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Hannah and Her Admirers | The Nation

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Hannah and Her Admirers

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Barbara Sukowa in Hannah Arendt

Barbara Sukowa in Hannah Arendt

One gets little sense of this in Hannah Arendt. Ironically, in interviews it has been Sukowa, rather than von Trotta or Katz, who has seemed most dismayed by the severity of the woman she plays and most reluctant to endorse entirely the praise for her character that the film largely offers. In a public conversation after a screening of the film, Sukowa told Roger Berkowitz, the director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, that people reproached Arendt for her ironic tone. And she added, “I completely understood why people were so angry. This happened in a time very close to the Holocaust…. ‘Banality’ could trigger something, it was like a slap in the face…. I found in a way shocking that…with all her intelligence [Arendt] was not aware that that could happen.”

Take away the violence of the attacks on Arendt that are accurately evoked in the film, and you are left with the perfectly sensible critique of Eichmann in Jerusalem that Sukowa echoes. As Walter Laqueur stated in an exchange with Arendt in 1966, she had been attacked “not so much for what she said, but for how she said it”—not just a failure of tone, but for being humanly tone deaf. When Gershom Scholem reproached Arendt for her lack of love of the Jewish people, whether she was actually right or wrong (in fact, here I think she was right), she could reply with dignity and conviction, pointing out that, among other things, because she was Jewish herself, such love was suspect. “I cannot love myself,” she wrote, “or anything I know is part and parcel of my own person.” But that was not all Scholem had taxed her with. What Sukowa called irony, Scholem called flippancy. “It is that heartless, frequently almost sneering and malicious tone with which these matters, touching the very quick of our life, are treated in your book to which I take exception,” he wrote.

Arendt was unmoved. “You know as well as I,” she wrote back, “how often those who merely report certain unpleasant facts are accused of lack of soul, lack of heart….We both know, in other words, how often these emotions are used in order to conceal factual truth.” But here Arendt was being disingenuous, and not just to Scholem. In a letter to Mary McCarthy in September 1963, Arendt wrote, “As I see it, there are no ‘ideas’ in this Report, there are only facts with a few conclusions.” But less than two years later, Arendt would confide to McCarthy that she had been the only reader to understand that “I wrote this book in a curious euphoria.” And she concluded, “Don’t tell anybody: is it not proof positive that I have no ‘soul’?” Was this a joke on Arendt’s part? Given the viciousness of so many of the attacks leveled against her, it may well be that her reference to having no soul was nothing more than another bit of ironizing. But what Arendt calls her “euphoria”—and here there is no reason not to take her at her word—can just as easily be construed as the flippancy detected by Scholem or the irony that so troubled Sukowa. As a general rule, if everyone reads you differently than you read yourself, the chances are infinitesimal that your reading is the correct one, much as you may wish it otherwise.

In any case, that euphoric Arendt is absent from von Trotta and Katz’s interpretation. They ably portray her courage, her gift for friendship, her relationship with Blücher and its touching complexities, the indomitability of her spirit and, of course, the depth and force of her intelligence. But the success of their film in portraying thinking is not matched by a similar success in portraying the particulars of Arendt’s thoughts and how reliable her perceptions actually were. In writing her New Yorker pieces, Arendt had relied, by her own admission, on Raul Hilberg’s magisterial history of the Shoah, The Destruction of the European Jews, published in 1961. Most valuable of all to her was Hilberg’s account of the role of the Judenräte during the Shoah, and to what degree the leaders of these councils had in effect collaborated in the Jews’ extermination. Her conclusion was that had the Jews been leaderless and unorganized, there would have been chaos and misery, but nowhere near as many as 6 million would have been murdered. It was this position, far more than her thinking about the banality of evil, that had set so much of the official Jewish world against her. And while Hilberg did not agree with her, as he makes clear in a few icy paragraphs of his memoir, The Politics of Memory, he nonetheless defended Arendt publicly during the controversy.

Arendt seems to have taken Hilberg’s support for granted. Von Trotta and Katz portray her loneliness, but while they show Arendt as often peremptory, for them her arrogance is the arrogance of the lonely seeker after the truth. In fact, in many ways it was simply the arrogance of arrogance. After Arendt’s death, Hilberg—who believed that she had not just learned from him, but had plagiarized him as well—went through her papers in the Library of Congress. There he found a letter to Arendt from Princeton University Press, thanking her for her evaluation of Hilberg’s manuscript, which had been rejected because its subject had already been covered by other historians. As Hilberg wrote bitterly, “Who was I, after all? She, the thinker, and I, the laborer who wrote only a simple report, albeit one that was indispensable once she had exploited it: that was the natural order of her universe.”

And a very Heideggerian order it was: one in which the philosopher—that is, the thinker—sits at the apex of the culture. Von Trotta captures well Arendt’s idea of “thoughtlessness” as being the explanatory key to why Eichmann acted as he did, and of such thoughtlessness being characteristic of modern mass society. The implicit message is that the Holocaust was unique, and von Trotta has Arendt say as much in the film. But viewed from the perspective of 2013, this seems more peculiar than self-evident. Like all of us, Arendt was a product of her times. If philosophical rather than historical explanations were what persuaded her, well, German philosophers have mostly tended to look at historians the way doctors look at dentists—which is to say, with the tolerant condescension that so enraged Hilberg.

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