Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hannah Arendt, the Film (2012)

Have you ever heard the phrase, "the banality of evil?"  The phrase was coined by a German-Jewish philosopher named Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) after observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann.  I watched the film, Hannah Arendt (2012) this past weekend, on Netflix. I had to watch it three times to catch all the nuances. You will not like it. It has no action, sex, violence, horror, intrigue, comedy, or special effects.

Hannah Arendt studied philosophy under the most prominent continental philosopher of the time, Martin Heidegger, at the University of Marburg. The film shows a young Martin Heidegger giving a dramatic lecture on the importance of thinking.  It also shows a young and adoring Hannah Arendt going to his office and asking him to teach her to think.

As teacher and student, Martin and Hannah had a long and stormy romantic relationship.  Hannah had to leave him to earn her Phd under another major German thinker, Karl Jaspers.  (Curiously, the topic of Hannah's Phd thesis was the concept of Love in Saint Augustine. I wonder what Hannah's conscience told her about her relationship with Heidegger and her other many affairs. Saint Augustine would not be pleased!)  After Hannah received her Phd in 1929, she was denied a professorship because she was Jewish. It was in 1933 that the Nazis decreed by law that Jews could not teach in universities. Subsequently, Hannah did research into anti-Semitism, which resulted in her being arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. She was only released from jail because of a sympathetic jailer (1933).

Within weeks of Adolf Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany (1933), Martin Heidegger was appointed rector of the University of Freiburg and became an unwavering supporter of Nazism. Heidegger had nothing personal against Jews. He supported Nazism merely for careerist reasons--he felt it was necessary in order to support the university and philosophy.

After her release from jail in 1933, Hannah fled to Paris, where she worked to help other Jewish refugees.  But with the German occupation of northern France, she was sent to an internment camp at Gurs, in Southern France, in 1940. Initially the camp was run by French who were friendly to the Allies, but once the Germans took full control, it became a transitional concentration camp, where the inhabitants were shipped to Auschwitz. With outside help, Hannah and her husband escaped and arrived in New York in 1941.

In New York, Hannah lived the  life of a public intellectual. She was active in the German-Jewish community and was part of the circle of intellectuals associated with the Partisan Review. She joined the faculty of The New School for Social Research (joining numerous other ex-patriot refugees from Hitler). She had a large network of friends and colleagues, both Jewish and not, American and European.

Besides The New School, she taught at many other American universities, including Bard, the University of Chicago, Berkeley, and Princeton, where she was the first woman to become a full professor.

In 1951, her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was published.  It was the first book to examine the rise of Nazism and Stalinism and their meaning, implications, and consequences, including for antisemitism. The book made her an intellectual celebrity.

In 1960, Adolf Eichmann was arrested in Argentina by agents from the Israeli Mossad and flown to Israel to be put on trail. With the arrest, Hannah Ardent sought and received an assignment from The New Yorker magazine to cover the trial as a journalist. This is where the real drama begins.

The world thought of Eichmann as a monster--the personification of evil, as close to being the devil himself as humanly possible. But after observing him at the trial, the Jewish Hannah thought differently. She saw that he was not a monster but a completely ordinary and mediocre human being.  He was not a fanatic or a sociopath, but just a stupid man who relied on cliches and conventional thinking rather than think for himself. Hannah stated that personally, Eichmann was not even antisemitic. Her conclusion that the nature of evil is banal does not rest on the fact that he was ordinary or that we are all potential Eichmann's, which we are, but that his stupidity and lack of conscience--his unwillingness to think--was unexceptional.

Eichmann of course claimed that he was only following orders. He claimed that he did not directly harm or intend for harm to come to anyone. He only made sure that the Jews were put on the trains. He even said that he did not harbor any personal malice against any Jews.

In the film, Hannah (her character) says that in Western Civilization, we think of evil as originating from selfishness.  But she concludes no, that mass evil is not monstrous or exceptional but results from people who simply refuse to think.  She meant the ability to decide right from wrong. 

This claim by Hannah about Eichmann became hugely controversial and is the central conflict in the film. But she made one other claim that was even more controversial, that Jewish leaders in Europe had cooperated with the Nazis, including with Eichmann's office itself.

Hannah lost many friends because of her stand.  She was called vile names by countless people. The editors at the New Yorker magazine became very frightened about the consequences of publishing her reportage. One person accused her of turning the trial of Eichmann into a philosophical seminar.  Another accused her of acting like a superior German intellectual looking down on us Jews. The Israeli government sent four agents to America to try and persuade her from publishing. When reason failed, they threatened her. To her face, one former colleague sneeringly called her, "Heidegger's favorite student."  Hannah never backed down or yielded even an inch.

In the film, whenever Hannah is shown in public or having an intellectual argument, she is portrayed as ice cold intellectual without human feelings and is frequently accused of being such.  Many times, when her colleagues disagree with her and fail to persuade her to their point of view, they call her arrogant to her face, to which she never flinches. Yet in private, she is portrayed as human and affectionate, whether with men or women.

Through it all, Hannah Arendt refused to yield. She insisted on thinking. Indeed, the dramatic high point of the film is a scene where Hannah gives a fiery lecture to a class at, The New School of Social Research, on the importance and ability of a person to think.

Ultimately, her report of the Eichmann trial was published in five installments in the New Yorker. And afterwards, they were published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  (But you can find a pdf of the book on the Internet.)

As for Martin Heidegger, essentially, he was another Eichmann. With the Nazis in power, the towering genius of continental philosophy who had inspired Hannah Arendt to learn to think chose not to think.  But his student Hannah Arendt had learned her lessons well.

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