Arendt’s Evil and the Left’s Banality

A new film about Hannah Arendt recycles old tropes and discredited theories.

From a despicable anti-Semitic murderer to a grey, mediocre clerk • Fifty years have passed since Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt penned her famous thesis of Eichmann, ‘the Banality of Evil’, which brought a torrent of criticism in its wake • Yet despite its being refuted countless times, it has nevertheless become an acceptable theory with many fans in academia • Why care about facts when the theory is politically correct? • Business as usual in Leftist Academia

          Not just a man in a glass cage; Adolph Eichmann and his attorney Robert Servatius (left). Photo: Central Journalism Bureau

Philosophers, thinkers and other moral imperatives were never good fodder for screenwriters. Margarethe von Trotta’s film on famous Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), which hit theaters this year, is a case in point. The film deals with the circumstances in which Arendt, a German-born Jew, wrote her famous tome ‘Adolf Eichmann: Report on the Banality of Evil’, following her throughout the trial and trying to convey her story to the viewer.

The movie itself is not particularly impressive; it is mainly recommended for those who would like to waste two hours of their life listening to garrulous chain-smokers speaking hoarse German. The direction, camera angles and even the subject matter are stale, lacking both vision and uniqueness. The figures surrounding Arendt are cardboard cutouts, indistinguishable from one another. The “cinematic climax” of this film is summed up in a strange scene, in which two terrifying-looking Israeli agents get out of a car to threaten Arendt, no less.

The movie, which is a joint German-Israeli-French production, presents Arendt as a brave heroine and unquestioningly accepts her thesis. The film combines archive material from the actual trial, edited in a way to show Eichmann as a man disconnected from his actions. Director Von Trotta even said outright that,

For me, as a non-Jewish German, it was strange to see Eichmann at this trial, to see a real man sitting there – a man, and not just an invisible thought or theory – and to understand that this is a mediocre, average person and nothing more.

What Exactly is Banal Here?

Multiple scholars have already pointed to the fundamental flaws in Arendt’s methodology: she spent only a few days in the courtroom gallery, was unimpressed with his German and decided he is a “banal” man and not an “anti-Semite”. For instance, historian Yaacov Lozowick, who studied the activity of Eichmann’s department with the help of their extensive archive, dedicated a book specifically to refute Arendt’s arguments. Lozowick’s article and book are both very impressive, overflowing as they are with examples of letters sent from Eichmann’s office regarding individual Jews trying to escape, explicitly ordering that they too be included in the “relocation”.

The investigators of the special section of the Israeli Police who interrogated Eichmann were also stunned by his thoroughness. Eichmann did not let any Jew escape from the tangled web he weaved with the “Final Solution”. A reminder: Eichmann arrived in Budapest in 1944, immediately after the Wehrmacht took over Hungary and in the space of a few months managed to organize the sending of hundreds of thousands of Jews to the death camps. An “ordinary and banal” man would have found it difficult to organize such a complex operation in the context of the “Final Solution” – and this in the pre-computer era.

It is important to mention in this context the testimony of Gabriel Bach, one of the senior members of the prosecution team against Eichmann who later became an Israeli Supreme Court Justice. Bach often spoke of the terrifying finds which came up during the trial which proved just how un-“banal” Eichmann really was. Once Bach even directly addressed and rejected Arendt’s thesis:

There are those who like to say that Eichmann is an ordinary man. When I met him and saw even the expression in his eyes, I understood that he is not at all an ordinary man. One of the first things I did was to ask to have him examined by a psychiatrist. In addition I requested that the findings be sent anonymously to a Swiss expert, who didn’t know that it was Eichmann. We also sent examinations of other people. After a few days the Swiss expert called me and said that in all of his long career he had never encountered such homicidal tendencies as one of the anonymous test subjects. It was of course Eichmann’s examination. To receive this evaluation was a traumatic experience.

The Banality of Unprofessionalism

Arendt was not an historian. Her firm conclusions were based not on the precise German documentation, but on a few days in the courtroom gallery and on a self-made theory suffering from serious biases and even racism. In a letter sent from Jerusalem to known German philosopher Karl Jaspers, she gave her impressions of the trial:

The Presiding Judge, Judge Landau – is excellent! All three judges are German Jews…The State Attorney [Prosecutor Gideon Hausner – S.B.] is in any event a typical Galizianer Jew, very unsympathetic, who makes mistakes all the time. Apparently one of those who doesn’t know any language…In front of the court hall [is the] Oriental mob, which is always loitering…

My first impression: the judges are the best of German Jewry. Below them is the prosecutor, Hausner, a Galizianer, but nevertheless a European. All is organized by the police, who terrify me – they speak only Hebrew, and look like Arabs. Among them are some types who look entirely brutal. Who obey any order. And outside the gates is the oriental rabble mob, who look as if they are in Istanbul or some other semi-Asiatic country. Among them the Jews with the sidecurls and the kappotes are very prominent – who make life impossible for reasonable people.

In his letter of reply, German thinker Karl Jaspers thanked “dear Hannah” with warm words for graphic detail she provided, which finally explained to him things the press didn’t succeed in understanding. He expressed his hope that the three German-Jewish judges would take the reins of the trial in their hands.

                                                                     A banal theory: Hannah Arendt. Photo: G4GTi

Arendt: Heroine of the “Critical” Left

Arendt, and with her director Von Trotta, listened to the Eichmann begging for his life before his judges in Jerusalem, and not Eichmann the murderer sitting before his Jewish victims. As said above, the movie itself is not interesting, but what is interesting is how the theory of the “Banality of Evil” claimed center stage in the world of Western academia. How did this approach, to say nothing of Arendt herself, become the oracle of the global left in general, and the German left in particular?

The answer is clear: they remove the blame for Nazism, and especially for the Holocaust, from the Germans. After all, Eichmann was “banal”; that is, if a similar regime had arisen anywhere else in the world, we would have probably found an “Israeli Eichmann”, a “Swedish Mengele” or a “Canadian Himmler” – since they are all normal, banal people who simply obeyed their superior’s orders.

History proved Arendt wrong. There has yet to be an Israeli, Swedish, Egyptian or Canadian “Eichmann”. Arendt’s arguments mainly served the Germans, who could feel after the Holocaust that they were “banal, like all nations”.

Over the years, Arendt’s popularity and fandom in Israeli and Western leftist academic circles has only risen. For instance, radical postmodern feminist Judith Butler, Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature – as sort of a guru for left-wing circles in favor of boycotting Israel – published an article in the British Guardian with the headline “Hannah Arendt’s Challenge to Adolph Eichmann”, in which she takes for granted Arendt’s insights regarding Eichmann and primarily his failure “to think about the crime he was committing”.

Of course, Butler did not pass over Arendt’s harsh accusations against the State of Israel and Prime Minister Ben Gurion regarding the conduct of Eichmann’s trial, mentioning the fact that Arendt “criticized some of the means Israel used to found and establish its legitimacy, its legal authority and national aspirations”.

Falling Into Servatius’ Trap

The strategy of Eichmann and his defense attorney, known German jurist Dr. Servatius, during his questioning during the trial was to argue that he is not responsible for anything, he didn’t know anything and that he was only a “small cog in the system”. Eichmann admitted to nothing, with the aim of exhausting the legal system and dragging the discussion into absurd territory. In the wake of the trial, Efraim Kishon, one of the most important Israeli humorists and himself a Holocaust survivor, penned a darkly absurd humorist tract of some of the pages of the questioning, in which the judges try to get Eichmann to admit that “two plus two is four”, but to no avail.

The Israeli Court was not convinced, but those who not only fell into the trap but jumped in it willingly were Arendt and with her director von Trotta. Thus, as per the movie, in the wake of this legal strategy, Arendt argues that “Eichmann failed to think about his actions”. The movie contains archival footage which portrays Eichmann as a small, balding and strange man sitting in a glass cage, who whenever he is questioned does not answer directly but, as is his wont, takes the discussion to unclear territory. None of this teaches us anything about Eichmann’s role in the Final Solution.

                                   Proving that theory is greater than any fiction: Judith Butler at the University of Manchester.

                                   Photo: Daniel Villar Onrubia – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Academia’s Decline

The main importance in the discussion surrounding Arendt and her theories about the Holocaust is actually not the Holocaust. It can teach us much about academia today, especially regarding the social sciences which deal primarily with theories, on the condition, of course, that they are “critical” and “progressive” – even if they are historically baseless. The fact that Arendt was a woman who made a name for herself in a male academic world, especially the world of political thought, helped to grant her and her theories a sort of halo that allowed for their acceptance in “progressive” academic circles without proper scrutiny. Furthermore, the rejection of her theories in Israel by many intellectuals, first and foremost by Gershom Scholem, paradoxically helped to increase her popularity throughout the world due to the increasing popularity of anti-Zionism.

On a personal note, in order to write this article I tried to order ‘The Banality of Evil’ at a prestigious university library; the librarian told me that I’m third in line for the book. This little anecdote speaks volumes about Arendt’s growing popularity in Western academia.

Not long ago, I published an article in Mida on the strange theory regarding “Jewish Arabs”. In fact, this case is quite similar: in both cases, the theories originate among non-historians such as sociologist Yehouda Shenhav, cinema scholar Ella Shohat, Literature Scholar Hanan Hever and others. Serious historians will not support the theory, as it falls apart under serious scrutiny.

Nevertheless, because it is a theory which fits the ideology of the radical political left in Israel and the world, it is wildly successful, admired and adored and has even earned a cinematic showing.

Banal indeed.

Dr. Sariel Birnbaum is a scholar of cinema. He taught for two years at Binghamton University in New York, and is presently staying at the University of Geneva for a year of advanced study.

English translation by Avi Woolf.

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