An Interview with Professor Michael Rosenthal: "Why Do Hannah Arendt's Ideas about Evil and the Holocaust Still Matter?"

The controversial 20th-century philosopher Hannah Arendt was the subject of a series of UW events in late October, which were all organized around the Oct. 24th Walker-Ames Lecture by noted Yale University political philosopher Seyla Benhabib. Benhabib's lecture addressed "Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: Fifty Years Later." On Oct. 22 the Stroum Jewish Studies Program hosted a free film screening of "Hannah Arendt," the 2012 biographical film directed by Margarethe von Trotta, with a post-film discussion moderated by Professor Rosenthal.

This interview with Professor Michael Rosenthal, chair of the UW Dept. of Philosophy and a Jewish Studies faculty member was conducted by the Stroum Jewish Studies Program Blog. In it, Rosenthal explains the key historical background about Hannah Arendt's work on the Eichmann trial and its continuing impact. Thank you to Jewish Studies for allowing us to share it and to Hannah Pressman who edited it.

1) Who was Hannah Arendt? Why is there a movie about her?

Hannah ArendtHannah Arendt was a German-Jewish political theorist and philosopher who had an impact far beyond the academy. She was born in 1906 in Hanover and died in 1975 in New York. She received a classical education and studied philosophy at Marburg with Martin Heidegger. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, she was forced to emigrate, first to France and then to the United States. After some initial difficulties finding a job, Arendt eventually became an influential professor, primarily at the University of Chicago and the New School for Social Research. Her work received widespread attention in part because of the controversy around her report of the Eichmann trail in Jerusalem, which she wrote for the New Yorker magazine and later published as a book. It is relatively rare for a philosopher to be the subject of a movie, but Arendt's comments on the trial and her analysis of the evil perpetrated by Eichmann created some real drama.

2) Who was Adolf Eichmann?

Adolf Eichmann rose from a lowly background to become a high-ranking bureaucrat in the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel or Defense Corps). He was in charge of the deportation of European Jews and involved in the planning of the "Final Solution" – the systematic murder of millions of Jews and other people during the Second World War. At the end of the war he managed to escape from US custody and with the help of the Catholic Church fled to Argentina, where he lived under a variety of aliases, until the Israeli secret service, the Mossad, captured him in 1960 and brought him to Israel. The Israelis accused Eichmann of crimes against the Jewish people and put him on trial in Jerusalem. He was found guilty, sentenced to death, and hanged on May 31, 1962.

3) What was the background of the Eichmann trial?

It is important to remember that in the period after WWII there had been relatively little public attention paid to the Holocaust. The Nuremburg trials in the late 1940s had sentenced several leading figures of the Nazi party for war crimes and crimes against humanity. And some other, lower-level figures had been tried in the occupied zones of Germany as well as in countries that had been under occupation. But it wasn't until the Eichmann trial that the world focused on the atrocities committed against the Jews. The Israeli authorities had a difficult task: how to provide a proper trial while at the same time educating the public about the systematic crimes of the Nazis. The feeling of many in the Jewish community — those who had survived, those who were lucky enough to have escaped before the war, or who lived outside of Europe in the United States — were very raw.

4) What was controversial about Hannah Arendt's coverage of Eichmann's trial?

Eichmann's trialArendt walked into the situation with unique credentials. She had grown up in Germany and had lived through the rise of fascism and the disaster of the war. In the 1930s she had worked in France to helped Jews emigrate to Palestine and the US, and in the 1940s she wrote regularly about Jewish politics. As she put it in a subsequent interview, her goal was to understand the trial and not to use it for political or other purposes. Like the classical figure of the philosopher Socrates, who said what he thought, even though it was unpopular and got him into trouble, Arendt spoke what she perceived as the truth, regardless of public opinion.

5) So what did she say in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil?

You need to read the book! But there are two big points I can summarize here. The first was a philosophical point: she formulated the concept of the "banality of evil." The second was a historical point: she pointed out that some Jewish leaders in Europe had effectively helped the Nazis during the war. Although the first point is surely her most significant and lasting contribution, it was really the second point that ignited the controversy at the time and overshadowed everything else.

Arendt liked to say that she had not brought up this issue but had only reported what the Israeli prosecutor had mentioned in a cross-examination. Still, because Jewish feelings were so raw, it appeared to most everyone at the time that her critical statements about the leaders of ghettos were grossly unfair and lumped the persecuted among the persecutors. It seemed wrong to deflect attention from the evil deeds of Eichmann and focus on the actions of Jewish leaders who had been in a terribly difficult situation. In a subsequent exchange of letters, the prominent Jewish historian, Gershom Scholem, himself a German émigré to Palestine, accused Arendt of not having a love for the Jewish people (Ahavath Yisrael). Her response was illuminating: she replied that it was impossible for her to love a people and she could only love family and friends. The implication is that love of a people requires that a person give up a measure of their critical intelligence and be willing to bow to the needs of a fickle public. As a philosopher that would be impossible for her to do. She suffered personally from the vitriol and scorn that was poured upon her as a consequence of her courageous stance to think for herself and reserve the right to make her own judgments on the basis of reason and fact.

6) What is the meaning of Arendt's famous phrase, "the banality of evil"?

All of us have witnessed or suffered some form of evil in our lives caused by other people. We might have been the victim of a lie or a violent attack. We want to know, on reflection, what caused the person to commit this evil. What were his or her intentions? What made it possible for the person to form these evil intentions in the first place? We want a basis to judge the actions as wrong and assign moral responsibility. According the Arendt, the dominant answer to these questions involves the tendency to characterize evil as something "deep" or "profound." One classic answer in Christian theology is to attribute evil to Eve's "original sin" in the Garden of Eden, which has subsequently tainted all of mankind. We are born with this tendency in our hearts and only with God's aid can we overcome it. In this view, a person is morally evil when he or she allows base, demonic instincts to overcome the goodness contained in the knowledge of God's law. Much of the way in which we talk about crime and punishment, even if it has been secularized in psychological discourse, is expressed in these terms. It is common, for instance, to talk about serial killers as possessed by a "demonic" force.

Many people have used this framework to explain the distinctive evil of the Holocaust. The extent of the murderous acts seems to defy ordinary analysis and require some deeper cause. However, Arendt argued that the case of Eichmann showed why this traditional analysis did not work. Unlike Hitler, who seemed to personify the demonic, Eichmann was not a dramatic or presupposing figure. He was a former vacuum salesman who rose through the ranks of the Nazi party just like a person might make a career in any organization. He claimed not to have personally harmed anyone directly and that he was just following orders. Arendt took his words at face value. He was not the expression of a profound force but rather a superficial person whose life only made sense in terms of bureaucracy. But this did not mean Eichmann was not a perpetrator of evil. Arendt argued that the characteristic of modern evil — its very banality — was the proper lens through which to view Eichmann's actions and the rebuttal to his own defense.

7) What are the consequences of Arendt's view, and how has it played out in scholarship on ethics and the Holocaust?

For one thing, it helps us understand why evil is so widespread and so difficult to stop. We can't simply identify its deep roots and stamp it out. It is like a weed that no matter how often we treat our lawn still keeps coming back. We have to take seriously its superficiality and the way in which it can affect almost everyone. It is not surprising that modern mass organizations, like armies, corporations, and indeed any form of bureaucracy, are sources of evil as well as good. Some recent research on the Holocaust has focused not so much on the schemes of those in charge but on the ordinary soldiers and citizens whose actions were also necessary for the heinous acts to be committed. An example of this would be Christopher Browning's book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. I think that this important direction of scholarship is part of the legacy of Arendt's concept.

For another, it makes the simple distinctions between good and evil, virtuous and vicious, much more difficult to make. This has an important bearing on her discussion of Jewish collaboration during the war. When we understand how evil can be banal and work through a group or organization, then we understand that it is not always simple to distinguish between perpetrators and victims, as if it were a matter of black and white. Instead, we are more often than not in a grey zone, in which we are active parts of systems that do evil. It is not an accident that some students of Hannah Arendt, like Larry May, have written studies of collective responsibility, in which they attempt to distinguish many degrees of responsibility.

8) What does the movie, "Hannah Arendt," do to help us understand her philosophy?

The movie focuses on the events of Arendt's life during and after the Eichmann trial. The images and story help dramatize the consequences of holding controversial ideas. Sometimes the consequences are quite direct. Colleagues at the university who had been her friends are then quick to shun her. Other times they are more subtle and indirect. We see this in the film's depiction of her relations with two men, with whom she had been friends since her youth, Hans Jonas, the philosopher, and Kurt Blumenfeld, the Zionist leader. Both are upset by her views and she has to negotiate between holding to the integrity of her views and maintaining her cherished friendships.

Of course it is very difficult to depict the act of thinking on film. It is for that reason that smoking is so central to the film's repertoire of images. It is not only that Arendt did in fact chain-smoke; it is also that the burning tobacco symbolizes the intensity of her thought. If you are not directly familiar with a philosopher's ideas, then you have to infer their content indirectly through the way in which they affect the relations with other people. Good movies, like this film on Arendt, tell stories that make us think and reflect on how ideas and events affect our lives.

9) What are you looking forward to hearing about in Seyla Benhabib's Walker-Ames Lecture on "Eichmann in Jerusalem: Fifty Years Later" on Oct. 24?

Benhabib is one of the world's leading political philosophers. She has written on human rights, the role of culture in politics, and of course on Hannah Arendt. She will reflect on the meaning of the work in a culture that is at once very different and similar to the 1960s. I was completely shocked when I asked recently a very bright student whether he knew who Eichmann was, and he responded that he did not. We cannot underestimate the fact that events and figures the older generation took for granted are unknown, or largely obscure, to the younger generation.

We have constantly to make the effort to keep historical knowledge alive. Of course, Arendt's work is still relevant because the problems of war and mass murder are still very much with us in the twenty-first century. Her unflinching analysis of these evils is worth studying. I am excited that a philosopher of Benhabib's caliber will engage with these issues here on the UW campus this month.

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