In Margarethe von Trotta’s film, recently released in Australia, Hannah Arendt is portrayed as a philosopher who tells truths that no one wants to hear. The cost is vicious attacks on her integrity, ostracism and the loss of some of her closest friends.
The film revisits a controversy that has never completely died down: whether Arendt betrayed her fellow Jews in her portrayal of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and her claim that Jewish leaders collaborated in the destruction of their people. It invites us to reassess her conclusions and the criticisms that were made against her.
Arendt was sent by the New Yorker to cover the trial in Jerusalem of Eichmann, who had been kidnapped from his refuge in Argentina in 1960 and brought to court for his role in the murder of European Jews. Eichmann had been responsible for arranging the transport of Jews to concentration camps.
Instead of an anti-Semitic monster, Arendt discovered in Eichmann a man without any real hatred for the Jews, a clown who spoke in clichés, a bureaucrat who thought his moral duty was to do his job and a "company man" who was mostly concerned with progressing his career.
In trying to bridge the gap between the mediocrity of this person and the evil that he did, she made use of a phrase that has become famous: the "banality of evil".
In the controversy that followed her articles for New Yorker and her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, she was accused of exonerating Eichmann and defaming the Jewish leaders who he induced to cooperate with him in rounding up Jews.
Was she right in her assessment of Eichmann? On the basis of an interview he gave to a Nazi sympathiser in Argentina, some scholars have concluded that he really was a Jew-hating monster, who fully identified with the Nazi cause. They think that Arendt was fooled by the way he presented himself at his trial.
But their evidence has to be taken with a grain of salt. Arendt’s careful examination of Eichmann’s career demonstrates that he was a moral chameleon. His views adapted themselves to his environment. When he was in the company of Jews he was their friend, when he was trying to impress his superiors he was dedicated to their cause.
In the courtroom he presented himself as a mere cog in the Nazi machine. When asked about his zealous pursuit of the final solution, he identified himself as a faithful follower of the philosopher Kant. It would not be surprising if in the company of another Nazi he became a fellow believer in the purity of the blood.
Perhaps he was all along a very clever actor who hid his real self behind the mask of an ordinary bureaucrat. Or perhaps Arendt was right after all about his lack of character.
But even if she was wrong about Eichmann, this does not undermine the serious purpose of her analysis: to explain how ordinary, even decent, people can do evil.
Her answer is that moral common sense fails us when our social world is turned upside down. Decent people depend on the voice of conscience to tell them when an action is wrong. But conscience takes its cue from its social environment. It works well, Arendt says, for people who live in a society where moral behaviour is the rule. But it fails when society, its laws and everyday practices are criminal.
The capacity that people must fall back on in those circumstances, Arendt claims, is thought. Thought, as she understands it, is an internal Socratic dialogue of a person who is prepared to question social conventions and common beliefs. Her final judgment about Eichmann is that he committed crimes not because he was stupid or base, but because he was unable to think.
How about the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who Arendt loved in her youth but who later became a Nazi? In a short scene in von Trotta’s film, Arendt and Heidegger meet in the woods and he confesses to a failure to think about the politics of the Nazi movement. But questions arise about how someone who did think deeply about responsibility and authenticity fits Arendt’s account of why decent people can align themselves with an evil cause.
Arendt rejects two common ideas about the origin of evil. One is that all of us have it in us to do what the Nazis or their sympathisers did. We are simply lucky in our circumstances.
The other is that the system was to blame. People like Eichmann were merely functionaries whose actions are determined by their role. Arendt thinks that both views undermine individual responsibility. We have a duty to think. We are responsible for our actions and for failures to act.
Nevertheless, it is hard not to agree with her critics that she was too hard on the Jewish leaders who were induced to help Eichmann and his cohorts round up Jews and dispose of their possessions. This behaviour she describes in her book and in the von Trotta film as "the darkest chapter of the whole dark story".
For a start, this is an exaggeration. There are more plausible candidates for that description: for example, the failure of many German religious and political leaders to speak out or act against Nazi crimes or the failure of other countries to accept desperate Jewish refugees.
Her condemnation of Jewish leaders is ungenerous for reasons similar to those she uses to explain why conscience fails to work under abnormal conditions. Political common sense also fails in the face of a regime driven by a criminal ideology.
It is common sense to believe that people in a highly civilised society will not commit genocide. It is common sense to think that something can be saved even in desperate circumstances and that compromise is always possible.
It is common sense to assume that a country fighting a war will not keep putting its resources into an activity that detracts from the war effort. It is common sense to think that leaders facing defeat will find it prudent to stop behaviour that their enemies regard as criminal.
In hindsight we might agree with Arendt that things would have been somewhat better for Germany's Jews if their leaders had not cooperated. But hindsight was not available to them.
Arendt was one of the first to delve deeply into the moral questions raised by the Nazi regime and the complicity of those who supported it or failed to act against it. Even her critics regard her as a pioneer.
The value of her work does not depend on whether she was right about Eichmann or whether she was too hard on the Jewish leaders. Her writings contain a moral message that we should not ignore.
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