The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt
by Amos Elon
In December 1966, Isaiah Berlin, the prominent philosopher and historian of ideas, was the guest of his friend, Edmund Wilson, the well-known American man of letters. An entry in Wilson's diary mentions an argument between the two men. Berlin "gets violent, sometimes irrational prejudice against people," Wilson noted, "for example [against] Hannah Arendt, although he has never read her book about Eichmann." In a memoir in the Yale Review in 1987, Berlin made exactly the same charge against Wilson and elaborated upon this in a 1991 interview with the editor of Wilson's diary. We don't know the outcome of this quarrel. One thing we do know: more than three years after the publication of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil first appeared in print, the civil war it had launched among intellectuals in the United States and in Europe was still seething. Describing the debate that raged through his own and other families in New York, Anthony Grafton later wrote that no subject had fascinated and aroused such concern and serious discussion as the series of articles Hannah Arendt had published in The New Yorker about the Eichmann trial, and the book that grew out of them. Three years after the publication of the book, people were still bitterly divided over it. No book within living memory had elicited similar passions. A kind of excommunication seemed to have been imposed on the author by the Jewish establishment in America. The controversy has never really been settled. Such controversies often die down, simmer, and then erupt again. It is perhaps no accident that at this time of a highly controversial war in Iraq, Arendt's books are still widely read and that, even though close to 300,000 copies of her book on Eichmann alone have so far been sold, this new edition is now published by Penguin.
Eichmann in Jerusalem continues to attract new readers and interpreters in Europe, too. In Israel, where the Holocaust was long seen as simply the culmination of a long unbroken line of anti-Semitism, from pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar to Hitler and ArafatDavid Ben-Gurion, the architect of the 1960 show trial wanted it that waythe growing interest among young people in this book suggests a search for a different view. A new Hebrew translation was recently published to considerable acclaim. In the past, the difficulty of many Israelis to accept Arendt's book ran parallel to another difficultyforeseen by Arendt early onthe difficulty of confronting, morally and politically, the plight of the dispossessed Palestinians. The Palestinians bore no responsibility for the collapse of civilization in Europe but ended up being punished for it.
In Europe, the collapse of communist totalitarianism contributed to the renewed interest in Arendt's work. Interest was further kindled by the publication, in the past several years, of Arendt's voluminous correspondence with Karl Jaspers, Mary McCarthy, Hermann Broch, Kurt Blumenfeld, Martin Heidegger, and her husband Heinrich Blücher.2 All bear witness to a rare capacity for friendship, intellectual and affectionate. Arendt's correspondence with Blücher is the record also of the intense, lifelong conversation, of a marriage that for two hunted fugitives was a safe haven in dark times. "It still seems to me unbelievable, that I could achieve both a great love, and a sense of identity with my own person," she wrote Blücher in 1937 in what is one of the most remarkable love letters of the twentieth century. "And yet I achieved the one only since I also have the other. I also now finally know what happiness is."
The letters shed a fascinating light on her thinking, and on some of the intimate feelings that went into the making of Eichmann in Jerusalem. "You were the only reader to understand what otherwise I have never admitted," she wrote Mary McCarthy, "namely, that I wrote this book in a curious state of euphoria." Like Arendt's biography Rachel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman, written before her emigration to the United States, Eichmann in Jerusalem was an intensely personal work. The writing helped give her relief from a heavy burden. As she wrote Mary McCarthy, it was a "cura posterior," the delayed cure of a pain that weighed upon her as a Jew, a former Zionist, and a former German.3
The main thesis of Eichmann in Jerusalem was summed up (not very felicitously) in its subtitle. It is odd, and sometimes mind-boggling to follow the overheated debates of four decades ago. Irving Howe claimed in his memoirs that the polemic in America was partly due to feelings of guilt, pervasive, and unmanageable yet seldom (until then) emerging into daylight. For this reason, Howe thought, something good came out of the confrontation with Arendt.
Some of the accusations voiced against the style and tone of the first version of her book, as published in The New Yorker, were well founded and were excised in the book, e.g. her description of Leo Baeck as the Jewish "Führer"; others were patently false. For example, it was claimed that Arendt had "exonerated" Eichmann but "condemned the Jews." She had done nothing of the sort. Nor had she assaulted the entire court proceeding, as was frequently claimed; she only attacked the melodramatic rhetoric of the state prosecutor. She supported the death sentence as meted out by the court but would have preferred a differently formulated verdict. Contrary to frequent accusations, she never questioned the legitimacy of a trial in Israel by Israeli judges. Nor did she, as was frequently maintained, make the victims responsible for their slaughter "by their failure to resist." In fact, she bitterly attacked the state prosecutor who had dared make such a heartless claim. Still, this accusation even found its way into the Encyclopedia Judaica.4 In a similar vein she was falsely accused of having claimed that Eichmann was an enthusiastic convert to "Zionism" and even to "Judaism." 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 Grafton's father; priests of several faiths; atheists; community functionaries; and professional propagandists. The attacks were often intensely personal. Many published reviews were serious, meticulously documented, fair and well-reasoned; others were clannish, full of personal invective, and of a surprisingly hackneyed intellectual level of mean personal innuendo. The book undoubtedly seems less controversial now than forty years ago as new generations of scholars take a fresh, less partisan look also on Arendt's other writings on Jewish history, Israel, and Zionism.
Eichmann in Jerusalem is best read today in conjunction with these other essays. Most were published long before Eichmann in publications (some of them now defunct) like Menorah Journal, the New York German-language refugee weekly Aufbau, the Review of Politics, the Jewish Frontier, and Jewish Social Studies.5 They spell out a conviction (which in Eichmann is for the most part only implied) that like other nineteenth-century nationalisms, Zionism had already outlived the conditions from which it emerged and ran the risk of becoming, as Arendt once put it, a "living ghost amid the ruins of our times."6 A decade or so earlier, she had still been an ardent disciple of the German Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld (the father of "post-assimilationist Zionism"), an advocate of compromise with the Palestinians, either territorial or through establishing a joint, secular binational state. At the time of writing Eichmann in Jerusalem she had all but despaired of this and bleakly foresaw decades of war and bloody Palestinian-Israeli clashes. In the 1930s, she anticipated her criticism in Eichmann of the ghetto Judenräte by opposing the Transfer of Goods Agreement between the Zionists and the Nazis, an agreement that enabled German Jews to transfer some of their frozen assets to Palestine at a highly punitive exchange rate but ran counter to an attempted worldwide Jewish boycott of German goods. The Zionists, for whom emigration to Palestine was the overwhelmingly important priority, justified this violation as a "dialectical necessity."
By this time, Arendt had little patience left for all Weltanschauungen. She became more and more disillusioned with official Zionist policy in Palestine because of its failure to achieve a peaceful modus vivendi with the Arab population. She foresaw the spread of religious and nationalist fundamentalism among Israelis. These warnings seemed at the time as provocative as her book on the Eichmann trial. She argued on both moral and pragmatic grounds, insisting that Israelis must share power and/or territory with Palestinian Arabs. In retrospect, her warnings displayed considerable foresight. Today's readers may be more willing to accept both her essays and her book on Eichmann on their merits.
This was certainly not the case when Eichmann first came out. Most Jewish readers and many others were outraged. Friendships broke over it. Not long before, Israeli diplomats had successfully convinced the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith that criticism of Zionism or Israel was a form of anti-Semitism. Some of the published attacks on Arendt's book are astonishing in their unbridled vehemence. In Israel the reaction was more complicated and the criticism was muted compared to the reaction in America. Outrage was much less pronounced perhaps because on a first reading, Arendt's critique of Jewish communal leaders in Nazi-occupied Europe appeared to confirm Zionist cliché descriptions of "diaspora Jews" as servile, passive lambs who had meekly gone to the slaughter.
Several of Arendt's critics have since expressed some regret at their past fervor. Arendt was already dead when such apologies were first heard. Arendt subscribed to no isms and mistrusted sweeping theories. Her intuitions on the nature of political evil may find more sympathetic ears these days than when the book was first published. Evil, as she saw it, need not be committed only by demonic monsters butwith disastrous effectby morons and imbeciles as well, especially if, as we see in our own day, their deeds are sanctioned by religious authority. With her disregard of conventional scholarship and academic norms, she remains a stimulating intellectual presence. Thirty or forty years ago the mixture of social analysis, journalism, philosophical reflections, psychology, literary allusion, and anecdote found in the best of her work exasperated and annoyed critics. Today, it fascinates and appeals.
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