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The opening scene of “Hannah Arendt” depicts the capture of Nazi criminal Eichmann on a dark and lonely road in Buenos Aires. Much later in the film, Arendt finds herself similarly confronted by Mossad agents while on a meditative walk in the woods away from the tumult that her interpretation of the trial had caused.
This odd parallel suggests that Arendt, according to her critics, was culpable of empathizing with Nazi perpetrators while condemning victims’ actions. She shocked her contemporaries by claiming that the Holocaust was the deed not of raging anti-Semitic brutes devoid of basic civilization, but of unthinking bureaucrats who had deactivated their own moral reasoning in favor of absolute obedience to the Führer.
She considered Eichmann a midlevel career opportunist of second-rate intellect who organized the deportation and slaughter of European Jews because it was his job and he wanted to do it well.
The Holocaust, Arendt argued, was not a collective decision in which Eichmann participated; Hitler alone had ordered the complete extermination of Europe’s Jews, but the order’s implementation depended on the willing participation of vast numbers of German and other functionaries across Europe who were unwilling to think from any standpoint other than the law of the land. This interpretation led Arendt to question the legal concept of culpability.
A traditional understanding of guilt, she pointed out, was inadequate for convicting Eichmann of crimes against Jews or crimes against humanity. Eichmann had knowingly engineered the deportation and slaughter of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, but he had never personally murdered a single individual. Contrary to allegations by her critics, Arendt’s assessment of the shortcomings of existing legal theory was a far cry from exculpating Eichmann, whom she did consider evil and deserving of the death penalty.
But it explained her scorn for the prosecutor, who in her opinion misconstrued the nature of the crime and of Eichmann’s role in it.
Arendt’s view of genocide by unthinking managers did not deny the notion of agency; she certainly did not consider the Holocaust inevitable.