The Last Inter­view: And Oth­er Conversations

Han­nah Arendt
  • Review
By – May 21, 2014

Forty years after her death and fifty years after the pub­li­ca­tion of Eich­mann in Jerusalem, Han­nah Arendt remains a cen­tral but con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure in the analy­sis of the Holo­caust. Once again brought into the spot­light by Deb­o­rah Lipstadt’s 2011 book on the Eich­mann tri­al and the recent film by Ger­man film­mak­er Mar­garethe von Trot­ta based on Arendt’s report­ing on the tri­al and the sub­se­quent furor sur­round­ing her provoca­tive the­sis, Arendt’s ideas have been sub­ject­ed to new debate. What did she mean by banal­i­ty of evil”? Was she too easy on Eich­mann, tak­en in by his pro­fes­sions of being mere­ly a cog in the wheel of the Nazi bureau­cra­cy? Was she too hard on the vic­tims of the Holo­caust? What is her lega­cy as a thinker about the Holocaust?

This col­lec­tion of inter­views — one in a series of Last Inter­views” with promi­nent cul­tur­al fig­ures — pro­vides only par­tial clar­i­fi­ca­tion of some of these ques­tions. Two of these inter­views, dat­ing from the peri­od after the pub­li­ca­tion of her Eich­mann book (with Ger­man jour­nal­ist Gün­ter Gaus and his­to­ri­an Joachim Fest), direct­ly address the controver­sy. The oth­ers range over top­ics from Arendt’s oeu­vre on total­i­tar­i­an­ism and free­dom — her philo­soph­i­cal ideas, as it were, although she reject­ed the label of philoso­pher — as well as top­ics of moment in the late 60s and ear­ly 70s (the stu­dent rev­o­lu­tion, Water­gate) with occa­sion­al ref­er­ences to the Eich­mann book

In Arendt’s view, many of her con­tro­ver­sial propo­si­tions about the Eich­mann tri­al were mis­un­der­stood. She cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly denies to Gaus that she reproached” the Jew­ish peo­ple for their non-resis­tance to the Nazi killing machine, claim­ing that she was para­phras­ing the remarks of Mr. Hauss­ner” [sic], the Israeli pros­e­cu­tor. On the def­i­n­i­tion of the banal­i­ty of evil,” the sub­ti­tle of her book on the tri­al and her most con­tro­ver­sial idea, Arendt argues that she did not mean to equate banal­i­ty with the com­mon­place, but, in a ram­bling answer to Fest, she fails to clar­i­fy what she meant — com­ing to what seems to this review­er a banal con­clu­sion her­self that banal­i­ty con­sists of sim­ply the reluc­tance to ever imag­ine what the oth­er per­son is expe­ri­enc­ing.” More cogent is her dis­cus­sion with Fest of com­plic­i­ty in a to­talitarian soci­ety, but, giv­en the nature of these kinds of con­ver­sa­tions (even as edit­ed as they are), the con­clu­sion seems elu­sive. In the Last Inter­view,” a 1973 talk with French jour­nal­ist Roger Errera in the year before she died, Arendt main­tains that her Eich­mann book offend­ed the Jew­ish peo­ple because she refused to see Eich­mann as a demon­i­cal­ly evil man but rather as a buf­foon, which sums up the crux of the issue and defines Arendt’s con­tro­ver­sial posi­tion in the ongo­ing debate.

Relat­ed Content:

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions