With the release of the movie “Hannah Arendt” by Margarethe von Trotta, critics and fans alike are freaking out. The most damning criticism is von Trotta’s alleged hero-worship of Arendt, and the glaring omission that Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt allegedly argued that Eichmann was an unthinking bureaucrat who was just following orders. But for critics, Eichmann was in fact a master of deception who was well aware of his actions and strongly anti-Semitic. As the New York Times notes:
In the German weekly Der Spiegel, Elke Schmitter argued that new evidence shows Eichmann’s “performance in Jerusalem was a successful deception” — that Arendt apparently missed the true Eichmann, a fanatical anti-Semite. In a review in The New Republic, Saul Austerlitz wrote that Arendt’s “book makes for good philosophy, but shoddy history.” David Owen, a professor of social and political philosophy at the University of Southampton, recently faulted the movie for not grasping that “while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann.” In an essay in The New York Times in May, Fred Kaplan wrote that “Arendt misread Eichmann, but she did hit on something broader about how ordinary people become brutal killers.”
Whether or not Arendt was wrong about Eichmann, in a way, misses the point. A host of reviews, including The New Republic were quick to criticize the movie, and Arendt, for being wrong about the banality of evil. What’s missed, however, is host of empirical studies, from the Stanford Prison Experiments to the Milgram Experiment, seem to verify the ease at which people can be turned into evil monsters. Even if Arendt was wrong about Eichmann, she was still right about the nature of evil.
But as the New York Time notes, Arendt never thought Eichmann was an unthinking bureaucrat:
The problem with this conclusion is that Arendt never wrote that Eichmann simply followed orders. She never portrayed him, in Cesarani’s words, as a “dull-witted clerk or a robotic bureaucrat.” Indeed she rejected the idea that Eichmann was simply following orders. She emphasized that Eichmann took enormous pride in his initiative in deporting Jews and also in his willingness to disobey orders to do so, especially Himmler’s clear orders — offered in 1944 in the hope of leniency amid impending defeat — to “take good care of the Jews, act as their nursemaid.” In direct disobedience, Eichmann organized death marches of Hungarian Jews; as Arendt writes, he “sabotaged” Himmler’s orders. As the war ground to an end, as Arendt saw, Eichmann, against Himmler, remained loyal to Hitler’s idea of the Nazi movement and did “his best to make the Final Solution final.”
…The widespread misperception that Arendt saw Eichmann as merely following orders emerged largely from a conflation of her conclusions with those of Stanley Milgram, the Yale psychologist who conducted a series of controversial experiments in the early 1960s. Milgram was inspired by the Eichmann trial to ask test subjects to assist researchers in training students by administering what they thought were potentially lethal shocks to students who answered incorrectly. The test subjects largely did as they were instructed. Milgram invoked Arendt when he concluded that his experiments showed most people would follow orders to do things they thought wrong. But Arendt rejected the “naïve belief that temptation and coercion are really the same thing,” and with it Milgram’s claim that obedience carried with it no responsibility. Instead, Arendt insisted, “obedience and support are the same.” That is why she argued that Eichmann should be put to death.
Read the full article at The New York Times.