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May 21, 2015 10:28 AM   Subscribe

The Trials of Hannah Arendt by Corey Robin [The Nation]
There’s a history to the conflict over Eichmann in Jerusalem, and like all such histories, the changes in how we read and argue about the book tell us as much about ourselves, and our shifting preoccupations and politics, as they do about Eichmann or Arendt. What has remained constant, however, is the wrath and the rage that Eichmann has aroused. Other books are read, reviled, cast off, passed on. Eichmann is different. Its errors and flaws, real and imagined, have not consigned it to the dustbin of history; they are perennially retrieved and held up as evidence of the book’s viciousness and its author’s vice. An “evil book,” the Anti-Defamation League said upon its publication, and so it remains. Friends and enemies, defenders and detractors—all have compared Arendt and her book to a criminal in the dock, her critics to prosecutors set on conviction.

Previously. Previously.

Related:

Who’s On Trial, Eichmann or Arendt? by Seyla Benhabib [The New York Times]
Hannah Arendt's challenge to Adolf Eichmann by Judith Butler [The Guardian]
The Hannah Arendt Papers [Library of Congress]
posted by Fizz (39 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
Corey Robin has been writing on Arendt and Eichmann for a while over on Crooked Timber, and I think this latest piece is a distillation of that.
5 FEB 15: The Epic Bureaucrat
7 DEC 14: Saskia Sassen…Willem Sassen…Adolf Eichmann about Saskia Sassens' Missing Chapter, to which she responded.
26 OCT 14: Dayenu in Reverse: The Passover Canon of Arendt’s Critics
3 OCT 14: The Arendt Wars Continue: Seyla Benhabib v. Richard Wolin

Maybe Arendt was right for the wrong reason. It's important to remember What Hannah Arendt Got Right and that the decision to pursue, capture and try Nazis after the war was not universally supported.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:13 AM on May 21, 2015 [11 favorites]


the man of twists and turns, Thank you for sharing those additional links.
posted by Fizz at 11:16 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Something occurs to me - when I was coming up in the nineties, Arendt was the Unacceptable Frankfurt Scholar because she was too centrist. Now it seems like she is the Unacceptable Frankfurt Scholar for entirely other reasons...I suppose it really boils down to the fact that she is both the best-known one and a woman.
posted by Frowner at 11:18 AM on May 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


What an interesting read. I think I should probably read Arendt's book that's at the core of this, but my pile of unread "shoulds" is so large already...
posted by Ambient Echo at 11:39 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


As a non-Jewish person who has read Eichmann In Jerusalem (but who might not be familiar with any anti-Semitic undertones that would have been obvious when it was written) I did not find the widely criticized passages on the Jewish leadership in various countries to suggest anything negative that was particular to Jews. What I took away was very much "this is what happens in communities under terrible stress, and these are some bad decisions that people made under pressure; some of those people were doing their best and some of them at least at first probably thought that they could salvage some individual power out of the situation before they realized what was really going on".

I found the sections describing the uneven enforcement of Nazi policy across different countries to be eye-opening - that there were countries where anti-Semitism and national fascism were already primed for action and things were immediately desperate and terrible, versus for example Italy, where there was actually some resistance to Nazi policy at the level of the fascist government itself.

I haven't looked at the book in years and my politics are a bit different now, but at the time it really brought home to me the political underpinnings of the Holocaust and made it much less of a "large scale mysterious terrible things happened in a sweeping way" thing and more of a "here are some political and social conditions which enabled the Holocaust". History has a stutter - it says w-w-w-w-watch out!!
posted by Frowner at 12:15 PM on May 21, 2015 [10 favorites]


Sometimes, however, a writer does get the last word. Do we know of a Trojan War that is not intimately Homer’s, a Richard III who is not Shakespeare’s? This is especially true of trials. Socrates has no apology apart from Plato’s...
except for Xenophon's apology...

/pedant
posted by ennui.bz at 12:25 PM on May 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I guess what also strikes me is how deep victim-blaming runs and how deep guilt and shame must run, since it's obvious that for a lot of people, even talking about those Jewish leaders who made bad or self-serving decisions is pretty much the same as saying "people deserved what they got" or inviting other people to say it. Which, I suppose, is a sign of my situation as a non-Jew, because I don't have to worry that people are going to say that my religious/ethnic/cultural group invited violence if I start talking as if my people are complex.
posted by Frowner at 12:30 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I hope it's not out of line to mention, for anyone else who is interested, Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt is largely centered on the Eichmann trial, and it's currently available streaming on Netflix in the US.

I haven't seen it yet, but now I think I'll go knock that off my queue sooner rather than later.
posted by ernielundquist at 1:08 PM on May 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


came for the matthew arnold stayed for the mary mccarthy:
Action still mattered, whether it was the action of the Jewish Councils or the SS. There’s little doubt that this was ultimately a faith, a leap into the dark (or the light)—McCarthy accurately described Eichmann as “a paean to transcendence”—but it was a faith that had sustained a marginal people throughout centuries of their wandering and persecution. Whether that faith could withstand the nihilism and numbers of the Holocaust was a different matter."

[...]

Arendt attends to the smallest moments of the Shoah, not to lend her account novelistic detail but to make the point that the devil literally is in the details. “Cooperation” with evil is “gradual,” she explained to a correspondent. It’s always “difficult indeed to understand when the moment had come to cross a line which never should have been crossed.” That is also the banality of evil: the smallness of its package, those gray lines, those devilish details. And it was a sign of Eichmann’s evil that he could not remember any of them, a failing that Arendt keeps returning to throughout the text: not to fault his memory but to reveal his thoughtlessness—a charge that, when set against this Jewish backdrop, takes on a different meaning from that assigned to it by either Benhabib or Wolin. If evil comes in small steps, overcoming it, nearing goodness, also inheres in small steps...
a clichéd road to hell perhaps on the value of never forgetting the (judaic/jewish?) practice of mindfulness in one's attention and actions but worth, uh, keeping in mind i guess. like lately eliezer yudkowsky's LW-type rationalism has been coming up, which i find kind of curious as an example of where 'rationalism' can get you... and where it can't. like i find the gnostic maxim 'don't be a dick/asshole' to be a useful heuristic on how to be in this world, but the 'why' part can be a matter of faith -- for fear of an avenging god?

i like the way nassim taleb (to pseudo/semi-quote another fairly influential rationalist public intellectual) puts it via negativa:
If the book reads in a non-boring, enjoyable fashion, the reader should not be fooled into thinking that this is a simple, shallow, unrational book; Taleb makes Herculean efforts to communicate clearly otherwise complex theories. Rather, what he rejects here is ‘naïve rationalism’ – namely, the idea that everything is understandable, and so controllable, by our limited minds. This same naïve rationalism, which holds that our world is understandable and hence manipulable, has led to “large-scale domination of the environment, the systemic smoothing of the world’s jaggedness, and the stifling of volatility and stressors” (p.108) – which is neither good nor desirable.
which is debateable of course and should be, constantly so, but often isn't. what this means to and is implied about the fragileness or not of israel is left as an exercise for the reader.
posted by kliuless at 1:14 PM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Heidegger is a hell of a drug
posted by thelonius at 1:24 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


It has been many years since I had read H.A.'s book. I had thought then and still think I was annoyed that she accused the Jews for going passively to their deaths. That charge is total nonsense--and, dare I say, a Germanic contempt . Most did not know they were going to their deaths; others knew and could do little or nothing; still others resisted.

Eichman knew what he was doing and he like so many others involved were trained to carry out orders and do as they were told. I find it nearly impossible to believe that the German people as a whole did not also know what was taking place...word gets out, no matter what.
Seems people are either upset or caught up with the turn of phrase Banality of Evil. I am not sure why being responsible for so many murders is banal...would one say this of the commanders of the death camps?
posted by Postroad at 1:59 PM on May 21, 2015


That Nation piece in the FPP is a hell of an article. I was generally familiar with Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, but somewhat surprisingly not with the controversy that's clearly been accompanying it since it was written. I was especially intrigued by the excerpt from a letter H.A. wrote, buried deep within the article:
Let me tell you of a conversation I had in Israel with a prominent political personality [it was Golda Meir] who was defending the—in my opinion disastrous—nonseparation of religion and state in Israel. What [she] said—I am not sure of the exact words anymore—ran something like this: “You will understand that, as a Socialist, I, of course, do not believe in God; I believe in the Jewish people.” I found this a shocking statement and, being too shocked, I did not reply at the time. But I could have answered: The greatness of this people was once that it believed in God, and believed in Him in such a way that its trust and love toward Him was greater than its fear. And now this people believes only in itself? What good can come out of that? (emphasis mine)
That's an incredibly stark and prescient observation, and one that has gotten thornier and harder to reconcile in the years since she wrote her letter.
posted by mosk at 2:16 PM on May 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


" I had thought then and still think I was annoyed that she accused the Jews for going passively to their deaths. That charge is total nonsense--and, dare I say, a Germanic contempt . Most did not know they were going to their deaths; others knew and could do little or nothing; still others resisted."

… so then you read the article and saw that was addressed and?
posted by klangklangston at 2:18 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


This was a pretty great article. One of my favorite profs first did her thesis on Arendt and Augustine, then worked with Arendt later, and so a sizable chunk of how I think about the 20th century comes from reading her. It was great to see such a wide-ranging analysis, and one that I think is particularly trenchant in its similarities to rhetoric over Israel today.
posted by klangklangston at 2:21 PM on May 21, 2015


but who might not be familiar with any anti-Semitic undertones that would have been obvious when it was written

I think the controversy of the book comes from the fact she appears to condemn the Jews for not fighting back.

Great post.
posted by Nevin at 2:35 PM on May 21, 2015


ennui.bz : Right you are. Apologies.
posted by QuietDesperation at 4:03 PM on May 21, 2015


Not fighting back? I saw Chinese and North Korean soldiers--prisoners--in Korea, being marched for miles to be put in POW camps...every so often, a G.I. with a rifle guiding them...These prisoners were young, trained soldiers, hardly carefully guarded but not a one of them tried to escape. And yet elderly and very young Jews herded onto trains, told they were going to work in the East...and they did not overcome the guard dogs and German guards.
posted by Postroad at 5:07 PM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Frowner wrote: I found the sections describing the uneven enforcement of Nazi policy across different countries to be eye-opening [...]

Case in point: I have my father's graduation photo, from a (non-Jewish) Hungarian high school. I presume it was taken in early 1944. After that he was presumably drafted and sent to a labor battalion, which is why he survived the war. There was already a good deal of anti-Semitic legislation, but it had been increasing gradually for decades: the quota of Jews allowed to attend higher education was cut, kosher slaughter was banned, Hungarian laws started to distinguish between Jews with lengthy Hungarian ancestry and ones from migrant families; things like that. There wasn't a point at which you could say that things were distinctly different, other than the fact that Hungary was now at war - which obviously affected things like communication, the availability of commodities, and so forth. Industrial murder had been going on in Poland and the Soviet Union for years - but at least in the Hungarian countryside, people didn't know about it. Things seemed normal.

In late June every Jew in the area was rounded up, with the enthusiastic support of the local non-Jews; most were sent directly to Auschwitz and killed. So the time between "Jews can use public transport, attend public schools, and even graduate" and "Jews are to be stripped of all civil and human rights" was no more than six months. That's how quickly things can change.

I sometimes wonder about the US's own concentration camps (and the Canadian ones!). If there had been another Pearl Harbour, if the US had faced genuine shortages at home - would things have been worse? Would the rations for Nisei have been cut? Would families have been broken up? Would the harsh and crowded conditions have led to a high death rate, and, eventually, a deliberate policy of allowing death? Or worse? There was still a strong eugenics movement at the time, all the elements that led to the Holocaust existed in the USA as they had existed in Germany. The Japanese-Americans aren't the only ones lucky that the USA was relatively secure; if the USA had been genuinely afraid of defeat there's no telling what bad path it might have gone down.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:22 PM on May 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


Also worth reading: The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt by Amos Elon
posted by Fizz at 5:33 PM on May 21, 2015


I don't blame Arendt for this, but the phrase "the banality of evil" became such a lazy cliche. People say it and nod knowingly, as if they have shared a profound insight, whereas they have often merely repeated a received idea that they may not even be able to explain, if pressed.
posted by thelonius at 6:47 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I didn't know Australia had concentration camps.
posted by clavdivs at 7:39 PM on May 21, 2015


Depends who you ask.
posted by klangklangston at 8:27 PM on May 21, 2015


all the elements that led to the Holocaust existed in the USA as they had existed in Germany

No.
posted by asterix at 9:01 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I mean, not that the US has clean hands (I mean, if you want to draw comparisons to the Holocaust, the treatment of Native Americans is much more apposite than the treatment of the Japanese), but it's just not even remotely true that the situation in the US was identical or even particularly similar to the one in Germany.
posted by asterix at 9:05 PM on May 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Holy smokes. I know usian are shitlords to immigrants but dang.

In Michigan, the Nazi POWs got beer, chopped plenty of heat and got sunday Magic show.

Even a newsletter. Horrid, history sucks.
posted by clavdivs at 9:37 PM on May 21, 2015


Nazis used a lot of American idea ers for killing and slaughter. Euphemism, slavery, genocide, (hitler "loved' Tom Mix and Henry Ford) assembly line death machines and law.
posted by clavdivs at 9:43 PM on May 21, 2015


it's just not even remotely true that the situation in the US was identical or even particularly similar to the one in Germany

Asterix, the Holocaust didn't start with death camps: it started with people being rounded up and sent to internment camps. The idea was to isolate them and teach them a lesson, not to kill them. Most of them were eventually released, and many of them left the country - German Jews actually had a much better survival rate than Jews in most other European countries. Afterwards, as Germany started conquering other countries, there was a larger population of Jews under German control, and they decided to ghettoise them. And once they were all rounded up and the death rates were climbing, and there was the example from German death squads operating in the Soviet Union, they basically put two and two together and came up with the "Final Solution". But that was in 1942 or thereabouts; the seeds for the Holocaust were laid back in the early thirties when Germany started rounding Jews up and interning them.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:39 PM on May 21, 2015


the Holocaust didn't start with death camps: it started with people being rounded up and sent to internment camps.

I'm perfectly well aware of that. But there's nothing comparable in early 20th century American history to the de facto civil war that Germany fell into after WWI, nor to the legitimization of political violence that Germany saw in the '20s and '30s (even before the Nazis came to power, even before the Night of the Long Knives, let alone Kristallnacht), nor to the strain of virulent anti-Semitism that ran through German and European culture, nor to the Nazis. The internment of Japanese civilians after Pearl Harbor was a blot on this country's history, but it's nothing compared to what the Nazis did even at the very beginning.
posted by asterix at 12:03 AM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


More Americans were killed by gang violence and alcohol poisoning then we're killed by political deaths in Weimar between 1919-1922.

How many lynchings?

The holocaust began when laws were changed to oppress and then destroy.
posted by clavdivs at 1:17 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have written, edited, and published many different versions of this piece excoriating the misbegotten criticisms of Arendt's Eichmann book, and Corey Robin's article is--for real--the best of the bunch.

The thing is that most of the criticisms are just erroneous--Jews who hadn't read the book but were offended by what they thought it said. But there's a class of reviewer who turned misogynistic tone policing into an art, and they're the ones Corey is going after. They were perfectly happy to totally misrepresent Arendt's project in service of labeling Arendt a self-hating Jew.

For instance, a lot of critics claim Arendt exonerates Eichmann--yet the book ends with her writing her own independent death warrant for his crimes!
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:27 AM on May 22, 2015 [7 favorites]


I found the sections describing the uneven enforcement of Nazi policy across different countries to be eye-opening - that there were countries where anti-Semitism and national fascism were already primed for action and things were immediately desperate and terrible, versus for example Italy, where there was actually some resistance to Nazi policy at the level of the fascist government itself.

There's a lot of interesting material out there about the differences between the Italian Fascists and the Nazis. That said, the it's not as if the Italian Fascists were all that opposed to the idea of ethnic cleansing - it's just that their violence was more directed at, say, Slavs, and that they'd rather commit it by publicly murdering civilians (e.g. Triestine Balkan Hotel) and later banning their languages.

See also the Croatian Fascists, the Ustaše, who eventually allowed Jews to escape persecution by becoming "honorary Croats"...while at the same time also murdering Serbs, et al. en masse. The Nazis hated this, of course - not because the Ustaše were too nice, but because they weren't committing the right kind of genocide.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:31 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


ernielundquist if you have been thinking of seeing the von trotta film, I encourage you to do so. It is fascinating. (Plus, how often does the big screen give us a feature that is mostly a woman of great intellect thinking.. I live von trotta films)
posted by chapps at 6:58 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


the Holocaust didn't start with death camps: it started with people being rounded up and sent to internment camps.

My take away from Arendt is that the Holocaust (or any crime against humanity) begins when we all start following orders and laws that dehumanise others, rather than thinking for ourselves and speaking out. (I can see how this could morph into victim blaming, but it needn't. Those attacked must be able to rely on the rest of us to speak out).
posted by chapps at 7:15 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


asterix: I'm perfectly well aware of that. But there's nothing comparable in early 20th century American history to the de facto civil war that Germany fell into after WWI...

I'm not sure what you mean by 'de facto civil war' -- that potentially qualifies the hell out of things in such a way that no one could ever find anything comparable. But I would humbly suggest that North American (not just USian) efforts to "civilize" native americans are at least comparable, since they basically aimed to wipe out the culture by transforming indian children into dark-skinned white children.

Constraining to the 20th century basically leaves us with that, but if we allow ourselves to expand backward to the 19th, the history of treaties and reservations starting in the early 19th century is pretty much a history of moving the problematic peoples out of places we wanted and into places we didn't at the moment care so much about.

If I were going to spend the time to build an argument on this, i would probably start with Andrew Jackson. But certainly the seeds go farther back than that.
posted by lodurr at 10:09 AM on May 22, 2015


I'm not sure what you mean by 'de facto civil war' -- that potentially qualifies the hell out of things in such a way that no one could ever find anything comparable.

I was referring to the Bavarian Council Republic and the way it was overthrown, not to mention the Beer Hall Putsch. That seems to me to be a crucial element to the way Germany responded to the Nazis' rise to power.

But I would humbly suggest that North American (not just USian) efforts to "civilize" native americans are at least comparable, since they basically aimed to wipe out the culture by transforming indian children into dark-skinned white children.

Absolutely! That's exactly why I said "if you want to draw comparisons to the Holocaust, the treatment of Native Americans is much more apposite than the treatment of the Japanese".
posted by asterix at 11:05 AM on May 22, 2015


I feel like when people say "could Naziism happen here" they are usually asking two different questions -

The first one is a moral question - ie, could something of comparable moral horror happen in the US? Which, obviously, it could, did and does. That seems like an ethics-plus-history question.

The second is "could the same kind of social violence with the same intensity, visibility and government organization have happened in the mid-20th century US?" That seems like a question where the goal is to understand the mechanics of how the Holocaust came about and then to compare this to the US.

To my mind, the answer to the second question is "no", because when you look at lynchings, the KKK, Jim Crow and the treatment of Native people in the US, you have an entirely different situation in terms of rationales and legal precedent, plus an entirely different narrative of "American-ness" in play - plus an entirely different economy and state response to the Depression, plus an entirely different process of government succession. To my mind, what you have in the US is a lot of power being ceded to state and local authorities with the unspoken understanding that it will be used to oppress Black and Native people - you don't have the same top-down, formally ideologized process at the national level. And you have the "Kill the Indian, save the man" narrative about Native people, where there is an express intent to reconstitute Native populations. De facto, this kills people, but it's a different rationalization that leads to different outcomes.

Also, you have the whole absolute craziness of the 20s in Germany - paramiliataries, political assassinations, huge intense conflict between dramatic cultural liberalization (best place in the world to be gay..until Hitler) and rising fascism. The twenties were full of labor and cultural drama in the US too, including plenty of violence, but if only due to the size and spread-out-ness of the US, it was not as pervasive.

I would argue that Jewish people occupy a different place in the non-Jewish German national imagination than Black, Asian and Native people occupy in the white US national imagination - the US has a white-centric and violent national mythology, yes, but it's rooted in the ideas of newness and frontiers rather than long history.

I think if this question is being asked as a way of morally evaluating the US, to try to get to "the US is just as bad as Nazi Germany" or "the US is bad but better than Nazis" then we're getting into the kinds of questions that really can never be answered without doing rhetorical violence to a lot of people's suffering through history and all over the world.
posted by Frowner at 11:55 AM on May 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


Those attacked must be able to rely on the rest of us to speak out

re: australian detention centers, greg egan's razor wire looking glass from 2003 and follow up in 2009:
It took me a while to get my act together and find the groups in Perth that had already been involved in the issue for years. Mostly, what I did myself was write to, befriend and visit a few dozen people who were locked up in the outback detention centres. So it was a matter of providing moral and practical support to people who were under a lot of stress — people who’d been imprisoned for at least three or four years, and had no idea when or how their situation would be resolved...

Ultimately all the long-term detainees were reassessed, and virtually all of them were given visas, and while I expect that would have happened eventually anyway, I think if there’d been silence from the Australian community it might have taken much longer... though the legal situation remains far from ideal. The current minister for immigration is the first decent human being to hold the portfolio for a very long time, but there needs to be major legislative change to ensure that people can’t end up detained for years again in the future.
speaking of which...
Guantánamo Diary” turns out to be especially humane. Slahi doesn’t just humanize himself; he also humanizes his guards and interrogators. That’s not to say that he excuses them. Just the opposite: he presents them as complex individuals who know kindness from cruelty and right from wrong.
which you can go appeal to william lecky or PKD on expanding the circle of concern -- requiring kindness and empathy -- to larger and larger groups (eventually to an earthseed?) but how do you do that? go about forging an 'us'? because obviously there's been some very inhumane* ways to assimilate 'them' (or be destroyed; resistance is futile...)
"They're not monsters, you know. Why should you expect beings more powerful and intelligent than ourselves to be worse than ourselves? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to expect them to be better? Why should more power mean less good?" I could hardly believe I was hearing this. ... I searched for my most basic understanding, and dragged it out: "Because good means good for us!" Mary-Lou smiled encouragingly and spoke gently, as though talking someone down from a high ledge. "Yes, Ellen. But who is us? We're all — human, post-human, non-human — machines with minds in a mindless universe, and it behooves those of us with minds to work together if we can in the face of that mindless universe. It's the possibility of working together that forges an us, and only its impossibility that forces a them. That is the true knowledge as a whole — the union, and the division."8
art as empathy machine,† techgnosis?

---
*see all of history (and finding new and better ways of doing so)
†like what if strange days-like viewers could watch GoT from sansa's POV? (fwiw, i've only ever watched ep.1) knowing there'd be some 'people' who'd not only be not horrified, but might even relish it...
posted by kliuless at 11:56 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


If your argument concludes with US actions and Nazi German actions vis a vis the Holocaust being morally equivalent, you've got a false premise somewhere.
posted by persona au gratin at 8:02 PM on May 22, 2015


I've recently finished reading Eichmann in Jerusalem and admired Arendt's dogged determination to examine enormous, difficult concepts. I'm looking forward to reading all the links in the FPP and the thread.
posted by harriet vane at 2:28 AM on May 23, 2015


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