Category Archives: Hannah Arendt

“The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem” edited by Marie Luise Knott— Germany, Jewish Identity and the Holocaust

Knott, Marie Luise (editor). “The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem”, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Germany, Jewish Identity and the Holocaust

Amos Lassen

“Few people have thought as deeply or incisively about Germany, Jewish identity, and the Holocaust as Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem”. The letters included in this book (which I have been waiting for) shows that much of that thinking was developed in dialogue, through more than twenty years of correspondence.

Arendt and Scholem first met in 1932 in Berlin and quickly bonded over their mutual admiration for and friendship with Walter Benjamin. They began exchanging letters in 1939 and their correspondence continued until 1963, when Scholem vehemently disagreed with Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the book that she wrote about it, “Eichmann in Jerusalem”. Their disagreement continued until Arendt’s death a dozen years later. The years of their friendship were filled with a remarkably rich bounty of letters in which they try to come to terms with being both German and Jewish, the place and legacy of Germany before and after the Holocaust, the question of what it means to be Jewish in a post-Holocaust world, and more. Almost hovering above the correspondence was Walter Benjamin whose life and tragic death show the very questions that preoccupied the pair.

This are letters and while many are valuable to the world of academia, there are also lighter moments contained within them and these include travel accounts of travels, gossipy dinner parties, and the details that make up life even in the shadow of war and loss.

In today’s world where we continue to struggle with questions of nationalism, identity, and difference, Arendt and Scholem are still regarded as crucial thinkers and their give us a way to see them, and the development of their thought from a different perspective. The book is due out in October, 2017.

 

‘VIA ACTIVA— THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT”— Contradictions

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“Via Activa—The Spirit of Hannah Arendt”

Contradictions

Amos Lassen

A couple of months ago I reviewed this film yet I have not been able to stop thinking about it. Hannah Arendt has always been one of my philosophical heroes and I have been wondering how she would react to this film biography of her life. Arendt was

“an anti-nationalist but briefly Zionist, essentially German but defiantly Jewish, intellectually rigorous and romantically passionate”. The film attempts to capture the many contradictions of a woman who was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century’s great minds.

When we meet her here, she is reading correspondence between Karl Jaspers and herself as we see Germans being captured after the war. It is in these letters that we see some of Her Contradictions, complexities and idiosyncrasies. She never denied her Jewish background and heritage yet she had a love affair with the notoriously anti-Semitic philosopher Martin Heidegger. In the film, Arendt at times looks like little more than a housewife but this changes once we hear her speak.

Arendt here is always portrayed sympathetically even during the section on “Eichmann in Jerusalem” in which she coined the phrase, “the banality of evil”. It was with this that she sparked a tremendous and angry debate in the American Jewish community.

I find it extremely interesting that today Arendt is once again at the top and that many who wrote her off in the 60s have moved toward her way of thinking. The real treat of the film is getting to see and hear Arendt speaking about what she had to say and as well as some fantastic pre-war and post-war German footage and while some of it is chilling, we get a chance to think about what happened once again.

“Hannah Arendt and Theology” by John Kiess— Theology and Thought

hannah arend and theology

Kiess, John. “Hannah Arendt and Theology”, (Philosophy and Theology), Bloomsbury, 2016.

Theology and Thought

Amos Lassen

Hannah Arendt is regarded as one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century and she has kept that standing even with the controversy that came as a result of her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann for “The New Yorker” magazine. She is famous for her work on totalitarianism and her book about it is still required reading in history degree programs on many campuses. However, her real came with her coinage of the term “the banality of evil” and I am sure there are those who are familiar with the concept without knowing that this came from Arendt who is found at number 38 on the list of women read today in academia. She is also noted for her work regarding the Holocaust, statelessness and human rights, revolutions and democratic movements as well as for her studies on the various challenges of modern technological society. She went through a period in which the world seemed to be angry at her but in recent years, we have seen a growing appreciation of her work especially concerning the complex relationship to theological sources, namely Augustine, the subject of her doctoral dissertation and a thinker with whom she contended throughout her life.

This new book explores how Arendt’s critical and constructive engagements with theology inform her broader thought, as well as the on-going debates that her work brings about in contemporary Christian theology on such topics as evil, tradition, love, political action, and the life of the mind. What we see is a very unique interdisciplinary investigation that brings together Arendt studies, political philosophy, and Christian theology. “Hannah Arendt and Theology” looks at how the insights and provocations of this public intellectual aid in setting a constructive theological agenda for the twenty-first century.

Although I have not always agreed with her, I must state that there is no doubt in my mind that Arendt was a brilliant mind that certainly advanced philosophical thought. She was gifted with the ability to be able to reframe questions about how we should live and thus pushed us into rethinking that which we thought we knew. I cannot even begin to think about how many discussions I have had in my life about Arendt and I see her work as essential. One would probably suppose that if her work is so essential, then she must be easy to understand and that is simply not true.
This is where the value of this book comes in. Writer John Kiess gives us clear understandings of Arendt’s theological thought and leads us clearly to understand the interrelation between Arendt and the importance of her work in the fields of religion and theology.

Just a year old ago I taught a course on Arendt and her banality of evil as it affects and effect the Jewish community and had I had this book then, my class preparation would have been so much easier. However, one of the pleasures of dealing with Arendt is the ideological arguments I would have with myself about what she had to say. One thing I learned years ago is that contrary to what some members of the Jewish community have said— that she was an anti-Semitic Jew is most definitely not true. She never left her Judaism and she acknowledged it especially with the brouhaha that came into being with the publications in the New Yorker about the Eichmann and trial and later with the publication of “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”. And do not think that I have not been chided by members of my own Jewish community for standing up for Arendt when few others dared to.

In looking at theology, Arendt is difficult to stay away from and it is very easy to distort what she had to say. She was complicated and she was implicit when it came to traditional matters and concerns. A book like this has been needed for a long time and Kiess gives us a comprehensive, well integrated, and dialogical reading of Arendt and theology and I sure that is especially welcome for readers of Christian theology. There is a lot to think about and to me that is what makes a book worthwhile. Below is the table of contents:

Acknowledgments

Abbreviations

Introduction

Ch. 1 A Public Philosopher: The Life and Thought of Hannah Arendt

Ch. 2 The Problem of Evil Reconsidered

Ch. 3 Amor Mundi: Worldliness, Love, and Citizenship

Ch. 4 “That a Beginning Be Made”: Natality, Action, and the Politics of Gratitude

Ch. 5 In the Region of the Spirit: Thinking Between Past and Future

Notes

Index

“VITA ACTIVA: THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT”— One of the Most Influential Thinkers of the 20th Century

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“Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt”

One of the Most Influential Thinkers of the 20th Century

Amos Lassen

Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish philosopher, caused uproar in the 1960s with the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” as she referred to t the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the “New Yorker” magazine. Her private life was also quite controversial due to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This new thought-provoking documentary is an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life. It takes us to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed. Arendt was a great and influential philosopher who wrote as about the open wounds of modern times. Now, probably because of the recent film by Margarethe von Trotta, a biopic, there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever.

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 Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times.

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We learn of connections between her life and her thought, we get a different look at Arendt.Ada Ushpiz’s documentary is one of the new films that examine Israel from a variety of diverse historical, cultural and political perspectives. Hannah Arendt’s work has brought about growing interest and she is presented as a flawed figure, an intellectual who defended ideas in public that she later disavowed in private. Even though some of her complex views on ideology, totalitarianism, and Jewish refugees left stateless by the Holocaust have been challenged since her death, they continue to be heard and resonate in today’s geopolitical climate.

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Arendt’s thoughts on European refugees who were made stateless by the outcome of war and their lack of rights are focused upon. The film looks at Arendt’s accomplishments and failures. Commentators take her to task for her misjudgment of Adolf Eichmann’s character, her apology for Martin Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation, and her tough and inaccurate portrayal of the Judenrat (Jewish councils that were established by the Nazis) and its leaders, which Arendt herself later repudiated. The film implies that her most famous concept, the “banality of evil,” was appropriated from her mentor, Karl Jaspers, who coined the phrase in a letter to her.

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Here we see Heidegger, her teacher and one-time lover as a sexist, selfish, vain, and pompous man, whose his love letters to Arendt are full of embarrassing romantic clichés. Heidegger was one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century is seen calling for the “extermination of the enemy” before the Nazi rise to power. This very damning evidence of his inherent anti-Semitism is used against Arendt for her promotion of the Heidegger myth, that claimed that he was a fellow traveler of the Nazis who had been duped by Hitler’s lies. We see Arendt’s not taking Heidegger into account for his crimes is presented as one of her great moral failures.

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Arendt was an ardent Zionist in the 1930s and early ’40s but grew disillusioned with Israel and labeled the Eichmann case a “show trial” staged by the Israeli government. The film suggests that this attitude resulted from her preconceived notions about Israel that she brought with her to Jerusalem when sent there to cover the trial for the “New Yorker” and we now know that she begged to have a change to cover the Eichmann trial. The documentary shows Arendt as a philosopher whose prejudices often led her to fail.

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Nonetheless, her ideas have lost none of their potency or relevance with the passage of time. Her reflections on subjects such as the totalitarian state and the banality of evil have made her one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The film uses wealth of source material in a detailed examination of her convictions. We hear voiceovers as we see the photographs, home movies and other archive material, and these scenes are intercut with interviews with her contemporaries. What we really see is Arendt’s unremitting sense of displacement. During the Second World War, Arendt fled to the United States, where she felt herself to be living in exile. This is a very important concept, since she belonged to a people dismissed as “superfluous.” This was the wellspring of her theories and views about the establishment of a state of Israel, Zionism and the Holocaust. However looking at these on another level, we see they can easily be understood when used to explain the current refugee situation with millions of displaced people at the borders of Europe. The American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler refers to Arendt’s work, saying that a society that tries to do away with plurality becomes genocidal. This documentary warns us that that if we ignore the helpless and reject critical thinking, we are bound for totalitarianism.

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“Vita Activa” will open in New York on April 6 and Los Angeles on April 29.

“THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER”— A Historical Thriller

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“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” (“Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer”)

A Historical Thriller

Amos Lassen

.Burghart Klaussner, acclaimed German actor, starsin this riveting historical thriller that chronicles the tremendous efforts of German district attorney Fritz Bauer to bring Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann to justice.

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Bauer wonderfully encapsulates the conflicted character of postwar Germany as the Attorney General who was instrumental in bringing the elusive Adolph Eichmann to trial in Israel. The film is both a portrait of this complex man and a historical thriller about the tremendous risks undertaken in order to apprehend Eichmann, the chief engineer of the Nazis’ Final Solution.

The setting is the late 1950s when Germany has grown increasingly apathetic about confronting the horrors of its recent past. Nevertheless, Fritz Bauer (Klaussner) tirelessly devotes his energies to bringing the Third Reich to justice. One day Bauer receives a letter from Argentina that was written by a man who is certain that his daughter is dating the son of Adolph Eichmann. The promising lead excites Bauer but he is mistrustful of Germany’s corrupt judiciary system where Nazis still lurk. Bauer goes to Jerusalem to seek an alliance with the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. To do so is treason but he knows that committing treason is the only way Bauer can serve his country.

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We are taken back to a time when much of the world was eager to forget the atrocities of the Second World War even though many of the perpetrators remained at large. Yet this is also a film about the world of today, where justice continues to be undermined by economic interests.

Though relatively conservative in its approach, Lars Krause’s teleplay-style treatment of a still-touchy subject has the nerve to name names and it implicates everyone from former chancellor Konrad Adenauer to Mercedes-Benz. Kraume doesn’t pull punches or shy away from how Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, used Kraume’s homosexuality to muzzle him.

Bauer is a brilliant man who must make himself seem as non-threatening as possible in order to accomplish his political goals. He is a Jewish lawyer who was himself briefly interned in a German concentration camp, he has made it his life’s work to bring Nazism’s worst offenders to trail in German courts. In the opening scene, we see the elderly lawman passed out in his bath at home — an incident his political rivals try to misconstrue as a suicide attempt in hopes that it might force him into retirement. But Bauer isn’t so easily dissuaded and says that if he does commit suicide, he will let everyone know and that there will not be rumors.

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Bauer is a short, intense little man with another ten years to go before his retirement. Today he is best remembered today for the leading role he played in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. In 1957, he hoped Adolf Eichmann might be the first and juiciest former SS officer to stand trial, but as we see here, his crusade pitted him against virtually every entity in the country, from right-wing intelligence agencies to the chancellery itself. Notice the film’s title— it suggests that Bauer, who would go on to prosecute some of Nazism’s worst offenders, was himself being tried in the court of public opinion.

Twice, the film shows Bauer (both the real figure and Klaussner in character) appearing on television to implore Germany’s young people to assert their own identity and “confront Germany’s whole history”. What he means by this is to look past the whitewashed version their own political leaders were feeding them. To have said more at that time could have been treason— the very charge that Bauer was already risking when he went around his superiors’ backs and arranged for Mossad to do his dirty work by giving the Israeli intelligence agency the information they needed to find and arrest Eichmann (who was hiding in Argentina) with the understanding that he might be able to extradite him.

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We see how uncooperative the BND and other entities were in trying to derail Bauer’s efforts. Both Interpol and German intelligence claimed they were “not responsible for political crimes,” but according to the dramatic license Kraume and co-writer Olivier Guez allow themselves here, agents of those groups were actively trying to sabotage his investigation. In a Danish police record in which Bauer was arrested among male prostitutes, the screenplay invents a closeted state attorney named Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), whom Bauer invites into his inner circle and entrusts as his lone confidant.

The film aims to show how the punishingly homophobic Paragraph 175, which sentenced men to harsh prison sentences for any gay behavior, was itself an example of Nazi policy still being practiced in German law, very much like the many politicos who’d shed their swastikas and went right back to work. The recently married Karl, who’s unusually careless in his dealings with a cross-dressing nightclub singer (Lilith Stangenberg), makes a too-easy target, though the blackmail and melodrama that ensues supplies the film its most emotional dimension.

While Bauer was tasked with locating ex-SS officers now in hiding, it proved easier for him to locate Nazi war criminals than to convince his government to act on his information. This is a brilliant film that you do not want to miss.

“Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books” by Rabbi Mark Glickman— Tens of Millions of Books

stolen words

Glickman, Rabbi Mark. “Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books”, University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

Tens of Millions of Books

Amos Lassen

If you had to guess who had/has the largest collection of Jewish books in the world would you have guessed that it was the Nazi party who had tens of millions of books that they looted from European Jewish families and institutions. Nazi soldiers and civilians were responsible for the empting of Jewish communal libraries, confiscated volumes from government collections. They also stole from Jewish individuals, schools, and synagogues. In the beginning of the Nazi rise to power they burned books in bonfires but what many do not know is that they saved many books and hid them in castles, abandoned mine shafts, and warehouses throughout Europe. Theirs was the largest and most extensive book-looting campaign in history.

When the war ended, the Allies found that there were many questions to be asked regarding the books. Was there a way to identify who they belonged to and where should they go? Where did one find authority to make these decisions and finally the books were turned over to Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Incorporated, an organization of leading Jewish scholars chaired by the eminent historian, Salo Brown. Philosopher Hannah Arendt who later wrote “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” was given the job of establishing restitution protocols.

What makes this such a fascinating read is that it is the story of a world that was torn apart and what did remain was a connection with those who survived the horror of that time. Here is the history of members of the Jewish community struggling to gain some understanding of the world after the Holocaust, something that today many of us are still unable to do. The Western world gradually was able to understand just to what extent the world had been devastated, The story of the stolen books was also the story of “Nazi leaders, ideologues, and Judaica experts; of Allied soldiers, scholars, and scoundrels; and of Jewish communities, librarians, and readers around the world”. Like so many others, I find myself still longing to hold a book in my hands at a time when the world seems to be moving in the direction of electronic libraries and research.

Author Rabbi Glickman has explained the period during which the Nazis rose to power and what happened as a result in Jewish communities. He shows it to us as it stands among the other events that were going on at that time. It is fascinating and spellbinding to learn how books were returned to their rightful owners and their reactions when they received them.

I was fascinated by the account of how the books were returned to their rightful owners and how those people reacted when they were. I was even more fascinated to learn of Hannah Arendt’s role in this since I have spent many years studying her and somehow missed this. Glickman’s book played with my emotions and moved me several times. Above all else, we see how important the written word is and how much we are influenced by it. We also see the abuse of the written word and feel the impact of cultural genocide.

As Rabbi Glickman “artfully reminds us, books are ultimately the couriers of human civilization. In their redemption we keep faith with our past and sustain hope in our future.” A word of warning—clear your day before you sit down to read it because you will do nothing else but reading it until you close the covers on the last page.

“Six Million Accusers: Catching Adolf Eichmann” by D. Lawrence-Young— A Historical Novel

six million accusers

Lawrence-Young, D. “Six Million Accusers: Catching Adolf Eichmann”, Enigma Press, 2014.

A Historical Novel

Amos Lassen

“Six Million Accusers” is a historical novel about the hunt for and capture of Adolf Eichmann. He disappeared after WWII and members of an Israeli organization search the world for him and hoping to capture one of the men responsible for the brutal massacre of millions of Jews, and others. The team follows any tip they receive. They discover a Jewish father and daughter who swear Eichmann quietly lives in their community, under a new name. The search for Eichmann picks up speed and the agents begin to fervently believe they have found their man. As they get closer and closer, they must also create a plan to capture Eichmann, and secretly transport the villain back to Israel. There is always the question as to whether the suspect is really Eichmann and if so, what complications may arise that might destroy their plans to hold him responsible for his crimes.

Author Lawrence-Young has based his novel on historic details and it brings to life actual people, places and events in the planned extermination of the Jews in Europe and the subsequent worldwide hunt for its mastermind Adolf Eichmann who was living in hiding in South America. He has reconstructed the events and brings the story to life from finding a suspect, establishing his true identity, capturing Adolf Eichmann and bringing him to Israel to stand trial.

What I find fascinating here is that even though we know how the story ends, it is still tense and filled with suspense. While we might thing that Eichmann is the main character here, we see that it is actually those who hunted him and brought him to Israel that the story revolves around. They were the members of The Israeli Institute for Intelligence and Security, commonly known as “The Mossad” who with the help of a German-Jew, Haim, tracked him to South America. The book is also about those who wanted retribution for these heinous crimes of the Third Reich.

Even though this is fiction, the author has done amazing research to write this story. We get the sense of just how much it took to take this man down. The book attempts to be faithful to the history of the events surrounding the historic capture of who has been called “the father of The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” In my opinion, it does just that. There is a bibliography for further reading.

“Arendt and America” by Richard H. King— Thirty Years in America

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King, Richard H. “Arendt and America”, University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Thirty Years in America

Amos Lassen

German-Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–75) came to New York in 1941 after fleeing Nazi Germany and during the next thirty years in America, she wrote her best-known and most influential works, such as “The Human Condition”, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, and “On Revolution”, to name just three. In this new book, author Richard H. King tells us that even though

a substantial portion of her work was written in America and not Europe, no one has directly considered the influence of America on her thought and that is what he does here. King argues that while all of Arendt’s work was haunted by her experience of totalitarianism, it was only in America, her adopted homeland that she was able to formulate the idea of the modern republic as an alternative to totalitarian rule.

By placing Arendt within the context of U.S. intellectual, political, and social history, King shows how Arendt developed a fascination with the political thought of the Founding Fathers. King recreated her exchanges with friends and colleagues, including Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, and shows how her understanding of modern American culture and society comes from her correspondence with sociologist David Riesman.

In the last part of the book, author King looks at the context in which the Eichmann controversy took place and he looks at Arendt’s “banality of evil”. He validates his thesis that Arendt’s work, regardless of focus, was shaped by postwar American thought, culture, and politics, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. America was a stimulus to look once again at political, ethical, and historical traditions of human culture. The books combines intellectual history and biography to give us a unique approach for thinking about the influence of America on Arendt’s ideas and also the effect of her ideas on American thought.

Arendt was difficult and uncompromising, but she was also one of the great interpreters of “modernity in all its tragic complexity”. Now some forty years after her death, she continues to enlighten us about the human condition.

 

“Arendt and America” by Richard King—- More than a Refuge

arendt in America

King, Richard. “Arendt and America”, University of Chicago Press, 2015.

More than a Refuge

Amos Lassen

Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish political philosopher fled from the Nazis to New York in 1941, and during the next thirty years in America she wrote her best-known and most influential works. Her “The Origins of Totalitarianism” is the classic study and is till used today in academia. She also wrote “On Revolution” and “The Human Condition” among others while she lived here. What is interesting is that even though a large part of her writings were done here, her influence on America has not been evaluated until this book.

Historian Richard H. King states all of Arendt’s work was haunted by her experience of totalitarianism but she was only able to formulate the idea of a modern republic here in America. This modern republic was to stand in contrast to the totalitarian state and as an alternative to totalitarian rule.

While in America, Arendt was fascinated by the political thought of the founding father. Arendt had intellectual discussions with American friends and colleagues and by having a look at her correspondence, we see that David Riesman helped her understand modern American culture and society.

When Arendt wrote down her observations of the Eichmann trial, some turned away form her while others discredited her completely. We see in this book the context for her statements , especially her theory of the banality of evil and how she reached the assumptions she held.

There is no doubt that the woman was quite smart and that regardless of focus, her ideas were shaped by postwar American thought, culture, and politics, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

She may have come here seeking refuge from the Nazis but she was stimulated to rethink the political, ethical, and historical traditions of human culture and to write those ideas down. This authoritative combination of intellectual history and biography of this book gives a special approach with which to think about the influence of America on Arendt’s ideas and also the effect of her ideas on American thought.

King looks at Arendt in an American context in which she is rarely considered and then combines his ideas with hers that shows us just how Arendt influenced the world and how America influenced her.

Arendt was uncompromising, always thinking and a very difficult person to deal with yet she was one of the great interpreters of modernity. She has been dead for forty years and her influence is still felt here.

“EXPERIMENTER”— Stanley Milgrim andThe Experiments that Sparked Public Outcry

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“Experimenter”

Stanley Milgrim and The Experiments that Sparked Public Outcry

Amos Lassen

In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), conducted a series of radical behavior experiments that tested ordinary humans willingness to obey by using electric shock. “Experimental” follows Milgram, from meeting his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) through his controversial experiments that sparked public outcry.

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Milgram as inspired by the atrocities committed during World War II and conducted experiments into the dangerous power of blind obedience in 1961. Unwitting participants were given the task of administering a series of increasingly dangerous electric shocks to a stranger under the instruction of an authoritative force.

Writer-director Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter” looks at Milgram’s life from 1961 onwards and explores the process behind these tests, the public backlash to them, and Milgram’s relationship with his wife Sasha. The film is filled with a self-aware imagery as it relates Milgram’s life and experiments with a sense of surrealism.

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Much of the film is devoted to the initial 1961 Milgram Experiment which is recounted with tense dramatics and an unsettled focus. We see participants gleefully electrocute another man (or so they think). The results of the test continue to be shocking and deeply relevant to today’s society and Almereyda asks us to think about what we would do in this situation. I believe that most of would refuse to harm the other participant, but Milgram will raise some doubts about it. What he tries to show is that we are all capable of cruelty.

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Sarsgaard brings a cold and clinical professionalism to the role of Stanley. He is convincing as an overly composed man secretly irritated by the nearsighted colleagues and culture that reigned in the greatness he could have received during his lifetime. The ramifications of his findings related directly to what was being said during the Eichmann trial and which led to another controversial hypothesis of the period from political theorist Hannah Arendt and her theory of the banality of evil. She comes up more than once in discussion here and Milgram’s absent commentary on her theory speaks volumes about, perhaps, his own secret, bitter thoughts about despicable humans that allow atrocities to happen in the name of following orders. The film finely uses Sarsgaard’s perfection of barely contained judgment during the experiments and we also see that Milgrim did have his own secret agenda or motivation. Winona Ryder is excellent as the strong-willed Sasha and the film immediately pulls us in.

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Milgrim conducted these experiments at Yale in 1961 and he was fascinated by how Hitler’s Nazi Party was able to exact such terrible depravity upon the Jews during the Holocaust. The results he got were disturbing Milgram’s results are rather disturbing. Participants were asked to pose as a ‘teacher,’ charged to read groups of words to a ‘learner,’ who sat on the other side of a two-way mirror. The teacher was then charged with administering an electric shock each time the learner answered a question incorrectly. With the help of his staff (Anthony Edwards and Jim Gaffigan), their results were unprecedented— 65% of the teachers administering the full shock treatment as directed, though many would engage in weak resistance, each time remitting to the excuse that they were following instructions. But the world at large was not quite ready for Milgram’s findings, which shocked and disturbed his colleagues and it cost Milgrim his academic tenure.

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The screenplay is excellent and well performed. Milgram’s results are chilling to comprehend, and Almereyda’s closing about the puppets that human beings tend to be raises awareness of our flawed natures.

The film begins with Milgram’s most incendiary experiments into the human condition, wherein he managed to put two subjects, a teacher and a pupil, into a room and made them administer shocks to a stranger. This was influenced by Milgram’s childhood growing up as a Jew and being influenced by events in the Holocaust, Milgram’s reasoning for his trial appears sound – what could provoke any right minded person into such horrific action? The Milgram experiments clearly had consequences and Almereyda’s exploration and presentation of them is nothing short of a shock to the system.

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The film skirts around some issues and some of the ramifications of the experiments but Almereyda’s is not interested in anything more than using the style and the effortless ease of his leading man to present a fascinating take on his subject. Despite the alarming questions the study raised about human nature, the film is relaxed and a humorous and upbeat account of a fascinating phenomenon.