Commentary Magazine

The Lies of Hannah Arendt

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In the history of American publishing, there has never been anything quite like the fevered public debates, the personal recriminations, the civil war of ideas, unleashed by Arendt’s deliberately provocative account of the trial of a perpetrator of the Final Solution. Meetings were organized to denounce the author, angry rebuttals were issued, and the polemical fireworks continued for almost three years in magazines such as Commentary, Partisan Review, Dissent, and The New Leader. A who’s who of the most important public intellectuals of the 1960s weighed in.

Arendt was fiercely attacked for proposing that Eichmann was a “nobody,” an unthinking bureaucrat and a cog in the machinery of the Final Solution rather than one of its masterminds. She was also denounced for accusing leaders of the Judenrate, the Jewish councils in Nazi-occupied Europe, for having engaged in “sordid and pathetic” behavior that made it easier for the Nazis to manage the logistics of the extermination process. Among those who criticized the book on these and other grounds were Irving Howe, Norman Podhoretz, Lionel Abel, and Walter Laqueur. But there were also a significant number of highly regarded writers who defended Arendt, among them Mary McCarthy, Daniel Bell, Bruno Bettelheim, Hans Morgenthau, and Alfred Kazin.

It would have presented a formidable artistic challenge for even the most gifted filmmaker to do justice to the Arendt/Eichmann affair. Even so, the German director Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt fails to meet the most minimal standards of objectivity and truthfulness. To burnish Arendt’s reputation as one of the 20th century’s most courageous and profound political thinkers, Von Trotta finds it necessary to distort the historical record and defame many of the thoughtful writers who criticized Arendt—and who were proved right in their critique.

The lies of Hannah Arendt, the movie, are eerily similar to the ideologically motivated distortions around the Holocaust that have emerged in the past few decades and are now an essential element in the international campaign of calumny against the Jewish State. Arendt’s jaundiced report on the Eichmann trial, particularly her accusation that the Israeli government conducted a show trial in order to justify the Zionist political program, serves as one of the “master postulates” of the “community of opprobrium” aligned against the State of Israel, as the Hebrew University philosopher Elhanan Yakira explained in his path-breaking 2010 book Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust.

As Hannah Arendt opens, a stooped, elderly gentleman gets off a bus on a deserted road. Suddenly a truck pulls up and two burly young men jump out. The older man lets out a bloodcurdling scream as he is forcibly subdued and thrown into the back of the truck. In the very next scene we see the 54-year-old Arendt, played by the superb German actress Barbara Sukowa, stretched out on a couch in her dimly lit Riverside Drive apartment overlooking the Hudson River. The world-famous political philosopher stares up at the ceiling, deep in thought. Dangling from her outstretched fingers is the ever-present cigarette glowing in the dark. The following morning Arendt spreads the New York Times out on her breakfast table, pours a cup of coffee, lights a cigarette, and reads the banner headline reporting Israel’s capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, along with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s announcement that the Jewish state would try the Nazi murderer for crimes against the Jewish people. On her manual typewriter she composes a letter to William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, asking if he might consider sending her to Jerusalem to cover the trial.

In this portion of the film, Von Trotta’s camera captures Arendt’s rarefied intellectual circle. We get a glimpse of her tender relationship with her husband, the ex–German Communist Heinrich Blucher, and her fascinating odd-couple friendship with the younger American novelist Mary McCarthy. German Jewish refugee scholars and more recent American friends from the academy drift in and out of the Arendt literary salon. There are serious discussions about the challenges of Arendt’s coming mission to Jerusalem and the deeper philosophical issues raised by the trial, including whether Israel has the legal right to judge the Nazi killer.

It is in the film’s depiction of Arendt’s stay in Jerusalem that the historical distortions begin piling up and then become part of a larger deception. Arendt is shown as a searcher for the truth about the Nazis and their victims, truth she fully expects to be revealed by the trial witnesses and the ample documentary evidence submitted to the court. She is the quintessentially curious reporter, watching and listening intently as Eichmann testifies from behind his glass cage (Von Trotta effectively uses chilling documentary footage from the trial). One can almost see Arendt’s mind grappling with the incongruity of the mass murderer’s answers to questions by the prosecutor, and her shocked reaction to Eichmann’s almost comic thoughtlessness—thus the “banality” of it all.

The film would have us believe that Arendt came to judge the Eichmann trial with no preconceived political views of the prosecution, that is, the state of Israel. This is not true. We know this to be untrue from letters she wrote at the time to friends such as Mary McCarthy, Karl Jaspers, and her husband, all of which became available after the author’s death in 1975 and were available to Von Trotta as well. They offer a glimpse into Arendt’s uncensored thoughts about Jerusalem, the people of Israel, and the trial’s protagonists. Her reflections can be described as bigoted, even hateful.

The Israeli police gave her “the creeps” because they spoke “only Hebrew and looked Arabic.” Jerusalem was “dirty” and as unpleasant as Istanbul. In one letter she wrote that “honest and clean people were at a premium.” She was disdainful of the “oriental mob” outside the courthouse. She expressed contempt for the black-hatted, ultra-orthodox Jews “who make life impossible for all reasonable people here,” and she expressed a hauteur about the unrefined Yiddish-speaking immigrants who had come to Israel from Eastern Europe. (In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she described prosecutor Gideon Hausner as a “Galician Jew who speaks without periods or commas.”)

Also missing is any hint of Arendt’s long-standing loathing of Ben-Gurion, the man who 12 years earlier led the breakthrough for Jewish statehood and now loomed in her mind as the puppet master behind the Eichmann show trial. To comprehend Arendt’s contempt for Ben-Gurion’s handling of the Eichmann case, one needs only to read her essays on Zionism from 1941, just after she arrived in New York as a refugee from the Nazis, to 1949, when Israel finally won its war for independence. Writing in German in the German Jewish newspaper Aufbau and in English in American Jewish publications such as Menorah Journal and Commentary, Arendt became perhaps the most vitriolic Jewish critic of Ben-Gurion’s decision to push for statehood after the war. Arendt herself had a brief flirtation with Zionism after Hitler came to power, but from 1944 onward she characterized mainstream political Zionism as reactionary, blood-and-soil nationalism.

Arendt held Ben-Gurion solely responsible for the failure to reach an agreement with the Arabs. She ignored the grim reality of Palestinian rejectionism and Jew hatred. Her articles never mentioned that the official leader of the Palestinian national movement—Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem—was an ally of the Nazis who spent the war years in Berlin, recruited Bosnian Muslims for the Wehrmacht and SS, and consulted with Hitler and Heinrich Himmler about extending the Final Solution to the Jews of Palestine.

In May 1948, the 600,000 Jews of the new state of Israel—many of them Holocaust survivors—mobilized for a life-and-death struggle against five invading Arab armies. “This war will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongol massacres and the Crusades,” announced the secretary general of the Arab League, Abdul Rahman Azzam. This was precisely when Arendt chose to launch one of her strongest attacks against the idea of an independent Jewish state. Her anti-Zionist broadside, “To Save the Jewish Homeland,” appeared in this magazine.

In it, Arendt proposed that the Zionists appease the Arabs by accepting limitations on Jewish immigration—that is, to surrender. Ignoring the Palestinian leadership’s calls for the slaughter of the Jews, Arendt directed her rancor solely at Ben-Gurion. She predicted that even if the Jews won the war (though she thought that outcome was unlikely without outside “imperial intervention”), they would “degenerate into one of those small warrior tribes about whose possibilities and importance history has amply informed us since the days of Sparta.” Arendt concluded that it was “still not too late” to stop the partition of Palestine and to prevent the declaration of a Jewish state. Thankfully, nobody in Israel took her warnings seriously.

As Arendt was rejecting the Zionist solution for the remnants of European Jewry—i.e., the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine—she was looking elsewhere for a more reasonable approach to the Jewish question. What she discovered was truly amazing. In two columns for Aufbau, she reported that under Stalin the Soviet Jews were the “first Jews in the world to be legally and socially ‘emancipated,’ that is, recognized and liberated as a nationality.” The Soviet constitution “equates anti-Semitism with an attack on one of the nationalities of the USSR,” according to Arendt. “[This constitutes] a national liberation of Russian Jews—because they are the first Jews to be emancipated as a nationality and not as individuals, the first who did not have to pay for their civil rights by giving up their status as a nation.” So the scholar who would later be recognized as the leading theorist of 20th-century totalitarianism and its propaganda methods accepted at face value the Soviet regime’s claims about its benevolent treatment of the Jews. A little more than a decade later, she arrived in Jerusalem with the prestigious New Yorker as her sponsor—and with scores still to settle with Ben-Gurion. She even admitted in one of her letters that writing about the Eichmann trial served as her “cura posterior,” her belated cure.

In the final third of the film, the unfavorable reactions to Eichmann in Jerusalem begin arriving on Arendt’s desk, but Von Trotta can’t admit that they might have reflected any legitimate criticism of her protagonist’s provocative thesis about the trial. Instead the director charges that a campaign was launched from Israel to intimidate Arendt, precisely because her report on Eichmann was absolutely true and damning to the Jewish state. American Jewish intellectuals were also enlisted in an effort to “excommunicate” Arendt, as the Israeli intellectual Amos Elon later put it.

How does Von Trotta prove this? She doesn’t. She makes it up. In a scene describing a moment that never happened, Arendt is walking on an empty road near the college campus where she is on a temporary teaching assignment. Suddenly an official-looking black limousine races up the road toward her and screeches to a halt after almost knocking her down. Out of the car step four menacing looking men in dark suits and coats—obviously Mossad agents just like those who kidnapped Eichmann. They are delivering a message, or warning, from the Israeli government to stop publication of the book. When Arendt says that she won’t comply, one of the agents informs her that her book will never be published in Israel.

At this point Von Trotta reintroduces a fictional character we saw at the beginning of the film—one Thomas Miller, a professor at the New School for Social Research. In the opening scenes, Miller is shown as an Arendt sycophant, attending her parties and boasting that the illustrious author of The Origins of Totalitarianism was a member of his own department. Now, with the pressure from the Jewish establishment mounting against Eichmann in Jerusalem, Miller viciously turns against his colleague. In a preposterous scene that resembles a Stalinist purge session, Miller summons Arendt to a face-to-face meeting to confess her thought crimes. Professor Miller is seated at a table flanked by two other grim-looking New School faculty members, with Arendt in a chair directly facing the panel of academic inquisitors. Miller informs Arendt that in light of the furor over the book, the “committee” has decided it would be better for the school if she were to give up her classes.

Arendt then makes her penultimate defense of the book in a special university lecture the students have asked her to deliver (another of Von Trotta’s fictions). Professor Miller shows up at the lecture along with his two faculty toadies and takes a seat among the students. In the middle of Arendt’s talk, Miller stands up and rudely interrupts, ridiculing Arendt’s claim that if the leaders of the Jewish councils hadn’t cooperated with the Nazis, fewer Jews would have been murdered. “You blamed the Jewish people for their own destruction,” Professor Miller snarls at Arendt. This is a blatant caricature of what serious critics were saying at the time about Arendt’s treatment of the Jewish councils, and she easily dismisses Miller. She then finishes her lecture with a rhetorical flourish and receives a standing ovation from the only allies she has left in the academic world, those idealistic students of the emerging 1960s.

The concocted scene in the lecture hall made me wonder what the New School, that überprogressive academic institution, ever did to Hannah Arendt to deserve the dishonest, slanderous treatment it receives in the film. (In another of Von Trotta’s inventions, Arendt carries her lunch tray into the faculty dining room, whereupon everyone stands up and leaves in protest.) In reality, the New School administration behaved entirely honorably in its dealings with their controversial lecturer. According to Judith Friedlander, who is writing a history of the New School, Arendt was not a tenured member of the faculty at the time of the publication of the Eichmann book, teaching only selected courses for the Continuing Education program. It was only after the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem that Arendt was granted a tenured professorship by the New School, along with rights to a university pension.1

In retrospect, there was one complaint made by Hannah Arendt’s defenders, and by Arendt too, that was entirely justified. This had to do with the public-relations campaign waged against the Eichmann book by the Israeli government (Ben-Gurion apparently also had scores to settle) and by Jewish organizations in America such as the Anti-Defamation League. It’s unfortunate that ADL officials got involved in an intellectual dispute that was way above their pay grade. And Israel should not have sent emissaries to try to convince American Jews that Arendt was wrong on the main factual questions. The task should have been left to the intellectuals and scholars who did a decent enough job of textual criticism when the book came out.

That said, even if the Israeli government and Jewish organizations had behaved in an exemplary manner, it wouldn’t have made the director of Hannah Arendt any less inclined to smear the writers who offered a negative but thoughtful evaluation of Arendt’s report. One of those critical writers was Norman Podhoretz. His portrayal in the movie may be the most outrageous of Von Trotta’s smears.

Podhoretz, at the time editor of this magazine, published his critique of Eichmann in Jerusalem in the September 1963 issue of Commentary. You can see why Von Trotta would have regarded this as a slam-dunk proof of her version of the Arendt controversy, the one in which the truth-telling and courageous Arendt is set upon by a collection of pro-Israel hacks following the party line as dictated from Jerusalem and the offices of the ADL. For of course, Podhoretz was one of the founders of the neoconservative movement in America—you know, those warmongers and “Israel firsters”—and Commentary was one of the movement’s headquarters.

But when he reviewed Eichmann in Jerusalem, Podhoretz was no neoconservative, indeed no conservative at all. Commentary had moved substantially to the left upon his ascension as editor in 1960 and had become known for publishing radical writers such as Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, and Staughton Lynd. Podhoretz had no particular connection to the Zionist movement, and as for his attitude toward Arendt, he admired her enormously and considered her a friend.

The near-radical Podhoretz wrote a tough and complex review of Eichmann in Jerusalem, raising serious factual questions about her allegations of betrayal by Jewish leaders under Nazi occupation, but he never accused her in any sense of betraying “her people.” For example, he wrote: “Since Miss Arendt wishes us to believe that the Nazis could never have killed as many as six million Jews without Jewish help, she tries very hard to convey the impression that what the Jews themselves did in any given country mattered significantly too. And it is here that she becomes most visibly tendentious in her manipulation of the facts.”

Like other critics of Arendt, including experts on the Jewish councils, Podhoretz made the perfectly reasonable argument that there were areas under Nazi occupation, particularly within the Soviet Union, in which there were no Jewish councils and virtually no recognized Jewish leaders, and yet mass killings went on efficiently in those areas. He then went on to show that Arendt’s harsh attack on the behavior of the Jewish leaders seemed to contradict her own analysis (in The Origins of Totalitarianism) of the “unprecedented and revolutionary” nature of the Nazi regime that fooled not only the Jews but also the leaders of democratic Europe into believing that the Nazi killers could be appeased.

It was Arendt’s insight into the nature of modern totalitarian regimes that led Podhoretz to call for a halt to “the endless moral debate over the behavior of the Jewish leaders—the endless round of apology and recrimination….None of it mattered in the slightest to the final result. Murderers with the power to murder descended upon a defenseless people and murdered a large part of it. What else is there to say?”

Here is how Von Trotta treats this serious matter: She sets up another fictional scene in which a group of New York intellectuals, including Podhoretz, are waiting in an anteroom prior to a public meeting on the Arendt book. (The meeting, sponsored by the socialist magazine Dissent, actually happened, and Arendt was indeed treated roughly by most of the speakers.) Von Trotta’s fantasy professor from the New School, Thomas Miller, suddenly shows up and begins to stir the pot, praising Podhoretz’s review as enthusiastically as he once praised Arendt.

In a response to Miller’s encomiums, Podhoretz sneers: “That’s Hannah Arendt. All cleverness and no feeling.” Professor Miller then adds: “I love that line in your article, Norman. What did you call it, Norman?” Podhoretz volunteers the article’s title: “The Perversity of Brilliance.” Miller, the ultimate brownnoser, repeats the title like a mantra: “Oh yes, the perversity of brilliance. But you were still fairer than she had any right to expect.”

At this point, Arendt’s literary blocking back, Mary McCarthy, storms into the room and confronts Podhoretz. After he offers that Arendt “claims to be smarter than people with feelings,” McCarthy gets in the last word: “In your case, Norman, being smarter is easy. She’s also more courageous than you are.”

Mary McCarthy wasn’t at the Dissent meeting, nor was there ever any such exchange with Podhoretz. The entire episode was invented by Von Trotta to ridicule one of the more substantive of Arendt’s critics. The accusation that Podhoretz lacked courage, moreover, leads to a pertinent question about the director’s courage, or lack thereof, in her portrayal of him. He is the only character whose last name is not mentioned in the film or in the credits. Could it be that the filmmaker received some lawyerly advice that the depiction of Podhoretz might be considered slanderous and that, since Podhoretz is still alive, the safest course might be to refer to him in the film simply as “Norman”?

The question of courage—artistic courage that is—also looms large in the way Von Trotta’s film elides several crucial chapters of Hannah Arendt’s life. First, there is the matter of Arendt’s complicated relationship with Martin Heidegger, considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. As an 18-year-old student, Arendt fell under the great thinker’s spell and soon became his mistress. By itself this shouldn’t be of any great historical or philosophical import, and it’s hardly worth mentioning in a study of Arendt’s work on the Eichmann trial. Except for one inconvenient fact: With Hitler’s rise to power, and after Hannah Arendt fled Germany to save her life, Heidegger became an outspoken member of the Nazi Party. He gave grandiloquent speeches honoring the Führer. The Nazi regime appointed him rector of the University of Freiburg, where he publicly urged the students to give the Nazi salute and carried out the party’s directive to purge all Jews from the faculty.

Through the cinematic device of flashbacks, Von Trotta does pay some attention to Arendt’s affair with her philosophical mentor. In one flashback, the pretty teenager is looking up in awe at Professor Heidegger as he delivers one of his mesmerizing lectures about the act of “thinking.” In the next scene, she welcomes him to her student apartment for their first tryst. There is another flashback scene in the movie in which Arendt meets Heidegger in Germany after the war. They take a walk in the woods and contemplate the mystery of their relationship.

But in this supposedly brave film about an intellectual willing to tell the painful truth about Jews who collaborated with the enemy, there is one spectacular truth that is shamefully missing. It’s that, at the very same time that Hannah Arendt was composing her jeremiad against Jewish council leaders who sold their souls to the Nazis, she herself was deeply involved in a personal collaboration with Heidegger. According to the historian Richard Wolin, who has researched the Heidegger connection more deeply than has any other scholar, Arendt served “as Heidegger’s de facto American literary agent, diligently overseeing contracts and translations of his books.” In effect, Hannah Arendt took it upon herself to de-Nazify her mentor without ever demanding that he publicly acknowledge the terrible deeds he committed out of loyalty to the Nazi regime, the same regime that produced that thoughtless “nobody,” Adolf Eichmann. What was this great thinker thinking when she secretly collaborated with an ex-Nazi at the same time that she publicly condemned the pitiable collaboration of Jews helplessly trapped in the Nazi charnel house?

While contemplating Arendt’s hypocrisy on the issue of Jewish behavior during the Holocaust, there is also her own behavior during that period to consider. Arendt was AWOL during the desperate two years from 1943 to 1945, when the cause of rescuing European Jews needed the support of every person of influence in America. Although she had a regular column in Aufbau and access to other important publications, Arendt never advocated for the cause of rescue efforts by the Allied governments. Other Jewish American writers, such as Ben Hecht and Max Lerner, used their platforms in the popular liberal newspapers PM and the New York Post to pressure the Roosevelt administration on the rescue issue. A then famous writer, Varian Fry, wrote the December 1942 cover story for the New Republic, “The Massacre of the Jews,” condemning the U.S. and British governments for their inaction.

Arendt never spoke up during the debate in Congress over a resolution calling on President Roosevelt to create an agency devoted to rescuing European Jews. Indeed, the president appeared in just one of her wartime columns, a 1945 article praising him for supporting Saudi king Ibn Saud’s proposal for settling the Arab-Jewish dispute over Palestine (a “settlement” that would have prevented the establishment of a Jewish state). Arendt was one of the lucky few Jews fleeing Nazism to gain admission to the United States, yet she never protested the State Department’s shameful refusal to fill even the small official quota of immigration visas for European Jewish refugees.

Arendt never looked back on her own behavior during those years when she was living safely in the United States, nor did she ever reflect on whether the leader of the democracies might have done more to save Jewish lives. Yet she had no hesitation—indeed seemed to relish—condemning the powerless Jewish leaders living directly under the Nazi terror for not doing enough for their own people. These are some of the unsettled and unsettling questions about Hannah Arendt’s character that a truly courageous and honest biographical film would have explored. In deliberately failing to explore them, Hannah Arendt proves true to its subject in spite of all its lies.


1 I am grateful to her for helping me establish that no Professor Miller ever taught at the New School.

About the Author

Sol Stern is a contributing editor to City Journal and the author of A Century of Palestinian Rejectionism and Jew Hatred (Encounter Broadsides).

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