Two years ago, I published an analytical article on Arendt in Tikkun
(“Hannah Arendt: From Iconoclast to Icon“). As I had suspected, the new film, which debuts commercially today (May 29), lends credence to the simplistic notion that her controversial portrait of Adolf Eichmann at his Jerusalem trial was a mark of great insight. She didn’t merit the abuse that she suffered as a result; she was not intending to be hateful or to excuse the Nazis, but her most significant conclusions were drawn from the very limited range of Holocaust scholarship available to her in the early 1960s.
Arendt is something of a heroine among many, a lone figure who stood her ground in the face of fierce criticism on the New Yorker magazine articles that formed the basis of her famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Since that time, most of her conclusions have been challenged on the basis of more research and knowledge as the field of Holocaust studies advanced:
- The behavior of members of the Nazi-appointed Jewish councils was more varied than she had indicated (and their options were horrifyingly limited), but there certainly was collaboration and self-interested behavior by many if not most;
- Himmler’s brutal deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, did not have Jewish ancestry as she had alleged;
- Eichmann was not simply the dutiful amoral bureaucrat as Arendt had portrayed (and her notion, brought up in the film, that he wasn’t personally antisemitic, seems ridiculous to me).
Nevertheless, I liked the film; I found it intelligent overall and absorbing. But it reinforced my view of her cold abstract intellect, and the ways in which her book failed factually.
Still, if her thesis was so simple as to suggest that ordinary people (and therefore everybody) are potentially capable of great evil, she’s correct. Yet Eichmann was only ordinary or “banal” (as the book contends) to a high-toned intellectual. He was brilliant and aggressive in pursuing his diabolical task to facilitate genocide, and he knew exactly what he was doing.
Her controversial discussion of the role of the Judenrate (Nazi-appointed Jewish Councils) was not reflective of the range of reactions that members of the Jewish Councils made to Nazi commands — from ruthlessly pragmatic compliance to the Nazis’ impossible demands, to outright resistance (almost always resulting in immediate execution) or honorable suicide. But she may well have been correct in her bold (and hated) contention that had the Jewish Councils not existed, or if most Jews had not followed their instructions and not identified themselves, many more would have saved themselves. She does not consider, however, that hiding their identities, or going into hiding — especially in countries where Jews were disliked — was not easy.
There’s a certain popularity in some left-wing quarters to extol Arendt as an anti-Zionist, but this is not quite true. In one scene, the film implies that she had only been a Zionist in her youth, which is not accurate either. A publicist for New York’s Film Forum, where I saw a press preview, enabled me to contact the director, Margarethe von Trotta; she responded to my questions at length, via email, on the true and invented elements of the scene on a country road where four men from Israel drive up to Arendt, demanding that she not publish her book:
- Did this actually happen, or was it an invention?
- If it did happen, does the filmmaker know if her sharp response to one of them about her early involvement with Zionism as a “youthful folly” also happened?
Ms. von Trotta and her co-screenwriter, Pamela Katz, responded as follows:
It is true that Siegfried Moses — on behalf of the Council of Jews from Germany — flew from Israel to convince/persuade/insist that Hannah Arendt withdraw the publication of the book version of her articles. It is true that they knew each other from a Zionist group in Berlin (they both knew [Kurt] Blumenfeld [their youth movement mentor]) from before the war.
We fictionalized this incident as follows:
–at the time of the publication of the articles, Hannah Arendt was in Switzerland, not America. Therefore, Moses flew from Israel to Switzerland to persuade her.
— Siegfried Moses was the former Comptroller of Israel and not a secret service agent. It had been our idea that any Israeli government representative would travel with security people/ bodyguards of some sort.
–All the dialogue, including the line: “youthful folly,” was invented — but it is correct that Hannah Arendt was no longer a Zionist at that time. The line was not intended as a purported criticism of Zionism on her part, but was rather a characteristically ironic expression of her astonishment that they have come all this way to discuss what groups she belonged to in her 20’s.
— This scene, therefore, is based on a true event, one which signified the uproar her work caused in Israel (where the book was not published in Hebrew until 1999, almost 40 years later!) If we heightened the event, it was for the purpose of dramatizing a long list of Israeli reactions, which took place over time (many initial Israeli responses were actually more positive than they were in America but that didn’t last). There were many angry articles and personal reactions to Hannah Arendt’s work.
Fictional films based on historical subjects often make use of such composites both with characters and events in order to present the truth, as closely as possible, in a dramatic way.
If you would like further details about the actual confrontation between Moses and Arendt, you can read about it in the biography of Hannah Arendt by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl — page 348-349 (in the hardcover).
The fact is that Arendt was a Zionist activist at least until 1942, when the World Zionist Organization voted to seek a Jewish state. Arendt was part of the liberal bi-nationalist stream within Zionism that bitterly opposed this decision.
A few years ago, I recall hearing something relevant at a public event from Nathan Glazer — a sociologist best known for writing Beyond the Melting Pot (with Daniel Patrick Moynihan) and for being one of the four New York Jewish intellectuals featured in the film, “Arguing the World,” with fellow students and future intellectual superstars Irving Howe, Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell. Glazer said that when he was a student at the City College of New York in its heyday, overlapping with the other three in the early 1940s, he was a member of a Zionist student group that looked to Hannah Arendt for inspiration and was open to bi-nationalism.
And I saw a video clip at a conference on Arendt at New York University in 2006, which shows her being interviewed on West German TV in 1970, in which she declared her work for the Zionist movement in Paris in the 1930s, helping young German and Polish Jews reach safety in Palestine as the achievement in her life she was most proud of.
She was not merely a Zionist as a “youthful folly,” but a mature adult in her middle thirties when she vociferously objected to the decision of the Zionist movement in 1942 to adopt the “Biltmore Program,” to make Jewish statehood in Palestine the official Zionist objective. It may be fair to say that at some point after that, she ceased being a Zionist activist, but she had been an active Zionist well beyond her involvement in a youth group, as the film had inaccurately implied.
Still, I am satisfied by the detailed response that I received from the director and her co-screenwriter that they’ve made a conscientious effort at creating a meaningful and truthful film. If this subject interests you, it’s worth seeing, not just for the intellectual and historical issues raised, but for the portrait drawn of Arendt as a person, including a taste (a mere taste in flashbacks) of her complicated relationship with Martin Heidegger, her academic mentor who became her lover and then a stalwart of the Nazi regime; and a sense of her marriage to Heinrich Blücher, a self-educated German revolutionary and intellectual who (although not Jewish) became a Zionist in his youth and then a fixture in the German-Jewish exile community in New York.