In the early days of cable television, I sat down and watched Robert Shaw’s The Man in the Glass Booth (1975), only knowing the actor-novelist-playwright as Captain Quint from the movie Jaws, released the same year. Needless to say I was ignorant of Adolph Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, and the Shoah, although years later I would meet Schindlerjuden, Shindler Jews, a Bielski Jew, and other survivors of various Nazi lagers. A trip to the library cured me of my ignorance. I read Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil; please note that the famous phrase, ‘banality of evil,’ appears on the cover and in the last sentence before the Epilogue.
When I returned to Arendt’s text more than a decade later, armed with rudimentary German and a hefty dictionary and reference grammar, to mine this woman’s German, I was humbled. For many years I had been convinced that a difficult style — the matryoshka descents of embedded clauses outside the simple subject, verb, and indirect or direct objects of English grammar — was a sign of enviable mastery. Learn some German and tackle the first sentence of Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil and you’ll understand my point. Arendt’s German is not like that, but her nuances are cavernous. I find this particularly ironic when you look at the German of her lover and friend, and one-time Nazi, Martin Heidegger. Here is a man, an admirer of Hölderlin, who as a poet took German’s capacity for word-building out of this plain and into the next one, where Hölderlin lost his sanity. Heidegger, a philosopher who understood word-building, wrote in a German that in translation strikes me as mere approximation of his thinking; it is one of the few instances where I think the text is untranslatable, barring any cultural divide or talented translator; and yet, with Arendt there is none of that. She speaks plainly and offers a devastating analysis: it is not so much the issue that evil exists, but Eichmann’s almost child-like enthusiasm to please that resulted in the evil that he had stood accused of having perpetrated. I see Adolf Eichmann as a patsy of evil, as a man who had thought of himself up on the game, but the game had outplayed his hand. Complicity, stupidity, and irony coalesced in one man’s destiny to represent mid-twentieth century ambiguity.
Hannah Arendt disturbs me for two reasons, but not for the reason that the mere mention of her name induces spasmodic fits of rage thirty some odd years after her death. She died in 1975, the same year that Shaw’s two films were released. Incidentally, Shaw deserves belated recognition for having recognized the significance of Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial. I never could reconcile her ‘collaboration’ with Heidegger, who, as far back as 1934, had insisted that his faculty take the Freiburg Oath, a pledge of allegiance to Hitler. ‘Error’ or not, Arendt could not have been that besotted not to understand the implications of Nazi thought. As the song “China Girl” says, the Nazis came into town, swastikas and all, with “plans for everyone.” Arendt herself was barred from career advancement because of anti-Semitic policies, endured Gestapo hospitality, suffered brief internment before she managed to escape, only to find out later that she had been stripped of her German citizenship; and that her relative by marriage, the notable thinker Walter Benjamin, killed himself in Spain, thinking the Nazis were around the corner. Arendt had Theodor Adorno smuggle Benjamin’s manuscript out of Europe. Whether Arendt’s first failure had been one of misjudgment, which is ironic given her analytical abilities, or perhaps a youthful indiscretion, I don’t know, but she, as a woman of her generation, had deferred to the men in her life. Ironic, again, since she was prickly in interviews, especially when called a philosopher. This is not a woman who thought with her heart or her crotch. Heidegger didn’t suffer fools.
Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt is in select theatres. Barbara Sukowa, whom I knew as a contributing voice on the Rilke Projekt before I saw her on the screen, plays Hannah Arendt. The context is this: New Yorker editor William Shawn hired Arendt to cover the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Arendt knew the languages and she was adept at researching archival records. Shawn knew that she was more than capable of deciphering the mountains of records that the prosecutors would mount against Eichmann; he had a newsman’s gut instinct that he’d get a compelling story out of his reporter. Arendt was no cub journalist. What Shawn received in the end, though, was the literary equivalent of a lit Molotov cocktail lobbed through the transom.
It was tacitly understood at the time that the Israeli prosecutors would present an incontrovertible case. The relatively young state of Israel and its intelligence agency, the Mossad, had already courted a major PR disaster when they had kidnapped the milquetoast Eichmann from his modest apartment in Buenos Aires, drugged him, falsified his identity on the plane back to Israel, and violated countless international laws from start to finish. Israel’s rendition policy notwithstanding, the question remains decades later whether Israel had had the right to abscond with purported criminals and flout international law. The question of a fair trail for Eichmann is answered with the fact that no European court would try him. In 1961, two years away from the first epic conspiracy theory, the Kennedy assassination, nobody murmured how Eichmann had avoided detection for more than a decade; and if they did, it was sotto voce. Arendt suggested that a cadre of SS veterans had assisted Eichmann. She did not know the truth. In 2006, evidence around the U.S.’s willful knowledge and inaction came to light; but nobody today blinks an eye because we are jaded. Après nous, le Déluge – the flood did come in the form of numerous genocides. The Rwandan Genocide still boggles my mind.
Like a legal procedural on television, the legal slam-dunk was not as easy it looked on paper. The rim was tilted and the ball didn’t bounce. Arendt would point it all out with the grace of a ballet dancer with arthritic feet. Sure, at the end of the day, Eichmann was executed in Jerusalem, but not before Shawn had his installments from Arendt in which she dismantled portions of the prosecutor’s case. It is not that she thought that Eichmann was not guilty; it was that she proved that Eichmann was not the great mastermind that the prosecutors said that he was – and she did all of this by examining the language entered into evidence and from Eichmann’s own statements. At first one would think that a ‘philosopher’ might mince words and argue arcane subtleties. Arendt did not. She simply stated her findings: Eichmann was a functioning idiot, a good soldier who followed orders. He pushed paper; and when she suggested that there was evidence that Eichmann had a glimmer of humanity and had saved a handful of Jews…well, the death threats started coming in.
One of the crucial elements in the case against Eichmann was the Minutes from the Wannsee Conference. In an American court, his lawyer might have told him to invoke his right not to incriminate himself; the problem, however, (and Arendt pointed this out, too) was that the Nazis never used explicit language around deportation and mass-killings. Die Endlösung or ‘Final Solution’ appeared as a coded word. The official word from Hitler’s mouth to the grunt at the gate of Auschwitz was never clear. The Minutes from this infamous meeting have been made into two films (one for German television and another with Kenneth Branagh) , with the scripts faithful to what was said and done in the ninety-minute meeting. Reinhard Heydrich had delegated items to Eichmann while others concurred. History has shown that Heydrich made Himmler seem lax. I doubt any of the officers at that meeting dared to snooze.
Eichmann took down the Minutes, “fixed” them later to Heydrich’s specifications, walked Heydrich’s dog, and had a glass of cognac with his boss. British-trained Czech operatives assassinated Heydrich four months after the meeting in the Czech villages of Lidice and Ležáky. The assassins fought off the SS, committed suicide in a church, and Heydrich, refusing to die at first, finally succumbed to his wounds. Hitler responded with a systematic rage: boys over the age of sixteen were executed; rather than see the Czech villages have a future, he had all the women killed and the few children in the villages, gassed. When the massacre had been completed, Hitler then had the two villages burnt to the ground, the ruins leveled. He imitated the destruction of Carthage!
Arendt’s coverage of the trial materialized in five installments in The New Yorker. The immediate reaction was that Eichmann had somehow hoodwinked Arendt. I doubt it. What readers then misconstrued was Arendt’s subtle analytical process at work. There he was, as she saw him in the glass booth, dressed in a shabby manner in a bad suit. She had listened closely and attentively and, in the end, deemed him a dangerous moron. Arendt was especially sensitive to language; her conclusion about Eichmann’s incessant use of clichés was that the man lacked a will. Speech is a function of intellect, of ethics. He was found wanting. She concluded that anti-Semitism was evil, still virulent. Arendt upset people when she concluded that the Nazis had planned on implementing the same genocidal program against German Poles. The inference is that the Jews were not special, just the first ones in line for the camps. As for Eichmann’s evil nature, he was mindless, a follower with no capacity for individual thought.
Eichmann’s defense was that he was a cog in the machinery and that he had no choice but to follow orders. Mindless obedience does not exonerate Eichmann. Arendt’s thesis is that Eichmann had a need to please and to receive praise from his superiors. The implication that offended everyone was that this enthusiasm was no different than any office worker brownnosing the boss. Eichmann saw himself as a military career man. He wanted the promotions, and in today’s parlance, the corner office with a view. He thought that if he put his time in and did his job with diligence he was fine. As long as the blood was distant and invisible, he would see that desired advancement happen.
There is a difference, however, between office hatchet man and murderer. At some level there has to be awareness and decisions, morality. Arendt said Eichmann had none. Some readers reading this will think immediately, ‘sociopath,’ but in 1961 nobody would have thought that. Arendt did not condemn Eichmann outright. She analyzed him, from his appearance behind the glass booth to his speech patterns. He was, she thought, a paper murderer while the sadists, like Rudolf Höss and Josef Mengele among the Nazi men, and Maria Mandel, Jenny Wanda Barkmann, and Elisabeth Volkenrath among the women, actually killed others. Eichmann was not a sadist; he was an efficient bureaucrat. The problem was that the prosecutors hyped Eichmann as a grand architect of murder. Arendt saw no problem pointing out the disparity between archival records and the prosecutor’s dream in her dispatches. She didn’t ‘tell.’ She ‘showed’ it in dissecting the evidence.
Arendt offended Jewish-American readers when she suggested that European Jews – their relatives – were culpable in their own extinction; they did not fight back until it was too late; some believed that it would not happen to them; and Arendt, the proficient researcher of archives, pointed to the meticulous legal records European Jews had kept about where they lived, what properties they owned, which made it all the easier for the Nazis to find them, round them up, kill them, and seize their possessions. She spoke the one truth that nobody at the time wanted to hear: that some Jews collaborated with the Nazis, whatever their motivations. In the end, Arendt questioned the legality of the trial, belittled the prosecutor’s strategy, and blasted Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, for making the trial a spectacle.
Gershom Scholem, another German-Jew, friend, and champion of the late Walter Benjamin, had implored Arendt to show some compassion for the victims of the Holocaust. He accused her of lacking self-love or any love for the Jewish people (“Ahabath Israel”). Arendt’s response was dispassionate prose. For a sense of her personal pain I suggest readers visit her essay, “We Refugees.” Arendt was the objective historian of political thought. She knew that this work was for posterity. While Arendt agreed with the death sentence, Scholem did not; he had advocated that Eichmann live out the rest of his life in prison where he could reflect on the magnitude of his crime against humanity.
As the pages of The New Yorker turned with horror in the U.S., readers had expected justification, knowing that the verdict was rigged. What they received instead was catharsis and self-indictment because Arendt was speaking to the human community. What they got was a thinker not interested in vindicating punishment, but a thinker seeking the answer to why it happened. Her answer was ‘thoughtlessness.’ Her conclusion of ‘thoughtlessness’ is similar to Heidegger’s discussion of ‘ennui,’ in which the person abdicated responsibility for his perceptions and actions. Arendt returned home to New York and guarded her privacy. The message and the messenger were not accepted in Israel or in Manhattan. Her last book was about ‘judgment.’
My thoughts are this: When a writer’s work can still offend decades after her death, I think there is a fundamental truth in that work. For me, as a person who heard the personal testimony of Holocaust survivors and one person who hunted them down, I am not neutral. I am half-German, love the language and the culture, but am aware of der Kollektivschuld, the collective guilt for the Holocaust. While I am conflicted as to how a culture that could produce Bach and Beethoven, numerous scientists, could have committed such atrocities, I know from personal experience that there is no rational reason for assigning a number to a human being, tattooing it into their skin and killing them. I have known those who escaped and survived. In my mind I see Hölderlin’s swan and understand the fragmentary poem.
“Ins heilignüchterne Wasser”