Category Archives: Hannah Arendt

“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



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

“Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times” by Anne C. Heller— A Woman of Contradictions

Hannah arendt a life

Heller, Anne C. “Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times”, (Icons), 2015.

A Woman of Contradictions

Amos Lassen

Hannah Arendt was one an intellectual and one of “the most gifted and provocative voices of her era” but she was also “a polarizing cultural theorist”. Many saw her as a visionary while other saw her as a poseur and a fraud. Arendt was born in Prussia to assimilated Jewish parents. She escaped from Hitler’s Germany in 1933 and is now perhaps best remembered for the controversy after the publication of her 1963 New Yorker series on the trial of the kidnapped Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Nonetheless, her seminal “The Origins of Totalitarianism” remains one of the most influential texts that is still used on college campuses today.

She was a woman of many contradictions. She was brilliant, beautiful when young, and men found her irresistible. She began writing in English at the age of thirty-six, and yet her first book on totalitarianism changed the way generations of Americans and Europeans viewed fascism and genocide. Her most famous and most divisive work, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” caused controversy that continues to do so even today and the fact that it was discovered after she died that

she had been the lover of the great romantic philosopher and Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger provided even more controversy. Anne C. Heller, in this new biography, looks at the source of Arendt’s apparent contradictions and her greatest achievements and follows the thought of the time to see why she was considered by some to be, what she called, a “conscious pariah”. She did not “lose confidence in ourselves if society does not approve us” and will not “pay any price” to gain the acceptance of others. She will always be remembered as an individual who marched to her own drummer.

 This is an excellent introduction to her writings; as well as an extremely readable description of her lifetime. The book begins with an introduction to her writings about the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. She saw Eichmann as a normal person who was basically stupid, and who never had a thought of his own.

Thinking in Public: 
Strauss, Levinas, Arendt” by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft— Arendt, Levinas and Strauss

thnking in public

Wurgaft, Benjamin Aldes. “Thinking in Public: 
Strauss, Levinas, Arendt”, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Arendt, Levinas and Strauss

Amos Lassen

I just received word of a new book to be published in 2016—a comparative study of the Jewish philosophers Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas and Leo Strauss. The focus is on their responses to the idea of the public intellectual as it came to be in the early to mid-twentieth century. Here we read “Levinas’s views on ethics, Strauss’s work on the conflicts between philosophy and society and Arendt’s attempt to revitalize political thought all reoriented philosophy from the standpoint of political responsibility.” What is new here is the observation that all three were ambivalent about “playing the role of the public intellectual themselves”. The author argues that “their understandings of social responsibility, on the one hand, and their ambivalence regarding the proper place of intellectuals in society, on the other, were rooted in Jewish political and intellectual experience. For Arendt, Levinas and Strauss, the concepts of universality and publicity, which underwrote the idea of the “public intellectual” in Western Europe”. This differs from non-Jewish thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre. There is a shared matrix of experience and influences that Arendt, Levinas and Strauss articulated models of social responsibility very different from Sartrean engagement. While their attitudes towards Jewish politics and organized Jewish religion differed, their political experiences as Jews was what informed their understanding of social responsibility Arendt, Levinas and Strauss were three Jewish philosophers of the same generation who studied with many of the same teachers but later chose radically different intellectual paths. walked radically different intellectual paths. In order to get the full significance of Arendt, Levinas and Strauss’s thought. They must be compared and in this way restore their shared framework of Jewish political concerns.

What was considered to be the “intellectual” raised questions and consternation among many European philosophers and political theorists. Here the writer examines the ambivalence these linked ideas provoked in the generation of European Jewish thinkers born around 1900. In doing so, the works of Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas, and Leo Strauss, who grew up in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair and studied with the philosopher—and sometime National Socialist—Martin Heidegger, we are given “a strikingly new perspective on the relationship between philosophers and politics”.

Wurgaft argues that the stories we tell about intellectuals and their publics are a useful way to measure political hopes and fears. The differences between the three were great, but Wurgaft shows that all three “came to believe that the question of the social role of the philosopher was the question of their century. The figure of the intellectual was not an ideal to be emulated but rather a provocation inviting these three thinkers to ask whether truth and politics could ever be harmonized, whether philosophy was a fundamentally worldly or unworldly practice”.

Wurgaft a profound tension in their thought their belief in the philosophic responsibility to engage political and moral life and their deep distrust of public intellectuals.

“Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt” by Kathleen B. Jones— A Fascination with Arendt

diving for pearls

Jones, Kathleen B. “Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt”, Thinking Women Books, 2013.

A Fascination with Arendt

Amos Lassen

Those of you who follow my reviews and even those who know me know that I have great love and respect for Hannah Arendt. Even though I disagree with some of the things she has said, especially regarding the Eichmann trial, she is still to be regarded as one of the great minds of the 20th century. Her theory of the banality of evil caused her to lose respect but we are aware that the very term is still with us and will remain so. In “Diving for Pearls”,

Kathleen B. Jones brings a scholar’s insights and a lyrical voice to this philosophical memoir about her thirty-year fascination with Hannah Arendt. Using Arendt as her guide, Jones shares stories from her own life interwoven with Arendt’s life and work, thus showing Arendt’s enduring relevance to thinking about the dilemmas of modern life. This alone is a great accomplishment but there is more—the prose is gorgeous and the stories are compelling.

The book is both biography and autobiography. As a biography of Hannah Arendt it is scholarly and sensitive, guided by Arendt’s own hauntingly autobiographical biography of Rahel Varnhagen. As autobiography, it is literary, honest and thoughtful in the Arendtian sense of being actively engaged in thinking. Jones and Arendt are thinking partners. Jones moves with her toward existential responsibility and gratitude for one’s own life. Arendt once said that “love is a kind of friendship across the distance the world puts between us. Kathleen B. Jones shows us how love and friendship are possible even across the distance in time the world puts between generations.”

Jones emulates Arendt. She does not let a thought go unexamined, a belief go unchallenged and no tradition remains a sacred cow. Jones tells the story of her own life through this study of Arendt, probing the difference between what we are and who we are, to get at what “it means to live authentically and ethically both as individuals and as citizens of the many communities we inhabit.”

It is as if Jones has entered the mind of Hannah Arendt to masterfully weave Arendt’s thought and life together with significant moments in her own life story. “What Jones finds illuminates the lives of female thinkers and the links between intellectual women across time and place. A beautifully written exploration of memory, loss, responsibility, and love, this book is an exemplar of passionate and engaged political thinking.”

The book is a “thinking journey”. Jones is able to correlate her life’s journey next to Arendt’s with objectivity and criticism. This allows for heartfelt emotion and critical thinking to coexist. Jones’ examination of her own life choices compared with Arendt’s was equally refreshing as it was risky.

Women are given here a look at topics rarely discussed without censor— “love, friendship, divorce, children, education, intellect, history, and war.” Jones both embraces and questions Arendt consistently just as we all question ourselves and our own idols. We are led to and arrive at a place of humanity, of understanding, of forgiveness, and of acceptance.

Jones gives us a nuanced portrait of one of the most complex and controversial philosophers of the twentieth century. This is both a tribute to Arendt and a memoir of a gifted woman who was often out-of-sync with the world.


“Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Freedom” by Jon Nixon— The Essence of Friendship

hannah arendt and the politics of friendship

Nixon, Jon. “Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Friendship”, Bloomsbury Academic , 2015.

The Essence of Friendship

Amos Lassen

 Hannah Arendt saw friendship as containing political relevance and importance. She further believed that friendship was made up of discourse and without discourse the world can not be humane.The essence of friendship, she believed, consisted in discourse, and it is only through discourse, she argued, that the world is rendered humane.

Jon Nixon explores some of the major ideas in Hannah Arendt’s work by studying four of her lifelong friendships with Heinrich Blücher, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers and Mary McCarthy. Using correspondence from both sides, the findings here illuminate our understanding of the social contexts that were part of Arendt’s thinking. Nixon looks at two core ideas in Arendt— plurality and promise and then shows how these ideas came through relationships.

All of us have keep others’ ideas with us and then we read, we think and we go. Nixon shows how Arendt’s major contributions to politics took place within and for friendships. We see here how Arendt acted as a friend and how she thought and acted in a social context as a friend. She learned and others learned through this process.

 We see how and why Arendt developed not just a ‘philosophy of friendship’ but also a practical and reflexive politics of friendship. Arendt’s friendships sustained her during her life. Arendt’s close relationships were with Heidegger, with philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers, author and critic Mary McCarthy, and with her second husband Heinrich Blucher, an activist and educator. Her political thinking was tightly connected, Nixon shows, to her idea of the “essential role of friendship in non-totalitarian societies to bridge the public and the private: Friendship, recognizing both equality and differences, is allied to politics, not as a way of doing it, but as a condition necessary for the survival of a politics that Arendt envisions as a mutual dialogical understanding that exists between friends and that forms the moral bases of political action.” Nixon brings together historical context, political thinking, and a discerning understanding of Arendt the person and then he presents us with a captivating story about the life of one of the great minds of the twentieth century, and new beginning for thinking about the politics of friendship.”

Arendt was a good friend to her other friends and she upheld her allegiance to them. She was a woman hungry for companionship, and for the exchange of ideas. Nixon tells us that “Friendships are not the application of some theory of friendship nor do they rely on an ongoing reflective meta-dialogue between the friends regarding the nature of their friendship. … There is a great deal that is appropriately and courteously implicit in friendship.” He means to show Arendt to be exactly of what he repeatedly hints is a now-lost era.  

To Arendt friendship was a middle ground between “the solitude and solipsism of internal dialogue, and the terror of the public square.” It was her protected space where ideas could be brought forward, tweaked, hardened, and polished. Her friends were her intellectual compatriots, and she was totally loyal to them. This was also an expression of her deep-seated appreciation for their kindnesses. She had spent so much time as a refugee among other refuges that friendship was an appealing concept for her. She was a Jew who had expelled and exiled from her country ands she felt as if she was adrift for part of her life. Friendship, for her, was protection and a symbol of values that were lost under the Nazi regime. Nazism’s wanted to “to eradicate totally any trace of human freedom”. This made friendship a symbol of rebellion against fascism’s inhumanity.

 Arendt stuck by Martin Heidegger after the war, even though she was presumably aware of the anti-Semitic line of thinking he pursued in his Black Notebooks, where he convolutedly argued that the Holocaust had been the responsibility of the Jews. Heidegger was her “supreme teacher” but Arendt did not speak openly about her own successes, much less about the wartime behavior that came to identify Heidegger.

An interesting thing happened with Arendt as a result of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Her book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem” regarded and argued for the Holocaust as a crime against humanity. The German nation first resolved to harm the world. Secondarily, Germany chose Jews as its victims. Arendt’s intention was to look at the Holocaust as a crime against all people and not just against the Jews. However has intention fell through and Jews were seen as a nation set apart from the others. It was then that Arendt found that being a friend with the Jewish people was a difficult challenge and not worth the effort. When the book came out, Arendt was targeted by many of Jewish intellectuals in opposition to her thesis. They saw her reasoning as shoddy and appalling and that her sense of blame was totally in error. She was banned (blackballed) at Oxford; her good friend Kurt Blumenfeld totally rejected her approaches; Gershom Scholem, her friend and the man she collaborated with to save the writings of Walter Benjamin was incensed and in a letter that he wrote to her he called her phrase “the banality of evil” nothing but a slogan and a catchword. He said she was irresponsible, that she had misread the roles of the Jewish agencies under Nazi rule and that she had no love for the Jewish people. Loyal to her friends, she was notably lacking in generosity toward her fellow Jews. She remained friends with Heidegger and this seems to suggest self-loathing.

So we ask, “what kind of friendship can be founded in hatred for the most fundamental biographical facts of the other?” Arendt’s continued admiration for Heidegger suggests a strain of self-loathing, or “ a blindness to others’ disdain, that renders her an untrustworthy judge of character”.  She argued back saying that, “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective. … I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.” Nixon argues that when we take a look at Arendt’s friendships, we are ask all the wrong questions.

Regarding Heidegger she said, “was not ‘How can I justify to myself my continuing friendship, affection, and loyalty to this man?,’ but ‘Given the irreversibility of my original encounter with this man, on what terms should I live out the consequences of that encounter?’”

The type of friendships we see today (Facebook friends for example) are anonymous. Once can have many friends and never meet them. Today the quantity of friends takes precedence over the quality of friends. To remain loyal to old friends is seen as “artificially limiting the panoply of experiences available in the world. But sturdy, stable friendships, as Nixon argues, are our testing ground and our protected space: “We need friendship because it eases the two-way flow between the private and the public, ensuring that we are neither overwhelmed by the world nor in denial regarding its plurality.”

Nixon says that there is a lesson here— “without genuine, long-lasting friendships, made up of equal parts loyalty and affection and mischievousness and shared struggle, we are entirely alone in the world”. “Friendship, for Arendt as for most of us was an exercise in lifelong learning. It was—and is—how we learn to live together.”

“From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back: Gershom Scholem Between Israel and Germany”— An Intellectual Look at an Intellectual


from berlin poster

Noam Zadoff. “From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back: Gershom Scholem Between Israel and Germany”, Carmel Books, 2015.

An Intellectual Look at an Intellectual

Amos Lassen

 Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was born in Berlin, educated at the universities of Jena and Bern, and emigrated to Palestine in 1923, where he devoted himself to the study of the Jewish mystical tradition and the Kabbalah. Considered to be one of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century and admired both for his philological prowess and his philosophical insight, Scholem was the author of many books, including Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, and On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, a collection of autobiographical writings and essays on Zionism. Gershom Scholem was a scholar who opened a whole new world of study. He was the first to really explore the great mystical tradition of Judaism. He had friendships with many distinguished people, including his great friend Walter Benjamin; he helped establish the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; he was a fervent Zionist Zionism, and he had great understanding of the Jewish people’s return to history.

In this new book (only available in Hebrew), we learn that in his last years, Scholem’s attention increasingly turned to Europe, especially Germany, accepting numerous awards, delivering lectures, and engaging with its scholars. Author Zadoff exhibits how Scholem became a strange kind of hero among the German intelligentsia. For many he represented a Germany before it was irrecoverably changed by the Nazi period.

One can see his continued interest in Europe in the ongoing correspondence he had with his student Joseph Weiss who left Israel in 1952 for England. These letters were recently published in a volume edited by Zadoff. In this sense, Zadoff’s book argues that the portrait of Scholem that was the subject of previous studies does not consider the extent to which his attachment to his German past, and his Berlin youth, remained with him throughout his long career. It is in this sense that Zadoff’s depiction of Scholem reads him “against his own intentions.”

Scholem published From Berlin to Jerusalem, his memoir that he wrote and published in Germany in 1977. It ends with his immigration to Palestine in 1923 and his appointment to the Hebrew University in 1925.

Most people know of that relationship through an exchange of letters between Scholem and Hannah Arendt after the publication of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem where Scholem accused Arendt of lacking “ahavat yisrael” (a love of the Jewish people). In fact, as Zadoff notes, the exchange around Arendt’s “Zionism Reconsidered” published in Commentary Magazine in 1944 where Arendt presented a critique of statist Zionism and argues that its statecraft was undermining the ethical foundations of the Zionist project is much more significant and substantive. It is true that Scholem broke off ties with Arendt after Eichmann in Jerusalem mostly because of Arendt’s not-so-subtle claim of the complicity of certain Jewish leaders with the Nazis, a sad episode that later historical documentation proved largely to be true. In any event, the more interesting disagreement between Scholem and Arendt was around her “Zionism Reconsidered” essay. This was a battle of two Jewish intellectual giants regarding the existence of Jews and Judaism after the Holocaust. Zadoff calls their relationship “a dialectic between closeness and distance,” that eventually collapsed after the Eichmann trial. Zadoff shows that Scholem argued, against Arendt, that Zionism and The Land of Israel was a necessary political solution after the Holocaust that even included, as Scholem wrote in a letter to Arendt in 1946, “buying Jews from the Gestapo.”

In dealing with the Nazis, Scholem was far more pragmatic than Arendt who remained principled even if it meant potentially, and temporarily, passing up opportunities that Scholem reluctantly endorsed. Although Zadoff does not make this claim, one wonders if this earlier disagreement between Scholem and Arendt on the extent to which Jews should engage with the Nazis may have informed Scholem’s break with Arendt in regard to Jewish leaders who were complicit with the Nazis in the hope that such complicity would save Jewish lives. In any case, what Zadoff shows in his examination of Scholem and Arendt’s views on matters of Jewish existence in light of her “Zionism Reconsidered” essay, is the extent to which he considered her an important interlocutor in matters related to Zionism. If we only look at this relationship backward, beginning with its final rupture after Eichmann in Jerusalem, we easily miss the more important and subtle dimensions of their mutual respect and also certain similarities in their respective criticisms of Zionism.



the hiuse on garibaldi street

“The House On Garibaldi Street”

Finding Eichmann

Amos Lassen

When the book of the same name as the movie written by Isser Harel came out, I was living in Israel and as I read it in Hebrew, I devoured and savored every word. Then it was made into a movie directed by Peter Collinson and starring Topol, Nick Mancuso, Martin Balsam, Leo McKern (as David Ben-Gurion), Charles Gray, John Cater, Edward Judd, Gareth Hunt and Alfred Burke as Adolph Eichmann. The movie is true to the book—it was made as a docudrama about Israel’s tracking down, capture and smuggling out of Argentina one of the architects of the Final Solution, SS Colonel Adolph Eichmann.

The film is straightforward, factual and well acted by one of a great casts of familiar faces. A tip was received by Israeli Intelligence about a man in Buenos Aires that could be ” Adolph Eichmann” one of the most involved in the mass genocide of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Eichmann escaped and few clues were found where he was. The Mossad/ Israeli Intelligence looked in Argentina for Eichmann who had just moved to a new address. Using tips and clues they ended up at Garibaldi Street and set up surveillance. The man they were watching was indeed Adolf Eichmann. The team immediately set up three safe houses and a clever plot to take Eichmann back to Israel to stand trial after they successfully kidnapped him. But his lack of remorse and slanted Nazi views had the agents wanting to finish him off before a public trial in Jerusalem.

The truth is that I had expected so much more from the fine cast so I can only imagine that the producers felt that if the movie was to be timely it had to be made right away. Unfortunately that hurt the film.

“The Decent One,” Heinrich Himmler: Dedicated family man— A Brilliant Review

the decent one

“The Decent One,” Heinrich Himmler: Dedicated family man

A Brilliant Review


october 20 2014

 A friend of mine sent me this beautiful review–if you remember I also reviewed this haunting film.

In her analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trial more than 50 years ago, writer Hannah Arendt referred to the “banality of evil” as the crushing ordinariness of everyday life while atrocities of unprecedented proportion are not only going on all around you, but you are actively perpetrating them.

I have no doubt that her pointing to this troubling disconnect in our thinking processes helped guide a generation of (mostly) young protesters toward opposing the Vietnam War. Not even a full generation after the end of World War II, when we thought the global community had said “Never again!” here were our own leaders, in the U.S. and other countries, doing what disturbingly looked like pretty much the same thing.

It is that very ordinariness that film director Vanessa Lapa addresses in her new documentary The Decent One that focuses on the life of Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS and among Adolf Hitler’s innermost circle of loyalists. Himmler headed the Gestapo and ruthlessly pursued any perceived enemy of the Third Reich, showing mercy to few. He was one of the principal designers of death camps, working closely with scientists and administrators to ensure that his beloved German officers and soldiers could be spared the headache of having to personally execute Jews and other undesirables in mass killings. That’s where gas came in so handy.

Using all archival footage without questionable “reenactments,” but with some added sound (running motors, explosions, music), Lapa surveys the early, not particularly distinguished life of her subject, gradually revealing how infected he was (banally, of course, along with millions of others, and not just in Germany) by the casual anti-Semitism and muscular, militaristic masculinity that defined Aryan ideology. In relatively short time, Himmler rose in the Nazi hierarchy owing to his efficiency and effectiveness as his responsibilities increased.

Where Lapa uses original film work, it is to pan over the hundreds of diaries and letters that Himmler and his family exchanged over the course of some 20 years – mostly with his wife Marga and daughter Gudrun – while voiceovers relate the banalities of love and courtship, parenting, sibling relationships, work routines and vacations, holiday plans and gifts. All bathed in a wash of tender embraces and kisses from “Heini.”

The story of where this cache of documents came from remains somewhat mysterious. It is surmised that at the end of the war, some Allied soldiers, acting against orders, appropriated Himmler’s personal effects from his home in Gmund, and sold them. (Himmler committed suicide on May 23, 1945, with a cyanide capsule shortly after being captured in the final days of the war.) Eventually the papers wound up in Tel Aviv, where they languished untouched for years.

Finally Lapa’s father purchased the collection for the purpose of allowing this film to be made. Paired with film clips from 151 different sources, both family and institutional, the resulting 94-minute documentary, a 2014 Israel/Austria/Germany production, in German with English subtitles, is grippingly eerie.

Himmler personified Nazi doctrine in his abhorrence of weakness and homosexuality, his petty bourgeois standards for gender roles (submissive wife, obedient children), his hatred for Jews and Communists. (Viewers will hear a brief clip of “The Internationale” accompanying the scene of a Berlin street rally.) Above all, he loved his German nation, fantasized about the impeccable Aryan morality of the race-pure medieval commonwealth, and wholly identified with the mystical cleansing role the German nation was ordered by history to play in the world.

For someone as punctilious as Himmler, he does show his personal lapses. Disturbed that his (older) wife had given him only one child, when the ruling ideology was to build up the nation with a much higher birthrate than that, Himmler takes on a mistress, by whom he has another two children. And toward the end, after Stalingrad, after the inexorable retreat back home, German cities being bombed into submission, Himmler is still writing upbeat letters reflecting blithe certainty that his side will win.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Lapa’s film certainly does not “humanize” Himmler in his frankly unremarkable family devotion, but only points up how unrecognizable he is as the man who could at one and the same time be one of the great masterminds of Nazism. Is he truly a freak of nature, a moral Frankenstein? Or is he simply opaque to us, like the strangler or serial killer – or bankster or corporate rapist of the Earth – who, it turns out, lives next door, or even in our own house?

Among the memorabilia my Dad nabbed in the course of his service in the Counterintelligence Corps were a few telegrams sent to a regional Gauleiter by leading Nazi officials, congratulating him on the birth of his new son. They were of scant historical significance and I wondered what to do with them. Eventually I turned them over to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust as examples of precisely the kind of “banality” to which these criminally misguided individuals were allowed to rise.

Through it all, Himmler indulges in self-congratulation, emphasizing at every turn how well his officers treat animals, even the “subhuman” ones. Even their plan for a Final Solution of the Jewish Question was in their minds a generous act of decency on behalf of the Aryan nation and the future of the world. It is no exaggeration to say that I squirmed with discomfort and shame for the cognitively dissonant human race at more than one point in the film.

As Himmler writes home from Warsaw, Riga, Lemberg and other cities where he’s traveled to supervise the war, all I could think of was the Kurt Weill song “What did the soldier’s wife receive?” (“Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib?”), written in 1943 to a poem by Bertolt Brecht. From Prague she received high-heeled shoes, from Oslo a little fur piece, from Amsterdam a fine Dutch hat, lace from Belgium, a silken gown from Paris, an embroidered smock from Bucharest. And from vast Russia? The soldier’s wife received the widow’s veil.

This haunting film, now in theaters, recently won the best documentary award at the Jerusalem Film Festival.


“Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thoughtlessness” by Valerie Hartouni— Reassessing Hannah Arendt

visualizing atrocity

Hartouni, Valerie. “Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thoughtlessness”, (Critical Cultural Communication), NYU Press, 2012.

Reassessing Hannah Arendt

Amos Lassen

Using Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial (it is a polarizing and provocative account) as the place from which to look at some of the stories and myths that have influenced the way we think about genocide and totalitarianism, author Valerie Hartouni reevaluates what we know. What she explores is tied to by the atrocities that were seen with the liberation of the concentration camps and the role played by the postwar trails of Nazi officials; the perpetrators of mass murder.

During the Nuremberg trials in 1945 certain practices for looking at the atrocities as part of the fabric of historical facts were established and these were reinforced during the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann. These practices have come to mean a certain visual language and practice that today circumscribes” the moral and political fields and powerfully assists in contemporary myth making about how we know genocide and what is permitted to count as such’. Arendt gave us the theory of the “banality of evil” and it disrupts this visual rhetoric. Our attention is directed beyond Eichmann and goes to a world that has come to be based upon practices and processes. In this way life is enhanced.

Here is a book that brings together political judgment and visual culture says Judith Butler. Yet this new look also raises questions about justice and morality that we see in the genocidal nature of our time.

We get an analysis of what in involved in the way Arendt saw Eichmann as well as a look at the crime he committed, the crime of bureaucracy and the issue of thoughtlessness. Hartouni shows clearly how the political and normative justice intersect and come together.