Banality and Brilliance: Irving Howe on Hannah Arendt

Banality and Brilliance: Irving Howe on Hannah Arendt

(2007, Wikimedia Commons)

Margarethe von Trotta’s new film, Hannah Arendt, revisits the furor provoked by Arendt’s analysis of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Dissent‘s founder, Irving Howe, witnessed and participated in the controversy. In the following excerpt from his memoir, A Margin of Hope (1982), Howe describes the intellectual “civil war” that followed the publication of Arendt’s “report on the banality of evil.” Permission has been granted by Nina Howe, Literary Editor for the Estate of Irving Howe.

For some of us the path to a clarified Jewishness has to be rocky. The true journeyer is not even certain that the path is there. Along the way there were often stops marked by confusion, unclarified bursts of emotion, even hysteria. One of these was a civil war that broke out among New York intellectuals over Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book on the Eichmann trial.

My first encounter with Hannah had come in 1947 when she was editor of Schocken Books, the German-Jewish publishing house recently moved to New York. She needed a part-time assistant to do literary chores (copy for book jackets, cleaning up translations, and so forth), and for the handy sum of $150 a month I took the job. With it came the privilege of visiting Hannah at her office every week. She had not yet published her major work on totalitarianism, but everyone in the intellectual world respected her and some feared her. She liked to “adopt” young people, and while I was not one of her chosen—perhaps because I was deaf to philosophy, or had been contaminated by Marxism, or was visibly intent upon resisting her intellectual lures—she would take an hour off and talk to me about Kafka and Brecht, Yiddish folk tales and American politics.

Whatever room she was in Hannah filled through the largeness of her will; indeed, she always seemed larger than her setting. Rarely have I met a writer with so acute an awareness of the power to overwhelm.

While far from “good-looking” in any commonplace way, Hannah Arendt was a remarkably attractive person, with her razored gestures, imperial eye, dangling cigarette. “Szee here,” she would declare with a smile meant both to subdue and to solace, and then she’d race off into one of her improvisations. She made an especially strong impression on intellectuals—those who, as mere Americans, were dazzled by the immensities of German philosophy. But I always suspected that she impressed people less through her thought than the style of her thinking. She bristled with intellectual charm, as if to reduce everyone in sight to an alert discipleship. Her voice would shift register abruptly, now stern and admonitory, now slyly tender in gossip. Whatever room she was in Hannah filled through the largeness of her will; indeed, she always seemed larger than her setting. Rarely have I met a writer with so acute an awareness of the power to overwhelm.

Her thought leaped and whirled, refusing familiar liberal and Marxist routines. Even while appreciating her performance, I often failed to grasp its substance, yet we did share an interest in one crucial aspect of modern political thought. Hannah used to talk about “politics per szay” and though I suspected her of an aristocratic or “supraclass” bias, I was not so foolish as to dismiss this out of hand. For her, politics signified an activity marking out whatever was distinctively human in the human enterprise—an activity by which men decided how to govern their affairs. Politics she saw, indeed celebrated, as an autonomous art free of socioeconomic debasements. Now in my own circles we were starting to recognize that in modern societies, especially the communist ones where the state has become the arbiter of the economy, it is politics that for good or ill proves to be the decisive shaper of society. So there was a meeting between the ideas Hannah put forward and the ideas I told her my friends were approaching, which came as news to her, since she had an aversion to Marxists. It was at her prompting that I went back to The Federalist Papers and found there, especially in Madison’s essays, powerful statements about the uses of faction and the balancing of interest in a republic. Especially important was the idea that government, far from simply reflecting class interests, had to be regarded as a feat of craftsmanship, something made by men and thereby open to numerous variations. I learned—and for this I remain grateful to Hannah Arendt—that politics has to be scrutinized in its own right, and not just as an index of social conflict.

Hannah’s attitudes toward modern Jewish life, her feelings toward the Jews as they actually lived in all their frailty and imperfection, were hopelessly mixed. She breathed hostility toward established Jewish institutions, especially Zionist ones, though in earlier years she had been closely involved with European Zionism. She felt impatient with what she took to be their intellectual mediocrity, their bourgeois flaccidity—oh, she could be very grand in her haughtiness. Yet she also knew that she stood in the main line of German-Jewish culture, and her dissection of anti-Semitism in Origins of Totalitarianism was a piece of high virtuosity. When her report on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem came out in 1963, it was awaited with anticipation and anxiety. What struck one in reading Eichmann in Jerusalem—struck like a blow—was the surging contempt with which she treated almost everyone and everything connected with the trial, the supreme assurance of the intellectual looking down upon those coarse Israelis.

Many of us were still reeling from the delayed impact of the Holocaust. The more we tried to think about it, the less could we make of it. Now we were being told by the brilliant Hannah Arendt that Adolf Eichmann, far from being the “moral monster” the Israeli prosecutor had called him, should really be seen as a tiresome, boring, trivial little fellow, the merest passive cog in the machine of death that had so efficiently shipped the Jews to the gas chambers. This Eichmann, she said, was a cog impelled more by bureaucratic routine than ideological venom. Still more painful, as we read the Arendt book, was her charge that the Jewish Councils, or Judenräte, set up by the Nazis in the occupied countries were evidence of how thoroughly the Jews had collaborated in their own destruction. Again one heard a note repeatedly struck in modern thought: the victims blamed for their victimization, the helpless indicted for their helplessness. Said Arendt:

But the whole truth was that … wherever Jews lived, there were
recognized Jewish leaders, and these leaders, almost without exception,
cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with
the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really
been unorganized and leaderless there would have been chaos and
plenty of misery but the total number of victims would barely have
been between five and six million

The Eichmann about whom Arendt wrote was the Eichmann on display at the Jerusalem trial. There he seemed—as Simone de Beauvoir had said of the French collaborator Pierre Laval at his trial—commonplace and inconsequential, an unimaginative and feeble little fellow. (Hence the well-remembered phrase about “the banality of evil”—the killers, it seems, looked pretty much like you and me.) But even this Eichmann showed astonishing qualities, never breaking under pressure, never begging forgiveness for his crimes. Eichmann had once said, “I would jump into my grave laughing because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction”; Hannah Arendt dismissed this remark as mere “boasting,” the big talk of a small man. But, asked Lionel Abel in a powerful reply to Arendt, “How many people have ever boasted of having killed five million people?” That kind of boast was hardly the talk of a featureless cog in a bureaucratic machine! As for the single-mindedness with which Eichmann had pursued the goal of mass extermination, surely some profound depravity of intention or monstrousness of thought had to be at its root. No merely banal creature could have conceived or executed so horrible a crime; some version of “radical evil,” far from commonplace, had to be invoked here, and once invoked, it shattered Arendt’s view of Eichmann. Far more persuasive was a remark by Saul Bellow that “banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience.”

None of this was so troublesome as the question of the Jewish Councils in Nazi-occupied Europe. That really rubbed raw against Jewish nerves. During the Eichmann controversy, I was close to Lionel Abel and we spent hours discussing the questions raised by Arendt. Though no more expert than Arendt herself—soon her book would be shown to contain many factual errors—Abel looked to the available literature on the Holocaust and, as best he could, tried to fight back against her theories. In a strong polemic Abel wrote that in the Ukraine, where there was no Jewish Council to collaborate with the conquerors, the Nazis had nevertheless managed efficiently to destroy more than 500,000 Jews between November 1941 and June 1942; that in some instances the Councils saw themselves as buffers between German barbarism and the helpless victims, enabling the latter to be provided with rations of a sort and perhaps thereby to survive; that similar “collaboration,” at times unavoidable, occurred on the part of non-Jewish conquered peoples; that the wretched figures chosen for these Councils were seldom the earlier, elected Jewish spokesmen, but often stray and demoralized people who feared for themselves and their families; that in truth nothing the Jews did or did not do could have made any large difference, so helpless were they before the Nazi conquerors; and that nevertheless there were some Jewish revolts, despite the lack of arms, despite starvation, despite the absence of military experience, despite the hatred, even betrayals, of surrounding gentile populations.

The most authoritative words, however, were spoken by the Jewish historian Gershom Scholem in an open letter he wrote to his old friend Hannah Arendt: “Which of us can say today what decisions the elders of the Jews [the Councils]—or whatever we choose to call them—ought to have arrived at in the circumstances. … Some among them were swine, others saints. … There were among them also many people in no way different from ourselves, who were compelled to make terrible decisions in circumstances that we cannot even begin to reproduce or reconstruct. I do not know whether they were right or wrong. Nor do I presume to judge. I was not there.”

If left to the rest of the American intellectual or academic world, Arendt’s book would have been praised as “stimulating” and everyone would have gone back to sleep. Overwrought and imbalanced, we at least cared.

Within the New York intellectual world Arendt’s book provoked divisions that would never be entirely healed. Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, and in a more subdued way Daniel Bell supported Arendt; Lionel Abel, most vigorously, and I were among her critics. As it seems to me now, the excesses of speech and feeling in this controversy had as one cause a sense of guilt concerning the Jewish tragedy, a guilt pervasive, unmanageable, yet seldom allowed to reach daylight. There was nevertheless something good in this quarrel. At least everyone was releasing—if not comprehending—emotions long held down. Nowhere else was there such an intense concern with the issues raised by Hannah Arendt. If left to the rest of the American intellectual or academic world, her book would have been praised as “stimulating” and everyone would have gone back to sleep. Overwrought and imbalanced, we at least cared. To say that one cares can easily become an excuse for self-indulgence or theatrics, and that did happen in this dispute—on both sides. But not to care is surely worse.

Nowhere else in the country could there have been the kind of public forum that Dissent then organized in the seedy Hotel Diplomat of midtown Manhattan. Hundreds of people crowded into the hall where Lionel Abel and Marie Syrkin, a veteran Labor Zionist writer, spoke against Arendt’s thesis, while Raul Hilberg, an authoritative scholar of the Holocaust, and Daniel Bell spoke more or less for her. We had asked Hannah herself to come, but she did not answer our letter. The meeting was hectic, with frequent interruptions: Abel furiously pounded the table; Alfred Kazin intervened nervously at the last moment to defend Arendt; Vladka Meed, a heroic survivor of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, passionately attacked Arendt’s views in Yiddish; and I as chairman translated rapidly from a Yiddish speech made by a leader of the Jewish Socialist Bund. Sometimes outrageous, the meeting was also urgent and afire.

Perhaps the most judicious words in the whole debate were spoken by a writer not afterward to be known for judiciousness: Norman Podhoretz. He saw Arendt’s book—rightly, I think—as an instance of that deep impulse among some Jews, especially intellectual ones, to make “inordinate demands … [that] Jews be better than other people … braver, wiser, nobler, more dignified. … But the truth is—must be—that the Jews under Hitler acted as men will act when they are set upon by murderers, no better and no worse; the Final Solution reveals nothing about the victims except that they were mortal beings and hopelessly vulnerable in their weakness. … The Nazis destroyed a third of the Jewish people. In the name of all that is humane, will the remnant never let up on itself?”

Such controversies are never settled. They die down, simmer, and erupt again. A year after the 1963 debate I ran into Hannah Arendt at a party and stretched out a hand in greeting. With a curt shake of the head and that bold grim smile of hers, she turned on her heel and walked off. It was the most skillful cut I have ever seen or received, and I was wounded quite as keenly as she wanted me to be. Four or five years passed and we began to see each other again, talking gingerly about the Vietnam war and the New Left. Finding at least some agreement, we were still bruised, still wary, still—I like to think—sharing a faint glow of residual affection.