Adolf Eichmann was one of the worst war criminals in history. Between 1942, when Reinhardt Heydrich put him in charge of the “Final Solution,” to 1945, when the Soviet and Allied armies overran all of Germany, Eichmann was the chief administrator of the operation that killed between 5.5 and 6 million Jews. After escaping from Germany along what were then known as the “rat lines” – a system of escape routes for Nazis and other fascists fleeing Europe at the end of World War II – he lived, first in Austria, then in Argentina until 1960, when the Israeli secret service finally captured him and brought him to Jerusalem for trial. He was hanged on June 1, 1962.
All of it would seem pretty cut and dry. Eichmann was a monster who finally got the execution he so richly deserved. Yet when the renowned German Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt published a series of articles on Eichmann’s trial in the New Yorker called Eichmann in Jerusalem, they caused a fire storm. Eichmann, she maintained, wasn’t a monster at all, but simply a bureaucrat following orders, no different from sales manager at a vacuum cleaner company, a job he held before joining the Nazi Party in 1932. Adolf Eichmann was a symbol, not of “radical evil” but of “the banality of evil.” What’s more, she argued, local Jewish elites in Eastern Europe actually made it easier for the Nazis to carry out their genocide by collaborating with the decrees issued by the German government. Her decision to write about such a potentially inflammatory subject, plus the fact that she had studied under Martin Heidegger, a Nazi sympathizer, led to Arendt being ostracized by large parts of the Jewish community in the United States. She remains a controversial figure today.
For Margarethe von Trotta Hannah Arendt was a hero of free inquiry. Her critics were narrow-minded mediocrities who acted out of self-dramatizing emotionalism rather than the desire to get to the truth about the Holocaust. Trotta’s 2012 biographical drama Hannah Arendt is a film about ideas, not action. Similar to the highly underrated Howl, it dramatizes the process by which a classic work of literature is created. Arendt, played by Barbara Sukowa almost 30 years after her performance in von Trotta’s earlier film Rosa Luxemburg, lives in Manhattan with her husband, the poet Heinrich Blücher. A popular teacher of philosophy and German literature at the New School for Social Research, she leads an existence she describes as “paradise.”
After Adolf Eichmann is captured and brought to Jerusalem, Arendt – who had been briefly detained at the Gurs concentration camp in Vichy France – contacts William Shawn at The New Yorker, and asks if he would like to publish her writings on the trial. Despite the warnings of Francis Wells, his managing editor, Shawn, an admirer of Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism, accepts. Wells’ reservations turn out to be more than justified. Arendt can’t meet deadlines. She delivers, not a journalistic account of the trial itself, but a series of impressionistic reflections on Eichmann’s character. Both Shawn and Arendt come under siege, but despite the deluge of hate mail they both receive, neither backs down. The film ends with Arendt, who had come close to losing her job at the New School, giving a passionate 10 minute speech defending the idea of free, objective, inquiry into even the most traumatic historical events. Adolf Eichmann, she argues, became a war criminal, not because he was particularly evil, but because he was a nobody without an individual identity. Since Eichmann “had no ability to think,” she implies, not looking at his crimes against humanity in an objective, dispassionate, philosophical manner brings us closer to his “banality” than we’d like to admit.
Hannah Arendt the movie has been criticized for an overly enthusiastic defense of Hannah Arendt the woman. Is Margarethe von Trotta like Hannah Arendt, a dispassionate seeker of truth, or is she more like Arendt’s critics, closed minded partisans acting more out of emotionalism than logic? The film isn’t perfect. Arendt’s relationship with Martin Heidegger, her lover as well as teacher, isn’t explored very deeply. There are a few flashbacks. That’s about it. As Saul Austerlitz in the New Republic has written, von Trotta’s film doesn’t consider recent criticisms of Eichmann in Jerusalem, which have uncovered evidence that Eichmann was more fanatical in his antisemitism than Arendt realized. I’d still argue that the film is a clear, succinct, dramatization of the intellectual controversy that raged more than 50 years ago an which is by no means over. Only observe the recent fire storm around former London Mayor Ken Livingston’s remarks about Adolf Hitler and Zionism.
I couldn’t help but compare Adolf Eichmann to another mediocrity, Harry Truman. Truman, a minor Democratic Party machine politician who became President almost by accident, not only presided over the birth of the Pentagon and the CIA but ordered a war crime – the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – almost as bad as anything the Nazis ever did. Unlike the Germans, however, we Americans haven’t come to terms with our own atrocities. Most of us still consider Truman a hero. After all, didn’t he save the lives of American soldiers who would have died during a conventional attack on Japan? If Germany had won the war, wouldn’t Germans be talking about Adolf Eichmann the same way we talk about Truman? Were American attitudes towards the Japanese really much different from German attitudes towards Jews? Didn’t the great liberal hero Franklin Roosevelt put them in concentration camps? Maybe not, but maybe, just maybe Harry Truman, like Adolf Eichmann, is just another example of “the banality of evil.”