Thinking about Hannah Arendt and Adolph Eichmann on Erev Rosh Hashanah

George Steiner writes somewhere that the deepest source of anti-Semitism may lie in three Jews: Moses, Jesus, and Marx. Three Jews who formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, an almost unforgiving and humanly unbearable ethics/politics, that the rest of the world has repeatedly bridled at and hated. And never forgiven the Jews for. Setting aside the bit of self-congratulation that lies at the heart of that formulation—ah, we Jews, we’re so ethical and righteous—I wonder if some part of that may not lie at the heart of the rage and reaction that Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem has elicited over the years. There is something unforgiving at the heart of that book. It is a relentless indictment—not just, pace what Arendt herself said later of the book, of one man, but of many men, and women—an indictment, despite Arendt’s best and professed intentions, in which ordinary readers (ordinary men) can’t help but see themselves. And an indictment in the name of (or at least implicitly and distantly in the name of) a difficult and demanding ethics and politics. An indictment that seems to stir the same kind of reaction to Arendt that historically was stirred up against the Jews. Oh, that Hannah Arendt: she sets herself apart; she thinks she’s smarter than the rest of us; she belongs to no one, not even the Jews. Only this time it’s not the reaction of just non-Jews to Jews, but also of Jews to a Jew. Shana Tova.


  1. Roquentin September 24, 2014 at 11:48 am | #

    Two things:

    1) Have you seen the documentary “The Act of Killing (” It involves one of the major participants in the mass killings which occurred in Indonesia under Suharto try to re-enact it for a film any way he pleases. The man, Anwar, admits to personally killing around 1000 people. Eichmann in Jerusalem comes very close to describing the mindset of those involved, in a different time and different culture. It shows just how accurate her insights into how people become okay with mass murder were and continue to be

    2) I’ve never read George Steiner, but he was in the BBC documentary “Human, All Too Human” on Hedeigger and his commentary was so good and amusing I liked him instantly. Some day I should track down one of his books to read. I’ve been meaning to for a long time.

  2. berlihe September 24, 2014 at 12:25 pm | #

    I’m pretty sure that Steiner makes this point in _In Bluebeard’s Castle_, and I too found it both thought-provoking and uncomfortably self-congratulatory.

  3. delia ruhe September 24, 2014 at 3:06 pm | #

    Clearly Steiner never read Otto Weininger.

    Arendt was wrong about some things — things that time has generously corrected. But many other things cut a little too close to the Jewish bone — things that many Jews will never forgive her for.

  4. BillR September 24, 2014 at 7:21 pm | #

    Another thinker who built on Arendt’s (or should one say Hilberg’s work: ) and is still kicking:

  5. Preacher September 24, 2014 at 7:49 pm | #

    We’re all complicit, but not Arendt, she’s truly above it all?

    Maybe the issue is that in putting forward a notion of the banality of evil, by which we’re all somehow complicit, she wasn’t helping us to make better ethical judgments, but was instead obfuscating our ability to do so? if we’re all a little bit like Eichmann, and if that similarity helps us understand his actions (rather than our differences explaining them), then ethics actually becomes easy, because we’re all guilty.

    I get her point – the modern, bourgeois sensibility might be banal, and generally complicit in forms of oppression as a result of thoughtlessness, and there’s a lot of truth to this. The problem with Arendt is that in painting a picture of Eichmann as banal, when she should have known better (as the scholarship clearly suggest), she’s peddling her own position at the expense of the actual historical truth. To anyone who knew that Eichmann’s guilt didn’t lie in banality, but in his active and murderous attempts to exterminate the Jews (again, the history is quite clear, Eichmann was hardly banal), to hear that there’s nothing special about Eichmann is deeply offensive.

    In fact, as Richard Wolin points out, when reviewing Bettina Stangneth’s book, in pushing her banality thesis, she was complicit in constructing the very legal and moral defense that Eichmann himself was trying to construct. That is, Eichmann wanted us to see him as banal, because if we did, he became less guilty.

    To a Jew who had escaped Europe, a Jew who had a deep personal interest in making the world aware of the vicious crimes they had recently suffered, Arendt’s willingness to make excuses for Eichmann was pretty disgusting. Granted, she certainly didn’t see what she was doing as aiding Eichmann, but complicit – or banality – is a funny thing, no?

    Wolin’s review is worth a read:

  6. Glenn September 24, 2014 at 9:45 pm | #

    I like the part of “Eichmann” (page 154 in my copy) where the Nazis thought they were culturally closer to the Scandinavian nations and annoyed that only the more “subhuman barbarian hordes” of Ukraine, among others, were really all on board with Nazi anti-Semitism.

    The passing years haven’t changed that much among Obama’s new friends in Kiev.

    • BillR September 25, 2014 at 8:35 am | #

      yes, apparently Germans also found distasteful the hand to hand combat and close-distance murder they had witnessed in any of the many the Civil Wars their invasions–or any hostile occupation, as Americans are learning–had triggered (e.g. by the brutal Croat Ustasha, ideological kin of some of the Ukranian separatists being toasted by the likes of Victoria Nuland). It was this “monstrous combination of murder and morality” that Arendt and other commentators found more offensive than, say, the hand to hand tribal warfare (often related to resources and desertification) that has periodically happened in backwaters of our planet (e.g. Darfur, per some commentators). As a man hounded to an early grave for speaking his mind put it:

      Do you people think yourselves better becasue you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them? Hiroshima auf Wiedersehen.

  7. John Maher September 25, 2014 at 10:18 am | #

    1. Arendt suffered as a victim of office politics: she attempted new theory and was punished by her NS colleagues for going against the accepted social order and intellectual doctrine. They should have rejoiced to have something to write against rather than engage in typical faculty identity politics.

    2. Historical Eichmann was shown to be more aware of what he was doing and its consequences for millions of Jews than Arendt portrays him. This does not detract from her insight that most men are causally indifferent to consequentialism but one should not dismiss the existence of exceptional efforts at evil.

    3. Arendt promoted had an ethics of care and ‘doing good’ with which I do not agree This was banal in its own way.

    4. L’Shana Tova.

  8. Otter October 5, 2014 at 2:50 am | #

    I read ‘Eichmann…’ 50 years ago. Not being Jewish, I did not have perhaps the same personal involvement in the case.

    I was disturbed by the “special rendition”. Although I thought Jews and Communists and Roma … so many … would be more comfortable, even giddy happy. Understandably. However, now, special rendition, enhanced interrogation, drones, cruise missiles, are daily events. Hardly noticed.

    I did NOT imagine Arendt set herself up as a clayfooted idol. I did NOT see her holding up “a difficult and demanding ethics and politics”. I DID see and hear the rage.

    I think the rage and misrepresentation allow us to pretend not to read her lesson. We all can be Eichmann. We all can do horrible deeds. If somebody will tell us it is necessary. If somebody will pay us enough. If the victims look or sound sufficiently different.

    Shooting the messenger leaves us blind, helpless to pause, and wonder what we do.

    We don’t need to be super ethical. We need to see where we are going. We need to know we can all be sinners, we can all lose sight of the Face. We need our families, our friends, our priests, our history books, our public intellectuals, to show us, here are the pitfalls, there are the ways where you can get lost. Watch for them. Avoid them.

    The last thing we need is to be told this can’t happen… and here is a blindfold, so you can be sure you won’t see.

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