What Hannah Arendt Teaches Those Who Would Write

By Mike Feinsilber

Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, Senator Russell Long of Louisiana used to tell overly cautious witnesses before his Senate Finance Committee a story about a schoolteacher being interviewed for a job by a rural school board.

“Tell me, young man,” the school board chairman asked, “do you believe the world is round or flat?”

“I don’t know, sir,” replied the job applicant. “But I can teach it either way.”

Hannah Arendt wouldn’t have seen the humor. She could tell only the truth as she saw it.

To fill in for readers who weren’t reading the news in the 1950s:

Hannah Arendt was an intellectual, a German-Jewish refugee who had fled Adolf Hitler’s Germany for France. When the Germans stormed into France, she was captured and interned by the puppet government the Germans had installed. But she escaped and made her way on fake papers to the United States.

In 1951, Arendt, by then a philosophy professor at New York’s New School of Social Research, published a scholarly book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. It diagnosed Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia as parallel embodiments of what was then a terrifying new form of government, totalitarianism.

In Nazi Germany in 1942, Adolf Eichmann, an ambitious SS lieutenant colonel, had been appointed recording secretary at the infamous Wannsee Conference where the extermination of the Jews was adopted as the official policy of Hitler’s Third Reich. Eichmann then was put in charge of the trains that were to carry Jews to the death camps. When the war ended, he escaped occupied Germany, fleeing on false papers to Argentina.

In 1960, Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, learned of Eichmann’s whereabouts. Mossad agents kidnapped him and flew him to Israel, where the new state, home of many escapees of Hitler’s executioners, decided to put him on trial, charged with committing crimes against humanity.

Hannah Arendt asked the New Yorker to let her cover the trial. Editor William Shawn was pleased to engage her. What emerged from her typewriter was a five-part series, subsequently published in 1963 as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

When the New Yorker articles appeared, crowds gathered to denounce the author and to shout down her defenders, including an eminent Holocaust scholar, Raul Hilberg. Arendt was denounced as a self-loathing Jew. Essayist Lionel Abel wrote that in her book Eichmann “comes off so much better … than his victims.”

Eichmann in Jerusalem caused what Roger Berkowitz, academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, calls “fifty years of deadening controversy.” In the book, Arendt, defying conventional wisdom, portrayed Eichmann as merely a cog—“not a monster” but “a clown”—incapable of thinking of the consequences of his actions. He personified “the banality of evil.”

Just as provocatively, she also portrayed the Jewish community leaders in Germany and Poland as complicit in the destruction of the Jews, helping the Nazis to round up their victims and confiscate their possessions. Absent these Jewish leaders, she wrote, “there would have been chaos and plenty of misery,” but the number of murdered Jews would have been smaller.

As it turned out, while he was still living in Argentina, Eichmann had given an interview to a former SS officer which cast new doubts on Arendt’s conclusions about Eichmann. The New York Times reported that the tapes came to light a few years ago. On them Eichmann boasted of helping draft the letter ordering “the Final Solution”—the plan to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews—and said, “I was not just a recipient of orders. Had I been that, I would have been an imbecile. I was an idealist.”

Was Eichmann lying then to his fellow SS officer? Or was he lying in the witness box while fighting for his life?

Whichever, one conclusion emerges: Arendt’s fealty to the truth as she saw it, regardless of the consequences, is what writing is about. The known truth may change with time, but the pursuit of it always is honorable.

Now, half a century later, “Hannah Arendt” is a thoughtful, even courageous, movie by a German director, Margarethe von Trotta. The film, wrote Bard’s Berkowitz in the Paris Review, fortifies Arendt’s belief that “in modern bureaucratic societies human evil originates from a failure not of goodness” but from a failure to think.

Arendt had to have anticipated the attacks that would follow publication of her against-the-grain conclusions. The New Yorker’s Shawn tried to warn her. No, she said, this was the truth as she knew it.

There’s a lesson there for those who would be writers.

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.

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