The Argentinian Nazi Swamp

The Argentinian Nazi Swamp

Part II: The Jerusalem-Buenos Aries-Tehran-Washington Quadrangle


Howard Adelman

Unlike my knowledge of Africa, I know very little about Latin America except what I have learned from my oldest son’s books and articles. Jeremy Adelman is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University where he once chaired the History Department and directed the Centre for Latin American Studies. He is an authority on Argentina. So what I know is mostly stolen from him. The mistakes are all mine.

As many of you know, this year I have been living in Mexico for the winter. Most readers are familiar with the scandal of the disappearance of 43 students here. On 26 September 2014, a group of Ayotzinapa rural teachers college students in the state of Guerrero, in the southwest of Mexico, were traveling to participate in a protest in nearby Iguala. Along the way, they were ambushed, evidently by the police. Three died and several were injured. A few escaped to tell the tale, but 43 disappeared. What happened to them?

What you probably do not know is that the parents of the missing students hired an experienced Argentinian investigative team that had honed its skills originally in the hunt begun in 1984 for Argentina’s 9,000 “disappeared” under the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Mexico’s government claimed that the youth were handed over by the police to the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel who killed them, burned their bodies in Cocula in southern Guerrero, threw the remains onto a garbage dump where they were burned and then flushed the ashes into a river to hide the evidence. Using forensic evidence on the ashes, the investigative team could only identify one student.

Further, the Argentine Forensic Anthropologists team said that there was absolutely no scientific evidence to support the Cocula garbage dump thesis. The narrative concocted by the office of attorney general Jesȕs Murillo Karam, supposedly based on 39 confessions, 386 declarations, 487 forensic tests, 16 raids and two reconstructive investigations, was suddenly highly suspect, especially when tests showed a dump fire could never turn a human body to ashes since the temperature would never be hot enough. The tooth found was from a denture and none of the students wore dentures. Most significantly, the attorney messed up the process of collecting 20 genetic profiles from family members, making then totally useless. Yet the mayor of the town of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, have been in prison since November, along with 90 police accused of the crime.

Critics have insisted that the federal authorities and police were complicit in the crime all along. Key witnesses had been tortured according to Anabel Hernández, the lead investigative reporter for Proceso, and Steve Fisher of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California Berkeley.

What has this to do with the 18 January mysterious death of the Argentinian federal prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, hours before he was due to testify on his investigations of the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community centre, Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in Buenos Aires which left 85 people dead and 300 more injured? The large number of civilian dead, the alleged attempt to cover up the crime by federal officials, finding evidence in the trash (in the Argentine case, the discovery of a draft arrest warrant for President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Nisman’s garbage), the whodunit common theme, the involvement of security forces, the mixture of incompetence and corruption, and the ultimate irony of Argentinians, who cannot get to the bottom of their most puzzling case in history, helping unravel Mexico’s scandal.

The Argentinian case is more interesting because it involved, probably until very recently when it was dissolved by the President, the Argentinian intelligence service. A former investigator into the case, Claudio Lifschitz, claimed he was abducted and tortured by SI agents. The Argentinian case also involved a foreign government, Iran, allegedly in cahoots with the government in Buenos Aries. After the AMIA bomb went off, corrupt police officers were arrested, but extraditions were deliberately bungled. An Iranian spy, Abolghase Mesbahi, had reported that Tehran had deposited $10 million into the Swiss bank account of Prime Minster Menem to thwart an investigation. Juan José Galeano, overseeing the case, was impeached 10 years later. In 2006, Nisman accused Tehran of abetting the Lebanese militants, Hezbollah, in the bombing.

But I want to go back to a much earlier period in Argentina well before the Iran-Argentina AMIA bombing link link via earlier Nazi connections and the swastika. The Iran link will be developed in a separate blog.

Before and during WWII, Argentina had close links with the three axis powers, Germany, Spain and Italy, the three major sources of European immigrants to Argentina. A solid phalanx of Germans lived in Argentina and preserved their language and culture. In the thirties and during WWII, Nazi agents were very active in Argentina and both Jewish and Polish immigrants in Argentina bore an understandable animus towards their “German” fellow citizens.

Juan Perón went even further when he took power in 1946. He had been a fascist admirer if not an outright fascist and had served as a military attaché to Benito Mussolini in the late thirties. He not only tolerated the Nazi presence in Argentina, but, through his agents, recruited Nazis as immigrants to Argentina, including wanted war criminals like Adolf Eichmann (Ricardo Klement in Argentina). Other Nazis fleeing prosecution included: the infamous Josef Mengele (Helmut Gregor in Argentina), the “Angel of Death” notorious for his “scientific” racial experiments and whose notoriety was publicized in the film, The Boys of Brazil; the Prussian aristocrat, Ludolf-Hermann Emmanuel Georg Kurt Werner von Alvensleben (Carlos Lücke in Argentina), nicknamed “Bubi” (Little Boy), the SSGruppenführer and Major General of the Police responsible for the Intelligenzaktion in Pomerania in the “Fordon Valley of Death” and mass murders in Piaśnica; Eduard Roschmann (Frederico Wegner in Argentina), the commander of the Riga concentration camp (the Butcher of Riga) known best through his portrayal in Frederick Forsyth’s novel, The Odessa File, and the movie adapted from it.

Aribert Ferdinand Heim (Tarek Hussein Farid in Cairo), a member of Hitler’s Waffen SS, the Doctor Death at the Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen concentration camps, was also rumoured to be hiding in Argentina, but had actually relocated to Cairo, whereas Adolf Eichmann, who was for years rumoured to be hiding in the Middle East, had actually relocated to Argentina.

Most of these Nazis were assisted in their escape from war prisoners’ camps after the war, provided with temporary false German identification papers until they were spirited out of Germany on passes supplied by the International Red Cross with the assistance of Alois Hudal, a titular bishop of the Catholic Church in the Vatican who had published a book, The Foundations of National Socialism (1937). Hudal was a critical nexus in the so-called ratline used to relocate Nazis fleeing arrest warrants to Argentina. In Argentina, the so-called Odessa network helped them find jobs or become managers and owners of businesses, often in Perón-sponsored cover firms for Third Reich technocrats. Though he had none of the requisite engineering skills, Adolf Eichmann was soon working for Compañia Argentina para Proyectos y Realizaciones Industriales, a company incorporated to provide electricity in the City of Tȕcamán.

Argentina was not only a haven for Nazis, but the largest centre for Nazis in the Americas. They dreamt of resurrecting National Socialism. It would take far more than this short blog to indicate the extent that Argentina had been a haven for Nazis. Note, I do not call them ex-Nazis because to a man they retained their allegiance to National Socialism throughout their lives. But the following additional select list can give you a sense not only of the Nazi presence in Argentina, but of the Nazi war criminals who found a relatively safe haven in Argentina. Most died natural deaths in Argentina, but some fled to Paraguay and Brazil when things became hot in Buenos Aries. Others returned to Europe. A few were caught and tried like Adolf Eichmann in Israel and Josef Franz Leo Schwamberger in Germany. Most were protected by the Argentinian government which refused requests for extradition.

  • Hans Fischböck, finance minister of occupied Holland, responsible for the expropriation of Jewish property and sending Jewish labour to work in the arms industry
  • Hans Hefelmann responsible for the Führer’s office for euthanasia and aiding in the murder of 75.000 people
  • Fritz Lantschner, Gauamtsleiter. Government Director of the Reichsstatthalterei Tyrol-Vorarlberg; arrived in Argentina in 1948, subsequently becoming an Argentinian citizen; managed a building company in San Carlos de Bariloche, Río Negro
  • Erwin Fleiss, former SS Sturmbannfȕhrer leader of the SS in the Gauleitung Tyrol and active in the pogroms in Innsbruck; arrived in Argentina ten years later and lived in Río Negro where he died in 1964
  • Franz Rubatscher, police officer for the illegal NSDAP, arrived in Argentina in 1947 but was subsequently allowed to resettle back in Europe
  • Fridolin Guth, SS-Hauptsturmfȕhrer, accused of taking part in the murder of French Partisans; arrived in Argentina in 1948
  • Josef (Francisco) Vötterl, SS-Hauptsturmführer; arrived in 1948 and lived in Buenos Aires
  • Josef Janko (José Petri), SS-Obersturmfȕhrer, arrived in Buenos Aires in 1951 and in 1955 obtained an Argentinian residency permit
  • Josef Franz Leo Schwammberger, SS-Oberscharfȕhrer and commander of the forced labour camp in Rozwadów and then in the Przemyśl Ghetto, which was officially declared a work camp; arrived in Buenos Aires in 1949 and became an Argentinian citizen under his own name until an arrest warrant was issued by Argentinian authorities after which he arrested in 1987 and extradited to Germany where he was sentenced to life imprisonment
  • Erich Rajakowitsch, member of the SS responsible for the deportation of Jews in the Netherlands; moved to Buenos Aires in 1947 but returned to Graz in 1952 where he lived for the rest of his life
  • Gerhard Böhne, a lawyer with a doctor of laws, a Nazi war criminal guilty of the extermination of 62,000 people in psychiatric hospitals deemed too “defective” for a pure society and one of the very few Nazis who settled in Argentina in 1949 who was extradited back to Germany in 1966 to stand trial, a pyrrhic success since he was found to be unfit to be tried
  • Johann von Leers, a legal scholar on racial-based legislation, who fled to Argentina in 1950 and five years later followed Aribert Ferdinand Heim (Tarek Hussein Farid) to Cairo to be reborn as Amin Omar van Leers
  • Josef Vötterl, a member of the German Einsatzgruppen who arrived in 1949, returned to Germany in 1955 only to return once again to Argentina three years later to a good position
  • Kurt Christmann, a twin of Josef Vötterl with a similar criminal record, head of the Gestapo in Klapenfurt and Salzburg, and in Russia served as head of the Einsatzgruppen in the town of Kransnoda, spent 5-7 years in Argentina before returning to Germany where he was tried and sentenced to ten years in prison.

There were many more. Most of these Nazis landed on their feet, most with new identities, jobs and financial security. They could, like Adolf Eichmann, even risk reuniting with their families. They also enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow Nazis, even publishing Nazi and anti-Semitic propaganda in the newspaper, Der Weg. Further, they had the additional support of Argentinian homegrown Nazis like Eberhard Ludwig Fritsch head of the Dȕrer publishing house in Buenos Aries, and the fawning services of a skilled “journalist,” Wilhelmus (Willem) Sassen. Adolf Eichmann may have been a very big fish in the Dȕrer swamp, but he still suffered mostly from the enforced anonymity in the world at large where he dreamed of recognition for what he believed were his great accomplishments in the extermination of the Jews.

In 1948, when Dr. Otto Günth, went to Buenos Aires as the first post-war Austrian consul, the sole focus was economic, not the repatriation of alleged war criminals. The Austrian Amnesties of 1955 and 1957 further reduced even tiny efforts to render justice for these escaped murderers. Austria was not the exception but the rule. Countries were keen on burying the past, not resurrecting tales of Nazi crimes. Argentina was just the worst in actively protecting and aiding Nazis. That is why it is so difficult to swallow the complete myth, a myth even believed in by most Jews, that Israel was created because of the Holocaust. In my research in UN archives, I could not find one reference to the Holocaust as a motive for supporting the partition resolution in 1947. What to do with the 200,000 Jewish refugees in Europe was a problem since no country then wanted them. As Bettina Stangneth wrote in her book on Eichmann, “Today it’s difficult to imagine what people in the early 1950s wanted to know about the National Socialist crimes – namely almost nothing.”

1955 was a turning point for two reasons. Juan Perón was deposed. The most active protector of the Nazis in Germany was gone. Further, scholarly books began to appear on the Holocaust. The Jews were not the only ones to suffer from this bracketing of history. So did Adolf Eichmann. In 1955, the French documentary Night and Fog was being shown around the world. Scholarly book after scholarly book was published documenting the atrocities of the Nazi regime with Eichmann’s name repeatedly mentioned as the orchestra conductor of the extermination. This should have made Adolf Eichmann alert to the dangers of his position, as it did Mengele who fled to Brazil. But Eichmann grew even more careless and, as the world knows, Israel’s Mossad finally tracked him down, abducted him and he stood trial in Jerusalem. There he was able to convince even as astute an intellectual as Hannah Arendt that he had only been a cog in a bureaucratic machine, an expression of the banality of evil, rather than a committed and innovative exterminator. However, convincing Arendt was a pyrrhic victory for that was precisely how he did not want to go down in history. He eventually received a posthumous victory of sorts in spite of his skillful acting in the courtroom in Jerusalem in the effort to avoid the death penalty.

However, the Eichmann trial had succeeded in making the Holocaust part of our world historical memory instead of just a subject of study for a small coterie of committed scholars. Eventually, it would lead to the resurrection of Adolf Eichmann as the operational head of a mass extermination machine and not a no-name bureaucrat.

If we transition through the years of Argentinian military dictatorship and the “Dirty War” from 1976-1983, a highly disproportionate number of Jews were among the estimated 9,000 (Nunca Más) disappeared; the Mothers and Grandmothers of the disappeared claim a figure of 30,000. Richard H. Curtiss in his book, In Memoriam: Jacobo Timerman, 1923- 1999, offered a figure of 15,000. In either case, there were many more than the 43 Mexican students who disappeared this past September. Jacobo Timerman, the famous Argentinian-Jewish journalist and publisher, founder of Primera Piana in 1962 and another news weekly, Confirmado, in 1965, both repressed by the military dictatorship that took power in 1966, founded La Opinión in 1971, the Le Monde of Latin America. On 27 July 1972, he was one of the targets of the 20 bombings in Buenos Aries on the twentieth anniversary of Eva Perón death.

In 1973, Juan Perón returned to Argentina when his front, Héctor Cámpora, was elected President but stepped aside upon Perón’s return. Juan was succeeded by his wife, Isabel Perón, when he died the following year. It might appear that after a hiatus of twenty years, the anti-Semitic fascists were back in full power. But, by and large, they had really never left power except for a few years of democracy, and, even then, they had only gone underground. Only the Peronist populist version versus the Catholic religious or the military faction resumed power. The military, just as they had in 1955, returned once again with a coup in 1976 and General Jorge Rafael Videla initiated military rule – el Proceso. .

Anti-Semitism continued to increase throughout the 1970s especially targeting Jews in the media. In 1977, Plan Andinia was published accusing the Jewish international conspiracy of trying to control Argentina. Bombs targeting Jews were going off at the rate of ten per month. An enormous bomb went off when Victory at Entebbe was screened in Córdoba causing enormous damage and many deaths. Timerman was soon arrested, but in 1979 was exiled to Israel where he wrote his 1981 famous book, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, about the years of Argentinian misrule, his torture and the anti-Semitism permeating Argentina. When he was being escorted out of Argentina, he learned that, “fifteen minutes after departure from my house, a group of military men arrived intending to kidnap me.” He would have become one of the disappeared.

Jacobo Timerman’s son became a famous Argentinian human rights advocate, then a diplomat and is currently Foreign Minister of Argentina. How did he become involved in alleged negotiations with Iran and the purported cover-up of the investigation of the 1983 Jewish community centre bombing? Or was he also a target of leaks from the intelligence service with its long tradition of anti-Semitism? Two years before the destruction of the Jewish community centre in Buenos Aries, the Israeli Embassy in Argentina was partially destroyed by a car bomb on 17 March 1992. What is the connection between these two culminations of a half century of anti-Semitism in Argentina in 1992 and 1994 and Tehran?

Two intervening tales need to be told. One is the story of the Argentine intelligence service and the other of the Iranian connection. Until the late 1990s, and, to some degree, right up to the present, the despicable role of the intelligence service and of the government has not been sufficiently exposed. In 1998, when the Argentine foreign minister Guido di Tella was opening the Commission for the Clarification of Nazi Activities in Argentina, he described the collaboration between Argentina and Nazi Germany as a ‘painful and shameful’ episode in Argentina’s history.

Let me finish by quoting my son. The origins of the Argentinian intelligence service “date to the first Juan Perón government (1946–55), which enlisted Nazi war criminals to serve as Perón’s spies. During the military junta’s rule in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the services were deeply involved in repressing the opposition and colluding with neighboring dictatorships.” ( It was the intelligence service that provided the leaks of immanent arrest warrants for Nazis in Argentina in the 1950s as regular scoops, thereby giving the Nazis time to flee to Paraguay or Brazil. It was the intelligence service through Antonio Stiusso who, like Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal, was feeding the key information of wiretapped conversations between top aides of Fernández and senior Iranian officials, to Alberto Nisman about squelching the AMIA inquiry and food-for-oil bargaining. The intelligence service may also have been responsible for Nisman’s death. Finally, following his death and the zig-zag responses of the government, President Fernández dissolved the intelligence service.

Tomorrow: The Iranian Involvement in Blowing Up the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aries

Birdman: Riggan, Mike and Adolf Eichmann

Birdman: Riggan, Mike and Adolf Eichmann


Howard Adelman

In a previous blog I spoke of doubleness and the dramatic tension between Riggan and Mike as the core of the tension in the movie, Birdman. The film has been nominated for nine Oscars this year. The form, theme, cinematography, soundtrack, characters are so at odds with a movie that thirty years ago won Oscars for best movie, best direction and five other Oscars – Out of Africa that we watched again last evening. I quote from the 1937 memoir by the Danish Isak Dinesen (the pseudonym of Karen Blixen) upon which the movie was based.

“Two homogenous units will never be capable of forming a whole… Man and woman become one… A hook and an eye are a Unity, a fastening, but with two hooks you can do nothing. A right-hand glove with its contrast the left-hand glove makes a whole, a pair of gloves; but two right-hand gloves you throw away.”

Before I return to the movie of thirty years ago, I want to introduce a third character, one from real life. I know you will be puzzled by the inclusion of Adolf Eichmann when discussing a Hollywood film that, on the surface, has absolutely no connection with an organizer of mass murder, but I beg your forbearance as I develop my theme. I am currently completing the reading of Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth, a German philosopher who has written a brilliant work of scholarship. It is a heavy tome at 579 pages, 155 of them endnotes. Don’t worry, I do not intend to review the book in this blog, even though it is a tour de force and hopefully will win a number of additional scholarly prizes now that it has been translated into English. It has already won the German NDR award for best non-fiction book. The reviewer of the English translation will require a far greater scholarly acquaintance with the field than I will ever have.

It is rare to read a philosopher who wrote her PhD thesis on Kant’s concept of radical evil and ever since has been researching a theory of the lie, but who has also become a scholar on anti-Semitism and the National Socialist philosophy. It is rarer yet for that scholar to produce such a brilliant case study of a personality who embodied radical evil. Stangneth, as I do, belongs to a school of philosophy that believes that philosophers have to sink into the mire of the empirical to undertake proper philosophical work.

One of the virtues of the book is the grace but thoroughness with which she totally buries Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Adolph Eichmann as an expression of the banality of evil, not only by the thoroughness of her research and the skill of her analysis, but by clearly showing that Arendt was duped by Adolf Eichmann’s deliberately cultivated deceptive self-portrait in the courtroom in Jerusalem. Though Stangneth lauds Arendt for her courage and the conviction of her clarity in portraiture, though Arendt knew far too little, and for her meticulous work, Stangneth overwhelmingly demonstrates that, “even someone of average intelligence can induce a highly intelligent person to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.” An ability at self-critique is still the ultimate virtue of a first class philosopher and Hannah Arendt ultimately fails that test.

Stangweth demonstrates definitively that Eichmann was a man of vaulting ambition who did not inadvertently become a member of the SD as he proclaimed, but wanted with a desperate passion to enjoy the respect from others because of his membership in the SD [the SD stood for Sicherheitsdienst or Security Service in Nazi Germany and was distinct from the Gestapo). For his deepest desire was to experience the deep dread he could then inspire in others.

Eichmann was not the epitome of the bureaucrat who followed rules and kept meticulous records. He was disorganized and often tardy. More importantly, he believed in smashing conventional bureaucracy in the name of both a higher ideal, National Socialism, but also to set in place a system that was speedy and more effective by not following inherited rules. He was Mr. Fixit when it came to invention for extermination. He coined the phrase, “Final Solution”. Nevertheless, though not a bureaucrat in the ordinary Weberian sense, he meticulously kept records of denunciation files as he wrote, with his crude and simplistic ideology, anti-Semitic screeds. Unlike either Riggan or Mike in the Birdman, he sought to exude faceless power (akin to a Gestapo man in a long leather coat with his face in the shadows) rather than the desire for facial recognition of both Riggan and Mike, each in very different ways.

Not that Eichmann disdained recognition; he craved it, but for his name rather than his face. Riggan and Mike wanted recognition, the former for his face that had previously been hidden behind a bird costume, and the latter for his body of work as an actor. All three wanted and craved a reputation, but Eichmann for one that inspired fear while Riggan wanted respect and Mike wanted recognition for brilliant artistry. But all three were poseurs, Mike deliberately, for that was his art, Riggan to cover up his lack of artistic skills, and Eichmann to project power and status (hence, the black SS uniform and the riding crop) as well as erudition. For he was brilliant at convincing others that he was an authority on both Judaism and Zionism and that he had mastered both Yiddish and Hebrew when he only learned a smattering of each, but just enough about all four to deceive others.

“A glance at the modest means with which Eichmann managed to present himself as a perfect Hebraist, even to his colleagues, teaches us something about his use of role-playing and image-making. Eichmann spoke no Hebrew and only a little Yiddish.”

Riggan, Mike and Eichmann were not shy, were not retiring, and did not want to be subordinate to anyone else. Each wanted a place in history, a very different place for each, but a lofty position nevertheless. Riggan wanted to achieve fame and recognition out of costume. Eichmann wanted fame in costume. In contrast to both, Mike achieved fame by baring all. He did not even wear underwear when he had to change in the fitting room. The biggest difference between Riggan and both Mike and Eichmann is that Riggan was always uncertain and full of self-doubt. In contrast, both Mike and Eichmann were convinced that they had been chosen for greatness. Eichmann wanted fame as the exterminator of the Jews. Mike sought fame as the exterminator of himself. Riggan wanted fame for being an actor rather than a comic book character in costume.

All three men were known for barking orders. As the leaders of the Jewish communities that met with Eichmann attested, he “attacked them energetically, shouting and screaming and threatened to send them to a concentration camp.” He was no self-effacing bureaucrat who simply followed orders. None of these three men were capable of simply following orders. They were all artificers in their very different ways, obsessed with invention, primarily of themselves, though only Eichmann conceived of himself as the manservant of death who carried the sickle obsessed with the extermination of Jews. While he accused Jewish leaders of portraying him as the bloodhound who wanted to kill the Jews, he collected those reviews as if he were a director of plays taking great pride in both that reputation and his achievements. Riggan’a orders, unlike those of Mike and Eichmann, though he barked as loud as the others, were just as often ignored, Eichmann and Mike barked orders that were always obeyed, but Mike, unlike Eichmann, rarely obeyed orders given to him. For Mike could not tolerate constraints.

Pride. Ambition. Self-aggrandizement. Arrogance. Role-players. Image-makers. These descriptors characterize all three. But Riggan and Mike are Lilliputians compared to Eichmann who boasted, “Nobody else was such a household name in Jewish political life at home and abroad as little old me.” Paradoxically, a contradiction of which he was totally unaware, Eichmann was determined to exterminate that very polity in which his greatest fame was to be found. But the key is not the polity on which he focused his obsession with extermination, but his obsession with his reputation and the need for an image and public performance to sustain and enhance his role on the stage of world history. All three were united in an inability to hide in the shadows, an inability that would lead to Eichmann’s identification, kidnapping, trial and eventual execution.

What is often overlooked is how the audience is complicit in the deceit. Look at the raves Riggan’s play received from both the audience and critics in the film, Birdman – though it is clear that the play is a dramatic mess. The plaudits were for technique, for the ultra-realism of actually shooting himself at the end. The movie incorporates the laugh-line of The Producers, who, in contrast to Riggan, were intent on, rather than bumbling toward, failure. The production was a smash success. In every case, not just in theatre but in real life, deception can only succeed in partnership with the mindblindness of an audience. Even Eichmann’s Jewish victims helped enlarge the symbolism of his name as that name became more than that of an individual person, but was projected onto every jack-booted leather-coated Gestapo agent his victims ever encountered.

People who have experienced suffering, humiliation, and loss do not want to have been the victims of someone mediocre: that a mere nobody has power over us is even more unbearable than the idea that someone has power over us. This mechanism blocks our view of the perpetrator. It gives more power to the dynamic of symbol creation and strengthens the sphere of power by limiting our capacity for making clear judgments.”

Hence the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Hence the diatribe in the Torah against idolatry as the worst sin. Hence, false memories and projection of the deceived. This was true of even an intellectual as smart as Hannah Arendt. So why fault the audience who went crazy over the play Riggan wrote, directed and acted in? Why fault the audience who watch Birdman or those who nominated it for awards and will eventually cascade the movie with honours?

Am I putting down my wife and children who so loved the film? Not at all. They were taken in, as the vast majority of people are, by the artifice of technique and deception, by the magic of the movies, by brilliant and sparkling dialogue, by inventive and skilled cinematography and, most of all, by inspired acting and role-playing. Our great love of precisely those elements also help to deceive us about everyday life and of history. For artistry for its own sake, the preference for technique at the expense of substance, invention divorced from creation, is just magic.

Isn’t this an assertion of arrogance? Not at all. It is merely pointing out, what Mike was passionate about pointing out, that we all are small, meaningless and naked ultimately as we play our roles in time, and even more pitiful when we play a role obsessed with standing out and above history. These are but acts of enormous vanity. While we exert enormous efforts at playing a role that will raise us to greatness, that will give our life meaning, it is just as important, if not more so, to be always aware of how small we are and how fleeting and ephemeral fame is. Further, if fame is only to be gained by stepping over the bodies of others, better to bury fame.

Eichmann at the pinnacle of his success as an exterminator of the Jews is only a Mike turned inside out and directed outward at the Other. After the war, as he hid out in Germany and in Argentina, as he made plans to re-appear on the public stage, Eichmann did return to the world public stage, not as he envisioned it, but in a courtroom in Jerusalem where he was required to play his greatest role, that of a faceless bureaucrat that is only a cog in a murder machine that was the precise obverse of his performance in history. In the courtroom, he had his ideal critic as he played his new role for the most intellectually significant drama critic at the time, Hannah Arendt, who was totally taken in by his performance, proving what a superior thespian he really was.

Eichmann had to play the humble and pitiful actor rather than the costumed hero of his greatest fame, and though he clearly, in retrospect, bungled the writing, the directing and the performance itself, he nevertheless succeeded in earning an even greater status in history than he ever imagined by playing the role of self-diminution in a so-called banal murder machine. Eichmann desired and dreamt of being Birdman, soaring like an eagle, and not reducing himself to ordinariness, humiliating himself in his own eyes, but, paradoxically that inversion won him a role in history far beyond any that he imagined, as the purveyor of banal evil.

Mike and Riggan are hollow men. By bombarding the image of Eichmann with electrons in a super-collider, each is revealed as infinitesimally small positive and negative quarks, as the two very different faces of a monstrous Adolf Eichmann. Miniscule characters are magnified and revealed when we can see Riggan and Mike writ large as Adolf Eichmann. Even more important, the absence of the Higgs boson particle allows them to disintegrate before our very eyes. This can best be illustrated by sitting Birdman side-by-side Out of Africa, the star-studded Oscar-winner of thirty-years ago.

It would be hard to find two films as radically different as Birdman and Out of Africa. Birdman is set in the small cluttered dressing rooms, narrow corridors and small theatrical stage of a Broadway theatre. Out of Africa is as expansive as Birdman is claustrophobic. Set on the open veld at the foot of the Ngong hills in Kenya southwest of Nairobi, Out of Africa juxtaposes nature and the artifices of civilization, primitive Masai warriors and herders with ex-pat aristocrats largely from Britain, hunters with farmers, and the role of the Kikuyu workers and Somali Muslim house servants caught between these radically different periods in human history. There is NO nature in Birdman, not even human nature; it is all artifice, brilliant artifice, but artifice all the same.

The pace of Out of Africa is languorous while that of Birdman is frenetic. The sound track of each is radically different. The Music of Out of Africa combined traditional tribal music from Kenya and orchestral works by classic composers (Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto” for example) with a brilliant original score by John Barry that communicated the transition from the tension between a tribal world and a feudal aristocratic order into the modernism of the twentieth century. In Birdman, sound designer Martín Hernández enhanced tension with Antonio Sánchez’ atonal “jazz” playing. Percussion had been taken full circle from the beat of the Masai warriors as they run across the Serengeti to a regular beat, through the background percussiveness of a European orchestra, back to drumming that paces a rapid transition into modernity.

In Birdman, instead of providing a steady beat for the warriors, the beat is very irregular and varied, tuned to reflect the subtext of each scene in the movie rather than set a constant pace for the performance. The drumming stops and starts, resuming at a very different pace to enhance the erratic performances of the characters. Instead of crisp, clear tones, the fractured and broken drumming signals disfunction, irregularity, tension and disintegration. The veld may have been relatively dry in the Serengeti, but was never emotionally dry. The drums in Birdman reflected the dirty realism of the Carver stories brought to a radically new pitch sometimes bordering on and other times breaching the insane.

In Out of Africa, the main tension is between a female and a male, initially between Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) and her philandering aristocratic husband, Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and then between Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), a man who refuses to be owned or possessed, but who deeply connects with the immediate other in imitation of the Masai way. He is as direct and honest as the Baron is deceiving and a reprobate. Whether, between the Baroness and the Baron, or in her love affair with Denys, the differences are clearly there, but, in each case, the love that unites them is clear. This is also evident in Karen’s connection with her Somali overseer, Farah (Malick Bowens).

In Birdman, we have a tension between male and male, not as in a boxing moving as a test of strength and skill, nor as in a buddy movie as a test of contrasting characters, but as a competition between two different forms of fabrication with radically different intentions and goa,ls. What we never have is love. What we never have is the injunction of E.M. Forster to “Only Connect” What we cannot find in director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s script and direction is a Higgs boson particle.

Hannah Arendt: A Review Essay

Hannah Arendt: A Review Essay

The movie was directed by Margarethe von Trotta and co-authored with Pam Katz


Howard Adelman

The movie is about love. It is about friendship. It is about the deliberate effort to connect the private and the public life that so characterizes all the films of Margarethe von Trotta. The character and role of Adolph Eichmann as interpreted by Hannah Arendt is the core of the film, but the larger issue is her concept and theory about the banality of evil. A subsidiary theme inadequately examined is her view of the role of the Jewish Councils in cooperating with the Nazis. A glance in passing is also paid to her perhaps most controversial claim about the purpose of trials in dealing with crimes against humanity and the nature of justice. Underlying the whole biopic is Hannah Arendt`s conception of thought, not just philosophical thought, but thinking per se and the role of the intellectual. The movie commands that we reflect on the nature and role of biopics in general.

In my son Jeremy’s book, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, he describes Heinrich Blücher, Hannah Arendt’s husband, at a period when he was seducing the minds of all his young followers and the bodies of his female ones in the thirties with his Marxist arguments. His conquests included Albert’s sister, Ursula. It was a habit that the movie suggests persisted when Blücher was in America married to Hannah Arendt. Another habit also persisted. Jeremy writes, “Many years later, Heinrich surfaced once more in New York as Heinrich Blücher, the husband of Hannah Arendt; the years had passed, but the outward affection for didactic certainties had not. (my italics) In Paris, Blücher had succeeded in confirming many of Hirschmann’s (sic! – spelled in the original way) doubts about Communism; three decades later, it struck Hirschman that the air of conviction that hovered over Blücher and Arendt, and to which Americans were flocking in search of answers, had still not lifted.” (106) By then, of course, he was no longer a non-Stalinist communist or even a fellow traveller but, in fact, a staunch anti-communist supposedly critical of all essentialist thinking. But you would not know either from watching the film.

In Hannah Arendt, Barbara Sukowa who had worked with von Trotta before and who played Lola in a Fassbinder flick and the good-hearted prostitute in Berlin Alexanderplatz, is brilliant in passionately portraying Arendt’s affection for didactic certainties held with a haughty air of intellectual conviction. Heinrich Blücher (HB), played by the tall and imposing Axel Milberg, is reduced to a turtle dove in relation to his queen, sometimes questioning at other times expanding on her judgements, decisions and ideas, but always out of concern for her well-being. While HB dotes like a love-struck devoted spouse, constantly cooing or rather “turring” in a deep vibrating sweet but mournful purr of affection, she responds with loving devotion to her dear “Stuts”. Their solid and unwavering union in a flame of love is best captured by some stanzas in William Shakespeare’s 1601 poem, “The Phoenix and the Turtle”.

“Here the anthem doth commence:

Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
So they loved, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
'Twixt the turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.
So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phoenix' sight;
Either was the other's mine.
Property was thus appalled,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded."
The poem concludes:
"Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Truth may seem, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair
For these dead birds sigh a prayer."

In their married chastity, in spite of his philandering, their children were their ideas that he, the turtle, expounded orally and at length and she, the phoenix, wrote about at equal length. HA`s PhD had been on Saint Augustine`s theory of love. Her conception and effort had been to realize perfect love in the union of persons in the Trinity in the medieval Catholic literary traditions of mystical union, spiritual friendship and spiritual marriage.  For Blücher, his Phoenix provided the entire world of intellectual pleasure and Arendt`s judgements shone as “Clear as a naked Vestal, / Closed in an orb of Crystal.”

But the Phoenix side of the two–in-one pair was also a sacrificial lamb akin to Jesus as the innocent Savior persecuted and sacrificed for those who were truly guilty. Jesus says to his disciples, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Hannah Arendt is the wise serpent; Heinrich Blücher is the innocent dove. But he wears the tell-tale black and white striped patch on his neck that forever marks those who think only in simplistic dichotomous categories. While Blücher flew off to wander in the wilderness of Bard College to escape the windy storms and tempests of public issues (Psalm 55), his Phoenix flew into the eye of the storm.

But their ideas had merged. "Either was the other's mine." Margarethe Von Trotta captures that duality in unity in the film even though Alex Milberg who portrays Heinrich Blücher is tall in contrastto the squat 5' 4" barrel-chested historical figure who chain-smoked camel cigarettes and enchanted his students at great length in a heavy German accent at Bard College. While the film would lead you to believe that Hannah Arendt developed her idea of the banality of evil from observing Adolph Eichmann, it is quite apparent that she pays no attention to his pursed lips, twitches and grimaces picked up and replayed in the black and white excerpts from the film of the actual trial, but only sucks up his words as if they were truly revelations of his thinking while declaring him, though not stupid, a man incapable of thought. 

In modern bureaucratic societies, human evil originates from a failure to think. Arendt accepted Eichmann’s claims that he had “never acted from base motives” and “never had any inclination to kill anybody … never hated Jews.” “Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth.” He was not a villain propelled by evil but a law-abiding citizen conscientiously obeying the law and doing his duty “`with excellence recognized by his superiors.” Though his crimes were genuine and extraordinary, Eichmann was not; he was an ordinary man.

Determined to portray Eichmann as an ordinary man and neither demonic nor a monster, nicht einmal unheimlich, she came to the opposite position, that he demonstrated an authentic inability to think. He did not act out of conviction nor with pronounced intentions. He was eigentich dumm. According to Arendt, Eichmann was not a Nazi. Arendt claimed that Eichmann was totally unaware of Hitler`s program but was simply passively swept into membership in the party. He was essentially a modest man with no personal hatred for Jews. Theseextreme empirical statements, refuted both by historical evidence and even the trial proceedings, are largely omitted from the film.The abstraction of the idea of Eichmann as a man incapable of thinking is the focus of the film rather than the actual historical Eichmann. 
Ironically, we do not hear any thought in process, only strongly held opinions. We see Bukova lying on her divan presumably reflecting as she smokes. We see her standing and looking inwardly as a visual representation of thinking. But unlike the film A Beautiful Mind, we actually never get a glimpse of real thinking. That is, perhaps, because Trotta buys into Hannah Arendt`s conception of thinkingas the deviant thought set off against simplifications, clichés and conventions as the only antidote to conformist non-thought of a bureaucratic society, conformity that allows us to carry out the will of higher authorities without reflection. 
For Arendt, thinking and thinking alone as critical non-conformity allows us to retain and maintain human dignity and resist servility. The fact that Arendt was empirically incorrect, that those who resisted the Nazi machinations, that those who engaged in acts of sacrifice to save others, were very infrequently thinkers and most often people with a stronger institutionalized set of values that made them act otherwise and according to what they considered ordinary norms, is ignored in the film. Only the thesis that evil arises from mechanical obedience by people who fail to think critically, reflectively and against the grain is suggested, but not by our witnessing such an event, but because we are told that this is the case. And because Arendt and Blücher are presented as cases in point, though what we actually witness is a stubborn unwillingness to consider other positions and weigh them fairly. Instead strong opinion against the current is seen as the sole representation of authentic thought with no evidence that non-conformist thought is the precondition of dissident action against organized evil.  
In the clearest failure of the film, the flashbacks to her love affair with Martin Heidegger (played by Klaus Pohl) and her re-union with Heidegger after the war when he never answers the question she poses to him why he became a Nazi, but instead mouths the romantic cliché that thinking is a “lonely business” and such real pretentious philosophical banalities that “we think because we are thinking beings” when, in reality, thinking is neither a lonely enterprise nor an activity exclusively reserved for humans and incumbent on humans to express their humanity. Thinking is a communal task of give and take, empirical testing and assessing consistency and coherence. Given that von Trotta buys into the Heideggerian conceit, thinking becomes identified with puffing endlessly on cigarettes and blowing smoke, with silent intensity and staring inwardly. We are not propelled into thinking with her but thrown into the illusion of thought. We are not forced to confront our own rigid beliefs but to accept hers as the only authentic ones in contrast to the dogmas and sentiments of those around her even though, ironically, her thoughts are just expressed as opinions and never as conclusions to the evidence before her or the results of arguments in which she was engaged. We only get the bottom line and the illusion of a process. Thinking is portrayed as arrogant assertion in the face of opposition. In this view, those who profess to believe in aliens visiting earth, as long as they accompany such expressions of belief with staring emptily, lying on a bed and blowing smoke, will be granted the status of great thinkers.
The conception of Eichmann as a man incapable of thought is translated into the idea of the "banality of evil". It is not clear whether the idea came from Carl Jaspers, her mentor and old friend, who for some inexplicable reason is not in the film, or whether her husband planted the idea in her head. Carl Jaspers first raised the idea of the banality of evil before Eichmann was even captured. As he wrote in a letter to her at then end of 1960, "we have to see these things (the murders by the Nazis) in their total banality (Banalitat), in their prosaic triviality, because that's what truly characterizes them." Arendt, in turn, suggested to Jaspers that her husband had characterized the type of evil perpetrated by the Nazis as a superficial phenomenon and that he had inspired her to adopt that as the sub-title of her Eichmann book. (Young-Bruehl, 1982, 330) But just as Hannah Arendt did, Margarethe Von Trotta ignores any references to the actual historical record.
Hannah Arendt had dedicated her book The Origins of Totalitarianism to her husband, often expressing the opinion that it was to him she owed a huge debt, not merely for his support but for his ideas. "The banality of evil" was a very enchanting but a terrible idea, but you would never know it from the film where the enemies who assault her, the New York intellectuals (Lionel Abel in his review in the Partisan Review and Norman Podhoretz in "Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A study in the Perversity of Brilliance," 1963 in Commentary) in a presumable re-enactment of the famous meeting sponsored by the magazine Dissent at the Hotel Diplomat are turned into blithering idiots mouthing clichés. (See also Gertrude Ezorsky’s “Hannah Arendt Against the Facts,” in the Fall 1963 issue of New Politics and the correspondence between Lionel Abel and Tony Judt in The New York Review of Books.) Many of her academic colleagues turn against her, not because they find the concept as empty as its literal meaning, but are portrayed as stiff-necked dogmatic rednecks that make Adolph Eichmann look like the epitome of flexibility and litheness as they simply respond to the negative vituperation of the organized Jewish community.  (For an historical account and explication of that reaction, see Peter Novick (2000) The Holocaust in American Life.) Even her long term oldest friends and fellow "yekkes", Hans Jonas in New York (played with great heart and craft by Ulrich Noethen) and Kurt Blumenfeld (played with even greater sympathy by Michael Degen), finally literally turn their backs on her as she is accused of being a self-hating Jew. For the biopic, Hannah Arendt, is a portrait of betrayal, not Eichmann`s and the Nazi`s, but of the betrayal of Hannah Arendt by those intolerant of original thought in their desire to protect Jewish sensibilities. In that sense, von Trotta follows totally into the footprints of her main protagonist.
In the penultimate powerful grand finale scene where Hannah Arendt defends her interpretation with passion, vigour and intellectual acuity, the mindblinded academic colleagues walk out and even Kurt Blumenfeld insists that this time she went too far, but the rapt students in the audience applaud with mesmerized entranced looks. I watched that scene and asked how could I have been one of those students fifty years ago? If I had been there, I would certainly have applauded with even more energy than they even demonstrated. After all, in 1962, I had visited the New School with a view of possibly studying with her as a PhD student only to learn that she was not available. I did not learn until later that she was on leave working on the Eichmann book. 

Why was I even more enchanted by the idea of the “banality of evil” than the idea of “radical evil” she had propounded in The Origins of Totalitarianism? In Religion within the Limits of Reason, Immanuel Kant had depicted radical evil as a “natural propensity”, based on imperatives that dictate maxims that run contrary to law. But Adolph Eichmann repeated and repeated the claim that he performed his deeds because he was obeying the law with no special animus towards the Jews whatsoever. In the last frames, we see Hannah Arendt muttering to herself that her critics were not only wrong, but failed to note her one intellectual error, the recognition that evil could not be radical but was just so ordinary and puerile. As Hannah Arendt had written to Gershon Scholem, “It is indeed my opinion that evil is never ‘radical’ that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the entire world precisely because it is spread like a fungus on the surface or, in the metaphor Blücher bequeathed to her, like a bacterium. It is ‘thought defying’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’. (Young-Breul, 1982, 369) In other words, not only was Eichmann’s actions banal, not only was the execution of the Shoah by all the Nazis banal, but evil itself was banal precisely because it was characterized by Arendt as being without thought.

To grasp what she means, go see Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing which portrays the militia leaders, the politicians, the military leaders, but primarily the ‘gangsters’ (translated by them as meaning free men) who perpetrated the genocide of one million ethnic Chinese identified with the communist opposition to the Sukarno dictatorship in Indonesia. These genocidaires make a film re-enacting their acts of murder as well as their fantasies of freedom and happiness all based on borrowed Hollywood images filtered through an Indonesian sensibility. Told from the perspective of the victimizers who willingly re-enact their ruthless crusade of torture and murder, the film is unique. These mass murderers engage in rhapsodic fantasies of colour and pleasure and sensuous richness on an immense but totally amateurish scale that stand in such contrast to the black and white horror of the murders in the Lodz ghetto or their own massacres of the ethnic Chinese. Like Schindler’s List, in which Ralph Fiennes plays the Nazi war criminal, Amon Goeth, with such intensity and villainy as he cold bloodily shoots Jews from his balcony overlooking the Lodz ghetto, this is not the evil of ogres of villainy nor the banality of evil as the mechanical workings of a thoughtless bureaucracy supposedly epitomized by Eichmann, but the escape from boredom of fantasists addicted to hedonist pleasures.

The theory that evil portrayed as an absence of self-reflection and thought characterizes not only these three versions of genocidal behaviour, but all genocidal actions and even all evil acts, is obscured in the film where the common interpretation is adopted that only the mechanical and bureaucratic production of death as epitomized ostensibly by Eichmann is characterized as banal, an understandable confusion given Hannah Arendt’s own conflicting writing on the subject.

This interpretation is reinforced by Adolph Eichmann’s effort to portray himself in his trial, at least those parts of the trial that Hannah Arendt actually sat through. He was just a part of a bureaucratic system in which he followed orders. In 1963, Jacob Robinson prepared a six-page summary for his journal, Facts for B’nai Brith documenting Hannah Arendt’s errors and omissions. Later, as Deborah Lipstadt documented in The Eichmann Trial with much greater thoroughness and scholarship, Arendt missed those parts of the trial where Eichmann bared his fangs, revealed his deep-seated anti-Semitism and the tremendous initiatives he took in ensuring that Jews were dispatched to their death with as much efficiency as he could muster. Historical scholarship has established beyond a doubt that Adolph Eichmann was a vicious anti-Semite and a relentless and enthusiastic advocate of Jewish extermination who expressed the opinion in Argentina that his only regret was that he failed to kill even more Jews. But, of course, for Hannah Arendt, in the spirit of her mentor, Martin Heidegger, this is not by definition “thought”. Thought is not hypothetical and instrumental, but categorical and concerned only with itself. Thought is defined as intellectual masturbation without any need to have intercourse with the world to test its consistency and empirical grounds.

Facts! Who needs facts? Once Hannah Arendt conceived an idea, that was the fact. She might assert at one point her most controversial claim that the cooperation of the Jewish Councils with the Nazis in the bureaucratic organization of the death squads that took place with very few exceptions was the worst sin of the Holocaust or, in one extreme interpretation of the sentences from Arendt, even of Jewish history, or later that this was the action of a minority without pausing to note the contradiction, but when challenged whether by her critics or by William Shawn himself (Nicholas Woodeson) when he sat in awe of Hannah Arendt and challenged the verity of such an assertion, he was summarily put in his place for this was not an interpretation but a fact. Why? Because she asserted it!

The New Yorker bits offer the one humorous relief in the film when the editors are considering Hannah Arendt’s offer to cover the trial. William Shawn’s assistant, Francis, (Megan Gay) is unimpressed by the offer – “Philosophers don’t make deadlines,” she quips – but the young intern in the office, who turns out was Jonathan Schell, pipes up in youthful intellectual awe, “But she wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism“. The movie could have used a bit more comic relief.

For Hannah Arendt, the two great evils of the modern age were racism (and its kissing cousin, nationalism) and bureaucracy. As she wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Two new devices for political organization and rule over foreign peoples were discovered during the first decades of imperialism. One was race as a principle of the body politic, and the other bureaucracy as a principle of foreign domination. Without race as a substitute for the nation, the scramble for Africa and the investment fever might well have remained the purposeless ‘dance of death and trade’ (Joseph Conrad) of all gold rushes. Without bureaucracy as a substitute for government, the British possession of India might well have been left to the recklessness of the ‘breakers of law in India’ (Burke) without changing the political climate of an entire era.” Arendt went on to charge the pairing of racism with bureaucracy as responsible for the genocide of the Hottentots and Leopold II of Belgium’s responsibility for the crime against humanity in the Congo.

The “fact” that neither Leopold II’s international benevolent committee for the propagation of civilization among the people’s of Central Africa (the Association Internationale Africaine (AIA) or the African International Association) that so informed George Orwell’s understanding of doublespeak, and that Leopold quickly transformed into his personal exploitive development company as he was named by the 1884 Conference of Berlin as the Roi-Souverain of the newly formed Congo Free State or État Indépendant du Congo allowed Leopold to rule by decree (such as making all unregistered private property or vacant land as his personal domain or introducing the Force Publique to enforce “order” ostensibly to stifle the Arab trade in slaves but constituting a private mercenary militia to recruit and control corvée laborers), Congolese workers were now reduced to serfs, an event captured so creatively in Joseph Conrad’s 1902 classic Heart of Darkness. Sir Robert Casement in his 1900 report to the British Foreign Office did not mince words. The exploitation and suffering and mass killing of the Congolese was not the result of an Indian-like bureaucracy or thoughtless behaviour, but the deliberate product of greed reinforced by modern arms and a mercenary military regime. In his famous words, “The root of the evil [in the Congo] lies in the fact that the government of the Congo is above all a commercial trust, that everything else is orientated towards commercial gain.”

Not bureaucracy but greed uninhibited by the rule of law lay at the root of that exploitation, murder, death by disease and starvation that devastated the Congo. But Hannah Arendt was a political “thinker” in which thoughts and a grand idée fixée rather than a petite idée became incontrovertible facts rather than interpretations immune to refutation by picayune details or actual empirical data. (See Adam Hochschild (1998) King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.) Congo rule, in empirical fact, was not based on a bureaucratic hierarchical organization of trained professionals and specialized officials governed by administrative rules and the control of information whether efficient or byzantine. In empirical fact, Leopold’s organization never consisted of more than 200 officials. Arendt had bought into Blücher’s Marxist conviction that the bureaucracy is the state which has made itself into civil society.

The movie begins with a brief re-enactment of the capture of Adolph Eichmann on a rural road in Argentina as the Mossad agents pile Eichmann into the back of a large truck leaving only the lit flashlight he was using lying in the dirt. For a more or less accurate picture of the capture, a viewer could watch the documentary that mixes interviews and historical footage with re-enactments in the 2010 documentary, Eichmann's End: Love, Betrayal and Death. The film, Hannah Arendt, is a biopic that leaves out interviews in favour of re-enactments or even imagined scenes that never took place. One would never know from the latter film, but could learn from the former, that Adolph Eichmann belonged to a group of unrepentant fanatic antisemitic Nazis who dreamed of vindication. Nor would one learn of the close collaboration between a Frankfurt prosecutor and the Israel's Mossad, as well as the chance flirtation between one of Eichmann's son and Silvia Hermann, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, enabled that capture. 
The false note also ends the film when in a wholly imagined scene, Israeli Mossad agents accost Hannah Arendt on an American country road and demand that she abandon her plans to publish her book on Eichmann because such a book would hurt the victims of the Nazi Holocaust a second time. Arendt rejects the plea and walks off, leaving totally unexplained why a team of Mossad agents would be needed to deliver such a plea and jump out of a car to do so except to portray the snake`s tail in the serpent`s own mouth to bring the end back to the beginning of the movie in a repetitious “walking my lonely road” scene. Except in Argentina, the men overpower Eichmann with physical force and violence. In America, Arendt overpowers the Mossad agents with the power of words and the impression of an argument. Unlike Eichmann, Arendt is not an ordinary unthinking being but an extraordinary female intellectual beneath whom men must grovel.  Here, she stands up to the Mossad agents and tells them off; they slink away, grumbling impotent before the truth as Arendt quips that Israel must now be very rich since it could afford to send four men to deter her will to publish the book. The arc is completed but with a clear even if unintended anti-Semitic stench. 
The movie is an aesthetic circle and a tautological expression of a point of view. When Hannah Arendt was a Zionist in the thirties and worked for a German Zionist organization, she became close friends of Siegried Moses. As a member of the government at the time of the Eichmann trial, he did contact Hannah Arendt and even met her in Switzerland to try to convince her not to go ahead with the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem as a book. But this scene went far beyond poetic license in recapitulating that meeting. It is a calumny that reinforces this brilliant film as philosophic porn and completely unjust, unfair, lacking in understanding and critical comprehension of the core intellectual issues.
But this film is not about Eichmann's betrayal and execution but about the loyalty of HA's close entourage including her husband and Mary McCarthy (played with extraordinary conviction by Janet McTeer) as an exemplification of von Trotta`s theme of sisterhood and Hannah Arendt`s intense sociability and loyalty to friends superimposed by a fusion of European superior worldliness  - you don`t have to marry all your lovers Arendt tells McCarthy. McCarthy and Arendt banter back and forth, not about ideas, but about husbands, lovers and infidelities. Though Alfred Kazan, Hans Morgenthau, Irving Howe, Robert Lowell, Bruno Bettleheim and Raul Hilberg (then the foremost scholar on the Holocaust who first offered the critical but more judicious and scholarly critical rather than moralistic and judgemental comments on the role of the Jewish Councils) stuck by and even defended her, I was unable to spot them in the film though I am sure some of them were there. But movies demand such economies and shorthand representations. The film has to be recognized as creatively bringing Hannah Arendt`s thinking and writing back into the mainstream and making it accessible, but only by following in the footsteps of her brilliant predecessor, Leni Riefenstahl, and producing a brilliant piece of hagiography. Margarethe von Trotta was the first woman since Riefenstahl to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Riefenstahl won for her 1938 film, Olympia.
A subsidiary theme inadequately examined is Arendt`s view of the role of the Jewish Councils in cooperating with the Nazis although this, according to the film, was the central issue that alienated Arendt from the Jewish community, especially the charge made without any empirical evidence that more Jews would have been saved had the Jewish leadership refused to offer any cooperation. “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” For a far more insightful cinematic representation into that aspect of the issue, see Claude Lanzmann`s new film The Last of the Unjust as Lanzmann interviews Benjamin Murmelstein in 1975 when he was beginning his project on Shoah. Lanzmann headed a Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto and was the only Jewish leader in such a position to survive the genocide. Ironically, he was also the only Jewish leader who sat next to and worked with Adolph Eichmann and who could have been used to test her hypothesis. Lanzmann reveals that characterizing these leaders as collaborators, whatever their failings, was a big lie. Unlike Eichmann who is portrayed by Arendt as being caught up in the wind of the Nazi process passively, Arendt portrayed these leaders as actively selling out their fellow Jews when they wanted to protect Jews and totally opposed the Nazi ideology. Unlike Eichmann, they were truly powerless to resist. But, unlike Arendt herself even after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Murmelstein was treated as a real pariah by the Jewish community because Hannah Arendt merely reflected the conventional but unarticulated and erroneous conviction of the Jewish community, especially the Yekke Jewish community, that these leaders had betrayed the Jewish people. 

Living in her grand apartment on Riverside Drive in Morningside Heights in Manhattan well south of the Washington Heights community where the New York Yekkes congregated, Arendt nevertheless remained a cultural member of the Yekke community-in-exile who spoke German at home and remained faithful to German culture as the core of inherited civilization and the exemplification of intellectual virtue. Yekke is a Yiddish expression itself possibly derived from the Rheinish term for a mad fool, an intellectual court jester. (See Stephen M. Lowenstein (1989) Frankfurt on the Hudson: The German Jewish Community of Washington Heights, 1933-1962, its Structure and Culture; the book ends with the period in which Hannah Arendt was writing her book.) Hannah Arendt was a Yekke to her core and arrogantly looked down upon the eastern Jews who she alleged exemplified servility in the face of the Nazi onslaught, forgetting that as a German Jew she was only saved because she could flee in 1933 and they could not in 1941, that she was saved by the efforts of those such as Albert Hirschman, Protestant activist bystanders and the Jewish community.

However, Hannah Arendt, while extolling the virtues of intellectual independence, turned her back on another Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, mending the world and actually serving and working for the marginalized and oppressed as she did in the thirties. As her friend, Gershom Scholem, who found her book on Eichmann “heartless” and “malicious”, wrote: “In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahabath Israel, or Love for the Jewish people. In you, dear Hannah, as in so many intellectuals who came from the German left, I find no trace of this.”

Von Trotta captures Arendt`s rebuttal to Scholem in her arguments with Jonas and Blumenthal when she expresses the feeling that she only feels for individuals and friends not for a people. Love for any collectivity is repudiated, even when that love leads to saving the lives of individuals who are strangers. The dictum to love the stranger as oneself is a foreign and alien concept to her even though it lay behind the effort to save her life in France and bring her to America. 
A glance in passing is also paid in the film to her perhaps most controversial claim about the purpose of trials in dealing with crimes against humanity and the nature of justice. Reference is made to her view (and that of Blücher) that criminal trials have to focus on the acts of individuals not on putting history on trial. Blücher states: "You can't put history on trial. You can only try one man." Justice is about the actions of singular individuals and hints are made, but it is not expanded upon, of her actual loathing for the Israeli prosecutor, Gideon Hausner. Arendt in her book discusses at length her contention that the trial should not have been used to bring to public consciousness the horrors of the Holocaust, thereby converting a trial about the crimes of one individual into a show trial. The fact that the trial achieved that purpose, the fact that this biopic does the same for her own ideas, is simply left unexamined. For after all, thinking is not about the examined life but about the intellectually expressed life. What we do get is Hannah Arendt wandering around Jerusalem dismayed and bewildered by witnesses fainting and by Israelis frozen listening to their radios as they follow the trial proceedings. For von Trotta, Arendt will be accused of arrogance and emotional indifference, but in the film this stupefaction is portrayed as an act of intellectual courage by a woman unwilling to be carried away by the emotion of the moment.

One of my favourite films of all times is Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, even though the portrait of Oskar Schindler bears only a glancing overlap with the real historical figure whereas the Hannah Arendt of Von Trotta`s film bears a close resemblance to the real historical figure. Oskar Schindler, however, was not a Nazi business opportunist who underwent an epiphany as he witnessed the horrific clearing of the Lodz ghetto portrayed with such immaculate realism to become the saviour of 1400 or so Jews. His two best friends as a boy were the sons of the rabbi who lived next door. He was a spy for the Abswehr, the centre of anti-Nazi activity in the German admiralty. He was also a money runner for the Zionists who helped fund his business investments. He was always a philo-Semite. But you will learn none of this from watching the film which follows the tried and true format of Hollywood holocaust films that follow a Christian trope of villainy, revelation and redemption. Nevertheless, the film, in spite of its lack of reverence for anything but visual truth, offers a powerful portrayal of the Holocaust even if a very inaccurate portrait of a bystander who saved Jews.

This von Trotta film does the reverse, presenting a reasonably accurate portrayal of an individual as she appears (rather than as she thinks) while buying into her distortions and misconceptions about another individual, Adolph Eichmann, and her misunderstandings of the Holocaust. Both films have Hollywood endings, the survivors in Schindler’s List coming over the hill to arrive in the land of Israel. Hannah Arendt ends with Arendt’s triumphal speech at the New School defending her interpretation as her academic and perhaps too-Jewish looking enemies largely scurry away like intellectual cowards as her beautiful Aryan-appearing students applaud rapturously. Of course, von Trotta offered a similar Hollywood trope in her 2003 film, Rosenstrasse, where women save men from their intellectual folly. After all, the stuff of movies is made up of fantasies and not history and that is why, in the tension between aesthetics and truth, there is no recognition of how truth is betrayed in such films. In this failing, there is an even greater failure, the failure to connect the love of fantasy with the commission of crimes against humanity. 

Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind is a very different film, a biopic about a thinker, John Nash (played wonderfully by Russell Crowe), a Nobel Laureate and professor at Princeton renowned for his contributions to chaos theory and its application to cryptography and economics. It follows a standard trope of biopics in portraying creative brilliance as the protagonist wrestles with his inner demons, this time, not alcoholism or drugs but paranoid schizophrenia and the delusional episodes it often brought on. Like Schindler’s List, the movie was highly popular and won numerous academy awards – best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress as well as nominations for others. Further, Ron Howard’s movie was unique in actually providing an insight into the life of the mind of a creative mathematical genius even as it omitted key aspects of Nash’s personal life, especially his other family and his illegitimate son who are ignored in the film. Like Schindler’s List, whose epiphany takes place at the sight of the little girl in red in the midst of the clearing of the ghetto, an imaginary little girl, Marcee, who “never gets old”, provides the turning point for Nash to master and control his own delusions without the assistance of medication, a regimen that will help him live as normal a life as possible as he both lives with his delusions and imaginary foes to win the Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to game theory. Like Schindler, this is a movie about a hero.

In Hannah Arendt as presented by von Trotta we are presented with an idea as if it emerges as an epiphany from watching the supposed ordinariness of Adolph Eichmann when in fact the idea was already a preconception she already possessed and projected onto Eichmann. If Arendt and Blücher railed against the absolutist and essentialist tendencies in Western thought in which Hegel was purportedly its modern arch-enemy who inspired Stalin via Marx, there is no recognition either of the scholarly distortion of this interpretation just as there is no recognition that the ardent defence of an original idea and insight defended with passion as the most important expression of life was both at the core of the tradition they attacked without recognizing it and also a real betrayal of thinking where empirical falsification, attention to detail and contradictions are essential.

Here is how Blücher is portrayed in David Laskin’s book, Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals: “Blücher was every inch the self-made man, the man of the people, the outsider who thumbed his nose at received opinions as he beat a path to a higher, sturdier, strikingly original truth of his own manufacture. In the words of Alfred Kazin, the close friend of both Hannah and her husband, Blücher, the fantastic talker with a hypnotic style, is described in his diary as an unstoppable mental creature (who) orates without stopping in his living room on any `great thinker` who has aroused his attention–from Heraclitus to Joachim of Floris… shouting philosophy at you in the sweetest kind of way. . . . Heinrich is given to fantasy and exaggeration, noble lies about his military knowledge.” Like Arendt, he was indifferent to the virtues of accuracy in scholarship. (See their letters in Within Four Walls.) In a film about thought as critical reflection, the style of the film is of unreflective naturalism captured best by beautiful period twin sweater sets that Arendt wears while the ideas are broadcast like titles on a marquee.

It is a wonderful movie that brilliantly captures an aspect of Hannah Arendt, but if that was who she was, then I am even more puzzled by my youthful enchantment with her intellect. Fortunately for me, any simple rereading of her works proves she was much more intellectually interesting even if her take on Eichmann was both foolish and wrong and even if her idea on the banality of evil left only a residue of truth that most genocidal actual murders are carried out by ordinary people and not by mad demons. On the sub-theme of the tension between Hannah Arendt and the Jewish community, I await Michael Marrus forthcoming book on the lessons from history, particularly the lessons from the Holocaust. Was Peter Novick correct that Americans after first refusing to come face-to-face with the Holocaust because of the Cold War and a refusal to identify with victims, only came to accept the Holocaust in the aftermath of the Eichmann trial to organize support for Israel as the Holocaust became the emblem of historical Jewish suffering in the competition for victimhood as the mode by which Jews bought into Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment not to give Hitler a posthumous victory? Are Jews pariahs because they are Jews (and Zionists) or because, as Hannah Arendt claimed, they happen to be intellectuals? Or is being a pariah – ideological, national or intellectual – just their contemporary shtick? Does the Holocaust have any lessons to teach us?

The only certitude that I have is that the certainties that Margarethe von Trotta projects onto the screen and Hannah Arendt espoused on the subject were incorrect.