Saturday, July 12, 2014

Reflecting on Hannah Arendt: A Half Century After the Eichmann Trial

Hannah Arendt is one of those movies that resonates long after you've seen it. It's a thought-provoking and intelligent work that requires its audience to think and reflect. It's the story of Hannah Arendt, one of the twentieth century's most influential political philosophers. Escaping Nazi Germany, Arendt first settled in France and later the United States where she taught at the New School in New York City. 

The focus of the movie is Arendt's coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial for the New Yorker magazine in 1961, and the controversy surrounding the New Yorker article and book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Barbara Sukowa convincing plays Hannah Arendt, a woman that's intelligent, strong willed and passionate. To see the real Hannah Arendt, I recommend Arendt's Interview on YouTube. It's in German with English subtitles.

Arendt coined the term 'the banality of evil' to characterize the actions of Eichmann, a low ranking Nazi official. Arendt concluded that far from exhibiting a malevolent hatred of Jews, which could have accounted for his participation in the Holocaust, Eichmann was merely an unthinking bureaucrat that followed orders without considering their effects upon those he targeted. His activities became indistinguishable from any other bureaucratic activity that he was assigned.

Arendt believed that Eichmann's inability to think, and his blind adherence to obedience and careerism was the 'evil' that he was guilty of; and it was for that reason, he should hang. It's this kind of 'banal evil' that the world should be afraid of, a kind of surreptitious and unthinking evil that everyone is capable of.

But perhaps Arendt's most controversial statements revolved around the testimony of some Rabbi's at the Eichmann trial. The Rabbi's freely admitted they'd provided the Nazis with lists of Jews that were used for deportation. For many in the Jewish Community, Arendt seemed to suggest that the Jews themselves shared a responsibility for the Holocaust. A view Arendt vehemently denied, and which forever plagued her. 

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