Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’

Hannah Arendt — Film Review

Hannah Arendt

Directed by Margarethe von Trotta



This is my kind of film.  It is a film about ideas, about the big picture, about the ambiguities and contradictions in human nature, about broad philosophical implications of ordinary events.  If you have never had a serious thought in your life, if you like to go to the movies to be entertained, to escape from your humdrum existence, to have your fundamental preconceptions, your basic world view and moral outlook on life confirmed and validated by some contrived story line and stereotypic, one-dimensional characters, then don’t go see this.  It’s not for you.  The friend I went with was yawning.

In contrast to the previous film I reviewed about Wilhelm Reich, this film, also a dramatization, is much better conceived and much better executed.  It is altogether a superior effort.  The character of Hannah Arendt is effectively and convincingly created by Barbara Sukowa.   I also liked Julia Jentsch, who played Lotte.   The nature of her relationship to Hannah Arendt wasn’t exactly clear.  She was not a relative.  She served as a kind of secretary and all purpose assistant, but the relationship seemed to have a marked personal quality as well.

Although the film effectively draws the character of Hannah Arendt and summarizes many of the major aspects of her life, the central concern of this film is her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s for the New Yorker magazine, and the aftermath of its publication.  Eichmann had been a top level S.S. officer in the Third Reich, who was responsible for the transport of millions of Jews to death camps.  He had been renditioned by the Israeli Secret Service from Argentina and brought back to Israel to face trial for war crimes.  Hannah Arendt, a Jew who was briefly held in a Nazi detention camp in France before escaping with her family to New York, volunteered to cover the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker, and the New Yorker accepted her offer.

She did more than cover the trial.  Hannah Arendt was a trained philosopher who studied with Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers.  She had published several major philosophical works before covering the Eichmann trial including The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958).  She brought her philosophical acumen and formidable erudition to bear on her reporting of this trial.  It was entirely fitting and appropriate.  We have to congratulate the New Yorker for choosing her to report on this trial.  No one could have covered it like she did, and no one could have raised the issues implied in this trial with such clarity and force and intellectual depth as she brought to them.  The outcome was six long articles that appeared in the New Yorker in 1963 followed by a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), which is still in print.

I read the opening article from the February 16, 1963 issue of the New Yorker.  From the outset, Arendt not only reports on the trial vis-a-vis Eichmann, but she analyzes the trial and sets it in its political and historical context, which she has the knowledge and capability to do.  Her understanding of Jewish history and culture and the contemporary political context is especially rich.  It would be hard to imagine someone doing a comparable job in terms of quality and depth of understanding.  She seems uniquely qualified for this assignment and the New Yorker  did itself and the world a great favor by choosing her for this task and providing her with a venue to put her singular perspective before the public.

Arendt saw the trial as not being about Eichmann and what he did during the Third Reich, as much as it was about a political agenda of Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

this case was built on what the Jews had suffered, not on what Eichmann had done. (New Yorker, Feb. 16, 1963, p. 41)

It was history that, as far as the prosecution was concerned, stood at the center of the trial.  “It is not an individual that is in the dock at this historic trial, and not the Nazi regime alone,” Ben-Gurion said, “but anti-Semitism throughout history.” (New Yorker, February 16, 1963, p. 54)

The logic of the Eichmann trial, as Ben Gurion conceived of it — a trial stressing general issues, to the detriment of legal niceties — would have demanded exposure of the complicity of all German bureaus and authorities in the so-called Final Solution of the Jewish question; of all civil servants in the state ministries; of the regular armed forces, with their General Staff; of the judiciary; and of the business world.  . . . the prosecution . . . carefully avoided touching on this highly explosive matter — upon the almost ubiquitous complicity, stretching far beyond the ranks of Party membership. (New Yorker, February 16, 1963, p. 52)

So from the outset Arendt sees the trial as going far beyond Eichmann.  And indeed, as the trial goes on Eichmann’s significance diminishes in relation to this broad  historical drama.

Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.  (New Yorker, February 16, 1963, p. 113)

Half a dozen psychiatrists examined Eichmann and found that “his whole psychological outlook, including his relationship with his wife and children, his mother and father, his brothers and sisters and friends, was “not only normal but most desirable.” (New Yorker, February 16, 1963, p. 67)

Eichmann, the Nazi S.S. officer who presided over the transport of millions of people to their deaths, was a perfectly good guy.

He went to considerable lengths to prove that he had never harbored any ill feelings toward his victims, and, what is more, had never made any secret of that fact. (New Yorker, February 16, 1963, p. 76)

Arendt goes on to explain that he had a Jewish mistress during his service in the S.S., a rarity among S.S. officers.

His enlistment in the S.S. was not motivated by ideological fervor or even political conviction.  He said, “it was like being swallowed up by the Party against all expectations and without previous decision.  It happened so quickly and suddenly.”  He had no time and less desire to be properly informed; and he did not even know the Party program, and he had not read (as he never did read) Mein Kampf.  Kaltenbrenner had said to him, Why not join the S.S.? and he had replied, Why not?  That was how it happened, and that was about all there was to it. (New Yorker, Feb. 16, 1963, p. 80)

What disturbed people about Arendt’s take on the Eichmann case is that Arendt saw that the face of Evil is not a monster, not demonic, not a raging lunatic, but a mediocre bureaucrat, an ordinary man, with a wife and a healthy family, who would never have done what he did had he not been caught up in large historical currents which he did not create and had very little personal interest in.  Somehow it didn’t sit well with people that such an inconsequential person could be responsible for the deaths of millions of people, whom he did not hate, and actually did not seem to have any strong feelings about.  He was just doing his job to the best of his ability and trying to survive and get by.  He understood what he was doing, to be sure.  He didn’t pretend to be ignorant of what was going on.  But he said he would have shot his own father if the Führer had ordered him to do so.  For Eichmann the overarching value in his life and his outlook was to follow the program, to do what he was told, and to execute his assigned tasks faithfully and effectively.  And that is exactly what he did.  He was the quintessential bureaucrat.

Arendt argued that making Eichmann the public face of the Holocaust was a historical and cultural cop out.  It was an evasion.  It is not that Eichmann was not responsible and should not be held accountable.  Arendt agreed with his sentence and was glad to see him hanged, but she also saw that Eichmann was being given too much credit.  He was being made into a false symbol: a personification of something that was much bigger and deeper than any one person could represent or be responsible for.  I think her assessment of the trial and of Eichmann is absolutely correct.  The film does a very good job of presenting the philosophical issues as well as the personalities involved.  It is an excellent achievement, although heavy to watch.

What interested me about this film and about the Eichmann case was its relevance to contemporary events in the United States.  If you think about the contrast between Adolf Eichmann and Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning, you notice something significant.  Snowden and Manning are both rather inconsequential individuals, of unimpressive backgrounds and credentials, very much like Eichmann, who found themselves cogs in a huge bureaucratic machine that they realized was monstrous.  But what distinguishes them from Eichmann is that they were not content to just continue in their jobs, carrying out their assigned tasks, oblivious to the dire consequences that they knew would ensue from their work.  They threw a monkey wrench into the machine, at great cost to themselves, rather than let the Beast continue on its ruinous rampage.

In 1934 Eichmann applied for work in the Security Service of the S.S (the S.D.).  The S.D. had been founded by Himmler to serve as an intelligence service to the Nazi party.

Its initial task had been to spy on party members — an activity giving the S.S. an ascendancy over the regular party apparatus.  Then it had taken on some additional duties, becoming the information and research center for the Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret State Police, or Gestapo).  This was the first step toward the merger of the S.S. and the police, which was not carried out until September of 1939 . . . (New Yorker, February 16, 1963, p. 86)

A similar evolution is in progress in the United States, where the intelligence services are being inexorably merged with state and local police departments.  It is an important point to emphasize that in a totalitarian state the intelligence services, protected by the utmost secrecy, and charged with spying on citizens — and indeed, everyone — ultimately become merged with policing functions, so that what results is one monolithic oppressive force within society, intimidating and brutalizing with impunity anyone deemed a threat or subversive.  Edward Snowden has exposed the mountains of data being gathered by our own intelligence services on every American citizen, and indeed, nearly every citizen throughout the world.  The security services claim that they need all this information about who we talk to and associate with in order to protect us — and many people among the citizenry buy this line, or are at least indifferent to it.  But it is only a matter of time before those massive amounts of data will be turned with a most heavy hand and without the possibility of challenge or recourse against the people who now comfort themselves with the thought that this is all benign and innocent.

Eichmann . . . seems to have known nothing even of the nature of the S.D. when he entered it — which was not really strange, since operations of the S.D. were always top secret.  According to what he told Captain Less, he joined the S.D. under a misapprehension . . . (New Yorker, February 16, 1963, p. 86)

Edward Snowden, and many others like him, had no idea of the nature of the work he would be doing for the NSA.  But, unlike Eichmann, he became increasingly shocked and appalled at the nature of the work he was expected to carry out.  In response to Snowden’s revelations, the NSA has vowed to tighten their selection process so that only the Adolf Eichmann’s of the world can work for the intelligence services.

The totalitarian state needs the Adolf Eichmanns of the world.  It despises the Bradley Mannings and Edward Snowdens.  Every conceivable vilification and depredation is being heaped upon them.  At all costs they must be discredited and punished mercilessly.  A totalitarian state, or a state that has pretentions of becoming one, like the United States, cannot allow people like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning to become heroes.

But it is important to point out:  the difference between Adolf Eichmann, and Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, is one of values.  Eichmann valued only following orders and being a good soldier, whereas Snowden and Manning had a vision for society that went beyond themselves.  They were capable of evaluating what they were doing and passing judgment on their own professional conduct, because their vision of themselves and their relation to society went beyond simply doing their jobs, understood as carrying out their assigned tasks as they came down from on high.   They actually cared about how people would live in the kind of society being fashioned by the work they were charged with carrying out.  Eichmann did not.  He had no vision of society beyond himself and his immediate circle.  It is very important to understand where these values held by Snowden and Manning come from, and how they become instilled in children.  It is important because it is the best hope of preserving America as a society where individual freedoms and basic civil rights for average citizens are protected and institutionalized in both law and culture, just as it is important for totalitarian states that want to crush such people and snuff out those values in order to enslave everyone.  The Edward Snowdens and Bradley Mannings of the world are an obstacle to totalitarianism.  Eichmann, the quintessential bureaucrat, is the totalitarian hero and ideal.

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think; that is to think from the standpoint of somebody else.  No communication with him was possible, not because he lied, but because he was surrounded with the most reliable of all safeguards against the words of others, or even the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.  (New Yorker, February 16, 1963, p. 106)

This film and its theme, the banality of evil, is highly relevant to our own time as   America moves increasingly toward a totalitarian police state.  This can be seen in the erosion and often complete disregard of the Constitution and its protections of citizens rights against the prerogatives of government.  The current President, who is supposedly an expert on the Constitution, has shown more disrespect for the Constitution than any President in recent times.  The indifference of average citizens in allowing this to happen, the narcissism of simply focusing on one’s own job, one’s own living, one’s own problems, one’s own success and promotion, without regard to one’s connection to the whole; the failure to perceive that the quality of life within the whole society matters to one’s fate as an individual; this lack of perception, this narcissism of unrelatedness is the greatest danger to America as a free society.  The biggest threat to the United States is not terrorists blowing up buildings.  This is what the Security State wants people to believe, and this phantom is promoted relentlessly in the media that constant threats of this type are afoot.   But actually, it is the indifference of average citizens to the ever growing presence of the Security State and the erosion of basic liberties for others as well as oneself that is the much more profound threat.  There is an obliviousness that allows one to think that the government can trample the rights of others, disregard the Constitution, violate civil rights, even commit heinous crimes against people portrayed as “enemies of the State,” and somehow that will never come home to me.  What affects others does not affect me.  That’s their problem, not mine.  This attitude on the part of the average citizen is the most ominous threat to America as a free society.  It is the Eichmannization of the citizenry that is our most profound enemy.

Eighty million Germans had been shielded against reality and factuality by the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s nature.  These lies changed from year to year, and they frequently contradicted each other; moreover, they were not necessarily the same for the various branches of the Party hierarchy or the people at large.  But the practice of self-deception had become so widespread — almost a moral prerequisite for survival — that even now, eighteen years after the collapse of the Nazi regime, when most of the specific content of its lies has been forgotten, it is sometimes difficult not to believe that mendacity has become an integral part of the German national character.  (New Yorker, February 16, 1963, p. 111)

This could describe current conditions in the political and cultural climate of the United States.  There are so many lies being promoted by the government and the “information” media to the public with such a heavy handed insistence, being repeated so often and with such uncritical aplomb that they have almost become clichés.  People who point out the lies, the contradictions, the inconsistencies, the delusions, and question their sources are labeled ‘crackpots,’ or ‘conspiracy theorists.’

How many lies have the American people been told and accepted as fact going back many years to Vietnam, Iran-Contra, Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, climate change, among many other issues?  We seem to eagerly embrace hysteria and sensationalism, particularly when it provides opportunities to vent boundless spite and venom upon some demonized enemy.  Israel was probably hoping for such an opportunity in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, but it did not work out so well, because Eichmann turned out not to be a demon with fangs and horns, but a rather mediocre, almost innocuous, person.  Had he been in a different position with different responsibilities, no one would ever have heard of him.  It was almost bad luck, rather than malice, that resulted in his presiding over the extermination of millions of Jews.

Living in America you know that most of the population is deluded about many issues of vital public importance.  And yet, they are content to remain in that condition of numb indifference focusing mostly on themselves and their immediate circle, and when they do cast their eyes beyond that short field of vision, they see only bewildering, amorphous threats, and thus defer to the authorities to take care of it.

David Rousset (French inmate of Buchenwald) They [the S.S.] know that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold . . . is incomparably the best for keeping a whole people in slavery.  (quoted on p. 42, New Yorker, February 16, 1963)

This is understood by the United States government, and particularly by the Security Services.  This is why it is so important to destroy the Edward Snowdens and the Bradley Mannings, and to prevent such people from coming into existence.  Controlling the available information, controlling access to resources and information, controlling the attention and preoccupations of the public, while at the same time keeping one’s own actions secret and invisible, is key to maintaining and growing the Security State.  This is why it is necessary to keep track of everyone’s conversations, who talks to who, and what people look at and read on the internet.  It is the preliminary step to controlling and limiting who one can talk to and what information one may see and be exposed to.

The trial of Adolf Eichmann and the penetrating analysis of it by Hannah Arendt illustrates the perverse extremes to which a Security State can go, and those extremes are made possible and realized by the inconsequential, unthinking, unreflecting bureaucrat, obsessed with his own personal security and indifference to the consequences of his own actions beyond the fulfillment of his given duty.  Adolf Eichmann lives today, and is, in fact, very much in demand by the intelligence services of the United States government.  The Israelis were right to hang him.  But they thought they were hanging Anti-Semitism.  That would have been the simple, scripted outcome that the Israeli government was hoping for.  In actuality, Eichmann wasn’t even an Anti-Semite.  Instead, the trial revealed a much more profound truth: that the excesses and atrocities of totalitarian states are not fundamentally a manifestation of collective hatred, but rather a reflection of collective numbing of sensibility that brings on collective complicity and collective willful blindness.  The greatest Evil is turns out not to be a crazed terrorist throwing bombs and spitting venom.  The greatest Evil is a mundane, banal, average bureaucrat, going about his job, doing what he is told, even when he knows he is participating in madness.

This film, directed by Margarethe von Trotta is an excellent introduction to these issues and the personality and life of Hannah Arendt.  It directly bears on some of the most pressing trends in the political culture of the United States, and is illustrative of the human foundations of every totalitarian state.  I highly recommend it.

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