Was Eichmann’s evil ‘banal’?

June 27, 2013 at 11:56 pm (anti-semitism, cinema, fascism, film, genocide, Germany, history, intellectuals, Jim D, literature, philosophy, zionism)

Margot Lurie, writing in the present edition of the neo-con Standpoint magazine, doesn’t think much of Margarethe von Trotta’s new film about Hannah Arendt:

Von Trotta is eager to fight Arendt’s battles, but time and again shows that she is no more equipped to understand them than [Mary] McCarthy was. Especially clumsy is her attempt to correlate Arendt’s philosophy to a contemporary posture toward Israel. Despite von Trotta’s having Arendt refer to her Zionism as a “youthful folly”, the political picture has simply changed too much for an overlay of Arendtian acetate paper to mean anything.  

The Yad Vashem footage and Hannah Arendt are not the only film releases to explore Arendt’s legacy, or Eichmann’s. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Claude Lanzmann premiered his documentary The Last of the Unjust. More than three-and-a-half hours long, the film is a series of outtakes from Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah, all of them featuring Benjamin Murmelstein, a Nazi-appointed “Jewish Elder”, who speaks about the choices he had to make while running the Czechoslovakian concentration camp Theresienstadt; at one point, he describes himself as a “marionette that had to pull its own strings”. 

Murmelstein is a figure like those that Arendt implicated in Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she alleged that the co-operation of leaders of the Judenräte (Jewish councils) with the Nazis expedited their own annihilation. Murmelstein’s reflections make Arendt’s wholesale indictment of those in his position seem unjust. 

And so the Arendtian myth suffers a bit, on one end from Lanzmann’s repudiations and on the other from von Trotta’s anaemic boosterism. The best outcome would be a recalibration of her legacy, one acknowledging that her literary inclinations (nurtured by her friend Mary McCarthy) occasionally overtook her philosophical principles. 

Read the full article here.

I haven’t seen the film and so cannot comment upon whether Lurie’s criticism is fair. But I’m grateful to her for reminding us that we don’t have to take Arendt’s word for it regarding Eichman’s “banality” as supposedly demonstrated at his trial: we can see, and judge, for ourselves, thanks to the extraordinary and inevitably highly disturbing Yad Vashem footage:

13 Comments

  1. Barry Finger said,

    For an excellent discussion of Arendt and Eichmann see:

    http://www.unz.org/Pub/NewPolitics-1963q4-00053

  2. Michael Ezra said,

    Jim,

    There is a further interesting review of the Von Trotta film online in Tablet magazine which is worth a read.

    Barry,

    if you enjoyed the Ezorsky article, and I agree that it is worthwhile reading, you might like my own essay on the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy that comments on what Ezorsky had to say as well as numerous other critics.

    ……………

    Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is probably most controversial credible book ever written on the Holocaust. David Cesarani’s biography: Eichmann: His Life and Crimes (Vintage 2005) has 18 separate categories of index references to Arendt. Deborah Lipstadt’s more recent short book, The Eichmann Trial (nextbook, 2011) not only discusses Arendt at length, she even has a picture of Arendt on the book’s cover! This is remarkable level of contemporary discussion for a book that was published fifty years ago. Despite how many times those such as Cesarani and Lipstadt wish to discredit what Arendt said, I suspect the next book that is published on Eichmann will also discuss the Arendt thesis. Whatever one thinks of Arendt’s thesis it is one that cannot be ignored.

    Given the subject matter, books on the Holocaust can hardly be said to be enjoyable reads, but that does not take away from the fact that some books are more interesting and important than others. I think anyone that takes an interest in Holocaust studies or wider political controversies should certainly read Arendt’s tract. With fairness to the critics of the book (and there are many!) I would also suggest at least one of the polemics against the book (such as the Ezorsky article linked to by Barry) or one of the others that I discuss in my own article that I link to above. Sadly, I do not recommend, for the non-specialist, Jacob Robinson’s And the crooked shall be made straightt: The Eichmann Trial, the Jewish Catastrophe and Hannah Arendt’s Narrative (Macmillan, 1965), which is a book length attack on Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. The reason for this is that it is quite dull in the way it has been written.

  3. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Nathaniel Popper’s piece in the Nation on how Arendt massively plagiarised the first edition of Raul Hilberg’s Destruction of the European Jews puts this in a different perspective:

    http://www.thenation.com/article/conscious-pariah#axzz2XVj9rpgG

    Hilberg’s book was the first systematic study of the Holocaust and was disgracefully rejected by many publishers including Princeton for whom Arendt read the manuscript in 1959 and recommended rejection (eventually he was forced to beg money from a Jewish industrialist to pay for a small press print run).

    And then he was astonished to find whole sections of his book quoted verbatim and without attribution in Arendt’s New Yorker pieces (although she did correct that somewhat in the book collecting them) as well as his documentation of the bureaucratic rationality of the process underpinning her whole ‘thesis’ – indeed so strongly did she adopt Hilberg’s view that as Cesarani illustrates she wilfully ignored all the evidence presented at the trial that Eichmann was not a colourless bureaucrat at all but as sadistic and vicious as any of his colleagues.

    Her attack on the Judenräte – which at the time was far more controversial than her characterisation of Eichmann was also sourced directly from Hilberg.

    • Michael Ezra said,

      Hi R F McCarrthy,

      It sounds like you are familiar with it, but if not, I do recommend Raul Hilberg’s memoirs: The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian (Ivan R. Dee, 1996). He goes into some detail about the problems he had getting The Destruction of the European Jews published and also about Hannah Arendt and where he differed with her.

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        Thanks – the irony is of course that Arendt’s outrageous plagiarism (and her somewhat grudging acknowledgements when she did publish her essays in book form) probably did far more to popularise Hilberg’s work than anything he himself could have likely done – in 1963 if you’d read Arendt and wanted to learn more you really had nowhere else to go other than to Hillberg (and Gerald Reitlinger’s considerably less scholarly books).

        Now even a non-specialist like me has a whole bookcase full of volumes on the holocaust and knows there are massive gaps in it which I’ll probably never get round to filling.

        But even c.1970 which was when I first developed a serious interest in it all you’d have been hard put to fill a single shelf.

  4. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Jim – your link is not to Lanzmann’s film but to a Korean action movie called The Unjust…..

    • Jim Denham said,

      How embarrasing! Thanks for the tip-off Roger. Correction now made. Glad that at least one reader bothers to follow up the links.

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        How could I not follow up on a link which promised a three and a half hour follow-up to Shoah?

        I do like bleak and bloody Korean movies though so the error was quite serendipitous.

  5. Michael Ezra said,

    Roger,

    Yes, that is true. Arendt’s book was probably responsible for sparking off what we now understand as Holocaust Studies. And far more than a bookcase, as can be seen with the excellent Wiener Library, whole libraries can be full of the stuff.

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Yes the point I was making was that my big bookcase stuffed with holocaust memoirs and studies (plus several other bookcases full of books on Nazism and WW2 in general) is a tiny selection of what is available.

      But I am just about old enough to remember when even people who had a strong interest in the subject had only a handful of volumes to turn to and when that World at War episode was a revelation even to my parents and grandparents who had lived through the war and remembered seeing film of Belsen and Dachau and interminable reports from Nuremberg in cinema newsreels.

      And used to know the Weiner (and also the excellent German Historical Institute library) well when I lived in London.

      • Michael Ezra said,

        But what is remarkable, or at least I think so, is what with all these books having been published, it is still the Arendt tract that is one of the most discussed.

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        Absolutely – it was a real intellectual milestone and still worth reading and arguing against now.

        However ultimately its The Mossad and its heroic refusal to observe the diplomatic niceties with which the pseudo-left are now so obsessed who we need to thank – as it is difficult to think of any other event than the Eichmann Trial that would have overcome not just the media’s but academia’s deliberate disinterest.

        And without Eichmann in Jerusalem Arendt would hardly be remembered at all.

  6. Jimmy Glesga said,

    Israel invented rendition and got that piece of Nazi shit back from those that hid the bastard. RENDITION IS A GOOD THING. No lawyers around in those days to ripp the public purse on behalf of scumbags. Those were the good days.

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