Since I blogged about Arendt and Eichmann on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I figured I’d do the same on Erev Yom Kippur.
Actually, there’s a reason I’ve been thinking about the Arendt/Eichmann controversy of late: it’s heating up again. This time, prompted by the publication in English of Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem. I’ve been reading the book, which offers a full-scale reconsideration not only of Eichmann but of how Eichmann presented himself at court in Jerusalem. In the background, inevitably, is Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Stagneth’s is an uneven book, which starts out with great promise (its opening set piece is almost worthy of Arendt), but performs the nearly magical feat of being both tendentious, maniacally repeating its argument over and over again, and wayward; it’s both polemical and dilatory.
One potentially fascinating angle of the book, which I haven’t seen Stangneth develop, at least not yet, is why Arendt wasn’t more interested in Eichmann’s performance at Jerusalem as a performance. Arendt, after all, had an especially theatrical conception of politics, understanding all that we do in the public sphere as a kind of performance, a mask we wear, a role we inhabit. And no one reading those opening pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem could fail to see just how theatrical is her sense of the “show trial” in Jerusalem. And yet Arendt refuses to apply those insights to Eichmann himself. Rather than see him as performing a part (Stangneth does a good job of showing that that is exactly what Eichmann was doing at Jerusalem), Arendt sees Eichmann as being subsumed by, or subsuming himself in, his role. That is, in part, his blankness, his banality, for Arendt. It’s understandable that Arendt would resist seeing Eichmann in Jerusalem as a performance: that is, after all, the point of her book. Even so, it’s a fascinating wrinkle in the story, one that I hope Stangneth will pursue at some point in the book.
Back to the Arendt/Eichmann wars. They seem to flare up every decade or so. What’s truly astonishing is that the wars continue today, more than a half-century after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. With the exception of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, what book has managed, 50 years later, to stir up so much wrath and rage? With books like the Bible or Capital, it’s more understandable: they, after all, are immediately linked to a political or religious movement. But Eichmann in Jerusalem is not.
Or perhaps it is…
In the beginning, when the battle first broke out after the publication of Eichmann, the main issue of contention was Arendt’s treatment of the Jewish Councils. But now that most of that generation of survivors is gone, that issue has died down.
Now the main fault line of the battle is Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism: whether she minimized it or not. And that issue, it seems to me, is very much tied up with the fate of Israel.
After all, if the claim could be made, however vulgarly (for this was not in fact Arendt’s point at all), that Ground Zero of modern anti-Semitism was not in fact anti-Semitic, what does that tell us about the presence and persistence of anti-Semitism in the contemporary world? Again, that was not in fact Arendt’s argument, but it’s been taken that way, and I can’t help but think that one of the reasons why the focus on Eichmann’s anti-Semitism plays the role now that it does (as opposed to when the book was originally published) has something to do with the legitimation crisis that Israel is currently undergoing.
But this is for a longer discussion at a later point, one that I plan to explore in more depth in a piece on the Arendt wars that I’ll be writing for a magazine.
Right now, I’m more interested in the battle between Seyla Benhabib and Richard Wolin that has broken out over the last few weeks in the pages of the New York Times and the Jewish Review of Books. Again, prompted by Stangneth’s book.
I’ve been hesitant to weigh into this battle on this blog for a few reasons. First, I personally know both Seyla and Richard, who’s a colleague of mine at the CUNY Graduate Center. Though I tend to side with Seyla on the question of Arendt, I have a great deal of respect for Richard and his work. I like both of them, and don’t like getting into the middle of it. Second, as I said, I’ll be writing more on the Arendt wars in the future, and want to give myself some time and space to think about what they mean before I weigh in in public. And last, I don’t know that I have the stomach for the inevitable round of Seinsplaining I anticipate on the comment thread of this blog. Talk about Arendt, everyone thinks Heidegger, and lo and behold we have one after another thousand-word comment from Learned Men about matters that have little to do with the original post.
But there are two smaller issues that have come up in the exchange between Wolin and Benhabib that I did want to explore, in part because they are so small.
The first has to do with the presence of Kant in Eichmann in Jerusalem.
In his critique of Benhabib’s Times piece, Wolin writes:
Benhabib’s claim that Kant’s moral philosophy plays a systematic role in Eichmann in Jerusalem is similarly unsustainable. Arendt’s reliance on Kant’s theory of judgment—the idea that we broaden our mental horizons by virtue of our ability to reason from the standpoint of other persons—is limited to one meager passage (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 48). Moreover, in the passage in question, Kant’s name is not even mentioned. Casual allusions along these lines hardly qualify as systematic or serious employment. As most Arendt scholars are aware, Arendt only developed these Kantian precepts in earnest circa 1970, in the course of her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy and in the complementary essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations.”
The question of Kant’s presence in Eichmann has a lot to do with how we understand Arendt’s treatment of what she calls Eichmann’s thoughtlessness. When Arendt accuses Eichmann of thoughtlessness, she means, for those who favor a Kantian reading (at least an Arendtian reading of a Kantian reading of Arendt: are you still with me?), that Eichmann was simply unable to think about what he was doing from the standpoint of other men and women, how his actions might be perceived by someone who was not in his shoes.
Stangneth, in fact, tells a story about Eichmann that offers a perfect illustration of this reading of thoughtlessness (though Stangneth interprets the story completely differently): In 1950, Eichmann, along with 15 others, managed to flee Europe and set sail for Argentina from Genoa on the Giovanna C. Years later, in a text titled “Meine Flucht,” he reminisced about the relief he felt, finally to have escaped his would-be tormentors. Drawing a parallel only he could have drawn, he marveled, “Once it was the Jews, now it was–Eichmann.” This is the sort of thing Arendt had in mind when she talked about Eichmann’s thoughtlessness.
Back to Wolin. That last claim of his, which I’ve bolded above—”As most Arendt scholars are aware, Arendt only developed these Kantian precepts in earnest circa 1970, in the course of her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy and in the complementary essay ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’”—is simply not true.
In a brilliant article—”Arendt, Aesthetics, and ‘The Crisis in Culture‘”—that totally changed how I see some of Arendt’s work, University of Chicago political theorist Patchen Markell shows that the Kantian presence in Arendt’s thought, particularly regarding these issues of judgment and enlarged mentality, well predates her 1970 writings, extending as far back as the 1950s. In other words, while it’s no surprise that Arendt had read Kant and was obsessed with him throughout her writing (what German émigré scholar of her generation wouldn’t have been?), the particular question of Kant’s influence on her theory of judgment, and how judgment relates to questions of aesthetic taste, which was a major topic in her writings in the 1970s, can be shown to be present throughout her writings in the 1950s. And in fact, as Patchen shows, most serious Arendt scholars know that.
If memory serves (I only read this essay in draft more than a year ago), Patchen looks at Arendt’s essay “The Crisis in Culture,” which was being written and formulated in the late 1950s and which finally appears in Between Past and Future in 1961 (the year Eichmann went on trial). He shows, among a great many other things, that Arendt and Jaspers were corresponding about Kant’s Critique of Judgment in the late 1950s (so the text was on her mind), and that the Critique of Judgment very much informs her essay on culture, and how to think about questions of taste and judgment and their relationship to politics. In other words, whether or not Kant is present in what Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem (and I think Seyla’s got the better of that argument), Kant, and his writing about judgment, were clearly present in Arendt’s thinking on the eve of her travels to Jerusalem.
As Patchen further commented to me on my blog:
Although the Jaspers correspondence does contain a letter from 1957, when she was busy re-reading the Critique of Judgment, that makes it pretty clear how seriously engaged she was with that text, the place to go to really see this is her Denktagebuch or notebooks, published in 2002, which contain 15 pages (in the published version) of handwritten notes from the third Critique, including notes and comments on the idea of an “enlarged mentality,” the importance of the presence of others for the validity of judgments, etc. The editors of the Denktagebuch themselves observed how significant it was that this material came prior to, not after, the Eichmann trial. The Anglophone scholar who reconstructs this stuff best, and really focuses in a way I do not on the continuities between the Kant reading of 1957 and the lectures of 1970, is David Marshall, who published a very detailed piece on this history of Arendt’s readings of Kant in Political Theory (2010): http://ptx.sagepub.com/content/38/3/367.
Inspired by Wolin’s piece (and Patchen’s corrective, avant la lettre), I read Arendt’s other essay from that period, “Culture and Politics.” This was a talk she gave in Germany in 1958, which was published in German in 1959, and was then incorporated into the final version of the “The Crisis in Culture” essay that was published in Between Past and Future. It’s recently been translated into English.
In that essay, Arendt claims Kant’s Critique of Judgment as an explicit inspiration for her thinking about judgment and politics: the Critique, she says, “ contains what is in my opinion the greatest and most original aspect of Kant’s political philosophy.” That was just two years before Arendt would head to Jerusalem to report on the Eichmann trial.
As she goes on to develop the political implications of Kant’s theory of taste and judgment, Arendt writes:
It is as though taste decided not only what the world should look like, but also who belongs together in the world….The belonging-together-of-persons—this is what gets decided in judgments about a common world. And what the individual manifests in its judgments is a singular “being-thus-and-not-otherwise”….
As soon as I read that “who belongs together in the world,” I stopped. The passage has an eerie resonance.
In the epilogue to her report on the Eichmann trial, Arendt delivers what she thinks should have been the Israeli court’s judgment against Eichmann. Her very last two sentences read:
And just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations…we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.
Though I have no idea if Arendt intended these last sentences of Eichmann to be read as such, it’s hard for me not to read them as an indication of how, for Arendt, Eichmann’s crimes are a terrible and ironic perversion of the Kantian themes she was developing in her 1959 essay.
Just as a person reveals herself in her tastes (and what she reveals in part is “who belongs together in the world”), so does Eichmann reveal himself in his tastes (or lack thereof), and what he reveals is who belongs together, in his mind, in the world: Aryans as opposed to Jews. So does he also reveal, inadvertently, who actually belongs together in the world: Eichmann and all the other Nazis who refused to share the earth, as opposed to the peoples of the earth.
It is because of that terrible and ironic perversion of Kant’s theory of taste, which is connected to judgment, that Arendt insists so strongly on the court restoring the proper meaning of Kant’s theory of taste/judgment in its verdict on Eichmann: through its verdict, Arendt claims, through its revealing who or what it is, the court must decide who does indeed belong together in the world—namely, the peoples of the earth, in all their plurality—and who does not: those individuals, like Eichmann, who do not wish to share the earth with others.
Okay, so that’s the first small item in the Arendt Wars that I want to talk about.
The second one has to do this with this claim of Wolin’s:
Second, a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence indicates that so great was her impatience with the proceedings that she never saw Eichmann testify. Arendt endured chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s lengthy opening statement and, following an absence of several weeks, returned to Jerusalem to witness the final verdict. But, remarkably, she never saw Eichmann himself take the stand. (Here, one suspects that Arendt’s rather brazen disregard for the value of testimony, not to speak of the norms of journalism, is an instance of Germanic philosophical arrogance. As J. G. Fichte said, if the facts fail to accord with the sublimity of the idea, so much the worse for the facts!)
Two nights ago, I spent the better part of the evening re-reading Arendt’s letters to her three main correspondents during the Eichmann trial—the philosopher Karl Jaspers, her husband Heinrich Blücher, and her friend Mary McCarthy. The following morning, I did my best to work through some of the secondary literature on the trial and the Arendt controversy.
Based on this research, I think I can safely say that Wolin is incorrect. Not only was Arendt present for Eichmann’s testimony, but she also took his testimony incredibly seriously. What’s more, the very correspondence Wolin cites as the basis for his conclusions demonstrates the exact opposite of those conclusions.
It helps first to remember three key dates from the Eichmann trial:
December 11, 1961: the Israeli court issues its verdict
Right off the bat, it’s clear that Wolin’s chronology is off: Arendt could not have been in Jerusalem for the prosecutor’s opening statement only, left for a few weeks, and then returned for the verdict. Roughly eight months separate the first day of the trial from the announcement of the verdict.
And indeed, when the verdict was issued in December, Arendt was either in New York, nursing Blücher back to health (he had suffered from a ruptured aneurism), or in Middletown, Connecticut, where she would have been wrapping up a seminar on Machiavelli she had been teaching at Wesleyan that fall. The one place she would not have been was in Jerusalem, as is clear from a letter she wrote to Jaspers on December 30, 1961, and from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography.
But Wolin has got more than the dates of the trial and Arendt’s attendance wrong. He also gets wrong what Arendt saw and heard at the trial and her attitude to the trial and its testimony more generally. Most important, the centrally damning claim he makes—that Arendt never saw or heard Eichmann testify—is also wrong.
Arendt arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday April 9, 1961, two days before the trial began, and headed straight for Jerusalem. At the trial, she listened intently not only to Hausner’s opening statement, but also to lengthy recordings of Eichmann’s depositions. As she wrote to Blücher on April 20:
Here everything is going as expected…with the ghost in the glass cage listening to his voice sounding from the magnetic tape.
Arendt also heard testimony from a great variety of witnesses for the prosecution, including one of the leaders of the Warsaw Uprising; the father of Herschel Grynszpan, whose assassination of Ernst vom Rath had provided the pretext for Kristallnacht, and whose testimony she discusses in Eichmann; and Salo Baron, the eminent Jewish historian.
In fact, as the days went on, Arendt grew increasingly frustrated by this testimony, as so little of it had to do with Eichmann himself. As she wrote to Blücher on May 6:
The basic mistake—if one can say such a thing—is not only that Eichmann has been completely forgotten, his name often not mentioned for days on end (really typical, e.g.,: After the prosecution put 29 volumes [!] concerning Hans Frank on the table, Servatius [me: Eichmann’s attorney] rose and asked: “Does the name Eichmann appear in any of these volumes!” The answer: “No”)…
Far from being uninterested in what Eichmann had to say, Arendt was profoundly interested in him and his testimony. She watched him closely throughout the trial: “Eichmann is no eagle; rather, a ghost who has a cold on top of that,” as she wrote to Jaspers on April 13. And throughout her stay in Jerusalem and in the time after that, she kept recurring to the six volumes of testimony (more than 3000 pages) Eichmann had given in his depositions. Not to mention the lengthy trial transcript she pored over for months as she prepared her articles for The New Yorker.
Then, on May 6, she writes to Blücher that she is leaving Jerusalem the next morning for Switzerland, where she will visit Jaspers. As she’s about to leave, she wonders:
The question is: Should I come back here again for the defense? I imagine I should, but I’m not sure….Of course it also depends on my appointments. Zurich on June 24th—etched in stone!
That date, the 24th of June, was a reference to a long-planned reunion between her and Blücher, who would be meeting Jaspers and his wife, both of whom had played such an important role in Arendt’s life, for the very first time.
As the weeks go by, first in Switzerland with Jaspers, and then in Germany, Arendt decides she must return to Jerusalem. The only question is when. “If I only knew when I have to go back to Jerusalem,” she writes McCarthy on May 31.
Why was Arendt so eager to return to Jerusalem? Simply and solely to see and hear Eichmann testify. And what was the referent for “if I only knew when”? It seems from the context of her letters that she needed to know the date that Eichmann was to assume the witness stand in order to properly plan the timing of her return.
Contrary to what Wolin explicitly states and implicitly suggests in his piece, seeing and hearing Eichmann testify was a top priority for Arendt between the time of her first visit to Jerusalem and the time of her return there.
On June 4, Arendt tells Blücher that she thinks she’ll be in Jerusalem by the 17th. And adds, “With a bit of luck, it might happen in the week of June 17 that Eichmann will be called to the witness stand.”
On June 14, a Wednesday, she writes Blücher:
So I’m flying to Israel on Saturday, as I already wrote you. The trial will start again on the 20th, and I’m afraid that Hausner will try to delay matters even further. But I have at least to try to see Eichmann
So, that’s all. Here’s my address again, just to be sure: Hotel Eden, Jerusalem till Friday the 23rd. After that, with you: Waldhaus Dolderer, Zurich.
And then, on June 16, a Friday, she writes Jaspers: “I’m off tomorrow morning.”
Unfortunately, the three editions of her correspondence do not include any letters from this second visit to Jerusalem. Presumably because she was only there for a very short while and because she knew she was going to be seeing Jaspers and Blücher, the two people she corresponded with most intently during that time, within days.
What we do know is that Eichmann did indeed take the stand on the 20th of June, and unless Arendt canceled her trip to Jerusalem at literally the last minute (“I’m off tomorrow morning”), we also know that she was in the city when he took the stand. It would seem strange if, after all these expressions of desire to see Eichmann in court, she decided not to stop by.
Now the question is: Where might Wolin have gotten the notion that Arendt didn’t in fact see, or care much about seeing, Eichmann testify? He refers to “a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence,” but as I’ve shown, nothing in the correspondence indicates that she didn’t see (or didn’t care about seeing) Eichmann testify, and in fact, everything in the correspondence points in the opposite direction.
Several folks initially suggested to me that perhaps Wolin got it from Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial, which came out a few years ago. I don’t have the book nor have I read it. But with the help of Amazon and Google Reader, I’ve been able to find the crucial passages on pp. 178-180. Long story short, Lipstadt confirms what I’ve written above and thus could not have provided Wolin with his source.
First, Lipstadt says that after her first stint in Jerusalem, Arendt traveled to Basel for five weeks (actually, she was also in Germany). She then, says Lipstadt, returned to Jerusalem to see Eichmann on the witness stand. In the courtroom, Arendt saw and heard Servatius, Eichmann’s attorney, ask him questions.
Second, Lipstadt does criticize Arendt for not staying to witness Hausner’s cross-examination of Eichmann. Had she stayed, says Lipstadt, Arendt might have seen something about Eichmann, under Hausner’s withering critique, that she could not have gleaned from the transcript.
Third, Lipstadt is very careful to point out that simply because Arendt wasn’t there for part of the trial does not invalidate her conclusions; a great many accounts of trials, Lipstadt says, are based entirely on a reading of the transcript.
So, bottom line: Lipstadt does not provide any evidence for Wolin’s claim.
Lipstadt’s footnotes to this discussion, however, provide us with a potential lead. Most of Lipstadt’s footnotes refer to Arendt’s correspondence with Jaspers and McCarthy. Again, nothing in that correspondence supports Wolin’s claim. But Lipstadt also refers in her footnotes to p. 148 of Raul Hilberg’s memoir. Hilberg was a historian of the Holocaust. Indeed, he wrote the first genuinely comprehensive history of the Holocaust, from which Arendt drew extensively in her book. Much to Hilberg’s chagrin: he felt like he never got the proper acknowledgment from her or from subsequent scholars of the controversy.
On p. 148 of his memoir, Hilberg claims that Arendt stayed in Jerusalem for ten weeks and then left three days before Eichmann assumed the stand. He also claims that Arendt’s published correspondence with Jaspers shows this. So Hilberg might in fact be Wolin’s source, though I took Wolin’s “a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence” to mean that Wolin had done the perusing. In any event, Hilberg is wrong on all accounts: Arendt did not stay in Jerusalem for ten weeks; she did not leave three days before Eichmann assumed the stand; and her correspondence with Jaspers does not show any of this.
You might wonder why I’ve spent so much time examining this kind of minutia. I’ve wondered the same thing myself. I suppose it comes down to the ethics of literary controversy, a sense of how, if we’re going to argue over this book, we ought to argue over it. (That’s an issue, if I’m being honest with myself, that I have a particular investment in, given my own experiences with some of my writing.)
Since its publication, Eichmann in Jerusalem has generated not only a good deal of justified controversy, but also a good deal of unjustified controversy, a lot of it based on misinformation. As Amos Elon commented in his introduction to a reissued edition of Eichmann: “Hand-me-downs from one critic to another drew on alleged references in the book which no one seemed to have checked.” It’s in the interest of preventing another generation of hand-me-down allegations that I write this post.
Have an easy fast.