Hannah Arendt

Considered as a cinematographic work of art, Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt is nothing special. It’s a pretty straightforward piece of story-telling, quite well made and very well acted by Barbara Sukowa. Interesting though Hannah Arendt was as a philosopher and as a person, it was still quite an achievement to make such a watchable film from this material: a German Jewish philosopher writes a book about the trial of a Nazi war criminal, thereby making herself very unpopular with the Jews (including lots of her friends) in New York and Israel – the end. The fact that the films succeeds as well as it does says a lot about the exceptional talents of both its director and its leading actress.

(details below)

I have very little more to say about the film, but lots to say about its subject matter. The little I’ve read about Hannah Arendt over the years has led me to have great respect for her, and this film certainly did nothing to change that. Her views on ‘the nature of evil’ go a long way in the direction of mine, although as far as I’m concerned she didn’t go quite far enough. The concepts ‘good’ and ‘evil’ have traditionally been seen as things which exist in their own right, i.e. as objectively existing qualities or forces which are independent of the human mind – the sort of things people might discover, examine, resist or be influenced by – rather than simply as human inventions. Christians (among others) have objectified them completely by identifying them with God and the Devil and seeing human life as a sort of battleground where these two cosmic forces fight it out. An amazing amount of energy and ingenuity has been wasted debating whether human beings are inherently good or inherently evil, and in trying to explain how evil found its way into the world – a serious problem for those who believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God who also happens to be ‘good’! Either evil is seen as a sort of external, corrupting force – or at the very least as an aberration, an exceptional situation comparable to a disease – alien to true or ‘normal’ human nature, or else human nature is seen as being inherently evil and in need of some sort of salvation, as with the idea of original sin. Hannah Arendt thought that what we call evil was the result of ‘the inability to think’, e.g. in the case of Eichmann, his blind obedience to the rules of a system which precluded any thoughts of his own. In other words, if he’d been able to think, then he wouldn’t have done the things he did. Or perhaps if he’d been willing to think: I don’t know how much Arendt said about the question – important though it surely is when you’re considering questions of guilt and innocence – of whether his lack of thought was the result of inability or unwillingness.

In any case, the implication is that anyone capable of normal thought would ‘obviously’ realise that what they were being asked to do was evil. This is reminiscent of those words in the US constitution about certain truths being ‘self-evident’ – at least if you’re able to think about them. Although this point of view seems to put the question of good and evil squarely into the realm of human thought processes, the only thing required of the mind here is to recognise something external to itself which is ‘self-evidently’ evil, and which therefore should be resisted and fought against. I would go much further and say that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are entirely human inventions and have no existence of their own in any objective sense. For me, recognising this fact is part of a process in which the human race takes full responsibility for it actions. In other words we are not only responsible for recognising evil and fighting against it, we are responsible for defining evil in the first place.

Seen in this light, Eichmann’s problem was not an inability to think, but rather the fact that he thought about these things differently than we do: what we decide to label as ‘evil’ was presumably ‘good’ from his point of view. In other words what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’ comes down to a subjective judgement, a matter of opinion. What any person defines as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ respectively is nothing more or less than what helps or hinders them in whatever it is they are trying to achieve. Someone who was trying to achieve an Aryan-dominated, 100% Jew-free world would presumably regard Eichmann’s actions as ‘good’, and if the Germans had won the war this would probably be the generally accepted view. But they didn’t, and what everyone except the Nazis is trying to achieve, even if they can’t agree on what it might be, is certainly something radically opposed to that Nazi aim, so that as a result, from the point of view of everyone except the Nazis, Eichmann’s actions were extremely unhelpful and therefore ‘evil’.

Is all this just playing with words? I don’t think so. You could say we end up where we started, with Eichmann’s actions being described as ‘evil’, but now we are taking full responsibility for this description: ‘evil’ is no longer something which exists in the universe and which we may or may not recognise as such, and the question of whether some action is good or evil is therefore no longer something which we can argue about as we might argue about the validity of a factual statement. We ‘just’ have to decide what we’re trying to achieve, and then examine the action in question as objectively as possible and decide whether it’s likely to help or hinder us in achieving that aim. There’s plenty of room for doubt, discussion and conflict at various stages of that process (opinions will inevitably differ on both questions: what we’re trying to achieve and how can we best achieve it), but it’s still a big improvement on what the human race has been up to for most of its history when it comes to moral questions: chasing the wild geese of supposedly objective forces or qualities called ‘good’ and ‘evil’, with each group projecting its own subjective views as ‘objectively good’ and those of its opponents as ‘objectively evil’. Getting back to Hannah Arendt, I think that in describing Eichmann as someone whose thought processes were defective she went at least half way towards this view.

Hannah Arendt was someone with a great respect for thought and rationality, but yet again, she didn’t go quite far enough in asserting the superiority of thought and rationality over ‘feelings’ as a way of deciding one’s relations and governing one’s dealings with the rest of the world, i.e. as the only reliable basis for morality and ethics. It was interesting in the film – and I’ve no reason to suppose that the reality was much different – to see how often she was described as ‘heartless’, ‘cold’ and lacking in emotion and sympathy. As if ’emotion’ and ‘feelings’ could ever be enough to create the sort of world in which someone like Eichmann couldn’t exist, or at least could never get into a position of power, and where something like the Holocaust could never happen! She was advocating dispassionate thought and rationality as our only hope of ever solving the world’s problems, and in this she was quite right, but she didn’t come right out and say that emotions and feelings are just part of a more primitive system of reacting to ones surroundings and deciding how to act – the equivalent of what we describe as ‘instinct’ when talking about animals – and that rationality is objectively superior for the simple reason that it works better. In other words, emotions and rationality are two different tools for dealing with the world around us, and rationality can be considered to be a ‘better’, i.e. more advanced and effective tool than emotions, in exactly the same way as the internal combustion engine can be considered a ‘better’ method of transportation than the horse, or nuclear power can be considered a ‘better’ source of energy than coal. Like any other tools, however, emotions and rationality are inherently neutral, and the effects they have depend entirely on how they are used. Human beings tend to be very attached to their ‘feelings’, and perhaps Arendt was unwilling to go too far in this direction so as not to alienate herself more than she already had done from her friends, her colleagues and the rest of the human race. If this was the case, then seeing the effect her ideas had on so many of those around her, she could hardly be blamed for being careful. In the same way, Margarethe von Trotta seems to have gone out of her way in this film to show Arendt as someone who ‘had feelings too’, constantly emphasising her loving relationship with her husband, presumably to make her appear a more sympathetic character to the average viewer.

It’s interesting to consider that while Arendt was basically contending that the Nazis were neither ‘inhuman’ (i.e. inherently different from the rest of us), nor evil in any objective sense, but rather just stupid and unthinking, the very people who were so shocked by what she said, and who described her as ‘cold’ and ‘unfeeling’, were acting in exactly the way she said the Nazis had acted. It was quite amazing to see – as presented in this film – how stupid some of her university colleagues could be, the extent to which they could allow themselves to be blinded by their emotions, and the fact that even some of her best friends, seemingly intelligent and well-meaning people who knew her well and could not possibly have doubted her good intentions, were simply unable to understand what she was saying. She didn’t go so far as to actually point out the similarity between the way these peoples’ minds were working and the thought processes which had resulted in the Holocaust (she was unpopular enough already!), although it was gently suggested at one point in the film when the Mossad agent said that her book would never be published in Israel and she commented on the fact that ‘they were banning books now’. I would go so far as to say that the later actions of the state of Israel amply demonstrated this similarity, and that the irrational, emotional arguments used against her, for instance that it was wrong for a Jew to criticise other Jews, did in fact lead to plenty of racism and human rights abuses.

I think that Arendt’s greatest practical contribution to thought on ‘evil’ in general and the Nazis in particular was the idea that the Nazis weren’t somehow ‘abnormal’, an exception to the general rules of human behaviour. Anyone who looks objectively at human history will agree that the only exceptional thing about the Nazis was the industrial scale and the efficiency of their activities – what they did, they did well – and that equally evil and cruel things have been done throughout history by people all over the world who were convinced that what they were doing was right or at the very least unavoidable. Were the crimes of the Nazis different in kind from those of the Spanish in South America, the British in Africa, Stalin in the USSR, the Catholic church regarding ‘heretics’, or most of the ‘civilised’ world regarding the slave trade? No, they were only different in degree, and failure to recognise this, by holding the Nazis up as the example of Ultimate Evil, only serves to obscure the guilt of all these other murderers and torturers. Arendt was perhaps the first person to put the Nazi crimes into perspective, to point out that the Nazis were normal human beings and that the problem wasn’t with the Nazis as such but rather with the way peoples’ minds work – with the implication that what the Nazis did could happen again, and that the only way of preventing it is to understand why it happens. What she was doing, and what got her into trouble with so many people, was not finding it sufficient to condemn the Nazis as ‘monsters’, but actually trying to understand them. I once came across a quote which some enthusiastic anti-paedophile campaigner was using in his signature in some forum, something along the lines of “sometimes it’s better not to understand” (or perhaps not to want to understand, or not to try to understand, I can’t remember), but which came down to this: in some cases it’s better not to try to understand ‘evil’, but just to hate, condemn and combat it. Sooner or later the human race is going to have to grow up and learn that if you want to improve the world then you’ll have to improve that very important part of it known as ‘human nature’, and that you can’t improve anything, especially ‘human nature’, without first understanding it. Hannah Arendt was ahead of her time in that she had realised this fact, and the reactions she received from the people around her showed just how far the human race still has to go…



title Hannah Arendt
director Margarethe von Trotta
released 2012
actors Barbara Sukowa
language English, Deutsch, Hebrew
subtitles français
seen 09/07/2013, at the cinema


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