Arguably Hannah Arendt was the first target of an organized campaign by the Israeli lobby. As was the case with the late Tony Judt, it did not matter that she was pro-Israel. By stepping outside the bounds of the ideological consensus, she became guilty of Orwellian thoughtcrimes. If for no other reason, this conflict is reason enough to see Margerethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” that opens on May 29th at the Film Forum in New York. As a film that takes politics and morality seriously, it is like nothing I have seen in a very long time and that makes Spielberg’s film on Lincoln look shallow by comparison. Essentially von Trotta’s film consists of people in their sixties and seventies arguing about Nazism and the right of the Jews to mount a show trial. But what people they were.
As Hannah Arendt, Barbara Sukowa is phenomenal. (It should be stated that her attempt to affect a Hollywood version of a German accent despite being German was a directorial miscue by von Trotta. It was a bit like Marlon Brando’s German accent in “The Young Lions”. Once you get used to it, however, it hardly matters.) This is the kind of role that Sukowa has long experience with. She played Rosa Luxemburg in another von Trotta biopic as well as Mieze in Fassbinder’s masterpiece “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, based on the novel by the leftist Alfred Döblin who also wrote “Karl and Rosa”, about Liebknecht and Luxemburg.
The film begins with Arendt finding out about the Eichmann trial from an article in the NY Times. She then approaches William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker magazine, with a proposal. She would go to Jerusalem and cover the trial.
A salon at her Riverside Drive apartment just before her trip leads to a quarrel between her and her husband Heinrich Blücher on one side and New School philosophy professor Hans Jonas on the other. The Blüchers worry that the Israelis are using the trial for propaganda purposes while Jonas is loath to find fault with Israel on any score. Of course, his decades long Zionist past would explain this.
This salon would have taken place in 1961, at exactly the same time I was enrolled in Hans Blücher’s Common Course at Bard College. This was a required “great books” survey that allowed Blücher—a high school dropout and former member of the German Communist Party—to philosophize about politics and morality. His defense of Socrates galvanized me in a way as nothing had ever before. From the minute I heard his defense of the need to put truth above the exigencies of citizenship, it made it a lot easier for me to become a socialist six years later at the very moment I was a student of Hans Jonas at the New School. Oddly enough, despite Blücher’s anti-Communism, he paved the way for me to become a communist.
When taking a seminar on Kant with Jonas in 1967, I came up with the idea of writing a term paper on Kant’s categorical imperative as an extension of his subject driven epistemology. After getting an A in the course, I was approached by Jonas at a gathering at his home in New Rochelle on a Sunday afternoon and encouraged to continue with my PhD studies. But a few months later I would drop out of the New School in order to focus on my activism in the Trotskyist movement after the spirit of Blücher in the 1920s—an avid reader of Leon Trotsky. I saw my categorical imperative as one of making the socialist revolution. Anything else was an escape from duty.
The film takes up Arendt’s affair with Martin Heidegger who comes across more as an absent-minded professor than a mouth-breathing Nazi ideologue. In one of the film’s more dramatic moments, you see her and Heidegger strolling through a German forest after WWII where she urges him to beg forgiveness from the world for his evil past.
Although it would be impossible for the film to deal with all of the tangled philosophical connections between the principals, it should be mentioned that Hans Jonas was a student of Heidegger’s as well. Furthermore his critique of technology owes much to Heidegger. With respect to Heidegger’s reputation as an anti-Semite and avid National Socialist, Hans Jonas paints an entirely different picture in his memoir and one that is consistent with the somewhat bumbling and pathetic characterization in von Trotta’s film.
Still, I was the only Zionist among his students. At least to my knowledge no one else among the Jewish Heidegger disciples was a supporter of Zionism—on the contrary. I did run into some of them later in Palestine, but they didn’t choose to go at a time when you still had a choice. Probably Heidegger thought there just happened to be such dreamers among the Jews, and his student Hans, on whose dissertation he’d conferred the highest praise teacher could give a student, namely summa cum laude, was one of those dreamers and would eventually go off to Palestine. So a Heidegger student would establish himself in Palestine and perhaps spread his teachings there, The thought that his standing in Germany might suffer as a result of many Jews leaving or being forced to leave apparently didn’t occur to him, Heidegger was in no way prepared for such a thing. I should mention, too, that here and there he even helped Jewish students of his. For instance, Paul Oskar Kristellar later said in New York that he had nothing against Heidegger because when he emigrated to Italy, Heidegger sent letters of recommendation that helped him find a position there.’ No — Heidegger wasn’t personal antisemite. Presumably it felt a little uncanny to him that so many of his students were Jewish, but more in the sense that it was somewhat one sided, that there weren’t enough others who were more like him. The only discussion of antisemitism in his immediate surroundings came up when word got out that his wife had belonged to the nationalist youth movement. Perhaps she nagged him occasionally, saying, “Martin, why do you act deaf and dumb? Why are you constantly surrounded by young Jews?”
After her articles begin appearing in the New Yorker, Arendt becomes a lightning rod. A neighbor in her Riverside Drive high-rise sticks a letter under her door accusing her of being a Nazi. The administration at the New School demands that she stop giving her courses. In defiance she goes ahead with the class. She goes to a meeting about her book where a young Norman Podhoretz denounces her. Her best friend Mary McCarthy makes her entrance just as Podhoretz is at his most venomous and twists him into a knot. Although the characterization of McCarthy veers too far in the direction of comic relief and paints her too much as a gum-chewing, wisecracking Eve Arden type (my younger readers will have to google this for more information), her presence is essential since it is a reminder that there were some intellectuals who had the guts to stand up to the Israel lobby at the time.
Back in 1961 I had no idea that Hans Blücher was married to Hannah Arendt and even less of an idea that she was covering the Eichmann trial. I can’t remember if I was reading the N.Y. Times back then but even if I had I would be far more interested in reviews of jazz musicians or movies than current events.
A few years later as the “sixties” began to erupt, young radicals embraced Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil” even if they may have not been fully engaged with her wariness over the project of revolution. This excerpt from Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography gives you a flavor for the mood at the time.
The young Jew who sent Arendt a report on this meeting [about her book] commented that Eichmann in Jerusalem seemed to have stirred up a generational conflict within the Jewish community. This conflict was made public when Norman Fruchter published a piece called “Arendt’s Eichmann and Jewish Identity” in Studies on the Left. Fruchter’s was the voice of the young Jewish radicals who found in Arendt’s work both a rebellion against “the myth of the victim which Jews tend to substitute for their history” and an analysis of what “citizen responsibility [is] necessary in every modern state to prevent the reemergence of the totalitarian movement which ravaged Germany.” He wrote at the moment when comparisons between Germany of the 1930s and America of the 1960s were becoming common among the New Left—to the consternation of the Old Left. A year earlier, James Weinstein had published a piece called “Nach Goldwasser Uns?” [After Goldwaer, us?] in which the comparison was made explicit: “There are, indeed, many similarities between American society today and that of Germany in the years before and during Nazi rule.” Eichmann became a symbol: “Like so many American bureaucrats and military men, Eichmann emerges from Miss Arendt’s account as a man of very limited ideological commitment.” Over such speeches as the one Carl Oglesby delivered at the 1965 SANE march on Washington, the New and the Old Left parted company: “Think of all the men who now engineer that war [in Vietnam],” said Oglesby, “those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President [Johnson] himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals. “
Finally, the film should encourage those with a critical bent to look deeper into the arrest of Eichmann itself, something that would be beyond the scope of von Trotta’s film. The Mossad’s abrogation of international law through its kidnapping of Eichmann is certainly a precedent for actions that have become synonymous with the “war on terror”, including Obama’s kill-list.
What is of particular interest was the behind-the-scenes arrangement between Israel and West Germany that made David Ben-Gurion’s moral posturing look as hypocritical as any of the words coming out of LBJ’s mouth.
In 2011 secret documents revealed that the German government and the CIA knew the whereabouts of many former Nazis including Hans Globke, who was the Chancellery Chief of Staff and a close advisor to Chancellor Adenauer at the time of the trial. In a quid pro quo deal, the West Germans promised weapons if Globke’s name was not brought up in the Eichmann trial.
Der Spiegel reported:
But Israel needed the financial aid, the submarines and the tanks, and German Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss, who had also negotiated the arms shipments directly with Ben-Gurion, left no doubt that the Israelis were to protect Bonn’s reputation if they wanted weapons: “I have told my contacts that it is a matter of course that if the Federal Republic supports the security of Israel, it will not be held collectively liable, morally, politically or journalistically, for the crimes of a past generation in connection with the Eichmann trial.”
The Israelis had shown “understanding and responsiveness” for this position, Strauss reported. And so it happened that the question of how the Nazis had managed to involve significant portions of German society in the Holocaust was largely ignored.
“We only introduced information into the trial that was relevant for Eichmann,” says Gabriel Bach, the last remaining member of prosecution team still alive today. The Globke issue, he adds, simply wasn’t relevant.