Hannah Arendt Biopic Offers Rare Onscreen View of Political Philosophy

Movie Paints Vivid Picture of German-Jewish Émigrés

A Turbulent Life: Political philosopher Hannah Arendt is portrayed by Barbara Sukowa in Margarethe von Trotta’s new biopic.
Courtesy of Zeitgeist FIlms
A Turbulent Life: Political philosopher Hannah Arendt is portrayed by Barbara Sukowa in Margarethe von Trotta’s new biopic.

By Beate Sissenich

Published May 26, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
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In her book, Arendt took great pains to report on the scope of resistance to and noncooperation with the deportations in various occupied countries, most notably Denmark, where, she wrote, even career Nazis “changed their minds” about “the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course” in the face of principled resistance.

But even if people had been willing to grant Arendt her idea that evil in the person of Eichmann seemed remarkably ordinary, Arendt’s insistence that Jewish community leaders had a choice in whether to cooperate with the Nazi regime and that they used the opportunity for self-aggrandizement seemed to turn notions of moral responsibility upside down. “

Without Jewish help in administrative and police work… there would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower,” she wrote. This issue had already been addressed extensively by the historian Raul Hilberg (“The Destruction of the European Jews,” 1961), to whom Arendt’s report was heavily indebted.

But rather than seeing cooperation as a rational response that sought to lessen the impact of unfathomable evil, Arendt alleged that the Jewish community leaders “enjoyed their new power” derived from compiling lists, acquiring money from the victims to cover transportation costs, policing the deportations and transferring Jewish assets into Nazi hands.

To Arendt, the frequently posed question at the trial — Why had there not been any rebellion? — was misguided. Instead, what called for explanation was the scale of cooperation on the part of the victims’ leaders.

“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 hardly have been between 4 ½ and 6 million people.”

Ultimately, Arendt explained, this aspect of the Holocaust illustrated how completely the calculus of Nazism had replaced traditional moral conscience.

The main issues in the debates stirred up by Arendt’s report remain unresolved. The “Goldhagen controversy” during the 1990s juxtaposed an intentionalist interpretation of the Holocaust to the functionalist account of genocide engineered by unthinking bureaucrats.


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