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Von Trotta's "Hannah Arendt"

I just saw this very good biopic about Hannah Arendt. Margarethe Von Trotta’s movie, where German Jewish expatriates speak German in their living rooms even though they are all fluent in English, brought back with great vividness that time in the early Sixties when people were trying to come to grips with the enormity of the chasm that seemed to have opened up between this side of the Holocaust and all previous history. What was different about this new age? How had the human experience been changed forever by the fact and spectacle of the Holocaust?


The Frankfort School had been working this territory since the Twenties, when the young Herbert Marcuse railed against Max Weber as an apostle of rather than an observer of a bureaucratic ridden society that diminishes all that is of human stature. The warnings of these cultural Marxists were, of course, made only more intense by the actual appearance of Fascist governments and of the Soviet Union, all of which they decried, ever more intensely aware of how Western culture was leading even the most civilized of nations down the path of people becoming, to use the older Marcuse’s phrase, “one dimensional”. Everyone, including those in power, is a creature of the advertising industry. Do the script writers for Mad Men read Marcuse?


But who dealt directly with the problem of Hitlerian evil? An abstract framework for doing that was provided by Hannah Arendt, one of those German Jewish expatriates. Her The Origins of Totalitarianism seemed to provide an explanation for what had changed the world. Her view was that there was a new type of government and social order whose purpose was not to oppress or exploit people so that a few on the top might prosper, but was rather to destroy the human soul, to destroy the ability of people to make choices, to make them Orwellian creatures of the state. That new type of government came in many guises. It could be Fascist or Soviet Marxist; it could be German or Spanish or Japanese. Its tell tale sign was an assault on privacy and the autonomy of thought even to the point of disrupting the psyches of people so that they were no longer capable of independent thought.


Arendt had created an intellectual arsenal especially for students and professors in the humanities who never had much taste for the systematic discursions of American sociology which, at the same time, was providing a way to encounter the contemporary world without all that gloom and doom by making use of ideas of social class, organization, prestige, deviance and the like, concepts and structures that had been around for a very long time, to explain what happened in social life. In retrospect, maybe bland and non-dramatic sociology was more to the point because it did not fall for the European sense of doom, but that was not the spirit of the intellectual circles of the age, and Arendt was a better writer than Talcott Parsons and less precious and oblique than Robert Merton.


So it was with great surprise that the intellectual community of the time greeted Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, with its indictment of the wisdom of the Jewish community leaders and of the whole proposition of the trial, which was that Eichmann was a diabolical figure, a Satan. Rather, she thought, Eichmann had unmanned himself, made himself a non-person, one incapable of choice, so that he could follow orders. She took him at his word and made this the basis for an indictment more serious than the one being propounded by Gideon Hauser, the chief Israeli prosecutor. Eichmann was an enemy of all mankind and not just of the Jews.


That story makes up the bulk of the movie, little attention paid to the content of her other work in whose context it should be placed. What Arendt had done was apply her own theory to a particular case and people are still troubled by her conception of Eichmann.  One woman at the screening I attended shouted out at the screen “That’s right” when someone said something critical of Arendt, and another said aloud, when the closing card said that Arendt contemplated the problem of evil for the rest of her life, “she should have died sooner”, or the gasps when Arendt says that she has no love for Jews or any group known as a people, just for her friends.


That last sentiment is certainly in keeping with most of Western philosophy from Aristotle on. Arendt was not an original philosopher, however good she was at making use of it to express her very European combination of political thought buttressed by the literary-like analysis of texts. She looked at the transcripts of the Eichmann trial and took seriously what they said. Only people so shocked by the Holocaust that they could not think straight would think badly of her admitting to her cosmopolitanism and pointing out that Jews were like other people in that their leaders could come to mistaken judgments. My reading is that the Jewish community leaders thought the war could not go on forever and so by piddling out some victims for the Nazis, they might buy some time for the Allied victory. They could not have predicted that there was no appeasing the Nazis even if that strategy had worked when dealing with anti-Semitic movements across the ages, or that the liberation of Europe would be so long in coming because the Nazis would fight on to the last man.


The movie, which seems to have been made by a consortium of funders from Germany, Israel and the United States (how the post War world has made for new bedfellows!), reduces those who oppose Arendt to shell shocked ranters, especially her American and fellow exiled detractors, who one would have expected to know better. The movie is something of a recycling of the names of those in the New York intellectual picture at the time, people like Hans Jonas and Mary McCarthy and Lionel Abel and Norman Podhoretz, all of whom I knew about at the time from reading their stuff though I did not know any of them personally, and so the movie is a visit to myself in times past, though I do not remember myself troubled by what Arendt had written. She was doing what an intellectual is supposed to do: explain things as best she can, and let the chips fall where they may. Sure, she was arrogant and not as good a scholar as Jonas, but she had courage and so deserved to be an intellectual pin-up girl before Susan Sontag took up that mantle on the Left and before Ayn Rand was raised to that stature by her own acolytes.


The movie can be faulted for the ranting and also for making a West Side apartment so dark and unwelcoming. Summers in the Sixties were bright and cheerful around here, as I remember, though I think the exteriors for this movie were all filmed in Luxembourg, which makes sense only because of the nature of multi-national sources for funding the movie. The movie, however, does capture the way intellectuals on any side of any debate posture and also has a useful insight into Arendt’s relation to Martin Heidegger, who was her teacher and lover. (It seems that everyone, including William Shawn, at The New Yorker, according to this movie, was at risk of falling in love with her, and I must add that she was not nearly as good looking as Sontag.)


Heidegger betrayed Arendt by genuflecting before his Nazi masters so as to gain the rectorship of his university. I remember a friend being very upset that people misread Heidegger to be a philosopher whose work supported the Nazis. There was nothing in his philosophy that supported the charge and the philosophy should be judged in its own right. The makers of this movie see it differently. They give a good account, however briefly, that Arendt freed herself from Heidegger's view that thought accomplished nothing by saying that thought made it possible to make choices and be accountable for them and that is what made people persons and not just non-persons like Eichmann. Arendt had turned herself into a Kantian. She was indeed Heidegger’s greatest student: she both worked herself out of his influence and had to bear the disdain of her fellow intellectuals for the very different “crime” of having spoken her piece.


What the movie doesn’t deal with is the fate of Arendt’s ideas. Sad to say for ideas so sharp, profound, and well stated, her ideas have become largely irrelevant. The idea of totalitarianism does not seem to have outlasted the regimes that earned the invention of the term. Even North Korea, which comes closest to the idea because it so diminishes its people through thought education, is better described as a failed state because it can only financially support itself by making threats against its neighbors so as to get food and financial support from them. The Afghanistan that was once ruled by the Taliban and may be so again is a theocratic state, while Somalia is a brigand state of the sort known throughout history as a place whose economy depends on piracy. And totalitarianism was not something new under the sun. It was just a species of the state that hectors its people to do what might be self-destructive things. That goes back to Deuteronomy.


Nor is genocide anything new under the sun. My son Harold said to me at the time of the Rwanda genocide that you don't need gas chambers to kill a lot of people; you can do it the old fashioned way, with machetes. There have been so many genocides since the Holocaust that it is pointless to strain to find in the Holocaust a singularity rather than just being shocked at it happening in such a civilized place as Germany, just the place not to expect this return to a barbarism that seems a rejection of the idea of human progress. Well, progress makes its way in its own sweet time and along its own circuitous paths.


Other of Arendt’s ideas also do not do well over the course of time. Her very able The Human Condition was out to rehabilitate Marxist ideas in an existentialist framework. What is the nature of work and how does that impact on the human spirit? But the occupational structure does not do very well anymore to explain or be explained by the social class structure. Marx may have wanted to explain how a set of families could benefit from their position in the occupational structure so that they could turn themselves into a new aristocratic class. The contemporary set of circumstances calls for a simpler explanation, more Populist than Marxist. Wall Street tycoons make their money and can flaunt it because neither political party has the nerve to pull the plug on them because they will bring the entire society down with them should they fall. Charles Beard may supply a better first take on the American economy than Arendt’s subtle handling and updating of what was already a subtle theory.


And as for Eichmann In Jerusalem, evil may not be so much banal as common or at least common enough even if most people are not given over to it but can be situated within it so as to chose to go along with it. Arendt read too much into Eichmann’s simplicity. He did choose to obey. That did not make him sub-human, only without the imagination to think through how what he did had results, something any number of bureaucrats do, including Wall Street lawyers who make a lot of money on the basis of their brains and their narrow financial judgments but have no sense of the impact of what they do on society, for it would be to make them weep if they cultivated that aspect of their consciousnesses. Arendt reached too far, was too categorical, and yet she is to be praised for having carried out her Dante-like calling to report on things the way she saw them whether or not people were pleased with her images of the other side.

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Issue No. 77
December 22, 2013

"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel- Part I
"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel-Part II
Earlier Issues

List Articles by Topic

The Political Ticker
The Hillary Coalition
  - November 19, 2014
Obama's Win in the Ukraine
  - April 5, 2014
"House of Cards" Politics
  - February 14, 2014
Birenbaum: The Day the President Struck Out
  - January 29, 2014
The Debate Over Inequality
  - January 27, 2014
Temporary Issues: "Stop and Frisk", Climate Change, Inequality
  - January 21, 2014

Previous Political Tickers

The Administrative President
  -January 12, 2014
Three Chronic Problems
  -December 19, 2013
Obama the Transformational President
  -December 13, 2013
"Homeland", "Alpha House" and the Tea Party
  -November 27, 2013
Off Year Election Post-mortem
  -November 7, 2013
Kathleen Sibelius and the Iliad
  -October 31, 2013
Political Impasses: 2013 and 1936
  -October 7, 2013
Birenbaum on The Tea Party
  -October 6, 2013
Fifty Years Later: The Anniversary of the March on Washington
  -September 18, 2013
The Principled Obama
  -September 10, 2013
Obama Thinks About Syria Freshly
  -September 5, 2013
Syria and the Falklands
  -August 30, 2013
Public Opinion on Syria
  -August 24, 2013
Upward Mobility Through Educational Innovation
  -August 12, 2013
The Anthony Wiener Bubble
  -July 30, 2013
Racial Issues in 2013
  -June 29, 2013
The David Brinkley Era of Journalism
  -June 5, 2013
Republican Scandal Mongering
  -May 23, 2013
Benghazi and Two Other "Scandals"
  -May 14, 2013
Lackluster Politics
  -May 7, 2013

The Cultural Ticker
A Dour Cultural Week
  - February 4, 2014
Colonial Virginia
  - January 15, 2014
Birenbaum: The Joy of Middle European Posters
  - January 6, 2014
A Jewish Nipple
  - November 28, 2013
Birenbaum: My Oral Comprehensive Examination and the JFK Assassination
  - November 27, 2013
"12 Years a Slave"
  - November 12, 2013

Previous Cultural Tickers

Pinter and Shakespeare
  -November 8, 2013
Birenbaum on "I Am Divine"
  -November 3, 2013
The Hearing Impaired Student
  -August 17, 2013
Ideas and People
  -August 10, 2013
The Weekly Roundup of Morning Joe and Chris Matthews
  -August 8, 2013
The Zen of Dishwashers
  -August 5, 2013
The Profundity of the Second World War
  -August 2, 2013
The Trayvon Martin Bubble
  -July 20, 2013
Eliot Spitzer
  -July 9, 2013
The Study of Everyday Life
  -July 5, 2013
The Zimmerman Trial
  -July 3, 2013
Le Carre's "A Delicate Truth"
  -July 1, 2013
Zucker: A Madeleine (A Memoir)
  -June 23, 2013
Von Trotta's "Hannah Arendt"
  -June 7, 2013
The Armchair View of War and Disability
  -May 30, 2013
Birenbaum's Summers
  -May 24, 2013
Old Neighborhoods
  -May 21, 2013
Jackie Robinson
  -May 20, 2013
Barbara Spun's Catskill Vacations
  -May 16, 2013
An Old Friend in Her Eighties
  -May 11, 2013


A new issue of “w. end ave.: an e-journal of culture and politics” is published once every three weeks or so. It is edited, owned, and where not indicated as otherwise, written by Martin Wenglinsky. The rights to all materials published here are copyright © 2008 by Martin Wenglinsky