‘To think critically is always to be hostile,” the political philosopher Hannah Arendt declared in what turned out to be her last interview before her death in 1975. Pointing out that critical thought always challenges and undermines established rules and conventional wisdom, she added: “Thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise.”
It certainly was for Arendt, especially when she published “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” in 1963. The book, based on her five-part series for the New Yorker about Adolf Eichmann’s trial and conviction for serving, in her words, as “the most important conveyer belt” of Jews to the Nazi death camps, generated both widespread acclaim and vitriolic denunciations, especially from fellow Jews — many of whom ostracized her for the rest of her life.
Arendt was still caught in the controversies she had stirred up when she gave three interviews for German and French television and a fourth to a noted German journalist, all now available in the “The Last Interview.” While the primary focus is on her responses to her critics, her interviewers — who included German historian Joachim Fest and French legal scholar Roger Errera — also drew her out on her views about radical movements and government snooping during Watergate, among other issues that continue to reverberate today. All of which makes this slim volume an invaluable addition to our understanding of one of the most fascinating intellectual figures of the last century.
Born in 1906, Arendt told one interviewer that as a child growing up in Königsberg the word “Jew” never came up. Her father died young, and her mother was not religious. It was only when other children directed anti-Semitic remarks at her that Arendt was “enlightened,” as she put it.
In matter-of-fact but moving terms, she described her decision to flee Germany in 1933: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.” She landed in Paris, where she helped ferry German and Polish Jewish youngsters to Palestine. After Germany conquered France, she escaped again, this time to the United States, where she would start her new life.
Given that personal background, it’s especially ironic that Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial triggered accusations that she was “a self-hating Jew.” She enraged many readers with her insistence that the accused was not the monster that the Israeli prosecutor and public wanted to see, but rather a drab functionary, more “a clown” than evil incarnate. Hence, her banality-of-evil theme.
She infuriated her critics even more with her mentions of the complicity of Jewish councils in occupied Europe filling German quotas for the delivery of Jews to the camps. “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story,” she wrote.
Arendt had set herself an unenviable goal from the beginning. “One of my main intentions was to destroy the legend of the greatness of evil, of the demonic force,” she told Errera. To that end, she wanted to prove that “if there was anyone who deprived himself of any demonic aura, it was Herr Eichmann.”
She was easily misunderstood. To the historian Fest, she elaborated that by banal behavior she didn’t mean anything positive — quite the contrary. She decried the “sham existence” of Eichmann and the earlier Nuremberg trial defendants, who claimed that they weren’t responsible for mass murders because they were simply obeying orders. “There’s something outrageously stupid about this,” she added. “The whole thing is simply comical!” In her interviews, “comical” clearly doesn’t mean ha-ha funny.
But if Arendt presents a highly sophisticated argument about her view of Eichmann that, at the very least, should make some of her overwrought accusers pause, she doesn’t back off much on her charge about Jewish collaboration. Still, she exhibits more understanding of the Jewish council leaders as “victims,” pointing out that, however questionable their behavior, they can never be equated with the perpetrators. This represents an indirect concession that her original account came across as too harshly judgmental.
The debates Arendt inspired often overshadow the breadth of her insights, whatever people make of them. She reminded people that the best antidote to the blind obedience of Eichmann and others is to listen to Socrates’s exhortation: “It is better to be in disunity with the whole world than with oneself, since I am a unity.” And to be wary of all doctrines: “I have no exact political philosophy which I could summon up with one ism,” she concluded.
All good advice for then and now. As are her reflections, during Watergate, on how “national security” was, in effect, a translation of the European concept of “raison d’état,” providing cover for a government that felt free to break through all traditional limits on its powers. The reader can easily imagine her echoing that charge in today’s era of NSA revelations.
As for Eichmann, this volume clears up the biggest misunderstanding of all. Despite her stinging critique of many aspects of his trial, she was increasingly appreciative of the role it played, serving “as a catalyst” for future trials in Germany itself — and for the beginning of the moral self-examination that has allowed her former country to regain its international standing.
With time, Arendt’s standing has only grown as well.
The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Melville House. 135 pp. Paperback, $15.95