Hannah Arendt's Failures of Imagination

Hannah Arendt is back in the news, in anticipation of the release of the book “Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations,” on Tuesday, and of Claude Lanzmann’s film “The Last of the Unjust,” which played at the New York Film Festival and opens on February 7th. The new book includes four interviews with Arendt. The first two, by Günter Gaus and Joachim Fest, respectively, appeared in 1964, the year after the publication of “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” (a version of which was published, in serialized form, in this magazine), and they deal with that book in detail. The two others are by Adelbert Reif, from 1970, and the French journalist Roger Errera, from 1973. Lanzmann’s new film is centered on his 1975 interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, who, as a rabbi in Vienna and then as the last “elder of the Jews” at Theresienstadt, the so-called model concentration camp, had the misfortune to take orders from Eichmann. The movie contradicts two of the central ideas of “Eichmann in Jerusalem”: it reveals Adolf Eichmann to have been an anti-Semitic ideologue, not a dispassionate bureaucrat, and it presents Jews who worked with the Jewish Councils under direction from Nazi authorities not as collaborators who shared guilt with the Nazis but as tragic heroes. (I’ll revisit the film at the time of its release.)

I’ve written before about “Eichmann in Jerusalem”; in that post, I suggested that Arendt’s charge that Eichmann suffered from a “lack of imagination” is actually the essential flaw of her own book. Her mechanistic view of Eichmann’s personality, as well as her abstract and unsympathetic consideration of the situation of Jews under Nazi rule, reflect her inability to consider the experiences of others from within. What’s remarkable about the new collection of interviews is that, there, too, Arendt levies criticisms of other thinkers that apply at least as well to her own work. It’s as if she spoke and wrote in the grasp of her intellectual unconscious, which drove her to reveal her own assumptions about Eichmann, Nazis, and their Jewish victims with a self-defeating probity.

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