Hannah Arendt Redux

A film recently released in New York deals with the life of Hannah Arendt and has once again stirred up much of the controversy that surrounded her study of the mind of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s during his trial in Jerusalem. Readers of these blogs will recognize Arendt’s name as I have referred to her many times. She is, in my view, one of the most profound thinkers of the twentieth century and one I never tire of revisiting. But it is precisely the depth of her thinking that has caused her detractors so much trouble: they simply don’t understand what she writes — or they are not careful readers. And this misunderstanding has surfaced in the controversy surrounding the release of this film by German director Margarethe von Trotta.

In his discussion in the New York Times of the controversy surrounding this film, author Roger Berkowitz evidences a careful reading of Arendt’s works and a thorough understanding of her position on Eichmann. He shows himself unwilling to side with those who thought Arendt had dismissed Eichmann as a “dull-witted clerk or a robotic bureaucrat.” He was anything but those things, according to Arendt. But many people found deeply disturbing the conviction that Arendt did embrace about Eichmann, namely, that he was pretty much just like the rest of us. It is easier and more comforting to think the man a crazed psychopath. But this was also, in Arendt’s view, decidedly not the case. As Berkowitz notes in his excellent article:

That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.

Arendt had a very definite notion of what thought requires: it is a dialogue within the person himself or herself in which an honest attempt is made to see both sides of an issue and think one’s way carefully to imagined consequences of possible actions. Eichmann, like an increasing number of us, was unable to do that. He was not a “clerk” or a “robot.” Nor was he a psychopath. He was a relatively normal man who simply wasn’t able to engage his mind fully to think his way around a problem and see the implications of his actions. As a result, he became zealous, readily identifying with causes and blindly following a movement that he too quickly embraced. He could not think of Nazism without at the same time thinking of anti-Semitism. In his mind they were one and the same, and he embraced both ideas and willingly did what he was told had to be done. Evil is, in this case at least, banal.

A careful reader will note Roger Berkowitz’s oblique reference to America’s drone policy in the final sentence of the above quote, referring to those who are “willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.” Those who defend the use of these silent killers that take so many innocent civilian lives on the grounds that they are the “lesser of two evils” need to recall Arendt’s point that the lesser of evils is still evil.

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8 thoughts on “Hannah Arendt Redux

  1. Excellent blog, Hugh! And I think your line here is the best definition I have read in a long time, maybe ever, of the banality of evil. And it’s a damned scary definition: “…many people found deeply disturbing the conviction that Arendt did embrace about Eichmann, namely, that he was pretty much just like the rest of us.”

  2. Excellent. I can see similiarities with many of todays events. The rise of the Tea Party, mindless “conservatives” following a dogma, a do nothing congress following a party ideology and so on and so on…

  3. Terrific post. We must question things. I was thinking of the song from “South Pacific” about bigotry – “You have to be carefully taught.” Normal people can do terrible things if they accept the teachings. It is like the impressionable young men who are taught by Islam extremists to hate so much that they are willing to strap a bomb on their body. Well done, BTG

    • Yes. Or young American boys who are enlisted by the Air Force to direct drones against suspected terrorists and asked to pull the trigger.

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