sense of a gender-based gang-up of incensed, self-righteous mansplainers.)

Meanwhile, even more dramatically, a car filled with Mossad agents stops Hannah on a country road to lay a vicious guilt trip on the plucky writer: Her report has effectively killed Kurt Blumenfeld. While it is true that Blumenfeld died, refusing to speak with Arendt, and that Eichmann trial prosecutor Gideon Hausner flew to New York to denounce her, the role of the Mossad would seem to be poetic license. Hannah Arendt is, after all, a movie.

It’s also a vehicle. With regards to Arendt’s lecture style, Mary McCarthy called her “a magnificent stage diva” and so she is here, defying her department chairman and shunned by the faculty at the (unmentioned) University of Chicago, and delivering a stirring defense of her position to a rapt audience of students. This grand finale returns the movie to the realm of courtroom drama even as it leaves us with Hannah still pondering the contradiction in her thinking—how can the “radical evil” she analyzed in The Origins of Totalitarianism also be “banal”? (Hegelians have decided that they are identical. See the third appendix of Slavoj Žižek’s Plague of Fantasies.)

Hannah Arendt is ultimately a pleasure, because Sukowa plays the most forbidding of intellectuals as a fabulous, passionate doll. Sometimes clueless, sometimes kittenish, and always, always thinking, her Hannah is not only admirable but lovable. Sukowa’s vitality succeeds in bringing at least some of Arendt’s ideas to life—it should be interesting to see the degree to which, a half century after the controversy she inspired, its embers will be rekindled.

***

For more of J. Hoberman’s film criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.

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Excellent as always, I can’t wait to see this film, although where I live, it won’t displace Star Trek in the multiplex.

Carole says:

The attack against Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was hardly a gender attack. There were plenty of women who also joined the critique — especially the American Labor ZIonist leader Marie SYrkin and the Warsaw Ghetto survivor, Vladka Meed. And why does Hoberman not mention Arendt’s exchange with her old friend Gershom Scholem who disparaged many of her conclusions.

Debby Barton Grant says:

Our Jewish Federation just finished its Michiana Jewish Film Festival at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana and this was our opening film! A sold out crowd and a pure audience pleaser. This film was a rare treat and let to a wonderful discussion. Thank you for your excellent article.

At the time of the trial in Israel, it was generally reported that Ben Gurion thought it important that the Jews from Arab countries learn about the Shoah and better appreciate what the Ashkenazim had gone through in Europe. It had turned out that the Mizrahim had little or no knowledge of what their Ashkenazi brethren had suffered. The Eichmann trial it was rumored would help in this educational matter. I wasliving in Israel at the time and this is what I recall hearing then. To many there still remains a gulf and a sense of privilege and prejudice that many feel more keenly than others.

Jan Rice says:

How much did Hannah Arendt know about the religion of Judaism (as opposed to philosophy, for example, or as opposed to Christianity)?

Jacob Arnon says:

I suggest that people read

“The Eichmann Trial” by Deborah E. Lipstadt before the see the movie.

http://www.amazon.com/Eichmann-Trial-Jewish-Encounters/dp/0805242600/ref=la_B000APZVQS_1_1_title_1_har?ie=UTF8&qid=1369445610&sr=1-1

Arendt missed half the trial because she flew to Germany to meet her German friends.

Jacob Arnon says:

I agree Carole.

Jacob Arnon says:

Too bad Arendt couldn’t have been sent on a such a mission to the multi-plexus.

Jacob Arnon says:

She knew more than most American Jews do. Still, her dissertation was on St. Augustine on love which should tell that had been seduced by the majority culture in Germany.

Jacob Arnon says:

Mr. Lombard my understanding is that Ben Gurion wanted all young Israelis to learn about the Holocaust and not just Mizrahim. Young Israelis then and now seem not to want to know much about antisemitism. Ben Gurion was right to broadcast the trial to the nation’s youth.

A close family member married a Mizrahi from North Africa and she knew quite a bit about the Nazis since North African Jews in many places came into contact with German soldiers during WW2.

Also Mizrahi Jews covers a vast geographical area form Libya to Yemen and Iraq. Yemenite Jews probably knew the list about the Holocaust since they were so remote from these events. I suspect that Iraqi Jews knew quite a bit because of the German agitation in that country and the Arab Fascist parties they sponsored.

How come you don’t seem to know about this?

btw: you quip about discrimination against Mizrhim was taken from page 167 of the Soviet anti Zionist manual.

Be well.

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Natan79 says:

Including her Nazi lover Heidegger, who she helped after the war. A true bitch. If she were alive, she would be a BDS queen.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

We should be grateful that we have publications like The New Yorker, and now the Tablet. Liel Leibovitz, among others, on a regular basis makes all the political correct Jews shiver. There is no much different from what Hannah Arendt reported in 1961

That Jewish Councils were compiling lists to send other Jews to deportation, we have a long tradition. In Russian shtetles , the community leaders prepared the lists of of the Jews to be conscripted in the 25 years compulsory military service. The judge and prosecutors who sent the Rosenberg husband and wife to the electrical chair for being soviet spies were Jewish.

I think Israel as Jewish state and we all thinking Jews with Yiddishkeit, learned from Hannah Arendt. In 1992 Ivan Mykolaiovych Demianiuk who 99.99% was a guard at the Treblinka extermination camp, – was acquitted by the Israeli Supreme Court, because of the missing 0.01% evidence.

IMHO, the same would have had happen with Eichmann today. We simply made him a piniata and placed inside all our disgust for what the Nazi did. It gave us an illusory feeling of vengeance. Quote:

“Forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the
form of re-enacting against an original trespassing whereby far from
putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody
remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction contained in
every action to take its unhindered course.”

Arendt, Hannah.

DoomsdayPicnic says:

Norman Podhoretz nailed Arendt long ago -not in the same sense that Hitler’s favourite philosopher Heidegger nailed her, of course:

“The brilliance of Miss Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann could hardly be disputed by any disinterested reader. But at the same time, there could hardly be a more telling example than this section of her book of the intellectual perversity that can result from the pursuit of brilliance by a mind infatuated with its own agility and bent on generating dazzle. The man around the corner who makes ugly cracks about the Jews is an anti-Semite, but not Adolf Eichmann who sent several million Jews to their death: that would be uninteresting and would tell us nothing about the Nature of Totalitarianism…

This habit of judging the Jews by one standard and everyone else by another is a habit Miss Arendt shares with many of her fellow-Jews, emphatically including those who think that the main defect of her version of the story is her failure to dwell on all the heroism and all the virtue that the six million displayed among them.”

Hannah Arendt on Eichmann:
A Study in the Perversity of Brilliance

Norman Podhoretz, September 1963

CiporaJuliannaKohn says:

Arendt’s use of the term “banality of evil” shows that she had no understanding of sociopathy.
A sociopath is never one who has recognizable evil characteristics to the average observer.
It is very significant that Arendt was the lover of the Nazi Heisenberg. It is significant that she did not feel any shame that she admired an evil man.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

Quote from the article of J. Hoberman:

“Arendt’s three great sins were 1) suggesting that the “desk murderer” Eichmann was a mediocre opportunist rather than the devil incarnate (and thus all the more frightening); 2) publicly discussing and denouncing the role of Nazi-appointed Jewish Councils in the Final Solution; and 3) examining the judicial basis for the trial itself. ”

I see the comments to this article in 2013 show in great majority an outrage against Hannah Arendt equal to 1961. After all she was and remained Jewish all her life, the same as Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem. The greatest Jews ever were never politically correct.

Bablat says:

Although so unforgiving toward the Jewish Councils which consisted of beaten, defeated, hunted people, operating under the threat of death she showed great understanding toward her Nazi lover to whom she extended great helps. Yes she was brilliant but “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is a hatchet job if there ever was one. It is a poor and arrogant work.

Miha, you are so wrong on most points that one would have to have a lot of patients and time to rebut them all.

I’ll just address one: Eichmann to day or in 1961 would have been found guilty and executed. It was Hannah Arendt who said that it would have been barbaric not to execute him after he was found guilty. (I doubt you have read much of her work, Mihal.)

In some cases a refusal to execute an abominable murderer is in itself a barbarism.

Again, Mihal knows not what he writes:

Gershom Scholem never was neither politically correct or incorrect, and neither was Walter Benjamin. Neither writer was ‘political” in the narrow sense of the word. Besides Scholem excoriated Arendt over her book on Eichmann. She broke relations with him, not he with her. (Yes, she was very petty sometimes.)

Gershom Scholem regarded Benjamin as colleague and friend. He wrote about him. Did you read the book? Benjamin unfortunately was hesitant on many issues which in the end cost him his life.

Hannah Arendt was not politically incorrect neither. She was very wrong about a number of historical and philosophical issues she took up. Her treatment of Totalitarianism in her famous book describing its origins hasn’t stood the test of time

He major philosophical work “The Human Condition” also wasn’t well received bu her fellow philosophers (with the exception of Paul Ricoeur who,liked her references to Jesus.0

To my mind her most important contribution were her essays on education Did you read them?

herbcaen says:

One wonders whether Arendt had the hots for Eichmann. Arendt had similar views toward Jews as did Eichmann. Kind of like the young women today who want the Chechen terrorist in Boston freed

Natan79 says:

Heisenberg was neither a Nazi and nor Arendt’s lover.

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Dan_Simon says:

I saw von Trotta’s “Marianne and Juliane” on television some years ago. The film grapples with the moral question, “is it sufficient merely to propagandize on behalf of terrorists, or must one actually murder innocents with one’s own hands to fulfill one’s duties to the radical left?” Among the many obscenities von Trotta includes in the story is her glorification of a German terrorist’s period of collaboration with Palestinian terrorists–five years after the famous episode in Entebbe, where German and Palestinian terrorists re-enacted the Nazi practice of separating their prisoners, releasing the non-Jews and holding only the Jews. I would no more see one of her films in a theater–thus contributing to her royalties–than I would have paid to see a Leni Riefenstahl film.

To characterize Heidegger as her “nazi lover” is rather harsh. Or at least it leaves quite a bit out which would give some context to Arendt’s postwar support for him. Anyhow, surely the question is about her analysis and not her past relationships. And wasn’t Eichmann really banal, a small, insignificant man? And if not, what was he then?

Miha Ahronovitz says:

In Israel, only three people faced a death sentence: Meir Tobianski executed in June 30, 1948 for treason during the early days of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Tobianski was acquitted in 1949 and posthumously promoted to the rank of captain

Adolf Eichmann executed May 31, 1962 for crimes against humanity and war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people and membership of an outlawed organization involving the murder of many Jews. Nazi criminal John Demjanjuk, has been sentenced to death but won appeals to overturn the sentence.

So Israel capital punishment record is appalling. Meir Tobianski. did not deserve to die. And we should have the courage to admit 50 years later that a death penalty for Adolf Eichmann was not a suitable punishment in the Jewish ethical standard. .. Just as is unethical as keeping Jonathan Pollard, a Stanford University graduate locked as an Israeli spy, because he must be treated more harshly than any other spy just because he made all Jewish Americans look potentially suspect.

In 1937, Eichmann travelled to the British Mandate of Palestine with his superior Herbert Hagen to assess the possibilities of massive Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine. They landed in Haifa using forged press credentials, and spent two days there. They next visited Cairo, where they met Feival Polkes, an agent of the Haganah, with whom they were unable to strike a deal of any kind. Eichmann and Hagen were unable to re-enter Palestine when the British authorities refused to give them the appropriate visas

Eichmann petitioned Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi for clemency (maintaining that he was “a mere tool”). Prominent persons also sent letters on his behalf. These included Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Hugo Bergmann, Akiva Ernst Simon and Leah Goldberg, who wrote: “We do not want the enemy to lead us to bring forth from among us a hangman, and if we do so, this will constitute a victory for the enemy and we do not want this victory of his.

Hannah Arendt movie is not complete without all these passages from Wikipedia. We executed a minor clerk, the banality of evil, who would equality work to solve the problem of Jews by emigration or by gas chambers. It depends what orders he received from his superiors.

During cross-examination, prosecutor Hausner asked Eichmann if he considered himself guilty of the murder of millions of Jews. Eichmann replied: “Legally not, but in the human sense … yes, for I am guilty of having deported them”

We are not them. Quoting from Wikipedia again: “Moses Maimonides argued that executing a defendant on anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof, until we would be convicting merely “according to the judge’s caprice.” His concern was maintaining popular respect for law, and he saw errors of commission as much more threatening than errors of omission.

Can you believe he said that in 11th century? The biggest challenges our Rabbis had in the concentration camps, is to answer questions on how to maintain out humanity and not behave like threatened beasts.

Walter Benjamin wasn’t “political in the narrow sense of the word”?!? Are you kidding? How can one read “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” or “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (to take two of his most famous essays) and not be aware of the strongly Marxist undercurrent that motivates them? After all, this was a man who was very good friends with Brecht and sought to match Brecht’s didactic Marxism in his own work. Benjamin was political through and through. And I’m not sure how you understand his supposed hesitancy as costing him his life. Yes, he should have left Paris far earlier than he did but once he did so it was in fact his lack of hesitancy—having been denied entry into Spain he decided to kill himself rather than wait till the next day when he likely would have been let in—that killed him.

CiporaJuliannaKohn says:

You are right. I meant Heidegger. It was a very foolish mistake.

As controversial now as 50 years ago. And yet, her prose still has the ability to convey a message and to force the reader to think. Those are rarities in themselves.

msmischief says:

How forgiving are people of German Gentiles who were also living in a police state, and whose families would be tainted by their “bad blood” if they were caught?

msmischief says:

The Rosenbergs, husband and wife, were guilty as charged. Their KGB handler has written the definitive book on them.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

Here is a quote from Hannah Arendt from the debate with Noam Chomsky and others in “The legitimacy of violence”.

“I very much agree with Mr. Chomsky’s assertion that the nature of new societies is affected by the nature of the actions that bring them into being.”

“… American political attitudes are known as “moralistic” all over the world; in this country we seem not to be aware of the seriousness of this reproach. Moralistic attitudes in politics tend to provide moral justifications for crimes, quite apart from leading into pseudoidealistic enterprises which are obviously to the detriment of the intended beneficiaries….”

Jacob A. who has read everything it seems, probably read the Torah as if it were a newspaper. msmischief also believes that being guilty, the harshest punishment is already justified.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

Jacob, can you point us to the entire page written by Hannah Arendt from where you extracted this pearl; “It was Hannah Arendt who said that it would have been barbaric not to execute him after he was found guilty.”

Miha Ahronovitz says:

I did find the paragraph you are quoting from Hannah Arendt, completely out of context:

“We refuse, and consider as barbaric, the propositions “that a great crime offends nature, so that the very earth cries out for vengeance; that evil violates a natural harmony which only retribution can restore; that a wronged collectivity owes a duty to the moral order to punish the criminal” (Yosal Rogat). And yet I think it is undeniable that it was precisely
on the ground of these long-forgotten propositions that Eichmann was brought to justice to begin with, and that they were, in fact, the supreme justification for the death penalty”

So what she says, the basis for condemning Eichmann to death penalty originate in “barbaric” propositions, exactly the contrary of your statement

Tut Ankh Amon says:

You make alot of them

Tut Ankh Amon says:

It takes one to know one

msmischief says:

Is this supposed to mean something? Are you arguing that Jewish prosecutors ought to let Jewish spies off because they are Jews?

Miha Ahronovitz says:

There is a proportionality between the crime and the punishment. I am not judging. I am observing. In middle ages they burned Giordano Bruno for saying the world is not flat. .

Moralistic attitudes pre judge and fix the sentence even before the trial.

CiporaJuliannaKohn says:

————–

Ian Thal says:

Excellent point: There was a striking parallel between Arendt’s dismissal of Eichmann’s evil as banal, and her dismissal of Heidegger’s Naziism as momentary naivete– when of course, even if Heidegger hadn’t joined the Nazi party until 1933, he had been a member of a number of far-right, German nationalist, and anti-Semitic organizations, prior.

Ian Thal says:

Heisenberg may not have been an ideologically committed Nazi, but he was committed to developing a nuclear weapon on behalf of the Nazis.

Seth Edenbaum says:

Sad that Hoberman writes a review about German guilt kitsch and publishes it in a Zionist web rag. My strongest memory of Barbara Sukowa’s husband was seeing him perform at one of his openings in the mid 80′s, with Rhys Chatham et al. doing their power-chord channeling of Hannibal crossing the Alps, and Longo walking to the the front of the band and giving the fascist salute. The audience booed and at least one beer got thrown.

The Arendt film has been extended. The theater at Film Forum is packed.
For the Ozu retrospective is the rooms are mostly empty, but I read Arendt waiting for the films to begin.
Zionism is racism.

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Hannah Arendt, Guilty Pleasure

Thrill to the Jewish Philosopher Queen as she does battle with boring Nazis, The New Yorker, and Mossad

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