It was a brilliant summer day. I set up my ‘workstation’ on the deck that extends ‘Writer’s Den’ into lush, secluded greenery. To write. Or at least to contemplate writing. While precious days of my holidays seep through like sand in an hourglass.
But I could not peel my thoughts away from the movie I watched last night; ‘Hannah Arendt’ and the concept she named – ‘The Banality of Evil.’ At the time it was new, unheard of ever before. And so were the terms in which she wrote about the Holocaust. All of which brought her scandal and suffering.
Johanna, ‘Hannah’ Arendt was one of those typically European intellectuals; sharp and forthright, yet vulnerable and fragile in the same time. Directed by Margarethe von Trotta and starring Barbara Sukowa, the movie captured Hannah’s life vividly. German-Jewish philosopher who much preferred to be known as political theorist because, as she explained; philosophy is concerned with ‘man in the singular’, while political theory centres on the fact that ‘men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.’
Hannah was born into a secular family of German Jews in what is now Hanover. She studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger with whom she had a long and a stormy romantic relationship for which she was later severely criticized because of Heidegger’s support for the Nazi Party when he was rector at the University of Freiburg. Following one of many breakups with Heidegger, Hannah moved away to write her dissertation under Karl Jaspers on the concept of love in the thought of Saint Augustine and married Gunther Stern in 1929, (they divorced in 1937). While her dissertation was published in 1929, she was prevented from teaching because she was Jewish. She was arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1922.
In 1933 Hannah fled Germany for Paris where she worked and aid Jewish refugees. In 1937 she was stripped of her German citizenship and in 1940 she married Heinrich Blucher, a poet, Marxist philosopher and a former member of the Communist Party of Germany. During the Vichy regime she was interned in Camp Gurs as an ‘enemy alien’.
However, she was able to escape and left France for the United States in 1941 together with her husband and mother. They relied on visas illegally issued by the American diplomat Hiram Bingham and Varian Fry who aided over 2,000 Jewish refugees in the same way.
Once in New York, Hannah become active in the German-Jewish community and returned to Germany after the war to work for an organization which saved many thousands of children from the Holocaust and settled them in the British Mandate of Palestine. She became a close friend of Karl Jaspers and his wife. Around the same time she developed friendship with American author Mary McCarthy. In 1950 Hannah became a naturalized citizen of the United States and served as a visiting scholar for such Universities as Berkeley and Princeton. She was named the first female lecturer in Princeton.
Her first major work was book titled ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ (1951), which traced the roots of Stalinism and Nazism in both anti-Semitism and Imperialism. She further contends that Jewry was not the operative factor in the Holocaust, but merely a convenient proxy. Totalitarianism in Germany was, in the end, about megalomania and consistency, not eradicating Jews.
In 1961, Hannah was reporting for The New Yorker on Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. The report evolved into book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem; A Report on the Banality of Evil’ (1963) in which she coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to describe the phenomenon of Eichmann.
It is that work the movie focuses on when it opens with scenes from Eichmann’s capture in South America where he escaped with forged papers. When Hannah volunteered to write a report for The New Yorker she was eager to see for herself a person capable of unthinkable atrocities. However, while observing the trial, Hannah was astonished to find Eichmann not only lacking any qualities of imposing monster, but of any significance at all.
He was simply an ordinary man, rather dull and of average if not below average intelligence. He never completed either high school or any vocational training and was only able to obtain employment through family connections.
Utterly incapable of thinking for himself, Eichmann relied heavily on stock phrases and self-invented clichés. Extensive use of ‘officialese’ demonstrated Eichmann’s unrealistic worldview and crippling lack of communication skills. Throughout the trial he displayed neither guilt nor hatred, claiming no responsibility because he was simply ‘doing his job, his duty’ not only by obeying the orders, but by obeying the law. On Eichmann’s personality, Hannah wrote: ‘Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man not a ‘monster’, but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.’
It was on the basis of those observations that Hannah raised the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inactions.
All his life Eichmann belonged to some sort of organization as this was necessary for him to define himself since he was unable to think for himself without ‘orders’ to follow. When, in 1933 his attempt to join a branch of Freemasonry failed, a family friend encouraged him to join the SS. At the end of the war, Eichmann found himself depressed because; ‘it dawned on him that thenceforward he would have to live without being a member of something or other.’
Hannah argued that Eichmann was not a fanatic or sociopath, but an extremely average person who relied on cliché rather than thinking for himself and was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology.
Banality, in this sense, is not that Eichmann’s actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us, but that his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional. She never denied that Eichmann was an anti-semite, not that he was fully responsible for his actions, but argued that these characteristics were secondary to his stupidity. She also did not claim that Eichmann was ‘simply’ following orders, but rather had internalized the clichés of the Nazi regime, so they become his own.
Hannah was also sharply and openly critical of the way the trial was conducted in Israel (Eichmann was kidnapped by Israeli agents in Argentina and transported to Israel, an illegal act, and that he was tried in Israel even though he was not accused of committing any crimes there), as well as of the way that some Jewish leaders, notably M.C.Rumkowski acted during the Holocaust.
All of that caused a considerable controversy and even animosity toward Hannah in the Jewish community. Her friend Grshom Scholem, a major scholar of Jewish mysticism, broke off relations with her. She was criticized by many Jewish public figures, who charged her with coldness and lack of sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust. Because of this lingering criticism, her book has only recently been translated into Hebrew.
The movie closes with a final speech Hannah gives before a group of students, in which she says this trial was about a new type of crime which did not previously exist. A court had to define Eichmann as a man on trial for his deeds. It was not a system or an ideology that was on trial, only a man. But Eichmann was a man who renounced all qualities of personhood, thus showing that great evil is committed by ‘nobodies’ without motives or intentions. This is what she calls ‘the banality of evil’.
Hannah Arendt died in New York City on 4 December 1975, at age 69, of a heart attack.
I admire Hannah in the same way I always admired free-thinking intellectuals with heart brave enough to defend their convictions especially when price is high and conditions lonely.
Living in the world where constant stream of horrific news trickles down from now highly alerted Europe and elsewhere, I wonder what would Hannah make of crimes committed today by reportedly very ordinary, unremarkable and often marginalized people commanded to execute them by their religion’s law and order.
If the highest authority one recognizes commands killings as the only punishment fit for those who commit the acts deemed by that law and order as criminal; be it freedom of speech or freedom of dress, what is to be done to prevent it?
Claiming that such law and order is wholly ‘barbaric’ and thus has no place in the modern world is not only unlikely to have any significant effect on those who firmly embrace it but it is very likely to trigger response of the type – ‘Barbaric in comparison to what?’
Perhaps the law and order that keeps hundreds imprisoned for years without ever being charged with anything? Or the law and order that, for centuries, commanded endless killings on the crusade to convert so called ‘savages’ to one and only true God and acquire whatever precious resources they had in the process? Or the laws that, under the freedom of speech, ban statements that are offensive to people on the basis of their sexuality, race or religion. Backlashes against those whose mockery offends certain groups are not unusual in modern Western world. The methods employed however do not usually involve terrible violence.
And it is indeed that violence that sees Islam synonymous with terror even if clearly not all Muslims subscribe to it nor is the Islamic world united or homogeneous in its position.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Islam is, in today’s world, more congenial to the violent than any other major religion. On a crusade to either correct historical wrongs, avenge injustices inflicted upon it, spread one and only true and divine word, and/or acquire power and resources, etc., etc. … most likely all of the above. Not unlike some other major religions in not so distant past.
However, in the Western world we are often told that what we really face is a scary battle between freedom and tyranny. Such rhetoric is not only factually incorrect but potentially dangerous. Why? Because if and when one is threatened with tyranny, and a religious tyranny at that, it is only matter of time when a militant leader(s) against such tyranny will emerge mounting a holy war against it. Halls of history are littered with examples of it and are forever colored scarlet from bloodsheds. The fear of such occurrences has seen all major religious leaders, including Muslims, appearing repeatedly on TV screens united in their pleas for calm and reason.
What West faces today, and not for the first time either, is the struggle between one set of rules and values against the other.
As I live in the Western type democracy I will not be killed but merely imprisoned and perhaps fined if, say, I decide to stroll downtown wearing nothing but a smile. However, if I live in an Islamic country, I would likely be severely punished should I decide to stroll downtown without being covered head to toe. At this point it is completely irrelevant to which set of rules one subscribes as being ‘right’, or which set of rules one condemns as being ‘wrong’. If I was born and raised to cover from head to toe, that would be as ordinary and as right to me as breathing. Indeed I would perceive any request to change my habitual dress as violation.
What however is relevant and very relevant at that is the freedom to choose between those, or any other, set of rules. And freedom to make that choice should only be balanced against the responsibility of known consequences as subscribed by laws, rules, and/or customers of the land where choices are made, rather than fear of unpredictable and possibly violent retribution by those who find or declare themselves offended by my choice. In other words – freedom balanced against known consequences results in responsibility; freedom limited by unknown retribution results in fear. And when fear enters, freedom shrinks and finally ceases.
It would be at this point that tyranny may indeed enter. Because it would be no longer sufficient to consider whether or not my choice to, say; draw a cartoon or run around naked is against any of the laws, rules and/or customs of the place I inhabit, but rather whether or not I might suffer unknown violence or even death by those who believe themselves rightly called to punish me for breaking their own laws, rules and/or customs.
To return to Hannah Arendt whose life and work inspired the above thoughts, she finished her book on Eichmann by the following paragraph:
‘Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.’