A Couple of Comments on Corey Robin’s “The Trials of Hannah Arendt”

The Nation has just published “The Trials of Hannah Arendt,” by Corey Robin, and it’s one of the best articles I’ve read on Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in some time. The article comes after controversy last year on the heals of the publication in English last year of Bettina Stangneth’s 2011 Eichmann Before Jerusalem. The latter received generally good reviews, though I think this speaks more to the general way in which critics like revisionary accounts of historical figures than it does to the book itself, which manages, at over 600 pages, to be as dull and repetitive as Eichmann ever was.

Stangeth, who is by discipline a political philosopher and not a historian, manages to mangle Arendt’s main theses (taking quotations out of context) about Eichmann and thus very early in the book lost my confidence in her selection of quotations from 1,300 pages of Eichmann’s notes, as well as audio recordings of audio tapes from Buenas Aires, where Eichmann was in hiding (though how much he had to hide from German and others looking for him is a matter of good discussion in the book). Everything about Eichmann must be thoroughly evil, though defining just what that means is taken for granted–not just his part in the Holocaust, but every interaction with anyone ever must be portrayed as committed by an “evil monster” (p. 45). Thus one avoids taking up the key theme of Arendt’s book: how to think the nature of evil when psychologized notions (which only double down on the quandary, putting at a hidden depth what was meant to be proved) or theological ones fail us?

What Robin attempts to do in his review is show just how judgmental Arendt really was, and how far from absolving Eichmann of his evil, she wanted to think responsibility in the age of “mass man” and the bureaucratic “rule of no one.”

Arendt extract[ed] from a blurred silhouette of mass ruin detailed sketches of discrete men, making discrete choices, taking discrete actions. There was room for maneuver under the Nazis—indeed, the regime depended upon it—and how one maneuvered made a moral difference….Geography mattered for Arendt: not the physical terrain of a country, but its institutions, leadership, and personnel, the particular decisions they made, the actions they took, the support they offered or withheld. In her effort to restore some room for maneuver, some sense of responsibility, to the Nazi edifice, Arendt ranged widely—sometimes clumsily, sometimes cruelly—into the darkest spaces of its cornered victims. But if she overstated her case regarding Jewish cooperation…it’s important to remember that her most informed critics have also insisted that Jewish leaders did not react like automatons; they acted in a variety of ways, depending on context and circumstance, and those differences sometimes made a difference.

Of course, it was Arendt’s depictions of the Jewish councils that worked with Eichmann that have always been the most troubling to readers (and to subpar polemicists like Wolin), since she at once seems to sympathize with Eichmann’s own defense while implicating the victims in their own singular tragedies. I teach Eichmann in Jerusalem fairly frequently and it can often, pedagogically, serve different purposes: as a foil for Aristotelian virtue ethics, for thinking ethics after the death of God, and, this past semester, thinking issues of crime and punishment, by looking at those passages where Arendt calls for the death penalty in the case. But Robin’s key point about Arendt and judgment stands: she did not want to say relativistically “who’s to judge,” which ironically is some of her critics’ avowed point of view, but to say that thinking is judging. That a trial itself stands as a metonymy for judging itself–how does one deal with a messy world and come, finally, to a result?–is what makes Eichmann an extraordinary text.