Hannah Arendt focuses on her life in New York during the prime of her academic career. In 1961, she was asked by William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, to write an eyewitness account of the trial, in Israel, of Otto Adolf Eichmann, the German Nazi colonel and a major organiser of the Holocaust. Mostly in English, though it sometimes turns to German and occasionally Hebrew, it begins with the capture of Eichmann. A torch holding, stooped man of medium build is shown walking down the road like those miners of yesteryear heading towards now closed Welsh pits. He is effortlessly bundled into the back of a truck. The Israeli agents had been stalking his movements and uncovered his rather obscure life in Argentina. This scoop and the future trial of a leading Nazi engaged Jewish communities in a heated debate, since it promised an iota of accountability and a semblance of redress to the memory of Holocaust victims and their near ones, while heralding Mossad’s transregional capability in netting such high-profile but underground criminals. By that time, Arendt was already an established academic writer and commentator on political philosophy with special interest in totalitarianism of which she was both a witness and victim.

There is much about Arendt’s life that we ought to know before the events depicted in the film. Arendt was born to a liberal Jewish family in Hanover, Germany. She began studying philosophy at eighteen at the University of Marburg with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Both soon developed a passionate relationship though subsequently they took separate ideological pathways, as Heidegger became a Nazi supporter, which not only compromised his own stature, but critics also used this against Arendt when she subsequently covered the Eichmann trial. She later moved to Heidelberg where, still in her twenties, she was able to finish and publish her doctoral research on the concept of love in St Augustine’s thoughts under the supervision of existentialist philosopher, Karl Jasper (1883-1969). However, she could not formally ‘habilitate’ because of her Jewishness. Her research on Anti-Semitism in Germany incurred investigations by the Gestapo, which made her flee to France in 1933. In 1937, Arendt was deprived of her German nationality, and three years later she married Heinrich Blucher (1899-1979), the German Marxist philosopher. Following the German conquest of France, Arendt was arrested in 1940, labelled as ‘enemy alien’ and taken to Camp Gur. She was able to escape within a few weeks through the timely help of Hiram Bingham, an American, who had reputedly helped 2,000 Jews to flee from Nazi sleuths. She found her way to the United States accompanied by her mother and husband.

Film reviewed:

Hannah Arendt directed by Margarethe von Trotta, written by Margarethe von Trotta and Pam Katz, produced by Heimatfilm.

In English, German, French and Hebrew. Germany/France, 2013.

As a vocal part of a German Jewish émigré group, she helped younger Jews migrate to Palestine-Israel and held a visiting fellowship at Berkeley and Chicago until she became the first ever faculty woman at Princeton in 1959. Her circle in New York included the Jaspers and Mary McCarthy, the noted contemporary American author.  It was during this early phase of her life in the United States that she published The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). It caused quite an intellectual uproar. Her Leftist critics felt that by juxtaposing Nazism with Stalinism as two sides of the same coin, she had been irreverent to progressive ideas of Marxism. Having experienced Nazism first hand and cognisant of Stalin’s purges, she had no qualms in coupling them together as two parallel and stupendously violent manifestations of totalitarianism that denied public space, frowned upon dissent and made individuals commit violence against fellow citizens in the name of a unilateral ideology. Nazism and its large-scale violence against Jews and Romas had been exposed. But Stalin’s stance on Western imperialism and construction of a Soviet utopia on the ruins of Tsarist travesties still enjoyed a significant following during the Cold War. Arendt had touched some raw nerves. Her fellow co-religionists and intellectuals accused her of attacking Marxism in the guise of dissection of totalitarianism. She ended up antagonising both traditional and secular Jews in the United States and Israel.

She also had another demi-god in her sights. In her early works, Arendt had detected human vulnerability to collective violence attributable to a wide variety of disparate sources including an uncritiqued modernity, which, to her, was binary and even Hydra faced. Arendt was herself a product and keen witness of this Western modernity especially in its postulations hinging on democracy and scientific progress, yet saw in it the shrinking of public space leaving individual to a solitary and certainly vulnerable existence. According to Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) modernity had caused the eclipse of tradition, family and religion. While it allowed space for some private introspection, it was essentially overwhelmed by systemic interests. At a sinister level, it augured the age of bureaucratic administration featuring only anonymous labour, resulting in the triumph of animal laborans over homo faber. These negative portents of modernist hierarchical hegemonies, to her, led to the totalitarian movements such as Nazism and Stalinism since they tended to homogenise community in an inherent conformist mould. In The Human Condition, she appears more focused on negative aspects of modernity. This may be due to her own bitter experiences with nationalism in Europe assuming a more exclusivist and coercive shape. Perhaps, she also felt like Muhammad Iqbal (1887–1938), who a generation earlier, had alerted his readers to the viciousness of a virile and highly masculinised form of nationalism that not only eliminated moral ethos but also regimented a recourse to militarism. Not an historian herself, Arendt still felt confident enough to suggest that modernity had created a rupture in Occidental history rendering many of our hitherto political and moral categories meaningless. To her, the Holocaust and Gulag both were the causes and results of a rupture in the experience of modernity. Her celebration of human narrative, of art and literature, stemmed from a greater respect for history and poetry, which kept human virtues and valour alive for successive generations by ensuring inclusive and more supporting public space. Arendt, essentially banking on Western historical discourse, saw the emergence of modernity in two distinct stages: the first from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, while the second falling within the complex and volatile matrix of the twentieth. One may differ with her on two counts: her almost total negative understanding of modernity, and secondly, her insistence on separating the public and private, and the social and political. In the later case, she somehow failed to see their fluid boundaries, which, in several instances, obviated their dialectical interface. For instance, in her personal and intellectual preoccupation with totalitarianism, she could not fully grasp the significant expansion of justice and rights blurring the boundaries between private and public, or between social and political spheres.

Her most famous phrase, ‘the banality of evil’ emerged from the coverage of the Eichmann trail. In the film, we see Arendt observing the trial in Jerusalem and jotting down an unending medley of notes. She meets an old friend, Kurt Blumenfeld, who tells her that Eichmann appears in the trial as an unimpressive, ordinary man. She too is taken aback by Eichmann’s ordinariness and mediocrity. She had assumed he would be uniquely dripping with evil and cruelty writ large on his persona; instead, he appeared more like a routine individual of rather slim build without any aura of being uniquely sinister. She could not bring herself around to accept the dictum that the man held in the dock had so much of Jewish blood on his hands. The film, in fact, shows the original archival material from the Israeli court proceedings where a wooden Eichmann speaks in a monotonous, emotionless way to the Israeli judges and lawyers without displaying any repentance. Over the cafe conversation, where a reference is made to the Faust story, Arendt refuses to accept that Eichmann was in any way Mephisto, the evil, or a noxious embodiment of psychopathic hatred.

The film is neither a documentary nor a full reportage on Arendt’s life; instead it focuses on the trial and the discursive controversy about her own understanding of the role of violent totalitarianism in turning ordinary people like Eichmann into unquestioning murders. It is fascinating to see Jewish émigrés getting into heated discussion in German on Arendt’s reports with their American colleagues sitting mute trying to make sense of their passionate gesticulations. Arendt comes out as a complex character embodying intellectual courage, creativity and even complicity. Her views cause controversy and pain yet he she refuses to budge. The film is exceptionally well directed and has some strong performances at its core. It raises a string of questions but they are all left in the air.

Arendt was aptly sensitive to the exigencies of citizenship, pluralism and freedom seeing in them the core of a participatory political system that would disallow totalitarianism. She also gave primacy to work ethics, sounding more like a neo-liberal. But Arendt enveloped it with imagination so as to ward off a mechanical conformity to work ethics. Perhaps this was the very trait that she did not detect in people like Eichmann, who despite the enormity of their share in committing heinous crime, still did not seem to ever possess second thought about it.

In a sense, the film is a reconstruction of Arendt’s role as a thoughtful chronicler of Eichmann’s trial using it to study the whys and hows of collective violence, where ideologies become the straightjackets of uniformist hierarchies with human agents simply morphed into robots. This total heedlessness, to her, was the callous banality lacking critique and imagination while parading itself as the sole authority. She had finally found the answer to her instinctive question: how come ordinary, normal and even otherwise well-meaning people can commit such horrendous atrocities? Her analysis went beyond a typified blanket caricature of stern-looking Nazi criminal and instead saw him as a cog in a machine awash in a form of mechanical indifference, devoid of any of his own conscientious views on what he was doing. To her, larger forces drained the critical and moral faculties of such individuals so they end up performing malfeasance of a stupendous magnitude as a job like any other. Eichmann was an organisation man. Such a premise was not going to sit well with people who held a unitary view of all Nazis per se and saw them at par with one another, consciously and intently primed to enforce the Holocaust. Here critics saw her position as ironic form of diminution. Arendt attempted to defend herself in her private meetings, through her writings and by using public forums including a lecture to the younger audience in the university, with which the film ends.

Arendt’s essays on the trial were published in 1963 as Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil. The book incurred a severe backlash from Jewish groups who felt as if by looking at a broad picture she was partially absolving Eichmann of the enormity of his crimes. Letters, death threats and serious annoyance even from closer relatives and associates did not deter her from further research on violence and human nature and she came to be known as a preeminent philosopher on the subject though she preferred to be known only as a political theorist. A chain smoker, she stayed loyal to Heidegger’s ideas on primacy of thinking—which further inflamed her critics—as she viewed politics to be a major human preoccupation where revolution, violence, reformism and even ‘banality of evil’ would happen depending upon structural realities in a given society where normal bureaucrats like Eichmann may commit brutalities as mere instruments and not as architects. She died in 1975 of cardiac arrest and was buried in Bard College which also contains her archives.

It is interesting to note what contemporary Jewish intellectuals would make of Arendt’s position. While it is convenient for commentators like Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipe, Paul Berman, Pamela Geller and others to depict entire Muslim heritage as Islamofascism, in league with European totalitarianism, one wonders about their defence of statist and societal travesties against the Palestinians. Many of my Jewish friends and groups certainly feel uncomfortable how their history has taken a strange and rather ironic turn. On the one hand, they now have their own state, which is increasingly powerful and negates all those stereotypes about Jews being a permanent minority and too docile to fight. On the other hand, their state has unleashed a serious moral dilemma: it is responsible for the exile of generations of Palestinians who, in fact, had no issues with Jews as such. The dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948, who number three million now and remain displaced through no fault of their own, is constantly underpinned by a denial of their right to return by those very people who apply the same justification to bring in Jews from all over the world. Violence through settlements, detentions and sheer invasions with horrible portents like the massacre of Sabira and Shatila may never recede and, on the contrary, have led to people like Avi Shlaim, Noam Chomsky, Primo Levy, Judith Miller, Illan Pape, Uri Avnery and many others abdicating the whole project. They have turned into avowed and conscientious critics seeing in it expansionist, exclusionary and dangerous dimensions. While there is no scarcity of Ariel Sharons, Ben Gurions, Netanyahus, Baruch Marzels and their new compatriots from across the Caucusus and Atlantic, questions about the recent direction of Jewish humanism under the strong Zionist panoply are no less valid. Thus, Israel is a home from home but its walled existence does not remove the alien and persistent denial of realities all around. I am reminded of my academic friend who took me to a sumptuous lunch at the Faculty Club in Jerusalem, then led me up the hill behind one of the research centres built by her co-religionists from New York, and pointing down below towards the Wall, she observed: ‘we are a very privileged nation but in a rather surreal way. We have built the Wall not to keep away the bombers but simply to foreclose encountering the reality around us’.  I wondered what Arendt, a supporter of Aliya – the project to settle younger European Jews in Israel – would have made of this banality of dispossession!

Arendt’s searchlight on people mechanically becoming perpetrators of heinous offenses does not absolve them of their crime nor does their impertinence lessen the extent of their travesty. But it is the higher and more far reaching forces that turn people into mass murders totally impervious to self-questioning. In recent times, we have seen millions of deaths in Congo (formerly Zaire) with the largest number of women having been gang raped, followed by Rwanda and Bosnia – in all these cases perpetrators are ‘normal’ individuals from ‘next door’ who might be former neighbours and class fellows. In Sarajevo, Radovan Karadzic led Europe’s longest siege with the full knowledge that his own friends and colleagues were the targets. In Banja Luka, Mostar and certainly in Srebrenica, Serbs and Croats ensured ethnic cleansing on a horrendous scale including elimination of their own Muslim friends. In India, Narendra Modi, now the Prime Minister, is implicated in supervising the massacres in Gujarat in 2002 while more recently, in Muzaffargarh, the cheerleaders of anti-Muslim pogroms were local thugs, fully identified by the victims and their relatives. In Pakistan, various militant outfits within and outside the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) pursue selective, indiscriminate and ruthless killings of fellow Pakistanis with a complete nonchalance. Suicide bombers and target killers assume attitudinal indifference by extricating themselves from all kinds of human considerations as if they happen to sleep walk into some nightmarish abyss. Certainly, violence often ushers nihilist monsters such as Eichmann, Karadzic and Tudjman, and if given a chance could, in a banal way, turn victims into perpetrators.

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: