Sunday, November 24, 2013

Searching for the Real Hannah Arendt -Her Life & Thoughts, a movie version

by Gary Berg-Cross

During a recent trip to Europe a friend recommended German director Margarethe von Trotta's new film Hannah Arendt. It’s a look at a portion of the life of philosopher & historical-political theorist Hannah Arendt. A secularized, agnostic, German Jew & refugee from Nazism Arendt settled in New York to lecture and write. In the 50s she wrote on "The Origins of Totalitarianism."  In the 60s she covered the war crimes trial of the Nazi transport chief Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker.  Trotta’s new movie, with Arendt as the protagonist flashed through DC theatres before I had a chance to see it, but the DVD was released recently and is available from Netflix.

The movie is interesting on several dimensions.  It tries to deal with an intellectual life, personal and world history as well as related controversy. As a film it is challenging to see the portrayal of thinking, skeptical musing along with reluctant understanding covered within a biopic frame. Along the movie we see long trains of thoughts punctuated by rather pointed arguments.

Coming out of a Hegelian tradition layered under Martin Heidegger’s Existentialism and her own efforts to reconcile reasoned and cultural understanding, there is much to infer going on below the surface of facial expressions.  This is alluded to sometimes in flashbacks and group debates, but the film’s main device is to show things through Arendt penchant for questioning the conventional wisdom of the times. In particular it is what she sees and tries to understand at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. .She worries that there is a show trial aspects using as a frame crimes against a people, the Jews, rather than a crime against humanity which she sees as the relevant concept. Slowly she develops a counter narrative to the trial’s frame.

At the trial Eichmann adopts a "Nuremberg-style defense" which argues that he was only following orders from a maximum leader. He didn’t know any more than that people were being moved.  He was disinterested and thus could not possibly be charged with war crimes. The man that Arendt sees thinking (in contrast to seeing her thinking about what he is saying)  in some robotic way (shown in black and while clips from the actual trial) is not that a raving, power-centric sociopath with special goals. Instead she sees a hollowed out person who speaks like a bureaucrat. He is more of a clown or an amoral careerist playing by rules with a system and uninterested in asking questions. Honestly this portion of the film had me thinking of plausible deniability mixed in with George W. Bush and friends and the run up to and execution of the Iraq War.

To Hannah Eichmann is a nobody who seems frightfully conformist & normal. This is the result, she speculates, as part of a de-humanizing and anti-intellectual aspect of modern life with dire consequences.  As a person who sees special virtues in reasoning she is horrified and fears future atrocities if civic humanism and ciritical thinking is not restored and emphasized.  The horrendous consequences passively following orders without reason leads to a situation that she calls "the banality of evil."   

Much of the latter part of the film concerns the backlash to her 5 part series in the New Yorker and the subsequent book on that banality.  Along the way we get to know more about her values and how she frames her life.  We see the consequences of various criticisms such as defending Eichmann by trying to understand him, disrespecting the Jewish victims and not defending her tribe, the Jews.  The film nicely shows and implies points on both sides of the argument, her strengths as a critical thinker and her weaknesses in not always applying that same critical thinking – perhaps due to the brittleness of being too abstractly philosophical. You can imagine the type of criticism she took for her critique of what she called a “cooperative” European Jewish leadership that often worked with the Nazis.  To them (and many of us looking back) there was some hope of saving as many Jews as possible by accommodation. To Arendt, it was an enabling capitulation reached by an absence of perspective and a central value for civic humanism in their reasoning.

A strong point of criticism was her apparent lack of self-identification with nations, cultures, or faiths. These are not the primary foundations for Arendt as shown in this portion of a letter not shown in the film, but implied in her stances:

“this kind of love for the Jews would seem suspect to me, since I’m Jewish myself….. We would both agree that patriotism is impossible without constant opposition and critique. In this entire affair I can confess to you one thing: the injustice committed by my own people naturally provokes me more than injustice done by others.”

Critical thinking covered in portions of her letters are used as dialog in the film with a central one being an exchange with Zionist Gershom Scholem. The film has a dear friend, stand-in character for Scholem, named Kurt Blumenfeld.  Their debates are used to show the destruction of some of Arendt’s great friendship due to political-philosophical differences. In a letter to Arendt the real Scholem wrote (in 1963) that “In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahabath Israel, or Love for the Jewish people.’ In you, dear Hannah, as in so many intellectuals who came from the German left, I find no trace of this.
Arendt response to Scholem is covered as movie dialog and seemed to me a central point of her character as shown in the movie:

“How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: first, I have never in my life “loved” some nation or collective — not the German, French or American nation, or the working class, or anything of that kind.  Indeed I love ‘only’ my friends and am quite incapable of any other kind of love.”

The film nicely exposes Arendt’s relations with a network of friends who largely abandon her with exceptions like Mary McCarthy, who is deliciously portrayed.  A paradox glimpsed is her unchanging devotion to mentor Martin Heidegger, who was Rector at Freiburg in the 34 where he instituted the Hitler salute, and collaborated in the persecution of Jewish students and faculty-members including his own mentor. Interestingly the
argument is that he saved some Jews by such accommodations – which seems to be of a type of what Jewish leaders were trying.  Arendt accepts this for her mentor, but not other leaders. At Freiburg Heidegger in 1934 told the student body that “the Führer and he alone is the present and future German reality and its law.” It is an unexplored paradox that Arendt had the temerity to wave away as a minor weakness. After the war in a birthday address broadcast on West German radio Arendt explains Heidegger’s Nazism as an “escapade,” a mistake, which happened only because the thinker naïvely “succumbed to the temptation . . . to ‘intervene’ in the world of human affairs.”  What conclusion does she take from Heidegger’s behavior?  Well she seems to say “the thinking ‘I’ is entirely different from the self of consciousness.” And so Heidegger’s thought cannot be contaminated by the actions of the mere man.

Whew!!  Now there is a separation that raised moral issues of responsibility. Where did critical thinking go when a friend, lover,and great man was involved?  Some blind spots remain almost irresistibly seductive for intellectuals of all magnitudes. And that is perhaps part of the movie’s message, but made quietly in contrast to the big dialogic arguments.

On the plus side, if you can get over her blindness for great thinkers, we see in the movie some of her important insights in lectures to admiring students at the New School.  Part of it is a warning about the danger that comes from some meta-belief, some idea that humans can "know" in some permanent or absolute way what is an ultimate "good" or is “right.” She fears ideologies that define some fixed course of future human history rather than thinking through it pragmatically in context – an approach that she might share with John Dewey. This belief in a God or Grand Leader view she associated with religious fanatics and violent revolutionaries who accept using a necessary evil in the pursuit of desirable ends. Her counter to this was an evolutionary type of change she called revolution. This idea of "revolution" she reserved for identifying fundamental changes in human ways of thinking and relating which she associates with modernity.  It is interesting to know that she speculated that this revolution had a secular form, whereby we humans are slowly freeing ourselves from long-established fears, often though violence and power from cultural-national-religious myths.


Don Wharton said...

This is a powerful post. A minor correction, Heiddeger was Rector at Freiburg only for a year ending in April of 1934. Apparently he remained a Nazi and fully supported the Hitler effort after that time.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Don, yes you are right he quit after a year...according to Heidegger at Freiburg, 1933
by Roger Kimball (see below) he did show some resistance then, but afterwards withdrew from political activity, but without canceling his membership in the Nazi party.

His repeated defiance of official policy—he appointed Jewish deans, for example, prohibited the posting of the so-called “Jew Notice” on university property, and forbade a scheduled book burning of “decadent” literature—quickly led him into conflict with Nazi authorities. Matters came to a head near the end of February 1934. Heidegger was asked to remove two deans he had appointed, Möllendorf, who was dean of medicine, and Erik Wolf, dean of law. He refused. Just ten months after he became rector, Heidegger resigned in protest, withdrawing from any further involvement in university, or national, politics....

Well there is one quote from a lecture in 35 or so translated as:
"hat today is systematically touted as the philosophy of National Socialism, but which has nothing in the least to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement (namely the encounter of a globally determined technology with the man of the new age), darts about with fish-like movements in the murky waters of these 'values' and 'totalities'."