A new book about Hannah Arendt reveals the playful side of one of the 20th century's most celebrated thinkersby Jonathan Rée / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
At first glance, Marie Luise Knott’s study of Hannah Arendt looks slight, even frivolous. Instead of weighing in on the big Arendtian topics—totalitarianism, revolution and anti-Semitism—Knott prefers to dally with side-issues such as the waywardness of translation, the ambiguity of forgiveness, the indirection of poetry, and the surprise of a gust of laughter. As a further hedge against solemnity, she illustrates her remarks with whimsical cartoons, teeming with multilingual puns. Yet it is hard to think of any other book on Arendt that gives out half as much light, not to mention joy.
The problems Knott explores came together in Arendt’s notorious account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the unreconstructed Nazi official who was apprehended in Buenos Aires in 1960 and transported to Israel to face trial for crimes against humanity. But the process was always going to be about much more than the guilt or innocence of a second-rank Nazi bureaucrat. It was designed to establish, once and for all, the truth about the murder of six million Jews in Hitler’s death camps: as well as silencing the deniers, it was meant to dispel feelings of guilt amongst survivors, and heal the internecine suspicions that threatened the unity of Judaism in Israel and elsewhere. It would be, in the best sense of the word, a show-trial, marking the coming of age of a progressive, democratic Jewish state.
The proceedings opened in a converted theatre in Jerusalem in April 1961, and lasted five months. The judges were seated on the stage, with Eichmann in an enclosure of bullet-proof glass, looking puzzled but officious, fiddling with his glasses, adjusting his headphones, and occasionally taking notes like a conscientious schoolboy. There were live radio broadcasts and continuous video recordings, with provision for a large and often unruly audience and excellent facilities for journalists, including the charismatic and assiduous reporter for the New Yorker.
Arendt was well qualified for the assignment. For one thing she had grown up in Germany at the same time as Eichmann—both of them were born in 1906.…