Courtesy of Netflix, 2023
Alexa Karolinski as Hannah Arendt in ‘Transatlantic’Courtesy of Netflix, 2023
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The Banality of Evil on TV

From Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann’ to Netflix’s ‘Transatlantic,’ will we ever stop being entertained by fascism?

by
Jonah Raskin
May 02, 2023
Courtesy of Netflix, 2023
Alexa Karolinski as Hannah Arendt in ‘Transatlantic’Courtesy of Netflix, 2023

Fascism will never die. Not if Netflix has anything to say about it. Seventy-eight years after World War II ended, the streaming giant has announced a new series titled The Patients of Dr. Garcia, which traces the activities of a Spanish doctor who joins “the fight against fascism.” The Patients follows hard on the heels of Transatlantic, a schmaltzy romantic comedy set in France, where the Nazis round up Jews and “undesirables” and send them to Auschwitz.

Unlike Transatlantic, which plays for laughs and even slapstick comedy while avoiding the gruesome and the gory, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem aims to upset and even nauseate. We might call the former style “fascism light,” and the latter “fascism heavy.” With the Second World War seemingly never going out of style, it’s worth revisiting Arendt’s controversial classic, 60 years after it’s initial publication.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was published in 1963, only 18 years after the end of the war. For those who had lived through them, the memories of the war years were still vibrant. Published first as a series of articles in The New Yorker, Eichmann in Jerusalem was revised in 1965 and in 1977 came out as a paperback. The first Hebrew translation appeared in 1999, 24 years after Arendt’s death. Sixty years on, the book still has the power to provoke.

As a Jew and a European intellectual—one who fled Germany in 1933 and came to the United States in 1941—Arendt, the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), had to write about the trial of Eichmann, though curiously she says very little about totalitarianism in her account of the trial. Still, in chapter 10, “Deportations From Western Europe,” she observes that the Nazis “had more in common with Stalin’s version of Communism than with Italian fascism.”

In a postscript to the book she allows that “massacres of whole peoples are not unprecedented,” and that “they were the order of the day in antiquity and the centuries of colonialism and imperialism.” With that big brush stroke, which is bound to please no one except anti-imperialists, she opens a proverbial can of worms and lumps fascism together with the wars that European empires and empire builders waged against Franz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth.”

Arendt seems to have been giddy when she wrote about Eichmann. She told her contemporary, Mary McCarthy, that she was “in a curious state of euphoria.” Indeed, the book veers from despair to elation, a sense that the “banality of evil” lurks in the hearts of nearly all men and that humans are also capable of great compassion and kindness.

Curiously (or perhaps not), given her fame, Arendt figures as a minor character in Transatlantic, along with Walter Benjamin, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim and others; a veritable cohort of talented individuals. Alexa Karolinski, the creator of the TV drama Unorthodox, and a producer on Oma & Bella and El camino más largo, plays Hannah Arendt; it’s her first acting job. The show depicts Black Africans, European Jews, and American liberals working together to save people from extermination, all of them having a jolly good time.

Transatlantic might be described as “fascism light.” It sits at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Arendt’s exposition of the “banality of evil,” which might be described as “fascism heavy.” Unlike Transatlantic, which plays for laughs and even slapstick comedy while avoiding the gruesome and the gory, Eichmann in Jerusalem aims to upset and even nauseate.

In the next to last chapter titled “Evidence and Witnesses,” Zindel Grynszpan, a German Jew, describes at length, during a critical moment in Eichmann’s trial, SS men “whipping” Jews, treating them in a “most brutal way.” “Those who lingered they hit and blood was flowing on the road.” Arendt spares no details about the bloody massacre of Jews and others.

Grynszpan is one of the few heroes in Eichmann in Jerusalem. “How difficult it was to tell the story,” Arendt writes. “It needed a purity of soul, an unmirrored, unreflected innocence of heart and mind that only the righteous poses.” She adds, “No one either before or after was to equal the shining honesty of Zindel Grynszpan.”

‘Transatlantic’ offers a view of the resistance to fascism through the prism of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

Another of her heroes is Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian communist, accused of setting fire to the Reichstag in 1933, and who went on trial. “His conduct,” Arendt writes, “was such that it won him the admiration of the whole world.”

From her point of view, Dimitrov was the exception who proved the rule that communists were murderers. European Jewish leaders, members of the Jewish councils and Jewish elders, weren’t innocent in heart and mind, Arendt insists. Rather, they collaborated with the Nazis, hoping to save some while millions were killed. She wrote, as though speaking for herself, “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole story.”

Not surprisingly, Arendt is especially insightful on the Nazis’ use of language as a tool to obfuscate their crimes. Europe was to be “cleansed” of Jews. Hitler called for “empty space.” Eichmann was “an expert in Jewish affairs,” including “evacuation” and “emigration.” Concentration camps were “gas factories.”

Almost all of Arendt’s chapters are dark, but with occasional rays of light, as when Abba Kover, a poet and an author, testifies about a Nazi sergeant named Anton Schmidt who “helped the Jewish partisans by supplying them with forged papers and military trucks,” and who, unlike Eichmann and others, didn’t do it for money.

Arendt adds that Schmidt was arrested and executed. The point of the story that she tells is, first of all, that anyone who defied the Nazis was killed. Indeed, when Jews refused to enter the “gas chambers” almost all of them were immediately shot. Arendt’s second point is that the Nazis didn’t succeed in their attempts to “erase all traces of the massacres—through cremation, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing machinery.” Indeed, they were unable to push their opponents into “holes of oblivion” and make them “disappear in silent anonymity.” Arendt’s book might be read as a cry against that kind of oblivion and anonymity.

It’s not hard to understand why Eichmann in Jerusalem was met with virulent criticism when it was first published. Arendt herself addresses that topic in a postscript. In it, she notes that her book “became both the center of a controversy and the object of an organized campaign.” Not only does she indict Jews for collaborating with the Nazis, she is also critical of the Israeli secret service, which abducted Eichmann from Argentina, where he had been living quietly, to Israel, where he was put on trial.

Nor does she allow Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to pass before her eyes uncensored. She describes him as an opportunist who used the trial to promote himself and advance a positive view of Israel and the Jewish people. What did she expect from him? One wonders why she felt the need to write that Eichmann “went to the gallows with great dignity.”

Arendt describes Eichmann as a mass murderer who never killed anyone and who was guilty of “thoughtlessness.” All too often she was caught up in paradoxes. On American TV in 1971, she said she was sorry that she used the phrase “banality of evil.” By then, as Israeli journalist Amos Elon writes in an introduction to the book, titled, “The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt,” “the great uproar was over.” Indeed, the damage had been done. “The banality of evil” confuses more than it clarifies.

Given the enduring legacy of Eichmann in Jerusalem, and the existence of hundreds if not thousands of harrowing books and movies about the genocide of the Jews, it is not surprising that the creative team that wrote and produced Transatlantic wanted to make “a screwball melodrama” that references 1940s anti-fascist movies like Casablanca with Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Transatlantic offers a view of the resistance to fascism through the prism of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. It will likely be met with applause from members of those movements who might want to raise their fists and cry, along with the cast, “Viva la Resistance.” But to those who feel uncomfortable when the historical record is bent and twisted often beyond recognition, Transatlantic might go over like the proverbial lead balloon.

Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman.