U.S. Intellectual History Blog

No Laughing Matter: Teaching Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem (Guest Post by Peter Kuryla)

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of four biweekly guest posts by Peter Kuryla.  — Ben Alpers

Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem is a hard book to teach. This is so for lots of reasons, chief among them the controversy that surrounded it. One can easily get lost in the space between what people said about it and what Arendt actually wrote. In his recent book Arendt in America (2015), Richard H. King does an admirable job of sorting through it all, giving the controversy some needed clarity. So rather than go back over the central features of the controversy, I’ll direct readers to Richard’s book and instead think some about what might be called Arendt’s comic affect in the text. I do mean “affect” rather than “effect” here. On certain occasions, Arendt saw something funny about Eichmann and his testimony. Precisely because her subject was no laughing matter, Arendt’s laughter matters. It raises some central difficulties for understanding the book and the controversy.

I had my students watch the Margarethe von Trotta film Hannah Arendt (2012) before reading the book, since it deals directly with the trial and the controversy. I’m still not sure if this was a good idea or not. Clambering up from the pit and scraping off the residue of Kafka, they were more than ready to watch someone champion “Thinking” with a big “T” in the way that Arendt does in the climactic scene of the film.  With few exceptions, they became Arendt partisans in much the way the filmmakers intended. While the film prepared them for the controversy, the book confused some of them. I suspect one difficulty had to do with style. For students unaccustomed to reading reasonably complex nonfiction, Arendt’s sentences, some of them long and involved, contrasted unfavorably with Kafka’s simple, direct sentences, a feature that people tell me holds up in my English translation.

Nor were they prepared for an Arendt who, because she knew her Kafka so intimately, recognized the comic horror in a Nazi bureaucrat like Adolf Eichmann. Lest we make a mistake some of her less discerning critics did, sensing some bizarre defense of Eichmann in the book, I should mention that Arendt’s Eichmann was by no means an everyman, Kafkaesque hero in the mold of even a Josef K. in The Trial. Pulling a quote from an essay Arendt published on Kafka all the way back in 1944, Eichmann resembled not the heroes but the officials or functionaries in Kafka’s novels, those  “jobholders…who live in complete identification with their jobs.”[1]

Arendt puzzles over what sort of strange person or rather nonperson Eichmann is. If one characteristic of a human being is the ability to think, then Eichmann seems untroubled by that basic requirement. This recalls Arendt’s description of Kafka’s functionaries back in 1944:

They have no psychological qualities because they are nothing but jobholders. To err is to lose one’s job; therefore one cannot even admit the possibility of an error. Jobholders who society forces to deny the human possibility of erring cannot remain human but must act as though they were supermen. All of Kafka’s employees, officials, and functionaries are far from perfect, but they act on an identical assumption of omnicompetence.[2]

Arendt doesn’t mention laughter in that article, but surely the comedy in Kafka comes somewhere in the space where the hero, with what she call his “good will,” encounters this or that functionary’s obscene penchant for rule-following, and by expressing his confusion, exposes the lack of any human purpose in the machinery itself.

The problem in the early 1960s was that Eichmann had a factual existence and his actions had a history. That was no joke. This made him different from the “models” or “blueprints” that Kafka set up. (Arendt uses those terms, “model” and “blueprint” in the 1944 essay, which recalls my notion of “set-up” from the previous post.) That is, Kafka wasn’t concerned with “reality” as such; he built models to expose the workings of the bureaucratic machinery. These models created occasions for dark comedy. While Arendt most certainly dealt with reality less than twenty years later with the Eichmann book, she nonetheless had a trial to report, and trials are a kind of model or blueprint of reality.

Maybe the contrived space of the trial occasioned the comic interventions. The Eichmann that emerges in the book is a mediocre person with very few ideas of his own, a braggart who worried over career advancement first and foremost. The chapter where Arendt first points out the terrible comedy in Eichmann has a deadpan title, “An Expert on the Jewish Question.” Eichmann, of course, was no such expert, but merely what passed for one in the Nazi bureaucracy, having read a few books on Zionism, along the way learning “a smattering of Hebrew.” The word “expert” belongs in scare quotes. Arendt suggests Eichmann’s ridiculously inflated sense of his own competence.

When trying to account for Eichmann’s troubles with language, Arendt really gets going. She writes,

The German text of the taped police examination…each page corrected and approved by Eichmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist—provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny. Some of the comedy cannot be conveyed in English, because it lies in Eichmann’s heroic fight with the German language, which invariably defeats him…But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.[3]

Arendt details some of Eichmann’s more egregious misuses of stock German phrases, only to conclude that what the judges saw as “empty talk” derived not from his tendency to lie, but from something much worse, “The longer one listened to him the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely related to his inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else” (49).

Eichmann’s attempts to elicit some sympathy for his obsessive careerism thus collapsed into terrible, Kafkaesque humor: “What makes these pages of the examination so funny is that all this was told in the tone of someone who was sure of finding ‘normal, human’ sympathy for a hard luck story” (50). The whole thing was just too much for her.

After teaching The Trial immediately before Eichmann in Jerusalem, it’s difficult not to read an Arendt who champions those few common, Kafkaesque heroes who appear on the witness stand in the book, those people of good will simply baffled at the horror of the machinery, those who exposed its sinister workings by simply exerting their will as persons, as humans who create their own worlds. She puts it best in perhaps the most moving section of the whole book, at the end of a chapter on “Evidence and Witnesses.” Challenging the notion that in a totalitarian state, resistance was practically useless because people simply disappeared, making even a martyr’s death impossible, she writes, “The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story” (232-2). So much for Kafka’s functionaries and their inability to err.

After an extended exploration of multiple themes related to the case, Arendt’s Eichmann meets his end on a comic note. She describes the “grotesque silliness of his last words”

He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläubiger, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: ‘After a short while gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.’ In the face of death he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows his memory played him the last trick; he was ‘elated’ and he forgot that this was his own funeral (252).

The famous last phrase in the book amounts to a terrifying coup de grace for the horrible comedy of Eichmann’s last words: “It was as though he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us—the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” (252).

Arendt’s laughter confuses us because it draws the reader into vexed questions about just what she means to do in the text. Arendt insisted, outlined in her Postscript to the 1963 edition, that the book was merely a “trial report.” That is, she contended that she merely meant to document what transpired, to report the facts of the case. She even compared herself to an historian writing a monograph (282).

From where then, did the comedy originate? Can we locate its source? I don’t think there is any clear answer to this question. Was it from the distance that historians establish when they write their narratives? This opens up her critics’ accusations of empyrean detachment or haughtiness, or even worse, a lack of sensitivity. Or, did the comedy come from what Henri Bergson once called “a kind of freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers, real or imaginary.”[4] That is, did her laughter come because she understood the horror only too well? (After all, she did experience statelessness, escaping from Europe and the clutches of the Nazis early on in the war.)

If so, who was her intended audience, whom did she expect to be in on the joke and why? Obviously, many of her fellow intellectuals in New York didn’t find anything funny about it at all. Did she miscalculate by expecting that her audience would share in her dark laughter? When many of them didn’t, she found herself in pretty exclusive company. And in an awful irony, American Jewish intellectuals, although lacking her experiences with the Nazis, nonetheless accused her of a German-Jewish elitism similar to what she had condemned in the pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Maybe like one of Kafka’s heroes, she was a person of good will who simply got overwhelmed when trying to think for herself.

[1] Hannah Arendt, “Franz Kafka: A Reevaluation” Partisan Review (Fall 1944), 412-422. Online at http://www.bu.edu/partisanreview/books/PR1944V11N4/HTML/index.html#412

[2] Arendt, “Franz Kafka,” 417.

[3] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin, 2006), 48. Succeeding references to this text appear in parenthetical form. All emphases in italics are Arendt’s.

[4] Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (Macmillan, 1911), 6.