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Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem Paperback – August 6, 2001
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An additional work on the Arendt failure in relation to her covering of the Eichmann trial.
Hannah Arendt is without question one of the premier political philosophers of the twentieth century. However in her account of the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem she failed miserably. She failed as a reporter, and even more importantly she failed in moral judgment. She painted a misleading portrait of Eichmann as banal clerk, pathetic ineffectual nothing. But in fact he was an embodiment of human evil. Deborah Lipstadt's recent retelling of the Eichmann trial, and the new evidence relating to what Eichmann actually thought and said at the trial show that he was a calculating deceptive monster whose intention was total extermination of the Jewish people. At the trial he was out to save his life, and so worked to present a false picture of himself.
Arendt failed in another area of her study. She in her high- culture arrogance and contempuous attitude toward the leaders of the Jewish councils in Europe- all of whom had completely impossible tasks- i.e. trying to save some portion of the people while dealing with those determined to exterminate them all- showed her own failure in human sympathy.
It is painful and ironic that Arendt who so stressed in her writing the faculty of moral judgment showed such a complete absence of moral judgment in writing this work. This work is of a piece with another shameful side of her history. i.e Her pivotal role in rehabilataing the image of her mentor and former lover Heidegger who both identified and acted as a Nazi in the German university world. These two failures of moral judgment put a tremendous stain on her reputation.
One more point about her contempt. She showed great contempt for Israel's first Prime Minister and great founding- father Ben - Gurion. She claimed he was making it a 'show- trial'. But before this 'show- trial' the Western world was largely indifferent to the horror of the Shoah. One accomplishment of this trial did was to make humanity more aware of its own capacity for Evil and Destruction.
Other contributors to this book who spent countless hours reading the books of letter to and from Hannah Arendt have no difficulty documenting that, as Walter Laqueur admitted, "The animosity toward Jews as a group was of long standing, and it was by no means restricted to Israel and the Israelis. . . . Perhaps she had read too much anti-Semitic literature for her own good." (p. 58). Walter Laqueur's comments on Hannah Arendt as political commentator and "the greatest female philosopher of our time, perhaps of all times, which she might well be" (p. 49) find "a fascinating discrepancy between Arendt the political philosopher and the poverty of her judgment concerning current politics." (p. 50). Comparing Arendt to Raymond Aron, "As a political thinker, he was at least her equal, and his political judgment was infinitely better than hers. He was usually right, and she was often wrong. The list of alleged fools in Hannah Arendt's letters is truly enormous." (p. 62). A review by Raymond Aron in 1954 picked the element of her work that has become so dominant, "without being aware of it, Mrs. Arendt affects a tone of haughty superiority regarding things and men." (p. 61).
The final four chapters of HANNAH ARENDT IN JERUSALEM examine her relationship with the philosophers Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger. The chapter by Anson Rabinbach is mainly about a book by Jaspers in 1946 which appeared in English as THE QUESTION OF GERMAN GUILT. Germans did not embrace the idea. Arendt's husband complained, "despite all beauty and nobility, the guilt brochure of Jaspers is a damned and Hegelized, Christian-pietist-sanctimonious nationalizing bilge." (p. 300).
Peter Baehr considers Arendt, Jaspers, and the appraisal of Max Weber primarily in the context of a letter on January 1, 1933, in which Arendt wrote:
"But I am obligated to keep my distance, I can neither be for nor against when I read Max Weber's wonderful sentence where he says that to put Germany back on her feet he would form an alliance with the devil himself." (p. 308).
Finding some theological applications, Arendt wrote a moral evaluation:
". . . it is not so certain that those who have lost their belief in Hell as a place of the hereafter may not be willing to be able to establish on earth exact imitations of what people used to believe about Hell." (p. 319).
As Peter Baehr concludes, something strange about the mixture of issues involved in communication is complex:
"That some of the most profound forms of expression and dialogue do not conform to norms of transparency, `sincerity,' and consistency may offend some philosophers. But it may also add weight to Arendt's suspicion that philosophy and human experience are constantly at war." (p. 324).
Steven Aschheim, in the Introduction, quotes a letter Arendt wrote to Jaspers on April 13, 1961, in which she complained about Jerusalem:
"Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew and looks Arabic. Some downright brutal types among them. They would follow any order." (p. 7).
The contribution by Susan Neiman, called "Theodicy in Jerusalem" (pp. 65-90), coincides quite closely with an entry in the index for Immanuel Kant, 68-84, and illustrates Arendt's mix of ideas quite vividly:
"In other words, you don't have to be a student of Heidegger to be ambivalent about philosophy. Arendt's strongest expression of revulsion toward the subject occurs in discussing the intellectual embrace of Nazism: Precisely the capacity to use well-trained wit to provide interesting rationalizations of Nazism made philosophy permanently suspect. But in just the discussion in which, for these reasons, she most vehemently rejects her interviewer's inclination to call her a philosopher, Arendt undercuts her own position. Defending her claim to have bid farewell to philosophy, she appeals to what she calls philosophy's essential hostility to the political--from which she immediately excepts Kant (Gaus, V, 45). Later she would generalize to describe Kant as `so singularly free of all specifically philosophical vices' (T, 83). Be that as it may, this is fairly respectable company to keep for one who insists she has said farewell to philosophy." (p. 73).
Heidegger is such a giant in philosophy that Arendt is able to see his escape from concrete politics into a more philosophical approach than the "interesting rationalizations of Nazism" in 1933 which have become such a large part of Heidegger's reputation. See the quote of her 1953 "Heidegger the Fox" sketch on pages 344-345.