Hannah Arendt’s work has come under some critical fire lately, what with the release of the Margarethe Von Trotta-directed biopic, starring German actress Barbara Sukowa as the controversial political theorist. At issue in the film and the surrounding commentary are Arendt’s (allegedly misleading) characterizations of the subject of her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, as well as her ambivalent—some have said callous, even “victim-blaming”—treatment of other Jews. None of these controversies are new, however. As Arendt scholar Roger Berkowitz notes in a recent New York Times editorial, at the time of her book’s publication, “Nearly every major literary and philosophical figure in New York chose sides in what the writer Irving Howe called a ‘civil war’ among New York intellectuals.”
While acknowledging Arendt’s flaws, Berkowitz seeks to exonerate the best-known concept that emerged from her work on Eichmann’s trial, the “banality of evil.” And while it can be comforting to have an interpreter explain, and defend, the work of a major, controversial, thinker, there is no intellectual substitute for engaging with the work itself.
In the age of the media interview—radio, television, podcast and otherwise—one can usually see and hear an author explain her views in person. And so we have the interview above (in German with English subtitles), in which Arendt sits with television presenter and journalist Gunter Gaus for a German program called Zur Person (The Person), a Charlie Rose-like show that featured celebrities, important thinkers, and politicians (including an appearance by Henry Kissinger).
A blogger at Jewish Philosophy Place writes that Arendt’s interview—a transcript of which was later published in The Portable Hannah Arendt as “What Remains? Language Remains”—is “slow and deliberative, not sharp and declarative, moving in circles, not straight lines.” The interview touches on a variety of topics, drawing on ideas expressed in Arendt’s earlier works, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. She is somewhat cagey when it comes to the so-called “Eichmann Controversy,” and she may have had personal as well as professional reasons for indirection. Her affair with her former professor, avowed and unrepentant Nazi Martin Heidegger, dogged her post-war career, and the aforementioned intellectual “civil war” probably increased her circumspection.
Arendt’s critics, then and now, often remark upon what the Jewish Philosophy Place writer succinctly calls her “disdain for others.” While the new biopic (trailer above) may obscure much of this critical controversy—unfilmable as such things are anyway—readers wishing to understand one of the Holocaust’s most famous interpreters should read, and hear, her in her own words before making any judgments.