Friday, January 25, 2013

Eichmann in Jerusalem

And now for something completely different. (By which I mean; OMG NOT ABOUT RUNNING)

Earlier this week I decided that I needed to go to the opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival's Women in Film mini-Festival. Why? Because they were showing the new movie Hannah Arendt. And, because I have a not so slight obsession with Eichmann in Jerusalem left over from grad school. What? Not everyone used a quote from Eichmann as the title of their dissertation? The rest of you aren't enthralled with Arendt's description of the stateless person as "an anomaly for whom there is no appropriate niche in the framework of the general law’ – an outlaw by definition?"

Actually, as my chemistry major roommate pointed out, most people haven't heard of Arendt or Eichmann in Jerusalem, her book about Adolph Eichmann's 1961 trial for crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity. He would have been tried at Nuremburg, had he not escaped to Argentina, and was later tracked down, kidnapped, and taken to Israel by the Israeli security services to stand trial. Eichmann was convicted and executed.

In grad school, we talked a great deal about the Eichmann trial in the international law, and particularly transitional justice, context. What is a show trial? What purpose do these war crimes trials serve in post-conflict reconciliation processes? What is justice? Plus, the whole idea of the "banality of evil" is absolutely fascinating.

I returned to the book because I was writing my dissertation on statelessness and, in particular, on the use of statelessness as a tool to create a dangerous class of "others," whom the state can then attack, as an enemy, at will. Arendt discusses the Nazi use of denationalization as a precursor to the Holocaust (" could do as one pleased only with stateless people; the Jews had to lose their nationality before they could be exterminated") - my work was to show that citizenship law and denationalization continue to be used in this way. I thought (and think) that as long as states are allowed to think of the stateless as "outlaws by definition," that this mindset creates a fundamental barrier to solving the problem of statelessness. I'd also like to point out that I wrote about statelessness before it became the trendy new thing in human rights law!

Anyway, that's a long-winded way of saying that OBVIOUSLY I was the perfect target audience for Hannah Arendt. I loved it and I'd really love to see it again (DVD, perhaps?). It was 75% in German, 25% in English (quite a lot of the movie is set in New York). I loved that it put Eichmann in an entirely new context for me. I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't know anything about Arendt's personal life, nor the controversy that surrounded the book's publication (or the New Yorker articles that it was based upon) - although, it seems painfully obvious to me now that the book is packed with controversial ideas, particularly about the Holocaust. I also loved that they used historical footage from the trial. I think it had so much more of an impact than recreating those scenes would have done. And, SO creepy to see Eichmann in close-up. The photo of him in my brain is the one from the trial on the book's cover and it's a distant shot.

I had to wonder what it was like to watch the movie without having first read the book. It's been years since I read it (although, I'm obviously reading it again now), but at least I have that background and a firm grounding in the language of international law theory. Would it have been too overwhelming? Or is there enough of a story about Hannah Arendt, the woman and figure of controversy, to make it perfectly accessible? I'd be interested in other views. I will also note that I thought the actress who played her was extraordinary. Apparently both the leading lady, Barbara Sukowa, and director, Margarethe von Trotta, are extraordinarily famous in Germany, but I don't know any of their work.

Gratuitous shot from the balcony in
Bulgaria where I finished reading EIJ.
Finally, I will note that I left with a burning desire to reread Eichmann in Jerusalem. I am a strong believer in the idea that books will mean different things to you at different points in your life. In 2006, I was an idealistic graduate student thinking about pirates and outlaws and stateless people and HUGE questions about justice and international law. I focused on the idea of the trial and the Nazi system of denationalizing most of the European Jewry. Now, I'll completely admit, I'm really interested in rereading about Eichmann the bureaucrat. In my day job (the one I don't talk about), I'm a bureaucrat, too. And sometimes, I really have to take stock and remember that I have to do my job with empathy for the people I serve, because it's so hard to walk that fine line between becoming immune to the humanity of the people whose lives I impact and becoming so immersed in that humanity that I wouldn't be able to do this work with the objectivity it requires. I don't want to be Eichmann, who claims he mere obeyed orders and followed the law, but I also have a duty to the law (which, thank god, is generally not terrible - I'm not comparing it to Nazi law, to be perfectly clear here). And I think it's far more difficult to watch out for our own (my own) unkind impulses when evil is so frighteningly banal.