Several years ago, browsing through a bookstore in New York City’s East Village, I came across a Penguin paperback copy of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. This is Hannah Arendt’s controversial report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the horrific Nazi leader responsible for logistically orchestrating the transport of European Jews to the Nazi concentration camps. Arendt captured the courtroom drama first in a series of articles for The New Yorker, and then in the book published in 1963. Her conclusions about Eichmann caused an uproar, to put it mildly, and they still do for her depiction of the cruel Nazi as an ordinary person acting thoughtlessly in the comfort of conformity, instead of as an incomprehensible monster.
I never got through this book. Two times I tried. It’s not that the material was too harsh, or difficult. In fact, I couldn’t figure out why I kept putting it down, but now I think the reason is that I didn’t know enough about Hannah Arendt as a political theorist. I didn’t know where her thinking and her life had been before the publication of the book. All I knew was that she was a famous philosopher, a Jew who escaped Nazi Germany and someone who had a love affair with Nazi sympathizer, German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Now having experienced New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein’s graphic biography, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, I have a wider view of Arendt and her thinking.
Even as a young girl, as portrayed by Krimstein, she is obsessed with knowledge, getting herself expelled from high school for organizing a strike against stupid teachers:
“I have to think and think, but I put in the time and the work because I need to know. To understand. But nobody notices how hard I work. No. They just see how smart I’m supposed to be so they get all envious.”
She attends the University of Marburg where she studies with fellow geniuses under the tutelage of the famous Heidegger who tells her:
“You know as well as I do, if it is the truth you seek, you must expend everything you have to seize it.”
She goes on to associate with fine minds – painters, musicians, theorists and filmmakers. With Albert Einstein, she discusses the meaning of life. Constantly she ponders the “one universal answer to understanding”.
As Nazi power increases, she flees Germany to Paris, where after a short stay, she must again run for her life and finds her way to Lisbon, the last exit from Europe, and then to America. Her brilliance continues to shine, and she gains a place at the table of New York intellectuals, such as literary critic and teacher Lionel Trilling, poet Delmore Schwartz and art critic Clement Greenberg.
In mid-life, Hannah Arendt publishes her greatest work, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Next comes The Human Condition (1958) and then Between Past and Future (1961). In 1961, the trial of Adolf Eichmann begins. Krimstein illustrates Arendt calling her husband from Jerusalem, saying:
“If we turn Eichmann into a demonic monster, we somehow absolve him of his crime, and all of us of our potential crime, the crime of not thinking things through. The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
Illustrations are black and white, except for a brilliant green that is given alone to Arendt, marking her as the center, the stand-out, the one whom we are to keep our eyes on. The caricatures cleverly capture Arendt heavily smoking and the famous people interacting with her. Philosophies and theories are explained with accessible understanding.
I’m not an expert on how graphic books are rendered, that which is excellent and that which is flawed, but I can say the experience of reading Hannah Arendt’s story in this captivating graphic biography has elevated my knowledge about her life and work in just the way I needed it.
At the end of the book, Krimstein offers a suggested reading list. It includes Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which he describes as, “whatever you think of her actual conclusions, a masterpiece of political journalism …” That’s why I want to read it. Also, it’s time to understand the banality of evil.