Ed Driscoll

The Evil of Banality


For about a month, I’ve had the Blu-Ray edition of the 2012 biopic Hannah Arendt from Netflix sitting on top of one of the home theater speakers in my den, but because of the Christmas holiday and trepidation about what to expect, I didn’t get around to actually inserting the disc into the player until this past weekend. Stunning picture in the Blu-Ray edition, handsome art direction which quickly evokes the feeling of New York intellectual life in the early 1960s with a depth missing from the TV-oriented production design of Mad Men – and more smoking than an entire season of Mad Men. I’m serious. This film does for Marlboros what the first Thin Man movie did for Martinis — Arendt, her husband, her sidekick Mary McCarthy, and just about everybody else in the film is smoking in seemingly every shot, with the exception of Eichmann.


Speaking of which, the one brilliant gesture of the film was, early on, to cut between reaction shots of actress Barbara Sukowa as Arendt, and the actual black and white kinescopes of Eichmann during his trial, which generates far more of an emotional kick in the gut than hiring an actor to recreate the trial as movie scenes.

As for the rest of the film, this article by Sol Stern from the September issue of Commentary accurately illustrates the movie’s intellectual dishonesty:

The film would have us believe that Arendt came to judge the Eichmann trial with no preconceived political views of the prosecution, that is, the state of Israel. This is not true. We know this to be untrue from letters she wrote at the time to friends such as Mary McCarthy, Karl Jaspers, and her husband, all of which became available after the author’s death in 1975 and were available to Von Trotta as well. They offer a glimpse into Arendt’s uncensored thoughts about Jerusalem, the people of Israel, and the trial’s protagonists. Her reflections can be described as bigoted, even hateful.

The Israeli police gave her “the creeps” because they spoke “only Hebrew and looked Arabic.” Jerusalem was “dirty” and as unpleasant as Istanbul. In one letter she wrote that “honest and clean people were at a premium.” She was disdainful of the “oriental mob” outside the courthouse. She expressed contempt for the black-hatted, ultra-orthodox Jews “who make life impossible for all reasonable people here,” and she expressed a hauteur about the unrefined Yiddish-speaking immigrants who had come to Israel from Eastern Europe. (In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she described prosecutor Gideon Hausner as a “Galician Jew who speaks without periods or commas.”)

Stern goes on to note that near the conclusion of the Arendt biopic, its eponymous subject is depicted being fired by the incensed regents of Manhattan’s New School for having dared to write Eichmann in Jerusalem, when in reality,  the far left New School offered her tenure because of the book. Similarly, conservatives who watch the film should be on guard for its sucker punch, about three quarters of the way through, against “Norman,” the one contemporary of Arendt whose last name wasn’t uttered in the film, likely because he’s alive and well – and so is his lawyer:

Podhoretz, at the time editor of this magazine, published his critique of Eichmann in Jerusalem in the September 1963 issue of Commentary. You can see why Von Trotta would have regarded this as a slam-dunk proof of her version of the Arendt controversy, the one in which the truth-telling and courageous Arendt is set upon by a collection of pro-Israel hacks following the party line as dictated from Jerusalem and the offices of the ADL. For of course, Podhoretz was one of the founders of the neoconservative movement in America—you know, those warmongers and “Israel firsters”—and Commentary was one of the movement’s headquarters.

But when he reviewed Eichmann in Jerusalem, Podhoretz was no neoconservative, indeed no conservative at all. Commentary had moved substantially to the left upon his ascension as editor in 1960 and had become known for publishing radical writers such as Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, and Staughton Lynd. Podhoretz had no particular connection to the Zionist movement, and as for his attitude toward Arendt, he admired her enormously and considered her a friend.

The near-radical Podhoretz wrote a tough and complex review of Eichmann in Jerusalem, raising serious factual questions about her allegations of betrayal by Jewish leaders under Nazi occupation, but he never accused her in any sense of betraying “her people.” For example, he wrote: “Since Miss Arendt wishes us to believe that the Nazis could never have killed as many as six million Jews without Jewish help, she tries very hard to convey the impression that what the Jews themselves did in any given country mattered significantly too. And it is here that she becomes most visibly tendentious in her manipulation of the facts.”


Much more after the page break.

Did the film’s writer and director realize that when Podhoretz was attacking Arendt in 1963, he was as much a member of the left in good standing as she was? Judging by this perceptive comment in a review of the film at the British Website Standpoint on another tellingly sloppy gaffe in the film, I would tend to doubt it:

But after a lecture at New York’s New School for Social Research, one of those students says to Arendt, “The Nazi persecution was aimed at Jews. Why describe Eichmann’s crimes as ‘crimes against humanity’?” Arendt’s syllogistic answer — “Because Jews are human” — not only skates over her troubled sense of her own Jewishness but goes exactly against current thinking, which favours stiff sentencing for “hate crimes” targeting members of minority groups. One wonders if von Trotta would have scripted the scene the same way if the targeted group were women instead of Jews. At another point in the film, during the Eichmann trial footage, we see a short, seemingly random clip of a survivor referring to “two years in Auschwitz — when I was a Muselmann”. One suspects that von Trotta inserted it to suggest that the ultimate target of the Nazi slaughter was undifferentiated humanity — not Jews specifically. But Muselmann in this context does not mean “Muslim” — the word is concentration-camp jargon for the most cadaverous prisoners.

Norman Podhoretz concluded his beautifully written 1963 Commentary article “Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A Study in the Perversity of Brilliance” with this:

Nobody cared about the Gypsies because nobody ever thinks about the Gypsies—except the police. But how did it happen that nobody cared about the Jews when everyone seems always to be thinking about the Jews? The question surely answers itself, and the answer incidentally provides the justification for Ben Gurion’s statement that one of the purposes of the Eichmann trial was to make the nations of the world ashamed.

Miss Arendt dislikes that statement, but no more than she dislikes every other statement Ben Gurion made about the trial. She is also unhappy with the trial itself—the fact that Eichmann was tried before an Israeli court instead of an international tribunal, the substance of the indictment, the way Hausner handled the prosecution, the way Servatius conducted the defense. The only aspect of the trial that pleases her is that the judges behaved with scrupulous regard for the interests of Justice: she is as unstinting in her praise of them as she is relentless in her contempt for Hausner and Ben Gurion (“the invisible stage manager of the proceedings”). A few of Miss Arendt’s criticisms of the trial seem reasonable, but given the animus she exhibits from the very first sentence of the book, it becomes extremely difficult to look upon these criticisms as anything other than further instances of the inordinate demands she is always making on the Jews to be better than other people, to be braver, wiser, nobler, more dignified—or be damned. (When, to take a trivial example, has it ever popped into anyone’s head to accuse a prosecutor in an adversary proceeding of being unfair to the defendant he is working to convict? But Mr. Hausner was the attorney-general of a Jewish state, and therefore it is proper to attack him for doing what all prosecutors are expected to do.)

This habit of judging the Jews by one standard and everyone else by another is a habit Miss Arendt shares with many of her fellow-Jews, emphatically including those who think that the main defect of her version of the story is her failure to dwell on all the heroism and all the virtue that the six million displayed among them. But the truth is—must be—that the Jews under Hitler acted as men will act when they are set upon by murderers, no better and no worse: the Final Solution reveals nothing about the victims except that they were mortal beings and hopelessly vulnerable in their powerlessness. And as with the victims, so with those who were lucky enough to survive the holocaust. There is no special virtue in sheer survival, whatever Bruno Bettelheim may say, and there is no martyrdom in sheer victimization, whatever certain sentimentalists among us may think.

The Nazis destroyed a third of the Jewish people. In the name of all that is humane, will the remnant never let up on itself?


The top of the poster of Hannah Arendt exclaims “Her Ideas Changed the World.” I’m not sure if that sweeping statement is entirely true, but certainly her aphorism, “The Banality of Evil,” has become a household phrase. Arendt crafted it of course, after seeing the balding middle-aged Eichmann in the dock of a Jerusalem courtroom wearing an ill-fitting black suit and imagining him as something akin to a DMV clerk mindlessly dispensing canisters of Zyklon-B.

Fifteen years ago in the New York Observer, Ron Rosenbaum explored the corrosive impact of Arendt’s phrase and called for its retirement, particularly as applied to its original subject matter:

Perhaps now is the time. Perhaps the imminent publication of the diaries alleged to be Adolf Eichmann’s makes this the moment to put to rest one of the most pernicious and persistent misconceptions about Eichmann and the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust: the fashionable but vacuous cliché about “the banality of evil.” It’s remarkable how many people mouth this phrase as if it were somehow a sophisticated response to the death camps, when in fact it is rather a sophisticated form of denial, one that can come very close to being the (pseudo-) intellectual version of Holocaust denial. Not denying the crime but denying the full criminality of the perpetrators.

You’re probably familiar with the origin of “the banality of evil”: It was the subtitle of Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (She didn’t use it in the New Yorker pieces that were the basis of the book.) The phrase “banality of evil” was born out of Ms. Arendt’s remarkable naïveté as a journalist. Few would dispute her eminence as a philosopher, the importance of her attempt to define, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, just what makes totalitarianism so insidious and destructive.

But she was the world’s worst court reporter, someone who could be put to shame by any veteran courthouse scribe from a New York tabloid. It somehow didn’t occur to her that a defendant like Eichmann, facing execution if convicted, might actually lie on the stand about his crimes and his motives. She actually took Eichmann at his word. What did she expect him to say to the Israeli court that had life and death power over him: “Yes, I really hated Jews and loved killing them”?

But when Eichmann took the stand and testified that he really didn’t harbor any special animosity toward Jews, that when it came to this little business of exterminating the Jews, he was just a harried bureaucrat, a paper shuffler “just following orders” from above, Arendt took him at his word. She treated Eichmann’s lies as if they were a kind of philosophical position paper, a text to analyze rather than a cowardly alibi by a genocidal murderer.

She was completely conned by Eichmann, by his mild-mannered demeanor on the stand during his trial; she bought his act of being a nebbishy schnook. Arendt then proceeded to make Eichmann’s disingenuous self-portrait the basis for a sweeping generalization about the nature of evil whose unfounded assumptions one still finds tossed off as sophisticated aperçus today.

A generalization which suggests that conscious, willful, knowing evil is irrelevant or virtually nonexistent: that the form evil most often assumes, the form evil took in Hitler’s Germany, is that of faceless little men following evil orders, that this is a more intellectual, more interesting evil, anyway-old-fashioned evil being the stuff of childish fairy tales, something intellectual sophisticates feel too refined to acknowledge. Either that or too sheltered to have glimpsed.


“The Nazis destroyed a third of the Jewish people. In the name of all that is humane, will the remnant never let up on itself?” A half century after Norman Podhoretz’s melancholic query, we now know that the postwar Germans certainly won’t. If the Ministry of Truth contains a screening room within its bowels, Hannah Arendt would make an excellent Orwellian double-feature with the 2008 film The Reader, which was based on the best-selling 1995 book by German author Bernhard Schlink.

Hannah Arendt saw in Eichmann a non-thinking bureaucrat; Schlink dismissed the massive bureaucratic infrastructure of the Holocaust by metaphorically depicting a concentration camp guard who was illiterate. Of course, where Arendt really earned the scorn of fellow New York intellectuals was by blaming the victims for their fate, and aiming her ire far more towards them than toward Eichmann. Similarly, the film version of The Reader, as Rod Lurie noted perceptively in 2008 at the Huffington Post, ends with this telling scene:

The hollowest scene is the one I am sure was intended to be the film’s most redemptive. A grown up Michael goes to see a survivor of the very church burning Hanna was involved with. She lectures him about the camps and refuses the money Hanna has willed to her (though she accepts the tin the money came in). The beautiful Lena Olin plays the survivor. She is well dressed. Her New York apartment is large and gorgeously furnished, her art collection on display.

In the scenes preceding it we see Hanna. She has nothing. She is in bad health. She commits suicide.

So, the SS representative in the film ends up pathetic and sad and, by the way, not guilty of the crime for which she was sentenced.

The lone representative of the survivors is haughty and glamorous — a near perfect (and negative) stereotype of the wealthy European Jew in New York.

Guess whom the audience can relate to more?

One last footnote to the movie: At several times in Hannah Arendt, the cover of the New Yorker issue which debuted the serialization of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem thesis was flashed — often rolled-up in anger — by various characters in the film. I wish I had seen it when I did my Silicon Graffiti video back in 2012 on the massive influence of the 1920s-era Weimar Republic and German émigrés on postwar American intellectual life:


That hulking structure is of course the Pan Am building, which was scheduled to open to the public about three weeks after the cover date of that issue of the New Yorker. It was designed by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Weimar-era Bauhaus, who immigrated to America and began teaching architecture at Harvard after fleeing the Nazis, and starred on the cover of the issue featuring German immigrant Hannah Arendt exploring the pathology of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann.


Allan Bloom, call your office — New York intellectual life really had become an enclave of the Weimar Republic by the early 1960s; as Bloom wrote in 1986’s The Closing of the American Mind, “The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.”

As for Arendt’s attempt to both understand and perhaps to whitewash the regime that followed Weimar-era Germany, and how it’s portrayed in her recent biopic, perhaps the best summation was by Sol Stern at the end of his Commentary article:

Arendt never spoke up during the debate in Congress over a resolution calling on President Roosevelt to create an agency devoted to rescuing European Jews. Indeed, the president appeared in just one of her wartime columns, a 1945 article praising him for supporting Saudi king Ibn Saud’s proposal for settling the Arab-Jewish dispute over Palestine (a “settlement” that would have prevented the establishment of a Jewish state). Arendt was one of the lucky few Jews fleeing Nazism to gain admission to the United States, yet she never protested the State Department’s shameful refusal to fill even the small official quota of immigration visas for European Jewish refugees.

Arendt never looked back on her own behavior during those years when she was living safely in the United States, nor did she ever reflect on whether the leader of the democracies might have done more to save Jewish lives. Yet she had no hesitation—indeed seemed to relish—condemning the powerless Jewish leaders living directly under the Nazi terror for not doing enough for their own people. These are some of the unsettled and unsettling questions about Hannah Arendt’s character that a truly courageous and honest biographical film would have explored. In deliberately failing to explore them, Hannah Arendt proves true to its subject in spite of all its lies.

But then Hannah Arendt is far from the only recent movie to substitute style for honesty these days.

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