In 1961, the noted German-American philosopher, Hannah Arendt, gets to report on the trial of the notorious Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann. While observing the legal proceedings, the Holocaust survivor concludes that Eichmann was not a simple monster, but an ordinary man who had thoughtlessly buried his conscience through his obedience to the Nazi regime and its ideology. Arendt's expansion of this idea, presented in the articles for "New Yorker", would create the concept of "the banality of evil" that she thought even sucked in some Jewish leaders of the era into unwittingly participating in the Holocaust. The result is a bitter public controversy in which Arendt is accused of blaming the Holocaust's victims. Now that strong willed intellectual is forced to defend her daringly innovative ideas about moral complexity in a struggle that will exact a heavy personal cost.Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (email@example.com)
Arendt's article "Eichmann in Jerusalem" was published in five installments in the New Yorker. As Hans Jonas and others read the most infamous passages from "Eichmann in Jerusalem," they are holding the issue of the New Yorker that contained the first installment (February 16, 1963). However, the offending sections appeared in later installments, particularly no. 3 (March 2, 1963). See more »
The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.
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The film "Hannah Arendt" depicts an intriguing and contradictory intellectual but avoids examining the political core of the famous controversy it recounts. Arendt stirred a furor with her 1963 writings on the Israeli government's trial in Jerusalem of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. She characterized Eichmann, who had organized the transport of European Jews to the death camps, as a banal bureaucrat rather than a singular monster. She wrote that European Jewish leaders, too, were responsible, by administering submission to the Nazis when even futile resistance and chaos might have allowed more Jews to survive. The public attacks on Arendt are shown. She was pilloried, particularly by Jewish intellectuals, as an unfeeling Nazi sympathizer and self-hating Jew. The New School's move to fire her is also enacted.
But the film, which shows Arendt as shocked to learn that she has hurt the feelings of many Jews, including long-time friends, does not reveal that she had broken with the Zionist leaders in 1942 when they called for a Jewish state rather than the bi-national Palestine she supported. The Zionists opposed measures to rescue Jews from the Nazis other than those that herded them to Palestine. They claimed, however, that their takeover of Palestine was all about saving Jews from a unique evil -- a claim unchallenged by most liberals as well as the Stalinist left. Arendt's analysis hit the Zionists' guilty conscience and undermined the rationale for their nationalist project. The film ignores these crucial political elements, and presents Arendt's strong defender and friend only as novelist "Mary" without disclosing that Mary McCarthy was an anti-Stalinist and anti-Zionist who called Zionism the "Jewish final solution."
Director Margarethe von Trotta's failure to explore this relevant history leaves her film interesting but superficial when it could have been brave and timely. Arendt's famous topic, thoughtless compliance with evildoers in power, needs our attention today more than ever. Fifty years after the "Banality of Evil" controversy, U.S. liberals and progressives are blindly uncritical of a leader who spies on millions and remotely executes foreigners and citizens in the name of national security. A militarily mighty Zionist state is still free to massacre innocents, shielded by this unquestioned U.S. power and the old sacred cow that Israel is the only safe haven for Jews. Arendt might have had some juicy comments about the "banality of filmmaking."
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