Guest Commentary: Nik Unger, NEH 2011 Seminar on Arendt Summer Scholar

Within two months, I will again direct a summer seminar for school teachers interested in exploring the work of Hannah Arendt. The seminar will be held at Bard College, under the auspices of Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. In March, my committee and I selected sixteen participants from a very competitive group of applicants. These sixteen teachers will join me on June 24, 2012 at Bard to begin our Arendtian adventure.

The first text we will discuss is Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt’s controversial report on the trial of Nazi deportation commander, Adolf Eichmann. Last year, summer scholars became involved in heated discussions about this book, amplified by the renewal of the controversy about Arendt’s work consequent to the publication that year of Deborah Lipstadt’s new book, The Eichmann Trial, (Schocken Books, 2011).

Seminar members heard an assessment of Arendt’s book, and commentary on Lipstadt’s book, from Visiting Scholar, Daniel Maier Katkin, who published Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship, and Forgiveness the year before (Norton, 2010). (You can watch a video of Maier-Katkin’s lecture to the 2011 seminar here.)

When I learned that Lipstadt would be speaking in New York, I urged former NEH summer scholars to attend. One of the scholars from last summer’s seminar, Nik Unger, was eager to hear Lipstadt’s talk and I invited him to guest blog about his impressions of her presentation.

Nik is an historian, whose doctoral dissertation focused on the work of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jewish writer Hannah Arendt criticized in a 1943 essay, “Stefan Zweig: Jews in the World of Yesterday.” Nik plans to continue the work on Zweig’s 1942 story ‘Schachnovelle’ [Chess Novel], which he began in the seminar last summer . (You can listen to a BBC recording of an English dramatization of this novella here.)

What follows is Nik’s excellent commentary.

The American historian Deborah Lipstadt, author of The Eichmann Trial (2011), recently gave a lecture entitled “The Eichmann Trial through the Prism of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Questionable Legacy?” as a guest of The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College in conjunction with The Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program. Lipstadt understands Hannah Arendt’s 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil as a problematic work precisely because it functions as one of the most important, if not for many also the only, prism through which an interest in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a principle organizer of the Nazi “Final Solution” to the Jewish question in Europe before 1945, was developed. As she explained, Lipstadt’s interest in revisiting this historical event emerged during the arduous experience of standing trial for a libel suit brought against her by the British anti-Semite and Holocaust-denier David Irving, which she recounts in History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving (2005). In her own engagement with the history of the Eichmann trial, however, Lipstadt deliberately seeks to depart from Arendt’s perspective, which elicited much controversy at the time of its publication and remains today the most widely-read account of the event. For Lipstadt, Arendt sought to see in Eichmann a living embodiment of the vexing ethical and human issues surrounding the crimes of Nazi fascism that she had previously explored in her 1951 work The Origins of Totalitarianism. Lipstadt’s perspective presents a serious divergence from that of Arendt in its desire to study the historical event of the trial. Consciously reengaging with both the trial and Arendt, Lipstadt makes plain her aim to rehabilitate specific points that that Arendt “got wrong” and set the historical record straight.

First and foremost is the role of Gideon Hausner, the lead prosecutor in the trial, who understood the Holocaust as yet another manifestation of the recurrent thread of “eternal” anti-Semitism that has featured so prominently in the history of Western civilization since the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 BCE. Arendt strenuously disagreed with this point of view; to her (and many others), the Nazi genocide represents something far more sinister, namely a unique break in the chain of history that we are obliged to bear witness to by examining the behavior of humanity as a whole through a reconsideration of the perspectives and actions of both the perpetrators and their victims. Although Arendt’s comprehensive approach finds more common acceptance today, for Lipstadt this is an important distinction that warrants acknowledgment in the case of Hausner’s approach in the Eichmann trial, especially given her investigation into the history of the trial via a critique of Arendt’s reportage.

For example, Lipstadt takes serious issue with Arendt’s attendance record at the trial itself, especially her absence during key testimony – most notably that of Eichmann himself – as well as the views that Arendt articulated in her private correspondence while in Israel with friends in the USA and West Germany. Arendt employed a preponderance of class and ethnic stereotypes in communicating her impressions of key figures at the trial and indeed Israel itself that are of particular interest to Lipstadt.

For example, Arendt privately expressed disparaging remarks regarding the lead prosecutor’s lack of language ability (Lipstadt points out that Hausner was indeed a polyglot) as well as other bigoted comments (“ghetto” mentality, “oriental” Jews) that would be considered wholly politically incorrect by today’s standards. For Lipstadt, this provides important evidence of just how wrong Arendt was in certain aspects of her understanding of the trial as expressed in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Aside from the biases of the age in which it was written and the background from which Arendt came (Lipstadt points out that her own German Jewish heritage makes her quite familiar with Arendt’s private articulation of the marked bias and discomfort that German Jews felt towards unassimilated Eastern European Jews).

Lipstadt also finds fault with Arendt’s overstatement of facts, especially her perceptions of the pro-Zionist policies of the Nazis in examples like the Madagascar project, and what she feels is the most objectionable: Arendt’s lack of sensitivity towards assessing the role played by the Jewish councils in the Nazi’s realization of genocide. On this troubling issue, Lipstadt, among others, is reluctant to look back and cast judgment and speculates that Arendt was perhaps disappointed in the lead prosecutor for not emphasizing this aspect more forcefully in his case (she points out that this was always his intention for he did not want the Eichmann trial to become a trial of the victims). Additionally, Lipstadt contests: Arendt’s private assertions that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sought to influence the trial itself in order to not sour the blossoming relationship between a young Israeli state and West Germany, her heavy use of material from Raul Hilberg’s 1961 edition of The Destruction of the European Jews (especially errors regarding the account of Leo Baeck) and, most importantly, the nature and scope of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism.

On this final issue, Lipstadt points to Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992), which she feels illustrates best the true nature of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism (according to Lipstadt, Browning points out that Arendt was most probably “fooled” in her perceptions of Eichmann as lacking a particularly virulent level of anti-Semitism). After all, as Lipstadt points out, Arendt was not personally present for Eichmann’s testimony at the trial, especially the critical moment when he was directly interviewed by the three Israeli judges.

Nevertheless, Lipstadt concedes that there was much that Arendt got right, especially her treatment of the issue of culpability in regards to trying to isolate the metaphorical cog (Eichmann) from the larger whole of the machine (the Nazi totalitarian state), her derision of the Vilna ghetto testimony as inappropriate in the context of this trial, the significance that Arendt ascribes to the story of Anton Schmidt (if there had only been more people whose conscience prevented them from “just following orders” and instead helped Jews escape the genocide at the expense of their own lives then “things might have been different”), the problem of de-Nazification in West Germany given the Cold War context of the post-1945 Europe and, finally, her acceptance of the trial itself as a legitimate expression of Jewish national sovereignty in the democratic state of Israel.

Overall however, Arendt’s interpretation of specific aspects of the Eichmann trial, especially her notion that the evil predicating the mind-boggling horror of the Holocaust was something all too banal (in that it did not require special circumstances to occur but is in fact a serious burden that humanity must bear witness to and attempt to understand) and as such requires full and open acknowledgement from all parties involved, leaves Lipstadt wanting and she takes serious issue with Arendt’s implicit judgment of those Jews who helped the Nazi’s carry out the Holocaust as a somewhat equally complicit component of this extraordinary historical moment. For Lipstadt, it is clear that a deep-seeded and plainly monstrous anti-Semitism motivated Eichmann to go out of his way to do his job particularly well and she feels that Arendt’s reportage lacks a clearly articulated expression of this point.

And yet these differing perspectives belie a larger unaddressed question: can we ever fully reconcile the viewpoint of the historian looking back on the event of a trial whose significance many readily acknowledge fifty years later with that of a contemporary witness and victim who openly sought to come to terms with her own experiences of this human tragedy as well as the larger issues involved through a public critical re-engagement with the very same event?

At the conclusion of her talk, Lipstadt cited the words of Primo Levi, who points out that no one is authorized to judge those who experienced the comprehensive dehumanization of the Holocaust unless they themselves shared in that very same horrifically all-encompassing experience, as a sentiment that she feels directly speaks to Arendt’s judgmental tone in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Could not a similar perspective also have been employed about Lipstadt’s 2011 criticisms of Arendt’s 1963 assessment of the trial of Eichmann, a man very much Arendt’s contemporary in both age and the experience of the human cataclysm of the Second World War?

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