Tag Archives: Hannah Arendt

In Defense of Taking Things Out of Context

13 Dec

Lately, I’ve had the feeling that the push to contextualize and historicize in the humanities and some of the social sciences has become a stumbling block to thought itself, to new ideas and original thinking.

This is on my mind, I suppose, because next year, I’ll be giving the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society for US Intellectual History; I’m thinking of titling it “Against Context, Against History” or perhaps just “In Defense of Taking Things Out of Context.”

That needn’t be the case: ideally, historicism and contextualism should alienate us from a familiar past, should push us beyond conventional interpretations. They should force us to grasp the past in its pastness, and thereby render our present strange.

But things don’t always work out that way. Some of the historical impulse that seems so alive in academia today works against surprise, dulls our receptivity to the unexpected, makes both past and present unremarkable. I’ll admit this is an odd thought for me, since I’ve always considered myself a historicist. Yet…

Anyway, this March 10, 1948 entry from Alfred Kazin’s Journals crystallized some of my concerns about historicism and contextualism:

The primary type of originator, like Marx and Freud, who isolates a cause or phenomenon from the context of custom and analyzes it to the point where it gives us a new illumination of life. It does not matter how they may exaggerate this, how ungenerously they will denounce their opponents, or refuse to concede any qualifications of their thought from the outside. They have created a key image of ourselves which we can never lose. Their own enemies know it, too, for they continually pay tribute by draping their criticisms on the structure already provided here for them.

I never quite felt the urgency in Arendt’s famous discussion of the pearl diver in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. But I’m finding that the impulses at the heart of that essay are becoming increasingly felt in my work, as I try to think, for example, about economic theory as a mode of political thought, as I try to wrench that theory from its context and put it in dialogue with something outside the conversation of which it partakes.

So, some more Arendt (who was, incidentally, a close friend of Kazin) on Kafka and Benjamin, and a way of thinking about history that doesn’t make us slaves to context:

…he [Kafka] knew, on the other hand, that there is no more effective way to break the spell of tradition than to cut out the “rich and strange,” coral and pearls, from what had been handed down in one solid piece.

Thus the heir and preserver unexpectedly turns into a destroyer. “The true, greatly misunderstood passion of the collector is always anarchistic, destructive. For this is its dialectics: to combine with loyalty to an object, to individual items, to things sheltered in his care, a stubborn subversive protest against the typical, the classifiable.” [Benjamin] The collector destroys the context in which his object once was only part of a greater, living entity, and since only the uniquely genuine will do for him he must cleanse the chosen object of everything that is typical about it.

Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the corals in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past—but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living—as “thought fragments,” as something “rich and strange,” and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene.

Saskia Sassen…Willem Sassen…Adolf Eichmann

6 Dec

Marc Parry has a poignant, almost haunting story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Saskia Sassen, the Columbia sociologist and urban theorist, whose father was Willem Sassen. If you’ve read Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem—or are a close reader of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem—you’ll know that Willem Sassen was a Dutch Nazi who joined up with the SS. More important, he was part of a circle of Nazis in postwar Argentina, where he led a series of interviews with Adolf Eichmann, in which Eichmann outs himself as a committed anti-Semite and firm believer in the Final Solution. The Sassen interviews have always been a part of the Eichmann/Arendt story, but they have become especially important in the last few years with the publication of Stangneth’s book.

I bought and read the book back in September, and it was then that I realized that Saskia, who I’ve met and been in touch with over the years, was the daughter of Willem. I had no idea about the connection. But then I looked up Willem Sassen’s Wikipedia page, and there it was, for anyone to see. I asked a bunch of fellow academics, all of them readers or colleagues of Saskia. None of them knew about the connection either.

At one level, this is much of a muchness. There’s an entire generation of children, now grandchildren and great grandchildren, of Nazis and their fellow travelers, and they’ve all had to come to terms with the actions of their parents and grandparents. Saskia’s career and contributions have nothing to do with her father. Nor should they. I can certainly identify with her desire to be known on her terms: she was but a child when her father was conspiring with Eichmann to rehabilitate the latter’s reputation and that of the Nazis more generally.

What’s interesting to me about the story—in addition to the sheer and sad drama of any of us having to confront who our parents are and what they may have done in the past—is, given Saskia’s stature, how few of us knew about this story. Particularly with its cognate connection to Arendt. As I’ve been writing over these past few months, the Arendt/Eichmann story is of perennial interest, and the Sassen chapter of that story has become increasingly important. What’s more, Saskia’s husband—Richard Sennett—was a student of Arendt’s. And Saskia was part of a circle around Susan Sontag, who was also connected to Arendt in the 1960s, and who shrewdly cornered Saskia one day in the 1980s and asked her, “So what is your story in Argentina?”

As Stagneth documents, in the 1950s, it was common knowledge among government sources and agents, from Germany to Israel, that Eichmann was hiding out in Argentina. Everyone knew it, yet no one really seemed to know it. There’s a similarly purloined letter quality to this story about Saskia Sassen. In addition to the Wikipedia page, Saskia has given some interviews about her father over the years. Yet few people, even her closest friends, knew about it. As Parry reports in one of the most moving parts of the article, the urban sociologist Susan Fainsten has known Saskia since they were colleagues at Queens College many years ago.

Fainstein considers Sassen a good friend. She even had Willem Sassen to dinner (a “charming elderly gentleman,” as she recalls). Yet Sassen didn’t tell her about his history. Only later, in part through reading about Eichmann Before Jerusalem, did Fainstein, who is Jewish, come to appreciate its significance. “I wish she had told me,” Fainstein says, “and given me the option of inviting him to dinner or not on that basis.”

To me, this is really a story about secrets that aren’t secrets, fugitive knowledge that’s hiding in plain sight.

Update (11 pm)

Just because, judging by some of the early comments over at Crooked Timber, I want to avert a major clusterfuck of a comments thread, I want to make clear what I’m saying here and what I’m not saying, and why I posted this. As anyone who’s been reading my posts here these past few months knows, I’ve been fairly obsessed with the Stangneth book and the larger issues of the Arendt/Eichmann controversy. The Sassen file in that archive is hugely significant. So merely to find out about the filial tie between Saskia Sassen and Willem Sassen is of interest. But that’s not why I wrote this or what draws me to the story. What fascinates me—aside from the near universal quality of the story itself, insofar as it is about children confronting and coming to terms with the mystery and otherness of their parents, something that very few of us manage to do with any kind of grace or equanimity; again, a topic I’ve written about before—is that this was a story that wasn’t hidden yet few people knew about. And it’s not an incidental story, insofar as the players are pretty big deals in their various worlds. Again: Arendt, Eichmann, Willem Sassen, Saskia Sassen. And the reason that that doubly fascinates me is precisely that it doesn’t seem as if Saskia actually kept it a secret. As I mention, and the article discusses, she gave interviews on the topic; it was on Wikipedia. That said, I don’t think she was obligated to tell people about this; I’m more struck by the fact that she did, yet so few people, even her close friends, knew. So for me this whole story is really about a puzzle: about how certain things can be in plain sight, yet not seen or known. The purloined letter, as I mentioned.

Dayenu in Reverse: The Passover Canon of Arendt’s Critics

26 Oct

One of the more recent criticisms I’ve read of Eichmann in Jerusalem—in Bettina Stangneth’s and Deborah Lipstadt’s books—is that far from seeing, or seeing through, Eichmann, Arendt was taken in by his performance on the witness stand. Eichamnn the liar, Eichmann the con man, got the better of Arendt the dupe.

For the sake of his defense, the argument goes, Eichmann pretended to be a certain type of Nazi—not a Jew hater but a dutiful if luckless soldier, who wound up, almost by happenstance, shipping millions of Jews to their death.

Arendt heard this defense, and though she never accepted the notion that Eichmann was an obedient soldier (she thought he was a great deal worse than that), she did conclude that Eichmann had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Eichmann was hermetically sealed off from the world, from the perspective of people who weren’t Nazis. Because the “more decisive flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view,” he “never realized what he was doing.” He knew he was sending Jews to their death; he just didn’t grasp the moral significance of that act, wherein its evil lay, how others, including his victims and their families, might see it.

According to evidence presented by Stangneth and Lipstadt, Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel was indeed a performance on Eichmann’s part. The truth is that he was a rabid anti-Semite who took initiative and on occasion defied the directives of his superiors in order to make sure even more Jews went to their death; at one point, Lipstadt reports, he even personally challenged Hitler’s order to allow some 40,000 Hungarian Jews to be released for emigration to Palestine via Switzerland.

At every stage of his career, Eichmann knew what he was doing. In power, he did it with zeal; out of power, in the dock, he tried to pretend that he hadn’t, or that if he had, that he had no choice.

Arendt’s vision of the banality of evil, her critics claim, rests upon a failure to see this, the real Eichmann. Eichmann the trickster, Eichmann the con man, rather than Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel.

As I’ve written before, I think there’s something to this argument about Arendt’s failure to apprehend Eichmann’s performance as a performance. Arendt sometimes, though not nearly as often as her critics claim, did take Eichmann at his word, and it never seems to have occurred to her that he would have had the cunning—and necessary self-awareness—to fashion an image of himself that might prove more palatable to the court.

But if Eichmann was indeed a liar, that, it seems to me, argues in favor of Arendt’s overall thesis of the banality of evil, not against it. Once you work through the implications of Eichmann the liar—as opposed to Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel—it becomes clear that it is Arendt’s critics, rather than Arendt, who have not only failed to come to terms with his evil, but who also may have, albeit inadvertently, minimized what he actually did.

So let’s work this one through.

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To repeat: At the heart of Eichmann’s evil, Arendt believes, was a certain kind of cluelessness about what it was that he did, which was rooted in his inability to see how his actions and statements might appear to another person, particularly someone who had been the victim of his acts. Eichmann might admit, as he did on the stand, that the Holocaust was “one of the greatest crimes in the history of Humanity,” but those were just words. He simply did not grasp the meaning of what he did. Or said.

Arendt offers plentiful evidence for this claim, some of which cannot be construed as lies on Eichmann’s part. After she writes that Eichmann “never realized what he was doing,” for example, she says:

It was precisely this lack of imagination which enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted.

That Eichmann thought he had found a sympathetic audience for his sob story of slights and snubs at the hands of the SS in the form of a German Jew—whose father, Lipstadt informs us, Eichmann knew to have been killed at Auschwitz; perhaps Eichmann even thought his interrogator might identify with him as a fellow victim of the SS—was an indication, Arendt believed, of his inability to think from “the other fellow’s point of view,” an inability that outlasted his time in the sun with the Nazis.

But it was when he was on the witness stand that Eichmann truly proved himself a thoughtless man. For when Eichmann presented himself in what he clearly thought was an exculpatory light he only wound up indicting himself even further. This, for Arendt, was the horror—and comedy—of the man.

Eichmann thought he was offering himself up (whether sincerely or not) to the court as a more palatable specimen, not realizing: first, that given what he did (and admitted to having done), there was nothing he could do or say that would redeem him; and, second, that the exculpatory examples he offered were only further confirmation of his evil.

Arendt writes, for example:

None of the various “language rules,” [the Nazis’ various euphemisms for their murderous deeds, what Eichmann called “winged words”] carefully contrived to deceive and to camouflage, had a more decisive effect on the mentality of the killers than this first war decree of Hitler, in which the word for “murder” was replaced by the phrase “to grant a mercy death.” Eichmann, asked by the police examiner if the directive to avoid “unnecessary hardships” was not a bit ironic, in view of the fact that the destination of these people was certain death anyhow, did not even understand the question, so firmly was it still anchored in his mind that the unforgivable sin was not to kill people but to cause unnecessary pain. During the trial, he showed unmistakable signs of sincere outrage when witnesses told of cruelties and atrocities committed by S.S. men—though the court and much of the audience failed to see these signs, because his single-minded effort to keep his self-control had misled them into believing that the was “unmovable” and indifferent—and it was not the accusation of having sent millions of death to their death that ever caused him real agitation but only the accusation (dismissed by the court) of one witness that he had once beaten a Jewish boy to death.

This is the sort of passage that makes critics of Arendt think, ah, there she goes again, giving Eichmann the benefit of the doubt, taking him at his word, assuming he’s more humane than he in fact was.

Let’s assume for the sake of the argument, however, that Arendt’s critics are wrong, that she was not taken in by Eichmann and that she had him, at least here, pegged right. Any reader of this passage can see that her point is not that Eichmann was humane but that he was morally and politically—and ultimately intellectually (though not psychologically)—deranged. That he could willingly participate in a plan to exterminate millions—something he admitted to on the stand, Arendt reminds us—but think that his crimes were mitigated by the fact that he neither caused people unnecessary pain nor ever laid a hand on a poor Jewish boy and in fact was genuinely outraged by any sign of cruelty by the SS: that for Arendt was a sign of his failure to recognize the enormity of his crime, to truly understand what he had done.

Now let’s assume for the sake of the argument that Arendt’s critics are right, that she was in fact taken in by him and that this was all a big lie for the witness stand. It doesn’t change her point at all; in fact, it only strengthens it. That Eichmann could willingly participate in a plan to exterminate millions but nevertheless think that the court would somehow conclude he wasn’t so bad because he didn’t cause people unnecessary pain nor ever lay a hand on a poor Jewish boy—and then, on the basis of that lunatic assumption, deceive the court in the hope that it might get him off or get him a lighter sentence: that too should be taken as a sign of his failure to recognize the enormity of his crime, to truly understand what he had done. For who but Eichmann could possibly believe that that mitigated his crime in any way?

Whether Eichmann believed what he said or was lying to save his ass, his failure to think—the banality of his evil—is demonstrated by the fact that he assumed there might be something he could do or say that would get him off the hook. Even at the moment when he was facing his own death, he couldn’t imagine the enormity of his crimes, how they would appear to others.

At the heart of Arendt’s assessment, then, is the idea that once Eichmann set down the path of mass murder of the Jews, nothing he did or didn’t do, nothing he said or didn’t say, could change, alter, soften, or otherwise mitigate that fact. It was that enormous. To think otherwise was not to understand the enormity of the crime.

One can cite other examples from Eichmann in Jerusalem. Like this one:

Bragging was the vice that was Eichmann’s undoing. It was sheer rodomontade when he told his men during the last days of the war: “I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews…on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.” He did not jump, and if he had anything on his conscience, it was not murder but, as it turned out that, that he had once slapped the face of Dr. Josef Löwenherz, head of the Vienna Jewish community, who later became one of his favorite Jews. (He had apologized in front of his staff at the time, but this incident kept bothering him.)

Again, the point is clear: if Eichmann is sincere, he’s a fool who punishes himself with the thought that he once slapped a Jew’s face but sleeps peacefully over the fact that he shipped millions of Jews to their death; if he’s lying, he’s also a fool who thinks that his performance of remorse over slapping a Jew would somehow weigh against, in the judgment of the court, his shipment of millions of Jews to their death. In either case, he hasn’t grappled with the enormity of his crime.

Arendt did not believe that this kind of cluelessness was peculiar to Eichmann; it was rife throughout the Nazi high command.

Himmler’s order in the fall of 1944 to halt the extermination and to dismantle the installations at the death factories sprang from his absurd but sincere conviction that the Allied powers would know how to appreciate this obliging gesture; he told a rather incredulous Eichmann that on the strength of it he would be able to negotiate a Hubertusburger-Frieden—an allusion to the Peace Treaty of Hubertusburg that concluded the Seven Years’ War of Frederick II of Prussia in 1763 and enabled Prussia to retain Silesia, although she had lost the war.

And far from seeing this thoughtlessness as a sign of the petty bourgeois origins of Eichmann, Arendt found it at the highest rungs of society. She could barely contain her disbelief at the aristocratic conspirators of 1944 who tried to kill Hitler but thought, like Himmler, that they could negotiate a “just peace” with the Allies that would allow Germany to keep Austria and the Sudetenland (the fruits of Hitler’s earliest crimes of aggression) and a “’leading position for Germany on the Continent.’”

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Once we realize how little of Arendt’s banality thesis hinges upon whether Eichmann was a liar or a believer of his own bullshit, we begin to see that there is something peculiar about the claim that Arendt was taken in by Eichmann.

As a simple empirical observation, the claim is perfectly plausible and unobjectionable, and indeed, as I’ve already said, can shed some interesting light on Arendt’s other ideas about performance and lying.

But Arendt’s critics want to use Eichmann the liar as a cudgel: not against Arendt in error (most philosophers make errors) or even against Arendt the dupe. No, they want to make Arendt into, if not an abettor of or apologist for evil, than at least an evader or minimizer of evil, who denies the wickedness of the Holocaust by insisting on the banality of one of its perpetrators.

Richard Wolin makes the point simply and directly:

It is at this point that the ultimate stakes of the debate over Eichmann’s “banality” emerge most clearly. For if Eichmann was “banal,” then the Holocaust itself was banal. There is no avoiding the fact that these two claims are inextricably intertwined.

And should the implication not be clear, he makes it plain:

What should have been clear then and should certainly be clear now is that if the Holocaust was banal, then it was not evil.

It’s not clear how any of this follows logically (if Jefferson was a benevolent slaveholder, does slavery become benevolent?), but Arendt’s point was just the opposite: the Holocaust was evil, Eichmann was banal, and the terrifying puzzle at the heart of it all—she called it “fearsome, word-and-thought-defying”—was how could such a smallness be a source, if not the source, of such a terrible largeness?

Lipstadt is more balanced and circumspect in her final judgment of Arendt, but she too ventures into some strange territory.

Lipstadt begins with a claim about Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem that, on its own terms, is straightforward enough:

Her work, even as it tried to explain critical aspects of the most extensive genocide in human history, submerged the most fundamental and indispensable elements of this event. She ignored the bedrock of the Holocaust: the long, tortured (torturing) history of anti-Semitism.

Nor, however, can one dismiss the way in which she so seamlessly elided the ideology that was at the heart of this genocide. She related a version of the Holocaust in which anti-Semitism played a decidedly minor role.

Unlike some of her defenders, I think Arendt does underplay Eichmann’s anti-Semitism. (Oddly enough, a similar charge could be leveled at her Origins of Totalitarianism, a book that has never aroused the kind of wrath and rage that Eichmann has.) Unlike her critics, however, I don’t see Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism as the moral failure on her part that they apparently see it as. I simply think she was wrong, and while her error is symptomatic of certain blinders she had, those are not the sort of blinders that should turn Eichmann or its author into an occasion for an exorcism.

But for Lipstadt and other critics, they are. For Arendt’s refusal to see Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is part and parcel of her fraternization with, even indulgence of, the anti-Semitism of her friends and lovers.

Hannah Arendt spoke with many voices. One modulated itself for the likes of Mary McCarthy and her set, many of whom delighted in and felt liberated by a Jew’s severe critique of Ben-Gurion, Israel, and her fellow Jews. Her comments freed them from having to self-censor when they spoke of Jewish matters….This Arendt may also have been subliminally writing for her teacher and former lover, the revered philosopher Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, ejected Jewish professors from the university where he severed as rector, affirmed Nazi ideals, and never recanted his wartime actions.

At one point, Lipstadt even compares Arendt to Eichmann:

She was guilty of precisely the same wrong she derisively ascribed to Adolf Eichmann. She—the great political philosopher who claimed that careful thought and precise expression were of supreme value—did not “think.” She wanted to provoke her readers to re-evaluate their assumptions, but she either did not care or did not fully consider how her caustic comments might be heard by them.

(It never seems to have occurred to Lipstadt that the only reason we (and she) are still talking about Eichmann in Jerusalem a half-century after its publication is that, for all of its caustic comments, the book has managed, like all great works of political theory, to consistently provoke its readers to reevaluate their assumptions.)

Hovering around the edges of these statements is the suggestion that Eichmann in Jerusalem enabled a genteel anti-Semitism—liberating the long suppressed feelings of Arendt’s goyish friends—and trafficked in its far more malignant forms, channeling the spirit of the Nazi Heidegger and mirroring the thoughtlessness of the Nazi Eichmann. In other words, sleeping with the enemy.

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There’s no question that Arendt herself believed that the Nazis had committed a crime of massive proportion and that Eichmann had a major, if overstated, hand in that crime. And unlike Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, and a great many others in Israel and elsewhere, Arendt had no doubt that Eichmann ought to hang for his deeds (even Ben-Gurion, Lipstadt claims, had momentary doubts about that). Even if Arendt underplayed Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, even if she got his banality wrong, she was absolutely clear that he had helped perpetrate one of the greatest mass murders in history, that he was a moral catastrophe of the highest order, and that he should hang for his crimes. None of these final judgments of hers was dependent on her assessment of his anti-Semitism or banality. For Arendt, it was enough that he was a mass murderer and an ethical catastrophe that he should hang.

So why all the high dudgeon of her critics? Why this operatic suggestion from them that by minimizing his anti-Semitism and insisting on his banality Arendt was somehow letting Eichmann off the hook? It’s almost as if, to these critics, sending millions of Jews to their death, and being a moral catastrophe, is not in fact enough. Certainly not enough for Eichmann to hang.

The reaction of Arendt’s critics makes me wonder whether Eichmann the liar might not have had a point, whether there might not have been a method to his madness on the stand. His gamble on the stand was that if the court could see how little he enjoyed his work, how little taste for blood he actually had, how upright he was in the execution of his duties, they’d let him off the hook.

Whether this was a strategy or the truth wouldn’t have made a difference to Arendt. In either case, she would have concluded, he was guilty of mass murder; in either case he was a moral catastrophe; in either case, he was banal; in either case he should hang; in either case he was evil. But maybe what her critics are saying is: if he was a mass murderer and banal, if he was a mass murder and not anti-Semitic, then somehow his crimes really would be less. As Wolin says, no banality, no evil.

At Passover, we sing a song called Dayenu. Dayenu means “it would have been enough,” it would have been sufficient, it would have sufficed. We sing it in honor of all the things God did for us, as Jews, in the Exodus and after that. After we cite each one of these things God did for us, we say, Dayenu, it would have been enough. The cumulative force of the song is that just one of these things would have been enough, but God did so much more. Had God only led us out of Egypt, it would have been enough. But God also led us across the Red Sea. And had God only led us across the Red Sea, it would have been enough. But God also drowned our enemies there. And had God not only drowned our enemies there…you get the picture.

It seems as if, for Arendt’s critics, there’s a kind of reverse Dayenu at work. Their Passover canon goes like this: Had Eichmann only been a mass murderer, it would not have been enough. Had Eichmann only been a mass murderer who was also an ethical catastrophe, it would not have been enough. Had Eichmann only been a mass murderer who was also an ethical catastrophe and would have been hanged for his deeds, it would not have been…you get the picture.

Adolph Eichmann: Funny Man?

22 Oct

One of the criticisms often made of Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial was that she found Eichmann to be so unintentionally funny. Throughout Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt can barely contain her laughter at the inadvertent comedy of the man. Many at the time found this distasteful; since then, her ironic appreciation of Eichmann’s buffoonery has been a sign, to Arendt’s critics, of her haughty indifference to the suffering he inflicted.

Yet, in reading about the trial, it’s quite clear that Arendt wasn’t the only one who found Eichmann funny. So did the courtroom, which periodically broke out into laughter at the accidental hilarity wafting down from the witness stand. As Deborah Lipstadt reports:

This was not the only time Eichmann seemed oblivious to how strange his explanations sounded. Servatius [Eichmann’s lawyer] asked him about a directive he had issued ordering that trains deporting Jews carry a minimum of one thousand people, even thought their capacity was for only seven hundred. Eichmann claimed that the seven-hundred figure was calculated on the basis of soldiers with baggage. Since Jews’ luggage was sent separately, there was room for an additional three hundred people. The gallery erupted in laughter.

Laughter, Arendt observed in a 1944 essay on Kafka, “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.” Those moments of laughter in Eichmann in Jerusalem—and in the courtroom—did not reflect an indifference to cruelty or suffering but a will to divest them of their unearned gravitas.

Laughter does not minimize evil; it denies evil the final word.

References No One Seems to Have Checked

2 Oct

Amos Elon on how Eichmann in Jerusalem was treated after its publication:

Hand-me-downs from one critic to another drew on alleged references in the book which no one seemed to have checked. The argument was by no means restricted to academic circles but exercised young and old, historians, philosophers, journalists, as in the case of [Anthony] Grafton’s father; priests of several faiths; atheists; community functionaries; and professional propagandists.

Did Hannah Arendt Ever See Eichmann Testify? A Second Reply to Richard Wolin

2 Oct

In his critique of Seyla Benhabib’s account of the Arendt/Eichmann controversy, which I wrote about earlier today, Richard Wolin makes an additional claim I’ve been puzzling over:

Second, a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence indicates that so great was her impatience with the proceedings that she never saw Eichmann testify. Arendt endured chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s lengthy opening statement and, following an absence of several weeks, returned to Jerusalem to witness the final verdict. But, remarkably, she never saw Eichmann himself take the stand. (Here, one suspects that Arendt’s rather brazen disregard for the value of testimony, not to speak of the norms of journalism, is an instance of Germanic philosophical arrogance. As J. G. Fichte said, if the facts fail to accord with the sublimity of the idea, so much the worse for the facts!)

I’ve spent the better part of this evening re-reading Arendt’s letters to her three main correspondents during the Eichmann trial—the philosopher Karl Jaspers, her husband Heinrich Blücher, and her friend Mary McCarthy—and I cannot find any evidence for Wolin’s claims; in fact, there’s much in the letters indicating that they are incorrect.

It helps first to remember three key dates from the Eichmann trial:

April 11, 1961: first day of the Eichmann trial

June 20, 1961: Eichmann takes the stand

December 11, 1961: the Israeli court issues its verdict

Right off the bat, it’s clear that Wolin’s chronology is off: Arendt could not have been in Jerusalem for the prosecutor’s opening statement only, left for a few weeks, and then returned for the verdict. Roughly eight months separate the first day of the trial from the announcement of the verdict.

And indeed, when the verdict was issued in December, Arendt was either in New York, nursing Blücher back to health (he had suffered from a ruptured aneurism), or in Middletown, Connecticut, where she would have been wrapping up a seminar on Machiavelli she had been teaching at Wesleyan that fall. The one place she would not have been was in Jerusalem, as is clear from a letter she wrote to Jaspers on December 30, 1961, and from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography.

But once I started poring over the correspondence, it became clear that Wolin got more than the dates of the trial and Arendt’s attendance wrong. He also seriously misstates what Arendt saw and heard at the trial and her attitude to the trial and its testimony. Most important, the centrally damning claim he makes—that Arendt never saw or heard Eichmann testify—is in all likelihood wrong. What’s more, the very evidence for its wrongness comes from the very sources Wolin cites as evidence: namely, Arendt’s correspondence.

Arendt arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday April 9, 1961, two days before the trial began, and headed straight for Jerusalem. At the trial, she listened intently not only to Hausner’s opening statement, but also to lengthy recordings of Eichmann’s depositions. As she wrote to Blücher on April 20:

Here everything is going as expected…with the ghost in the glass cage listening to his voice sounding from the magnetic tape.

Arendt also heard testimony from a great variety of witnesses for the prosecution, including one of the leaders of the Warsaw Uprising; the father of Herschel Grynszpan, whose assassination of Ernst vom Rath had provided the pretext for Kristallnacht; and Salo Baron, the eminent Jewish historian. In fact, as the days went on, Arendt grew increasingly frustrated by this testimony, as so little of it had to do with Eichmann himself. As she wrote to Blücher on May 6:

The basic mistake—if one can say such a thing—is not only that Eichmann has been completely forgotten, his name often not mentioned for days on end (really typical, e.g.,: After the prosecution put 29 volumes [!] concerning Hans Frank on the table, Servatius [me: Eichmann’s attorney] rose and asked: “Does the name Eichmann appear in any of these volumes!” The answer: “No”)…

Far from being uninterested in what Eichmann had to say, Arendt was profoundly interested in him and his testimony. She watched him closely throughout the trial: “Eichmann is no eagle; rather, a ghost who has a cold on top of that,” as she wrote to Jaspers on April 13. And throughout her stay in Jerusalem and in the time after that, she kept recurring to the six volumes of testimony (more than 3000 pages) he had given in his depositions. Not to mention the lengthy trial transcript she pored over for months as she prepared her articles for The New Yorker.

Then, on May 6, she writes to Blücher that she is leaving Jerusalem the next morning for Switzerland, where she will visit Jaspers. As she’s about to leave, she wonders:

The question is: Should I come back here again for the defense? I imagine I should, but I’m not sure….Of course it also depends on my appointments. Zurich on June 24th—etched in stone!

That date, the 24th of June, was a reference to a long-planned reunion between her and Blücher, who would be meeting Jaspers and his wife, both of whom had played such an important role in Arendt’s life, for the very first time.

As the weeks go by, first in Switzerland with Jaspers, and then in Germany, Arendt decides she must return to Jerusalem. The only question is when. “If I only knew when I have to go back to Jerusalem,” she writes McCarthy on May 31.

Why was Arendt so eager to return to Jerusalem? Simply and solely to see and hear Eichmann testify. And what did she mean by “if I only knew when I have to go back to Jerusalem”? The date that Eichmann was to assume the witness stand. Contrary to everything Wolin explicitly states and implicitly suggests in his piece, seeing and hearing Eichmann testify was a top priority for Arendt between the time of her first and second visit to Jerusalem.

On June 4, Arendt tells Blücher that she thinks she’ll be in Jerusalem by the 17th. And adds, “With a bit of luck, it might happen in the week of June 17 that Eichmann will be called to the witness stand.”

On June 14, a Wednesday, she writes Blücher:

So I’m flying to Israel on Saturday, as I already wrote you. The trial will start again on the 20th, and I’m afraid that Hausner will try to delay matters even further. But I have at least to try to see Eichmann <editor’s note: on the witness stand>….I will leave there on Friday the 23rd, either directly for Zurich, or via Athens—it all depends.

So, that’s all. Here’s my address again, just to be sure: Hotel Eden, Jerusalem till Friday the 23rd. After that, with you: Waldhaus Dolderer, Zurich.

On June 16, a Friday, she writes Jaspers: “I’m off tomorrow morning.”

Unfortunately, the three editions of her correspondence do not include any letters from this second visit to Jerusalem. Probably because she knew she was going to be seeing Jaspers and Blücher, the two people she corresponded with most intently during that time, within days.

What we do know, from Lipstadt, is that Eichmann did indeed take the stand on the 20th of June, and unless Arendt canceled her trip to Jerusalem at literally the last minute (“I’m off tomorrow morning”), we also know that she was in the city when he took the stand. It would seem strange if, after all these expressions of desire to see Eichmann in court, she decided not to stop by.

I should say that I’ve only managed to consult the sources I’ve cited here. There may be other sources out there that would confirm Wolin’s claims. If there are, I apologize in advance. But I would also like to claim an exemption on two grounds. First, I didn’t have access to those sources; I did the best that I could with the books that I have and the books I could access on the web. Second, Wolin himself claims that it was “a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence” that led him to the conclusion “that she never saw Eichmann testify.” Limiting myself to that correspondence, which I read carefully rather than perused, should have yielded at least some evidence for his conclusion. It has not, so I believe I am justified in concluding, that at least by Wolin’s own lights, his claim is not correct.

Update (7:30 am)

I’m getting reports this morning that Deborah Lipstadt, whose The Eichmann Trial I link to above, makes a similar claim as Wolin. I don’t have her book and was able to access those pages regarding the chronology of the Eichmann trial that I mention above only through Google. I’ll try to get a copy of the book and report back what I find. Lipstadt is a careful scholar, so I’ll definitely want to see what she says and what sources she cites. Perhaps Wolin got his claim from her, perhaps she has further information. Anyway, will report back once I have more information.

Update (10:30 am)

I’ve now been able, with the help of Amazon and Google Reader, to find out what Lipstadt says in The Eichmann Trial. The crucial passages are on pp. 178-180. Long story short, she confirms what I said in my post.

First, Lipstadt says that after traveling in Switzerland for five weeks (also Germany, actually), Arendt returned to Jerusalem to see Eichmann on the witness stand. There, she saw and heard Servatius, Eichmann’s attorney, ask him questions.

Second, Lipstadt’s criticism of Arendt is that Arendt did not stay to witness Hausner’s cross-examination of Eichmann. Had she stayed, says Lipstadt, Arendt might have seen something about Eichmann, under Hausner’s withering critique, that she could not have gleaned from the transcript.

None of us, of course, knows if that’s true, but I suspect Lipstadt’s wrong. Given that Arendt was so irritated by Hausner’s and the prosecution’s general line of attack—Arendt felt that rather than trying Eichmann for his deeds, the state was more interested in narrating the larger history of the Holocaust—I suspect that seeing the cross-exam for herself would have only further confirmed Arendt’s premonitions. But that’s speculation. And in any event, immaterial to the larger issue of whether Arendt was ever there to see Eichmann testify. She was.

Third, Lipstadt is very careful to point out that simply because Arendt wasn’t there for part of the trial does not invalidate her conclusions; a great many accounts of trials, Lipstadt says, are based entirely on a reading of the transcript.

So, bottom line: Lipstadt does not provide any evidence for Wolin’s claim.

Lipstadt’s footnotes in this section make reference to Arendt’s correspondence with Jaspers and McCarthy, which I examined carefully last night and the results of which I reported in my post. Lipstadt also refers in her footnotes to p. 149 of Raul Hilberg’s memoir. Hilberg was a historian of the Holocaust. Indeed, he wrote the first genuinely comprehensive history of the Holocaust, from which Arendt drew extensively in her book—much to Hilberg’s chagrin; he felt like he never got the proper acknowledgment from her or from subsequent scholars of the controversy.

On p. 149 of his memoir, Hilberg claims that Arendt stayed in Jerusalem for ten weeks and then left three days before Eichmann assumed the stand. He claims that Arendt’s published correspondence with Jaspers shows this. Hilberg might be Wolin’s source, though I took Wolin’s “a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence” to mean that Wolin had done the perusing. In any event, Hilberg is wrong on all accounts: Arendt did not stay in Jerusalem for ten weeks; she did not leave three days before Eichmann assumed the stand; and her correspondence with Jaspers does not show any of this.

Two other sources.

According to a commenter on the blog, David Cesarini, no friend of Arendt’s, claims in his book on Eichmann that she was there for the first days of Eichmann’s testimony. Which fits with my account and Lipstadt’s.

Daniel Maier-Katkin, a professor at Florida State, has reconstructed the timeline of Arendt and the trial in footnote 44 of this post (h/t Patchen Markell). I don’t know what his sources are (I’ve emailed him to ask but have not yet heard back), but his reconstruction of the chronology largely fits with mine, albeit with some additional details:

The trial was in session between April 11 and July 24. Arendt was present in the courtroom from April 11 through May 8. Between May 8 and June 23 the trial was dominated by sessions on the admissibility of more than 1000 documents; Arendt, who was travelling in Europe during those weeks, had full access to all of those documents. Arendt was present between June 20 and 23 to hear the first sessions of Adolf Eichmann’s testimony, but not for the final two weeks of trial when he was cross-examined by Gideon Hausner, whose approach to the trial as a telling of the story of the Holocaust rather than a juridical inquiry into Eichmann’s role Arendt found tiresome and disquieting.

So, again, nothing in the correspondence even remotely suggests that Arendt was not there to witness personally at least some of Eichmann’s testimony. And much in the correspondence—and now secondary accounts—demonstrates precisely the opposite.



The Arendt Wars Continue: Richard Wolin v. Seyla Benhabib

1 Oct

Richard Wolin has written a response to Seyla Benhabib’s New York Times piece on Arendt and Eichmann.

I hesitate to weigh in on this controversy for two reasons. First, I know both Richard and Seyla, and Richard is a colleague. And even though, when it comes to Arendt, I have consistently found Seyla to have the better of the argument, I have a great deal of respect for both of them and their work. Second, I may be writing about the war over Eichmann in Jerusalem in a lengthier piece in the coming months—More than a half-century after its publication, how is it that this book still manages to get under people’s skin? Is there any other book, not allied to a political or religious movement, that can do that?—so I don’t want to get too caught up in any one bit of the fracas right now.

Still, I wanted to respond to this one paragraph in Wolin’s critique:

Benhabib’s claim that Kant’s moral philosophy plays a systematic role in Eichmann in Jerusalem is similarly unsustainable. Arendt’s reliance on Kant’s theory of judgment—the idea that we broaden our mental horizons by virtue of our ability to reason from the standpoint of other persons—is limited to one meager passage (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 48).  Moreover, in the passage in question, Kant’s name is not even mentioned. Casual allusions along these lines hardly qualify as systematic or serious employment. As most Arendt scholars are aware, Arendt only developed these Kantian precepts in earnest circa 1970, in the course of her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy and in the complementary essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations.”

That last claim, which I’ve bolded, is simply not true.

In a brilliant article—”Arendt, Aesthetics, and ‘The Crisis in Culture’“—that totally changed how I see some of Arendt’s work, University of Chicago political theorist Patchen Markell shows that the Kantian presence in Arendt’s thought, particularly regarding these issues of judgment and enlarged mentality, well predate her 1970 writings, extending as far back as the 1950s. And in fact, as Patchen shows, most serious Arendt scholars know that.

If memory serves (I only read this essay in draft more than a year ago), Patchen looks at Arendt’s essay on culture from the 1950s, which finally appears in Between Past and Future in 1961 (the year Eichmann went on trial). He shows, among a great many other things, that Arendt and Jaspers were corresponding about Kant’s Critique of Judgment in the late 1950s (the text was very much on her mind), and that the Critique of Judgment very much informs her essay on culture, and how to think about questions of taste and judgment and their relationship to politics. In other words, whether or not Kant is present in what Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem (and again, I think Seyla’s got the better of that argument), he, and his writing about judgment, were clearly present in Arendt’s thinking on the eve of her travels to Jerusalem.

Inspired by Wolin’s piece (and Patchen’s corrective, avant la lettre), I read Arendt’s other essay from that period, “Culture and Politics,” which I don’t think Patchen actually discusses but which is nevertheless instructive.

In that essay, Arendt claims Kant’s Critique of Judgment as an explicit inspiration for her thinking about judgment and politics: it “contains,” she says, “what is in my opinion the greatest and most original aspect of Kant’s political philosophy.” That was in 1959, two years before Arendt would head to Jerusalem to report on the Eichmann trial.

As she goes on to develop the political implications of Kant’s theory of taste and judgment, Arendt writes:

It is as though taste decided not only what the world should look like, but also who belongs together in the world….The belonging-together-of-persons—this is what gets decided in judgments about a common world. And what the individual manifests in its judgments is a singular “being-thus-and-not-otherwise”….

As soon as I read that “who belongs together in the world,” I stopped. The passage has an eerie resonance.

In the epilogue to her report on the Eichmann trial, Arendt delivers what she thinks should have been the Israeli court’s judgment against Eichmann. Her very last two sentences read:

And just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations…we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

Though I have no idea if Arendt intended these last sentences of Eichmann in Jerusalem to be read as such, it’s hard for me not to read them as an indication of how, for her, Eichmann’s crimes are a terrible and ironic perversion of the Kantian themes she was developing in her 1959 essay.

Just as a person reveals herself in her tastes (and what she reveals in part is “who belongs together in the world”), so does Eichmann reveal himself in his taste (or lack thereof), and what he reveals is who belongs together in his mind (namely, Aryans as opposed to Jews) and who belongs together in actuality: namely, he and all the other Nazis who refused to share the earth, as opposed to the rest of the peoples of the earth.

It is because of that terrible and ironic perversion of Kant’s theory of taste, which is connected to judgment, that Arendt insists so strongly on the court restoring the proper meaning of Kant’s theory of taste/judgment in its verdict on Eichmann: through its verdict, Arendt claims, through its revealing who or what it is, the court must decide who does indeed belong together in the world—namely, the peoples of the earth, in all their plurality—and who does not: those individuals, like Eichmann, who do not wish to share the earth with others.

Update (12:30 pm)

Patchen Markell has a very useful comment and corrective in the comments section, which I’m reproducing here. But first, here is the published version of that article of his that I discuss. And now here’s Patchen:

Thanks, Corey. I just sent you the the published version of the piece, which is in Nikolas Kompridis, The Aesthetic Turn in Political Thought. Although the Jaspers correspondence does contain a letter from 1957, when she was busy re-reading the Critique of Judgment, that makes it pretty clear how seriously engaged she was with that text, the place to go to really see this is her Denktagebuch or notebooks, published in 2002, which contain 15 pages (in the published version) of handwritten notes from the third Critique, including notes and comments on the idea of an “enlarged mentality,” the importance of the presence of others for the validity of judgments, etc. The editors of the Denktagebuch themselves observed how significant it was that this material came prior to, not after, the Eichmann trial. The Anglophone scholar who reconstructs this stuff best, and really focuses in a way I do not on the continuities between the Kant reading of 1957 and the lectures of 1970, is David Marshall, who published a very detailed piece on this history of Arendt’s readings of Kant in Political Theory (2010): http://ptx.sagepub.com/content/38/3/367.

Also, for the geeky record, “Culture and Politics” is the English translation of a German lecture that Arendt subsequently incorporated into “The Crisis in Culture” (in Between Past and Future).

 Update (2 pm)

I’ve been reading Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem, which is what has kicked off this latest round of the Arendt Wars, and she tells a story there about Eichmann, which I posted about on Facebook over the weekend. It seems pertinent to this discussion re Kant and enlarged mentality. Here’s what I said:

In 1950, Adolph Eichmann, along with 15 others, managed to flee Europe and set sail for Argentina from Genoa on the Giovanna C. Years later, in a text titled “Meine Flucht,” he reminisced about the relief he felt, finally to have escaped his would-be tormentors. Drawing a parallel only he could have drawn, he marveled, “Once it was the Jews, now it was–Eichmann.” This is the sort of thing Hannah Arendt had in mind when she talked about Eichmann’s thoughtlessness.

It should be noted that Stangneth does not read the Eichmann comment in this way, but I found her reading tortured and unpersuasive, and unsupported by the text.




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