More than 50 years after it was published, the debate about Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is still red hot. Her famous thesis about “the banality of evil” that the pedestrian-looking mass murderer supposedly exemplified has been hashed and rehashed by intellectuals for generations and will, it must be conceded, probably go on entertaining and infuriating generations of writers yet to be born. Suffice it to say that most serious thinkers understood her misleading characterization of Adolf Eichmann was bad history. It not only portrayed him in almost neutral light but castigated many of his Jewish victims in way that told us a lot more about Arendt’s own conflicted feelings about her Jewish identity that it did about a Nazi monster.
Yet as wrong-headed as her book was, it continues to attract ardent supporters. One such fan is Margerethe von Trotta whose recent film Hannah Arendt treats the writer kindly and endorses her thesis. For an excellent summation of the film’s flaws as well as keen insight into the literary and philosophical background of Arendt’s book, I’d recommend Margot Lurie’s essay on the film in the July/August issue of Standpoint magazine. The film has, like the book that inspired it, gotten mixed reviews. But perhaps none of those who like it are as impassioned as Bard College’s Roger Berkowitz, who heads the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at the school. Berkowitz’s column in the on-line edition of the New York Times earlier this week is a compendium of every possible defense that could be arrayed in favor of his center’s namesake. He sees her and her embattled volume as the font of philosophical truth and insight. Despite the weight of historical evidence that Arendt missed, Berkowitz claims her view of Eichmann as being not motivated by fanaticism but by the impulse of a “joiner” who will do anything for a movement that gives his life meaning is true. That is poor history that has been debunked countless times by historians with a better grasp of the issue than either Arendt or Berkowitz. But what really troubles me is the final paragraph of Berkowitz’s love letter to the late Arendt:
At a time when confidence in American institutions is at an all-time low, Arendt’s insistence that we see Eichmann as a terrifyingly normal “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family” who was radicalized by an idealistic anti-state movement should resonate even more urgently today. That is ever more reason to free Arendt’s book, once again, from the tyranny of the conventional wisdom.
While he doesn’t say so bluntly, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Berkowitz is making a not terribly subtle reference to those middle-class Americans who want smaller government and a less intrusive federal oversight of their lives as being somehow the moral equivalent of Eichmann. I’ve read more than my share of attempts to justify Arendt’s banality of evil thesis, but this is the first that attempts to enlist her in the fight against the Tea Party.
The sheer chutzpah as well as the colossal inappropriateness of Berkowitz’s insinuation is, by itself, enough to disqualify him as a rational voice about the subject. But let’s dignify his smear to the extent of pointing out one very important inaccuracy of his conclusion. Contrary to his assertion, Nazism was not an “anti-state movement” whether one wishes to call it “idealistic” or monstrous. It was, in fact, a classic example of a movement that worshiped the state and sought to sacrifice individual rights on the altar of the collective. In the case of Germany, it was the glorification of the German state and its leader while in Russia it was the socialist ideal and a different evil monster. Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand the Nazis, Eichmann or the Holocaust he helped perpetrate.
The continued desire of liberal ideologues to embrace Hannah Arendt’s misreading of Eichmann is rooted in their unquenchable desire to avoid facing the facts about evil. But if that foolish interpretation of history now extends to branding contemporary conservatives as somehow would-be Eichmanns, then we must acknowledge that 21st century liberalism has jumped the shark in a way that few of its conservative critics could have imagined.
Far from Arendt’s book being important to understanding the mentality of the Tea Party, it seems to have given us a unique insight into contemporary liberal prejudices against their political opponents. How ironic that a writer who humanized a Nazi monster now provides inspiration to liberals who want to demonize Republicans.