Eighty-Five from the Archive: Hannah Arendt
Posted by Erin Overbey
This year is The New Yorker’s eighty-fifth anniversary. To celebrate, over eighty-five weekdays we will turn a spotlight on a notable article, story, or poem from the magazine’s history. The issue containing that day’s selected piece will be made freely available in our digital archive and will remain open until the next day’s selection is posted.
In 1961, The New Yorker sent a reporter to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Third Reich’s Final Solution, who had been kidnapped by Mossad operatives in Argentina and brought to Jerusalem to stand trial for his crimes. The writer was Hannah Arendt and the five-part article which emerged, “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” set off what is considered to be one of the most passionate public debates concerning the Holocaust ever to take place.
Arendt, who was born in Wilhelmine, Germany, in 1906, studied theology at the University of Marburg, where she met the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who would become her mentor and, later, her lover. In 1933, she was arrested by the Gestapo for collecting evidence of anti-Semitic propaganda. After fleeing to Paris, she worked for a Jewish relief group before being sent to an internment camp, in Gurs, from which she escaped. She and her husband, Heinrich Blücher, emigrated to America, and she began writing for the Partisan Review and Jewish Frontier. Her 1951 masterwork, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” about the parallels between Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalinist Russia, made her an intellectual celebrity. In an essay that ran in The New Yorker last year, Adam Kirsch wrote,
Like so many Jewish writers of her generation, Arendt attempted in her work to shine the light of intellect on the extreme darkness she lived through. That she chose to do this in the most impersonal of genres—philosophy and history—rather than through memoir, or even poetry (which she loved to read, and wrote from time to time), is itself a clue to the immense psychological pressures that shaped her work and, in the end, partly disfigured it.
Arendt, who published fourteen pieces in the magazine from 1963 to 1977, also wrote profiles of W. H. Auden, Bertolt Brecht, and Walter Benjamin, as well as philosophical essays on civil disobedience and rational thought. In a Postscript published in 1975, William Shawn articulated her significant intellectual legacy:
As the years passed, it became plain that she was one of those thinkers, rare in all history, who are empowered to inch human thought forward—who can add something to man’s knowledge and understanding of himself, who can push back the boundaries of where the mind can go. Her ideas, as original as they were, had about them the normality and the inevitability of truths that had been waiting somewhere to be found.
Although the poet Robert Lowell called “Eichmann in Jerusalem” a “masterpiece,” Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann as a bureaucrat motivated not by extreme ideology but rather by ambition disturbed many people. Throughout the piece, Arendt wrestles with her perception of Eichmann, calling him “monstrous” yet “terrifyingly normal.” In a 1995 essay, Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote that the article “hovers somewhere between history and polemic, with swellings into poetry, and it betrays the embattled pride of an author for whom being a German Jew was still a far from resolved condition.”
Many readers objected to Arendt’s use of the term “banality of evil” to describe Eichmann. In a Reflections piece published posthumously, Arendt expanded on her use of the controversial phrase:
I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer which made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer—at least, the very effective one now on trial—was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither monstrous nor demonic.
Today, we turn to Part V of the series, in which Arendt elucidates the unique and grotesque nature of the Holocaust and its perpetrators. In this excerpt, she uses the case of German sergeant Anton Schmidt, who was one of the few Germans to aid the Jews, to decry the futile nature of totalitarian regimes:
During the few minutes it took to tell of the help afforded by a German sergeant, a hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe two minutes of silence in honor of the man named Anton Schmidt. And in those two minutes, which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of impenetrable, unfathomable darkness, a single thought stood out clearly, irrefutably, beyond question: How utterly different everything would be today in this courtroom, in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all the countries of the world, if only more such stories could be told!There are, of course, explanations of this devastating shortage, and they have been repeated many times. I shall give the gist of them in the words of Peter Bamm, a German Army physician who had served at the Russian front, and whose book “Die Unsichtbare Flagge,” published in Munich in 1952, is among the very few subjectively sincere memoirs of its kind. He tells of the killing of Jews in Sevastopol. They were collected by “the others,” as he calls the S.S. mobile killing units, to distinguish them from ordinary soldiers, whose decency the book extols, and were put into a sealed-off part of the former G.P.U. prison (which abutted on the officers’ lodgings), where Dr. Bamm’s own unit was quartered. Later, they were made to board a mobile gas van, in which they died after a few minutes, whereupon the driver transported the corpses outside the city and unloaded them into tank ditches. Dr. Bamm writes, “We knew this. We did nothing. Everyone who had seriously protested or acted against the killing unit would have been arrested within twenty-four hours and would have disappeared. It belongs among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don’t permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr’s death for their convictions. A good many of us might have accepted such a death. The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity. It is certain that anyone who had dared to suffer death rather than silently tolerate the crime would have sacrificed his life in vain. This is not to say that such a sacrifice would have been morally meaningless. It would only have been practically useless…” Needless to say, the writer remains unaware of the emptiness of what he elsewhere refers to as their “decency,” in the absence of a “higher moral meaning.” But the hollowness of respectability—for decency under such circumstances is no more than respectability—was not what became apparent in the example afforded by Sergeant Anton Schmidt but, rather, the fatal flaw in the argument itself, which at first sounds so hopelessly plausible. It is true that the totalitarian state tried to establish holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June, 1942, on, to erase all traces of their massacres—through cremation, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing machinery—were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their “opponents disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be “practically useless”—at least, not in the long run. It would be of great practical usefulness for Germany today—and not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition—if there were more stories like Schmidt’s to tell. For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” almost anywhere but it did not happen everywhere.