September 2013

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Hannah Arendt

"The thing that is most interesting about government servants is that they believe what they are supposed to believe, they really do believe what they are supposed to believe, which has a great deal to do with wars and wars being what they are." [Gertrude Stein. Wars I Have Seen. NY: Random House, 1945. p. 52]


Upon exiting Margarethe von Trotta's film Hannah Arendt playing at an independent Washington, DC movie theater, one of few in the United States now screening this film about a controversial German-American intellectual, the Steiny Road Poet burst into a wellspring of thoughts about what Gertrude Stein said about World War II and Germans. 

"I once asked some one who should know why public servants in the army in every branch of government service did not seem to have the kind of judgment that the man in the street any man or any woman has about what is happening. Oh, he answered the reason is simple, they are specialists, and to a specialist his specialty is the whole of everything and if his specialty is in good order and generally is then everything must be succeeding. In the German army they call these specialists the bees, because in their cells they are supposed to make honey, not money honey. And so this is what makes war, and then makes the failure of war." [Wars I Have Seen, p. 53]


German-born Hannah Arendt (1906-1976) was a political theorist who escaped the Nazis twice and was lucky enough to be granted entrance into the United States in 1941. By 1951, she became a U.S. citizen. She, an assimilated Jew, was a student and lover of philosopher Martin Heidegger who joined the Nazi Party in 1933 when he was appointed rector of Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg. While there was no correspondence between them during the war, in 1988 letters between Arendt and Heidegger were unsealed bringing to light that the duration of their relationship was life-long. Even before his actions against Jews as the rector of Albert Ludwigs University, Heidegger had been noted for his anti-Semitism.

In 1961, The New Yorker sent Arendt  to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, ob_dc8900_hannah-arendt-cra significant contributor to the Third Reich's Final Solution of the Jewish Question, a plan to eradicate Jews in Germany and German occupied countries. On January 20, 1942, Eichmann attended the Wannsee Conference where senior officials met to pledge their support of the Final Solution. Eichmann, an SS lieutenant colonel, was assigned the task of managing the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps.  While covering and writing about the trial of Eichmann, Arendt formulated the concept of the banality of evil, saying that Eichmann was a nobody who unthinkingly followed orders. To make matters worse, Arendt pointed to the leaders of the Jewish community and said they were  complicit in cooperating with the Nazis. Arendt's coverage of the Eichmann trial and the furor it caused in the Jewish community is central to von Trotta's film.

"…nobody in ordinary life believes what they are supposed to believe because they are too busy making a living to have time to believe what they are supposed to believe, but public servants not having the necessity of making a living because their present past and future are secure, and practically unchangeable, they have all the time and strength to put into believing what they supposed to believe and the result of this is war…" [Wars I Have Seen, p. 53]

Without necessarily agreeing because things are never black or white, the Steiny Road Poet, who had a 27-year career as a U.S. civil, servant fully understands why Stein was such a staunch Republican believing that minimal government with no support for people at the bottom of the economic scale was necessary. Stein's policy was go back to the land where anyone can be free from government constraint and self sustaining by growing one's own food. While Stein was not rich, she was comfortably accommodated with family money that allowed her to live well without ever needing a paying job. Her concept of going back to the land largely came about after she spent her summers in the French countryside and then took refuge there during WWII.


In the film, Hannah Arendt as portrayed by Barbara Sukowa seems much in keeping with the assimilated Jewish intellectual that Gertrude Stein was—unabashed at speaking her mind in provocative ways. Stein's Wars I Have Seen was written as a journal of WWII while Stein was living in German occupied France. Stein's partner Alice B. Toklas said she felt it was safe because no one except Toklas could read Stein's writing.  When the Americans liberated southern France, two prominent journalists showed up at the Stein-Toklas house in Culoz—Eric Severeid and Frank Gervasi. Gervasi offered to hand carry the Wars I Have Seen manuscript to Stein's publisher Bennett Cerf. Toklas obliged by quickly typing it up. In this manuscript, Stein wrote such things as: "…I know what Germans are. They are a funny people. They are always choosing some one to lead them in a direction which they do not want to go." [Wars I Have Seen, p. 64]

Arendt in von Trotta's film as well as in real life argued that while Eichmann's deeds were a hanging offense, he was an ordinary man following the laws set down by his government and that he was a man who did not think. Von Trotta effectively employs archival footage showing the real Eichmann defending his actions. While the film shows most of Arendt's friends and colleagues turning their backs on her for what they perceive as her hard-hearted defense of an indisputable monster, what is left out is that Eichmann defied direct orders from his superiors at the end of the war to cease the Final Solution campaign. Real life criticism of Arendt pivots on her failure to acknowledge Eichmann's anti-Semitism and the enormity of the killing machine that Hitler and his followers—including Eichmann—constructed, which completely overpowered the Jewish community and its leaders.


Arendt's lack of attention to anti-Semitism brings to mind Stein's downplay of that subject and her close friendship with the French intellectual Bernard Faÿ, a known anti-Semite who collaborated with the Nazis during WWII sending many Jews to their deaths but who also protected Stein, her partner Alice Toklas, and Stein's considerable modern art collection. In Wars I Have Seen, Stein mentions anti-Semitism in the context of bureaucracy, which comes up when, on the verge of moving from Bilignin to Culoz, she and Alice are told to leave southern France because they as Jews are not safe. Stein's discussion hinges on her brother Michael coming home from the East coast as a member of the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic).

"It was then I knew about officialdom and what one did by bribing. Of course that has to do with war, because the ordinary person that is one leading a peaceful life particularly men comes in contact with officials but in war-time, sooner or later everybody does. The second thing was the famous Oscar Wilde trial and the question of public opinion and the third thing was the Dreyfus case and anit-semitism [sic]." [Wars I Have Seen, pp. 51]

Stein writes off anti-Semitism by saying the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus case "is a very strange thing in connection with mediaevalism [sic] and nineteenth century and how a century is so hard to kill…" She continued this discussion by explaining "Jewish money in the world is only a drop in the bucket and all of it together could never buy anybody to make war or make peace…" Then more controversially Stein says Jews do not want anyone to know they don't have this monetary power:

"Jews do not want anybody to know it, although they know it perfectly well they must know it because it would make themselves to themselves feel less important and as they always as the chosen people have felt themselves to themselves to be important they do not want anybody to know it." [Wars I Have Seen, pp. 55-56]


What the Steiny Poet particularly loved about von Trotta's film was the scene where Arendt goes before her students and disapproving colleagues who have already asked her to resign to discuss the fallout from her writing on Eichmann. Barbara Sukowa's performance shows the wrenching tension Arendt must have felt to have had such a huge audience waiting for her and the courage she had to muster to defend herself. While von Trotta's film is a film about ideas and thinking, it is also about a formidable woman role model and the pressure a woman with strong ideas must endure to stand her ground. This scene makes the Steiny Poet think of Hillary Clinton shouting down the Senators over the Benghazi disaster and how that will affect her chance of becoming the first woman president of the United States should she choose to run.

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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©2013 Karren LaLonde Alenier
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