Philosopher Hannah Arendt and nazi Eichmann, new film

This video is called Hannah Arendt “Zur Person”. Full Interview. In German with English subtitles.

And this video is called HANNAH ARENDT by Margarethe von Trotta – Trailer.

By Fred Mazelis and Stefan Steinberg:

Hannah Arendt: Margarethe von Trotta’s film revisits debate over Eichmann trial

20 June 2013

Directed by Margarethe von Trotta, written by von Trotta and Pam Katz

Hannah Arendt ’s director Margarethe von Trotta has a long history in German filmmaking. Born in 1942, von Trotta first acted in films of the “New German Cinema,” including a number of works by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the early 1970s. In 1975, she co-directed The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (based on the novel by Heinrich Böll), a moving, disturbing study of state repression and media complicity in West Germany, with her husband at the time, Volker Schlöndorff.

Launching a solo career as a filmmaker in 1977, von Trotta first made her mark with Marianne and Juliane (1981), about two sisters, one of whom is an anarchist and dies in unexplained fashion behind bars. …

Von Trotta’s most important film to date is her fine film biography of the Polish-German revolutionary Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg (1986). More than a quarter of a century after her brilliant portrayal of Luxemburg, German actress Barbara Sukowa (one of the best of her generation) delivers another impressive performance as Hannah Arendt.

Arendt was born to a cultured and assimilated German Jewish family. She lived in Germany throughout the Weimar period, and studied under and had a love affair in the 1920s with Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher who notoriously supported the Nazis after they came to power. Arendt fled to Paris in 1933. After internment at a detention camp in France following the Nazi occupation and the installation of the Vichy regime in 1940, she escaped and emigrated to the United States in 1941.

In the post-World War II period, Arendt taught at Princeton, New York’s New School for Social Research and elsewhere. Much of her intellectual energy was directed toward her writing, and The Origins of Totalitarianism brought her a certain degree of fame.

This was the height of the Cold War, and Arendt’s discussion of totalitarianism meshed with efforts to associate Communism and fascism. Although her anti-Marxist credentials were indisputable, Arendt was no right-winger herself, traveling in liberal academic and intellectual circles. Her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, was a former German Communist. Her best friend was writer Mary McCarthy, who had been briefly associated with Trotskyism in the late 1930s.

Von Trotta has chosen to focus her film on a relatively brief but important period in Arendt’s life, from approximately 1960 through 1963. With her reports on the Eichmann trial, Arendt became a very public figure, provoking vitriolic denunciations from the Zionist establishment, and raising questions about the history and the nature of the Nazi Holocaust.

The film sets the stage for this historic controversy with an opening scene depicting the abduction of Adolf Eichmann, one of the few top Nazi leaders who remained at large. At the same time, we soon see the chain-smoking Arendt among her circle of close friends, including McCarthy (Janet McTeer), in her spacious apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. Friendly but heated debates take place as intellectual sparks fly at cocktail parties hosted by Blücher (Axel Milberg) and Arendt.

When headlines report the kidnapping of Eichmann by Israeli agents in May 1960, followed by his secret transfer to Israel, Arendt conceives the idea of covering the trial and contacts William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), the long-time editor of the New Yorker, offering to write a series of articles for the magazine.

Arendt begins her assignment with serious doubts, as shown through conversations with her husband and in cocktail party debate with friends and colleagues. Despite her own support for the state of Israel, she questions the conception of a show trial, in which Eichmann is to be used as a symbol of Nazi domination and to buttress the Zionist claim to represent and defend the Jewish people as whole. Arendt sees the Holocaust as a crime against humanity, not only the Jewish people.

The film goes on to present the events in chronological sequence for the most part. The trial itself is effectively depicted through original black-and-white footage. Arendt watches from the pressroom, another realistic touch given the fact that, as a heavy smoker, she spent most of her time there.

As she observes, Arendt comes to several conclusions. She is struck by Eichmann’s testimony, by what director von Trotta sums up as his mediocrity, obedience and inability to think for himself. These traits, Arendt concludes, combined with his organizational skills, made possible his role in organizing the transport of millions of people to the gas chambers at Auschwitz and elsewhere. She coins the phrase “banality of evil” to characterize the bureaucratic mentality and mind of the Nazi leader.

At the same time, Arendt is shocked by testimony at the trial about the cooperation of leaders of the Judenräte, the Jewish councils set up by the Nazis in occupied territories, cooperation that smoothed the organization of the transports to the death camps.

When Arendt’s articles finally appear, they provoke denunciations from many quarters, including the Zionist establishment, but also many of her closest friends. Lionel Trilling, the Columbia University intellectual and leading light of Partisan Review, is offended. The much younger Norman Podhoretz, then the vociferously Zionist editor of Commentary magazine and just beginning the trajectory that would see him transformed from anti-communist liberal into leading neoconservative loudmouth and supporter of the extreme right, is outraged.

More painful to Arendt than these criticisms are the reactions from some of her oldest friends. Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), a fellow German refugee who taught with her at the New School, breaks relations with her. Arendt travels to Israel to see the gravely ill Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen), another lifelong friend. Blumenfeld turns his back on her.

The film closes with Arendt publicly defending her characterization of Eichmann. Ostracized by her colleagues at the New School and pressured to give up her teaching duties, Arendt refuses. Addressing a lecture hall filled with students and faculty, Arendt-Sukowa speaks for a full eight minutes explaining that the only antidote to the “banality of evil” is critical thought on the part of the enlightened individual.

Arendt, a stubborn individualist, cut across the political aims of the Zionists, above all the claim that only the state of Israel could speak on behalf of Jews everywhere, and that Israel was the only hope for the survival of the Jewish people. She certainly deserves to be defended against all the attacks on her as a “self-hating Jew.”

At the same time, Arendt’s whole method led her to conclusions that only strengthened her enemies, enabling them to pose more effectively as opponents of Nazism. Later evidence has demonstrated what should have been quite clear to Arendt at the time. Despite his play-acting during the trial, Eichmann was no naïve and obedient bureaucrat, but a vicious anti-Semite who threw himself into the work of the Final Solution and boasted about the number of Jews whose murder he had organized.

Rather than placing Eichmann in any historical context, Arendt relied simply on her impressions of his trial testimony, substituting a kind of quasi-psychological approach for a serious analysis. History has shown that seemingly minor or mediocre figures can rise rapidly to positions of enormous power under definite historical conditions, as shown so profoundly by Leon Trotsky in his analysis of the role of Stalin.

As far as the Jewish councils, here too Arendt relied on an ahistorical approach that examined the actions of the Jewish leaders abstracted from world events. While many of these leaders represented more privileged sections of the Jewish population, they also faced violent intimidation and threats to their lives. The actions of some reflected their hatred and contempt of the masses of Jewish workers and the poor, but that was by no means always the case, and some no doubt hoped to save at least some of the Jewish population.

The film is unable to genuinely explore and explain these issues. There is much that is interesting and gripping, including Sukowa’s masterful performance, the footage of the Eichmann trial itself and the effective use of German, Hebrew and English to provide an accurate and occasionally engrossing picture of the world in which Arendt moved.

Nevertheless, the film overall is relatively dull and stolid. The actors do their jobs, especially Sukowa and Milberg as Blücher. The historical context (and the energy it would generate) is missing, however. The brief flashbacks between Arendt and Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) are particularly stiff and ineffective. There is something too literal, muted and narrow about this story, which focuses on Arendt’s trials and tribulations, but not on the issues that her life and career raise.

A key to the film’s problems is contained in von Trotta’s comments included in her notes on the film’s preparation. The director explains that Arendt’s “quest to understand people and the world…made me feel overwhelmingly drawn to her.” She goes on to explain, however, that Arendt “continued to believe in the power of the individual to withstand the cruel force of history.”

Von Trotta describes Eichmann as follows: “His duty, as he himself insisted, was to be faithful to his oath to obey the orders of his superiors. In this blind allegiance, Eichmann surrendered one of the main characteristics that distinguishes human beings from all other species: the ability to think for himself. The film shows Arendt as a political theorist and independent thinker set against her precise opposite: the submissive bureaucrat who does not think at all, and instead chooses to be an enthusiastic subordinate.”

As an explanation of the Holocaust this is almost absurd. If only Eichmann had thought about his actions, the mass murder could have been prevented!

Left entirely out of the film, and Arendt’s work, is the history in Germany from 1918 to 1933 of missed revolutionary opportunities, and later, betrayals of the working class carried out by Stalinism and social democracy that alone made Hitler’s rise to power possible.

Arendt’s “banality of evil” theory is not entirely without insight, insofar as it implied that the worst crimes against humanity were not necessarily carried out by the most obvious “monsters.” Indeed, the twentieth century demonstrated that average people could endorse or engage in such behavior. The point is to understand how this takes place—how, for instance, sections of the ruined and desperate middle classes in Germany were won or submitted themselves to the Nazi cause, how they were pitted against the working class, and also how this outcome was not inevitable.

In any case, this concept of “banality” did not apply to Eichmann, whose responsibility was minimized by Arendt, as she separated his actions and the Holocaust itself from the social and historical conditions that produced it, above all the struggle of contending classes and the crisis of the capitalist system.

From Wikipedia:

Giovanni Palatucci (May 31, 1909 – February 10, 1945) was an Italian police official who between 1952 and 2012 was thought to have saved thousands of Jews in Fiume (current Rijeka in Croatia) from being deported to Nazi extermination camps. However, a research panel of historians led by the Centro Primo Levi reviewed almost 700 documents and concluded that Palatucci had actually been a willing Nazi collaborator and that of the 500 Jews living in Fiume, 412 were deported to Auschwitz, a higher percentage than in any Italian city.[1]

Operation Finale depicts the 1960 capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina: here.


18 thoughts on “Philosopher Hannah Arendt and nazi Eichmann, new film

  1. She’s interested in the utter dehumanisation that could lead to such absorption in the logistical details – for instance, the concentration upon the smooth running of the trains [to the concentration camps]. Claude Lanzmann caught that horror all too well in his remarkable film Shoah. Arendt did not confine her attention to Nazism, to be sure, but it represented a kind of limit case of what was possible. Arendt is not really a psychoanalytical writer – on the contrary, she has no truck with Freudianism as such. Yet there are some considerable affinities between her attempt to understand the psychosocial dimension of fascism and totalitarianism, and the contemporaneous psychoanalytical literature.


  2. On “Hannah Arendt: Margarethe von Trotta’s film revisits debate over Eichmann trial”

    I think what you criticize as an “ahistorical” quality in Hannah Arendt’s thought may not have the “quasi-psychological” roots you propose, but rather an extraordinarily corrupt and base idea of “historicity” which derives from Arendt’s old teacher and lover, Martin Heidegger, who spent the ’30s lecturing in a cute Brownshirt uniform on history as a history of Being with a capital B.

    Like pimples, this thinking pops up in the least likely places, certainly today’s post-modernist re-thinkers of Marx in Derrida’s circle, but as early as the late ’20s Herbert Marcuse spent his Frankfurt School days as a supposed Marxist working on a thesis to wed Heidegger’s “historicity” to Karl Marx’s, would you believe.

    The ”banality of evil” has interesting roots too from Hannah Arendt’s earliest essays in the ’30s, just when the Brownshirts went from negligible to commanding presence in Weimar’s democracy. In 1931, she attacks the sociology of Mannheim’s “Ideology & Utopia” sounding much like Heidegger, who felt the call of being particularly strongly rising from the soil of his Black Forest home and among his “Volk”. And so, writes young Arendt: “Only when people no longer see their existence in community, only when, as by means of economic advancement does something like ideology arise as a justification of one’s position against the position of the others.”

    By this token, the feeling of “homelessness” which crops up in her articles on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard in this period belongs again to Heidegger’s view that, lacking God, Nietzsche having killed Him, if we withdraw from the hurly-burly of the modern technological world and its untidy masses with their “gossip” (real history), we may be fated to witness in a lonely heroic struggle unconcealed that Being with a capital B which speaks to us through our language, not any language, but Greek or its closest relative, German. That is why Hannah Arendt in a remarkable interview with Gunther Grass in 1964 expressed her pleasure when she returned to Germany and heard again a language which was her “home”.

    There is a very nasty elitism in this view of human “historicity” as an individual quest of authenticity as far from the common man and day-to-day labour as possible, which many an egghead had found appealing over the years, in my case from John Paul Sartre’s existentialism founded on Heidegger’s thought. Again, Arendt shared with her teacher and the post-modernists a horror at “uprooting loneliness of the masses and the triumph of the kind of human being who finds satisfaction in mere labour”. Say, like my mother, the dressmaker and my father, the shoemaker. Banal they were, but quite heroic through Eichmann’s rule of Budapest.

    Toronto, Canada
    21 June 2013


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  14. Monday 10th JUly 2017

    posted by Morning Star in Features

    DANA MILLS explores how the thinking of the German Jewish political theorist can be of use today amid fractious debate about anti-semitism and Israel

    ONE unexpected result of the US election of 2016 was the return of Hannah Arendt’s extraordinary work, the Origins of Totalitarianism, to the bestseller list in the US.

    The German Jewish political theorist, who has been dead for more than 40 years, may not seem the most likely figure to turn to in thinking how to organise the resistance in the US; as opposed to many other prominent thinkers of the 20th century she was not often on the barricades of political events of her time, and was described by her biographer Elisabeth Young Breuhl as both a conservative and revolutionary.

    But young people in the US trying to understand where the election of Donald Trump came from turned to her. The British left can take a page or two from her too, especially when thinking of one of the most volatile and contested issues among its ranks nowadays, Israeli politics and anti-semitism.

    In the Origins, originally published in 1951, Arendt writes: “The solution to the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of the stateless and rightless by another 700,000 to 800,000 people.”

    Although she never wavered from the title zionist, Arendt was a strong critic of the centralist and militarist tendencies within the zionist movement.

    Before the foundation of the state of Israel she advocated for the foundation of a binational state alongside many foremost Jewish intellectuals such as Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem, with the early movement Brit Shalom.

    This was never merely theory to Arendt. In private correspondence to Scholem she wrote: “A wrong done by my own people naturally grieves me more than wrong done by other peoples.”

    At the beginning of this month, the annual commemoration of the International Brigades volunteers to the Spanish civil war caused yet another controversy involving Jewishness and anti-semitism.

    Tosh McDonald, president of the train drivers’ union Aslef, discussed contemporary campaigns of solidarity, and had considered what the youth of today would see as “their Spain.”

    Palestine was brought up as an obvious example upon which young people draw today thinking about the plight of those deprived of rights and freedoms.

    Upon this statement the representative of Ajex (the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women) walked out angrily of the commemoration service; two angry pieces linking that statement to anti-semitism have been published in the Jewish Chronicle.

    The International Brigades Memorial Trust has since released a statement which reaffirmed that McDonald also denounced anti-semitism as part of the original speech; and then restated the important role Jewish fighters had within the International Brigades work within the Spanish civil war.

    This incident would have been less bemusing if it had been put in context of another event taking place in Tel Aviv at exactly the same time.

    Prominent intellectuals and politicians, including those serving in the Knesset today, stood at one of the city’s most central junctions, under the auspices of the NGO Breaking the Silence and read testimonies of soldiers serving in Palestine over five hours to commemorate 50 years of the Israeli occupation.

    Israeli left-wing organisations and politicians have been under continued attack from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which is conducting a systematic witch-hunt against dissenters, from interventions in funding regulations to public denunciation of acts of resistance as “treason.”

    The international left in Israel is fighting for its life. It is under more scrutiny and structural violence than I can recall. But the resistance is strong. And the irony is, perhaps, that it is very clear that for young people on the left in Israel, too, Palestine is the new Spain, as much as their own government strives to hide that reality from them. Wrongs conducted by their own people do not go unnoticed by all in Israel.

    Arendt understood that anti-semitism was a historical problem, one that changes with time, and quite probably will never go away.
    She was one of the first thinkers to criticise the conflation of the critique of Israel — or, in her time, zionist politics — and anti-semitism. In another letter to Scholem she writes: “An anti-semite is anti-semite, not a Jew who sometimes criticises Jewish matters, whether they are right or wrong. Of course a haunted people puts the label of persecutor on anyone who criticises them even in the slightest way.”

    This statement rings truer than ever in the world of British politics nowadays, beyond the world of Jewish politics itself; when every hint of critique against Israel must be masked with apologies and denunciations of other forms of racism.

    The British left would be wise to stand in solidarity with those fighting against racism of all kinds — anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and structural violence conducted by Jews or gentiles.

    Maybe there are quite a few valuable lessons for the British left to be learnt from Hannah Arendt after all.


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