“The best books in the world sit on shelves, but are never read,” Mark Twain once remarked. When hearing the name “Hannah Arendt,” most educated people today say, “Who?” Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) established her as the prominent female philosopher of her era. Origins placed both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany within the Western tradition for the first time and showed their striking similarities despite being on the political left and right respectively. While Origins placed her on the map and The Human Condition (1958) kept her there, she remains known most commonly for Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). The film Hannah Arendt is based on the life of this German Jewish political theorist immediately before, during, and after covering the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker.
Unfortunately, Hannah Arendt is overlooked in many end-of-year lists reviewing the better films of 2013. I encourage the more philosophically minded of our readers to add it to their lists. Director Margarethe von Trotte balances the philosophy and drama of a controversial public intellectual in such a way that we understand Arendt’s heady ideas while still making it a gripping story.
The movie captures the mood of her times. She is friends with a group of German immigrants in the United States who still bear the scars, in different ways, from what the Nazis did to the fatherland. There is a clear separation between these immigrants and the Americans who surround them, with the latter looking up at the European intellectual class with admiration. Arendt is a very popular instructor at The New School in New York. The confident air about her is considered appropriate for her stature.
When she hears that the Israelis discovered and kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires to stand trial in Jerusalem for his role in the Holocaust, Arendt offers to cover the trial for the New Yorker. They cannot but accept this offer from the famous Hannah Arendt. So in 1961, Arendt travels to Jerusalem, where she has many old friends. The film merely alludes to her involvement with the Israeli state, but after WWII she worked with Youth Aliyah, a Zionist organization.
Even while the trial is ongoing, Arendt’s conversations with Israeli friends hint at her discomfort with the proceedings. She returns to New York with stacks of trial transcripts and proceeds to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking and writing. The New Yorker editors are anxiously waiting, but are reluctant to disturb her. When the verdict to hang Eichmann finally arrives, Arendt is compelled to complete the project. Despite the consternation of some at the New Yorker over a passage criticizing Jewish leaders’ role during the Holocaust, the magazine prints Arendt’s submission in installments and secures for her their publication in book form.
The public censure following its publication is comprehensive. The New School tries to eject her. Her closest friends shun her. Arendt’s mail is filled with death threats and insults. In contrast to her prior high standing in public and intellectual society, the depths she falls to is staggering. Her air of confidence is now considered arrogance. Her unemotional disposition, once thought analytical, is cast as unsympathetic and a lack of compassion for the Jewish people.
What was the outcry about? Arendt’s criticism of the Jewish leaders, and readers’ misperception that Arendt actually defended Eichmann, are what trigger the backlash against her. But Eichmann in Jerusalem is not at all a defense of Eichmann nor a concentrated indictment of the Jewish leaders. This was a classic case of the public blindly consuming punditry.
Arendt is frustrated that it seems no one has actually read her book. She surprisingly holds her composure, refusing to publicly respond to her accusers since none of them actually address the book itself. What she found in Eichmann was the “banality of evil,” a concept she coined. The idea was that evil was a form of thoughtlessness, an emptying of the very human-ness of people, such that people merely conform to the will of the masses without any consideration of the consequences. Throughout the trial, Eichmann’s mantra was that he was merely following orders. What stood before Arendt, behind glass to protect him from the outraged Israeli public, was not an evil mastermind, but a bureaucrat–a self-styled cog in the system. But people only heard that Arendt defended Eichmann, an assertion that was simply untrue. In the film, Arendt even declares her pleasure that Eichmann was hanged.
Hannah Arendt gives us a heroine who is brilliant and tough minded. She refuses to bend to public opinion, despite the loss of friends and loved ones, of her reputation both professionally, personally, and publicly. Time has vindicated her. Arendt’s name was eventually cleared for most people and she went on to write more well-received books of philosophy. Hannah Arendt is more than a famous political theorist–it is about a woman’s conviction of truth and her tenacious hold on her own integrity. It is also a warning to those who hold public opinion as the weathervane of truth. Time will tell, whether it be in this life, as in Arendt’s case, or the next.