LONDON — Making a moral judgment about the legacy of Jewish German political philosopher Hannah Arendt depends on which echo chamber you subscribe to.
To her admirers, Arendt was one of the most important public intellectuals and thinkers in the Western philosophical tradition during the second half of the 20th century.
To her most vocal opponents, she was a Nazi apologist, who sold her fellow Jews down the river for the sake of her own ego-driven polemic that aimed to reduce the Holocaust to a simple exercise in extreme bureaucratic obedience.
The truth is, in a more nuanced reading of her argument, she was probably a bit of both.
Arendt fled from Nazi Germany in 1933 to Paris, and eventually ended up in New York City in 1941. There, she gradually became a prominent figure in the growing network of Jewish intellectuals residing in the city and it was in America that Arendt wrote her most influential works, such as “The Human Condition,” “On Revolution,” and “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”
But it is her 1963 bestseller, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” that rocketed Arendt to intellectual stardom.
The book was originally published in numerous segments in The New Yorker and documented Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem between April and December 1961.
To say the book caused an outrage is something of an understatement. At least one critic at the time decried her as a “self-hating Jewess.” (Her later stances on Israel also added to this chorus.)
So why was the book so controversial?
One word: “banality.”
Arendt’s thesis made the claim that evil comes from a failure to think, and therefore it defies thought itself. She referred to this idea as “the banality of evil.”
“The notion of the banality of evil is one of the most interesting new ideas that we’ve had [in western philosophy] in the second half of the 20th century,” says author Richard H. King, a professor of history at the University of Nottingham, England. “Unfortunately, though, Arendt didn’t carefully explore the various meanings of the word banality in enough detail.”
In his latest book, “Arendt And America,” King argues that living in the United States allowed the German philosopher to think far beyond the simple dichotomies of political divisions — such as left and right — that led to the endless slaughter and complete break down of the European social order, before and during World War II.
In Arendt’s interpretation of Nazi history, Adolf Eichmann did not display any original thoughts of his own. It was this sheer banality of existence, she claimed, that allowed him to become the chief orchestrator and faceless bureaucrat of the Final Solution, one of the most horrific systematic mass murders ever known to mankind.
But what perhaps caused the most controversy among Jews was Arendt’s criticism of the Nazi-appointed “Jewish Councils” (Judenräte ). She contended that they became a sinister Nazi method to eliminate a maximum number of Jews with a minimum amount of administrative effort and cost. Or, to put it more bluntly: a system that ensured certain Jews would be made responsible for the organization of transport to their fellow Jews, as they made their way to the gas chambers.
The Jews as actors in Jewish genocide
Some of the leading figures in these Jewish Councils were well aware as they put Jews on trains to meet their deaths that the deportees were going directly to Auschwitz and not to a resettlement area in the east, as most Nazis had claimed, she wrote.
Why, then, given the information they had at the time, had these leaders been so disciplined and servile to the Nazi authorities, she asked? And could they not have spoken out and done more to save their fellow Jews from extermination?
Author King says that history is enormously important in this dialectic.
“Arendt said these Jewish Councils had a bad reputation, historically, among the Jewish people. And they made it too easy for the Nazis.” But to understand the history of the Jewish Councils, King says it’s important to understand Arendt’s study of 19th century German Jewry.
In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Arendt discusses the social, economic, financial and cultural position of Jews in 19th century Europe, which, she writes, is very complex.
“Arendt thought the fundamental mistake that had been made by post Emancipation German Jewry — probably the largest and most powerful Jewish group in Europe — was that they tried to cultivate acceptance into gentile society, and, that they begged to be allowed into more privileged circles,” says King.
Arendt referred to these Jews as “the new rich.” And rather than trying to assimilate into European society through commerce, and the accumulation of power through money alone, Arendt argued that Jews in 19th century Europe should have established greater political, economic, and legal rights.
Arendt ‘was always interested in Zionism, even if she was a somewhat unreliable Zionist’
“That’s why she was always interested in Zionism,” says King. “Even if she was a somewhat unreliable Zionist.”
King says that for Arendt, Zionism was one of the ideas that created an active political role for European Jewry.
“The fundamental mistake, she maintained, was that Jews, after emancipation from all the restrictions of medieval feudal societies, had not been politically active enough,” he says.
“Once leaders of European countries no longer needed their financial aid, Jews were gradually pushed to the margins. And once the Jewish bankers were not needed, their roles become marginal, and they become stateless and so forth,” says King.
However, even if Arendt was a Zionist, as King insists, she certainly wasn’t a committed one. When the idea of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East began gaining momentum, she was, unapologetically, a vocal opponent of a Jewish state.
Arendt argued at the time that the State of Israel must share power and/or territory with Arabs if it was to be a successful democratic nation state.
“One of the lessons Arendt learned from studying the rise of National Socialism — which had anti-Semitism at the core of its ideology— was to keep religion, race, and ethnicity, out of politics,” says King. “She thought politics should be about trying to establish a full framework of rights that apply equally to all. And she thought that Israel— as a Jewish state— would be a violation of that.”
The 1961 ‘show’ Eichmann trial
During her coverage of the Eichmann trial in 1961, Arendt had many harsh words to say about the Israeli government of the day. She made it abundantly clear that she felt the Eichmann trial was a mere show trial staged by prime minister David Ben-Gurion for political purposes.
“There is probably some evidence to support her view that the trial was a way of building sympathy and support for Israel at the time,” King insists today. “The original dream of Israel had faded, and the Israeli government needed a new kick start to get a more loyal and emotional commitment.”
“Arendt was very critical of the [Israeli] regime and the way it ran the Eichmann trial. Afterwards, when she was going around America, having debates and making speeches about her book on the Eichmann trial, she accused the Israeli government of sending truth squads out to counter her message. So she was definitely always in an adversarial relationship with the Israeli government.”
King claims it was Arendt’s experience of living in the United States — a Republic that gleaned much of its principles about its system of government from Ancient Rome — that essentially shaped her political thinking.
King’s argument is certainly a persuasive one. And it’s pretty inconceivable that Arendt would have been able to write about totalitarianism (or anti-Semitism) in the same vein, had she not been both physically and spiritually distanced from Europe.
King says alongside the enormous strength of Arendt’s ideas concerning the Holocaust— which she called “totalitarianism” — there are a number of flaws within her thesis.
Arendt ‘said that there was nothing demonic about Eichmann, that he was just a careerist’
“She said that there was nothing demonic about Eichmann, that he was just a careerist. Yes, she claimed, he was anti-Semitic, but it wasn’t central to his identity. So one might see the word banality here as mediocrity. Still, her thesis exploring how genocide can be carried out by very average people is a powerful one,” says King.
Arendt also insisted that Eichmann lacked any moral imagination, says King.
“She didn’t mean that he was dumb. But rather that he couldn’t imagine himself in the position of the other. And that is a more powerful notion of banality: this idea that a person has no sense that they live in a world with other people,” he says.
In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Arendt resisted the idea that history unfolded according to an immanent or transcendent historical logic. It was, she insisted, rather the result of specific historical circumstances.
“Arendt was suspicious of historical determinism, which sees history as a process with a predetermined end,” King explains. “She was against the Marxist, liberal, or Hegelian notion of progress towards Enlightenment. She wasn’t a determinist. Nor was she entirely convinced about the idea that history repeated itself.”
However, Arendt did believe that once the ideological machinery of the Nazi party and National Socialism kicked into gear during the early 1930s, there was some level of internal logic to what eventually unfolded in the movement in Germany.
“Arendt did not think it was inevitable the Nazis would come to power,” King insists. “But once they were in power, and certain contingent historical events happened, then it was very likely, she believed, that something like the Holocaust could take place.”
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