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“Hannah Arendt” Revisits Fiery Debate over German-Jewish Theorist’s Coverage of Eichmann Trial

StoryNovember 26, 2013
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As head of the Gestapo office for Jewish affairs, Adolf Eichmann organized transport systems which resulted in the deportation of millions of Jews to extermination camps across Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Eichmann helped draft the letter ordering the Final Solution — the Nazi’s plan to exterminate the Jewish people in Nazi-occupied Europe. After the war, Eichmann fled to Argentina, where he lived under a false identity until he was kidnapped by the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, on May 11, 1960. He was flown to Israel and brought to trial in Jerusalem in April 1961. After being found guilty, he was executed by hanging in 1962. One writer reporting on the trial was the German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, the author of “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “The Human Condition.” Arendt’s coverage of the trial for The New Yorker proved extremely controversial. She expressed shock that Eichmann was not a monster, or evil, but “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Even more controversial was her assertion that the Jews participated in their own destruction through the collaboration of the Nazi-appointed Judenrat, or Jewish councils, with the Third Reich. Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial is chronicled in the 2013 film, “Hannah Arendt.” We air clips of the film and speak with the film’s star, Barbara Sukowa, who was awarded the Lola Award for Best Actress, the German equivalent of the Oscars, for her role. We are also joined by the film’s director, Margarethe von Trotta, one of Germany’s leading directors, who has won multiple awards over her 40-year career.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: After the U.N. climate summit concluded in Warsaw last week, Democracy Now! traveled to Treblinka, an extermination camp built by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II. The camp operated officially between July 1942 and October 1943, during which time over 800,000 Jews were killed. Tens of thousands of Roma, disabled people and others were also killed at the camp.

AMY GOODMAN: Our tour guide at Treblinka was Zuzanna Radzik of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a Polish nonprofit group that works to eliminate anti-Semitism in Poland.

ZUZANNA RADZIK: This camp could actually receive 10,000 to 12,000 people daily, so a day. And those people didn’t live there longer than, you know, an hour or two hours. Immediately from the trains, they went to the gas chambers and then were buried, or the bodies were removed to crematoria. The process was not very long.

AMY GOODMAN: The landscape of the memorial was dotted by thousands of large rocks, many of them not of individuals, but of whole communities. With nearly a million killed, there wouldn’t have been room.

One of the individuals responsible for sending Jews to their death in Poland and other countries in Nazi-occupied Europe was Adolf Eichmann. As head of the Gestapo Office for Jewish Affairs, Eichmann organized transport systems which resulted in the deportation of millions of Jews to extermination camps across German-occupied Eastern Europe. He helped draft the letter ordering the “Final Solution,” the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.

After the war, Eichmann fled to Argentina, where he lived under a false identity until he was kidnapped by the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, on May 11, 1960, flown to Israel, brought to trial in Jerusalem in April 1961. After being found guilty, he was executed by hanging in 1962.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One writer reporting on Eichmann’s trial was the German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. Arendt’s coverage of the trial for The New Yorker proved extremely controversial. She expressed shock that Eichmann was not a monster or evil, but, quote, “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Even more controversial was her assertion that the Jews participated in their own destruction through the collaboration of the Nazi-appointed Judenrat, or Jewish councils, with the Third Reich. She first coined the term “the banality of evil” to apply to Eichmann following her reporting of his trial.

Well, we spend the rest of the hour on a recent film which profiles Arendt’s coverage of the trial. The film is simply called Hannah Arendt. This is part of the trailer

EDITOR: “There were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership cooperated with the Nazis.” They’ll have our heads for this.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] This was the headline in the Daily News: “Hannah Arendt’s Bizarre Defense of Eichmann.”

ASSISTANT: [translated] These think your articles are terrific. And these want you dead. Some of them are quite colorful.

HANNAH ARENDT: [played by Barbara Sukowa] The greatest evil in the world is the evil committed by nobodies.

MARY McCARTHY: [played by Janet McTeer] Did you really have no idea there would be such a furious reaction?

HANNAH ARENDT: Trying to understand is not the same as forgiveness.

KURT BLUMENFELD: [played by Michael Degen] [translated] This time you’ve gone too far.

HANNAH ARENDT: [translated] It is this phenomenon that I have called the banality of evil.

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer to the film Hannah Arendt. Democracy Now! spoke to the lead actor and director of the film earlier this year when the film was released in New York. Margarethe von Trotta is the director of Hannah Arendt. She is one of Germany’s leading film directors, has won multiple awards over her 40-year career. The actress Barbara Sukowa plays Hannah Arendt in the film. She was awarded the Lola Award for Best Actress, the German equivalent of the Oscars, for her role. We started by asking Margarethe von Trotta why it was so significant for Hannah Arendt to decide to cover Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.

MARGARETHE VON TROTTA: She wrote it, because she offered herself to The New Yorker to go there, and she wrote to them, “I was not in Nuremberg. I didn’t see one of these monsters, one of these Nazis in flesh, in the face. And I want to go there to look at somebody, to see him, and to make up my own mind.” And then she meets him there, and he’s so different from what she expected. And that was—in the beginning, it was difficult for her to understand. And one of her most important sentences always, “I want to understand.” So, she wanted to understand why he’s so different, why he’s not a monster, why he’s not a Satan.

AMY GOODMAN: But her husband saying to her there, “I know what this is going to turn you back to, the pain that you knew.” What is this pain that she knew personally?

MARGARETHE VON TROTTA: That is a pain that they both had when they heard about the Holocaust and heard about what happened in Poland and everywhere in the camps. And they were both totally destroyed, for months. And so, he knew, when she goes back, and there are coming up all the testimonies, with all their stories, that they will—she will go back into this depression. And he feared for her. But she wanted it. But she was critical with Hausner, with the prosecutor, that he had all this, and that the testimonies had to retell all her story, and there are some of them, they’re fainting, and they’re really—you can see how much it costed them to tell their stories.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the devices in the film was to actually use the archival footage of Eichmann in trial, because that amazingly was all videoed. And before we go to a clip that shows both your dramatic film, but with the actual archival footage of Eichmann, so you have no one playing Eichmann—he is, in a sense, playing himself—talk about that decision, Margarethe.

MARGARETHE VON TROTTA: I saw—a long time before I knew that I will make a film about Hannah Arendt, I saw The Specialist, an Israeli documentary that was only a half—one hour and a half, only the trial. And he followed the line of Hannah Arendt, and he said it in the beginning. So, that—when we started to write the script with Pam Katz, I immediately told her, “We have to look it up again, and we have to go with this material.” And so, we already—during we wrote, we already chose some of the clips, let’s say, some of that. And then, when I started to make the film, I saw much more material, and I chose also other material which was not in The Specialist. But, for me, it was from the beginning totally clear that I had to use this, because to put an actor in, the spectator only would have looked at him, “Oh, he’s so brilliant. He’s fantastic, how we did it,” and so—and they will admire the actor and not see the mediocrity of the man. And so, that was my point, to see the mediocrity, to go with Hannah Arendt to look at him and to get the same thought out of him.

BARBARA SUKOWA: That was also a reason that we didn’t go for an impersonation of Hannah Arendt.


BARBARA SUKOWA: Because we didn’t want people to look at an acting job and say, “Oh, now she looks like Hannah Arendt.” We didn’t do, you know, a lot of like prosthetics or anything. We just wanted people to concentrate and focus on what she is saying and what she’s thinking, and not think about acting.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the film that you referred to, Margarethe, The Specialist, the documentary by the Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan, as you said, it’s only two hours long, but apparently the footage of Eichmann is up to 350 hours of the trial itself?

MARGARETHE VON TROTTA: At YouTube, you can see 270, but there’s still more, yes. But I didn’t see that at all. But I said to my assistant, who saw it all, “I want to have some of these scenes in,” and so he looked for.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, let’s just go to a clip of the Eichmann trial. This is the trial being watched by reporters on a television screen, which is how Arendt witnessed it. And this is part of Eichmann’s testimony.

ADOLF EICHMANN: [translated] Yes, I read here that during the transport 15 people died. I can only say that these records were not the responsibility of Department 4B-4.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Eichmann testifying, as you show it in your film, Hannah Arendt. In another scene from the trial, Eichmann is asked explicitly about the Final Solution.

PROSECUTOR: [translated] Was it proven to you that the Jews had to be exterminated?

ADOLF EICHMANN: [translated] I didn’t exterminate them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Margarethe von Trotta, can you talk about those scenes?

MARGARETHE VON TROTTA: Yeah, somebody now who read the Sassen papers, no, were coming out now in Germany, but also before. That was a judge, a fanatic Nazi who went to Argentina, who knew where he was hiding, Eichmann, and they did a long interview. And there, he spoke about himself as if he was a real fanatic Nazi, and he wanted to kill all the Jews, even after the war and so. And he gave himself such an importance that that was not true. My interpretation is that he was hiding so long that then coming up somebody who could—he could show what kind of man he was, no?

And then, in the trial, he put down his light—well, how do you say? He put down his importance. And perhaps he was more important than he made believe in the trial. But it was—I think it was in between. But this main point for Hannah Arendt is that she says he was not stupid, but he was thoughtless. He didn’t think. And that you can really—in some of the clips I show, you really can see it. And when you speak German, you even can feel it more, because he’s unable to say one sentence in the right way.

AMY GOODMAN: As the trial in Jerusalem is underway, Arendt meets with friends at a restaurant and reveals what she perceives of Eichmann’s character. Her old political mentor and friend, Kurt Blumenfeld, fiercely disagrees with her.

HANNAH ARENDT: [played by Barbara Sukowa] [translated] He swears he never personally harmed a Jew.

KURT BLUMENFELD: [played by Michael Degen] [translated] So he claims.

HANNAH ARENDT: [translated] But isn’t it interesting that a man who did everything a murderous system asked of him, who even seems eager to give precise details of his fine works, that this man insists he personally has nothing against Jews?

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] He’s lying!

HANNAH ARENDT: [translated] False. He’s not.

KURT BLUMENFELD: [translated] You’re falling for this?

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] He claims he didn’t know where the trains were going. You believe that, too?

HANNAH ARENDT: [translated] Knowing that was irrelevant for him. He transported people to their deaths, but didn’t feel responsible for it. Once the trains were in motion, his work was done.

KURT BLUMENFELD: [translated] So he can say he’s free of guilt? Despite what happened to the people he transported?

HANNAH ARENDT: [translated] Yes, that’s how he sees it. He’s a bureaucrat.

KURT BLUMENFELD: [translated] Your quest for truth is admirable, but this time you’ve gone too far.

HANNAH ARENDT: [translated] But, Kurt, you can’t deny the huge difference between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the mediocrity of the man.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Hannah Arendt fiercely debating Kurt Blumenfeld. Margarethe von Trotta, talk about the heart, because this is the heart of what Hannah Arendt is arguing in The Banality of Evil.



MARGARETHE VON TROTTA: Oh, that—yeah, because she went there and expecting a monster, like everybody else, because she couldn’t understand or she couldn’t expect that it’s only a normal bureaucrat. And so, she had to wait to get to her idea about him. She didn’t have it immediately. But then, in this scene, she was already there for a certain time, so she could look at him and observe him already. And so, she came up with this idea of the only bureaucratic.

And Kurt Blumenfeld, who was quarreling with her in this scene in the end, he’s so angry with her that she turns away. And even when he is on his deathbed, he even doesn’t want to see her anymore. So, we have both opinions in the film. And you can choose where you want to stand and where you want to be, with Blumenfeld or with her, or also Hans Jonas, her old friend, a student with her, with Martin Heidegger, the philosopher. He also turns away.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the criticisms of the film has been that it gives the impression that there were no Jewish intellectuals who agreed with Hannah Arendt at the time of her writing these articles in The New Yorker and with the subsequent publication of the book, whereas people point out that there were—you know, Bruno Bettelheim, for example, as well as Raul Hilberg—there were Jewish intellectuals who agreed. Was there a decision that you made to represent only the voices of opposition for dramatic purposes, or can you just talk about that?

MARGARETHE VON TROTTA: There were very few who did understand her and who defended her, very few. And we chose Mary McCarthy, because she was a friend of her during her whole life in America and also during the period we show. So, we put in all the defending theme in her part. And the others are Podhoretz and others and Abel and Howe and so.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the—once she wrote the pieces in The New Yorker, the fire The New Yorker came under and that she came under, because she, like many German-Jewish intellectuals, had come to be in New York at The New School. They founded The New School. And she might even have lost her job there. There was so much pressure for her to resign.

MARGARETHE VON TROTTA: Yeah, and she feared all of a sudden she will go to exile again. And that was for her also a point she was suffering about, because, you know, when you had to go away from your country for once, and then she went to Paris, and when the Germans invaded France, they put these people who came to France to be protected, they put them into interment camps. All of a sudden, there again, she had to flee. So, it was both—from both countries, she was exiled or she had to flee. And then she came to America. And for her, it was paradise. Like she says also in the film, she was so happy with her—even if she didn’t speak a word of English when she came here, no? And then after this controversy, she had the feeling that also in this country, who became her home, she was not well seen, and she became again a stranger. And that was very, very painful for her.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So let’s go to a clip now from the film, where Hannah Arendt is put under extraordinary pressure after the articles have appeared in The New Yorker, and she is even asked to leave the university in the U.S. where she’s lecturing at the time.

UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATOR 1: We’ve discussed it at length and arrived at a unanimous decision.

UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATOR 2: We respectfully advise you to relinquish your teaching obligations.

HANNAH ARENDT: [played by Barbara Sukowa] Under no circumstances will I give up my classes.

UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATOR 2: You may not have enough students who are willing to study with you.

HANNAH ARENDT: Perhaps you have not been in communication with your own students, but I’m entirely oversubscribed at the moment. And because of the extraordinary support of the students, I have decided to accept their invitation, and I will speak publicly about the hysterical reactions to my report.

UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATOR 1: That’s Hannah Arendt, all arrogance and no feeling.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Barbara Sukowa, could you talk about that particular scene? And she goes on after that to give an absolutely spectacular speech, which one reviewer has said is the “greatest articulation of the importance of thinking that will ever be presented in a film.”



BARBARA SUKOWA: Well, I had a good script writer.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: It’s a seven-minute-long speech. And can you talk about how you prepared for it and how it is that you delivered it? It’s very powerful.

BARBARA SUKOWA: Well, you know, as Margarethe said before, what goes through all her writings is the sentence, “I want to understand.” And she wants those students to understand, too. And I thought it was really important that I, as an actor, really have to understand what she is saying, because otherwise the audience won’t understand it. And so we worked on that scene quite a bit. We changed a little bit lines. We really tried to make it in a way that—yeah, that people understood it. And there, you know, I had to find a balance between an emotional approach, because she was emotional at this point—she was very afraid, she always was very afraid when she had to go in front of a public and to talk, she had like almost stage fright—and also be very clear on the thinking. So, it cannot be—as an actor, you cannot only go the—you can’t be just like a cold thinker in that moment. You have to also bring in her emotion. And so, we tried to find that balance so that those people would understand.

I mean, for me, the reason why I, you know, did also this film with Margarethe, because the topic of the Holocaust is one that has been a big topic of my life, because the generation that raised me—my teachers, my parents—they were all part of that generation.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you born?

BARBARA SUKOWA: I was born in Bremen. And—


BARBARA SUKOWA: When Hannah Arendt says, “If you see that man,” in the scene before that you showed, and the difference, the horrors that happened, it was something that she couldn’t bring together. How is that mediocre man there, and there are these incredible horrors? And the same for us, you know? It was: How are there these nice people that we know? How could they witness these incredible horrors? Are they lying? Are they not lying? What did they really know? So, this was, for me, also, you know, a reason why I was very attracted to that topic again and to Hannah Arendt. I really do think that the question whether Eichmann is really mediocre or not—there’s been a lot of research out since Hannah Arendt wrote the book. I mean, Yad Vashem was just only founded at that time; you know, now they have big archives and all.

AMY GOODMAN: The memorial in Israel.

BARBARA SUKOWA: But the thing is that he is a prototype. It doesn’t matter whether he personally—whether she was right on him. Other people might see a demon in him, you know? But these people existed, these bureaucrat. And the thing is that he never regretted. He felt justified with what he did. He said, “I obeyed the law of my country, and the law of my country was Hitler’s law.” And I think that is interesting for us today, you know. How much do you obey a law? You have to think about the law.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Actress Barbara Sukowa is the star of Hannah Arendt. We were also joined by the film’s director, Margarethe von Trotta. The film has just been released on DVD.

AMY GOODMAN: Tune in Thursday and Friday for our holiday shows, our tribute to Yip Harburg, blacklisted lyricist who put the rainbow in The Wizard of Oz. He also wrote the words to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and so much more. Then, our discussion about Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, with Craig Steven Wilder and Katrina Brown.

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