The Question of Evil and Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt, a film focused on the trial of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann, has already shown in Germany, Paris and in Israel, is due to be released on May 29, 2013 in New York. The film by the prominent German director Margarethe von Trotta, is likely to reopen painful memories and controversial issues not only about Arendt herself but also about the Holocaust, the nature of evil, the role of Jewish leaders, responsibility for action, and the State of Israel. The film is not a documentary but a mixture of history and fiction.

Von Trotta, whose films feature strong, independent women, one of whom was the Marxist Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, sees Arendt as one of them, and as one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. The director has said she identified with Arendt's controversial view of Eichmann who had escaped punishment at the postwar Nuremberg trials, as a man "who was so frightening and dreadful simply because he was so normal, so ordinary."

In May 1960 the Israeli Mossad kidnapped Eichmann in Argentina and flew him to Israel where he was tried on charges that included causing the death of millions of Jews, and "crimes against humanity." Prime Minister David Ben Gurion argued that the capture and trial was not a violation of international law but that Israel, the Jewish State, could legitimately act on behalf of the Jews killed during the Holocaust. The trial, the "Nuremberg Trial by the Jewish people," began in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961 and ended in December 1961. Eichmann was convicted and was hanged on May 31, 1962.

Hannah Arendt, the public intellectual and philosopher, proposed herself as a reporter to cover the trial for The New Yorker, and was present in Jerusalem for three weeks from April 11 to May 7, 1961, and then for a few days in June. She was not at the trial when Eichmann himself spoke and was interrogated. The film misleadingly implies Arendt was present throughout the trial.

Her reports, published in five successive issues of The New Yorker, February-March 1963, were immediately published in May 1963 as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which became a best seller. It also became instantly controversial, a cause célèbre. Her friend and defender Mary McCarthy termed criticism of it as "assuming the proportions of a pogrom." Critics spoke of Arendt's arrogance, imperiousness, patently false statements, curious unfeeling, distorted judgments, and intellectual irresponsibility. A cutting comment came from Raymond Aron; "Without being aware of it Mrs. Arendt affects a tone of haughty superiority regarding things and men."

Whatever the assessment of the quality of her works on political theory and history, Arendt's discussion of the Eichmann case has been disputed for a number of reasons. In particular, four themes can be mentioned: the nature of the judicial proceedings in Jerusalem; the cooperation of some Jews in the Nazi extermination process; the responsibility of the German population for the Nazi regime; and the personality of Eichmann.

Arendt was critical of the conduct of the trial. The Israeli prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, who Arendt considered a demagogue and as having a "ghetto mentality," had described Eichmann as a monster of diabolic proportions. Arendt criticized the proceedings of the trial because the testimonies of many of the witnesses had nothing to do with Eichmann but were used to create a detailed portrait of the Holocaust. For Arendt the purpose of any trial was simply to render justice. She saw the Eichmann trial as a show trial, useful for Israeli national interests.

Her criticism of the Judenrat (Jewish Councils), the Jewish administrative bodies established in the occupied countries by Nazi insistence, evoked heated debate. These Councils, among other things, were obliged to compile lists of Jews to be deported. She denounced the leadership as having "almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis." She argued they might have done nothing rather than collaborate. The actions or non-actions of these Councils have been subject to severe disagreement by others commentators, but in Arendt's analysis the Jewish Councils more resemble perpetrators than victims.

The most biting criticism came from the renowned scholar, and her friend, Gershom Scholem. He accused Arendt for her "heartless, frequently almost sneering and malicious tone," and her account which ceased to be objective and "acquires overtones of malice." Scholem wrote that in the Jewish tradition there is a concept, Ahabath Israel, love of the Jewish people. In a devastating remark he said "In you, dear Hannah... I find little trace of this."

A major theme throughout Arendt's life was the issue of evil. In an essay, "Nightmare and Flight," published in 1945 she wrote, "The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe." It is this theme, and the phrase "banality of evil" that created the firestorm and central controversy over her Eichmann book. Criticism of it has become focused on her phrase to describe Eichmann's personality, not his crimes, as illustrating the "banality of evil." She perceived Eichmann as monstrous and guilty of heinous crimes but as terrifyingly normal. He "was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither democratic nor monstrous." Eichmann, she contended, had no insane hatred of Jews. In a later writing she wrote that the actions of Eichmann were due to "sheer thoughtlessness... something by no means identical with stupidity." She saw him as the typical bureaucrat, carrying out orders.

But Eichmann was not banal. The essential problem in Arendt's book was that she misunderstood the cunning of Eichmann, who tried to persuade the court he was merely a functionary carrying out orders. Arendt accepted his self-definition as a minor official, blindly obeying the orders of his superiors, and not concerned with fundamental principles. She ignored the reality that Eichmann was singleminded in his complete obsession with Jews, cunning, and with authority and administrative powers to implement the Holocaust. He joined the Austrian SS in 1932 before going to Germany and being attached to the SD (Security Service). He became regarded as the Nazi expert on Jews, even learning some Hebrew and Yiddish. In March 1938 he was sent to Vienna to deal with the departure of Jews. In October 1939 he supervised the population transfers of Jews from Vienna and Bohemia-Moravia, and was in charge of the "Jewish reservation" in Poland.

He organized the conference in Wannsee in January 1942, initiated by Reinhard Heydrich, which decided on the extermination of all European Jews. By March 1940 Eichmann was an SS Obersturmbannfuhrer, the head of Section IV-B4 in the SS, the Gestapo's department of Jewish Affairs. He was therefore the central coordinator of the deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps. For him no Jews should escape; in March 1944 he went to Budapest, and in eight weeks organized the ghettoization and deportation of over 430,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. He even disobeyed the order in December 1944 of Heinrich Himmler to stop the genocide. He boasted, "the fact that I have the death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction." He regretted he had not been able to exterminate all eleven million European Jews.

Whatever impact the film directed by von Trotta may have on other issues including the reputation of Hannah Arendt, it will be a reminder that the Holocaust was the real evil of the twentieth century, and that the Eichmann trial was the most important single exemplification of that evil. Eichmann, the dedicated criminal, will always symbolize the magnitude of the genocide of Jews by Nazi Germany.

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