With an edge of the flu on the way, yesterday I decided to take it easy and watch a DVD about the philosopher Hannah Arendt. When it finished, I switched back to ‘TV mode’ and immediately my screen was flooded with images of the late-Lady Diana, and her voice. It was the documentary Princess Diana: In her Own Words.
While it would be ridiculous to try and distill the meaning of either of these great women’s lives, or their values into ‘one’ idea, last night, it seemed one particular message, was coming through with loud sirens and clanking tins. It was in the way that the same phrase or words were repeated several times, as though the universe were ‘knocking’ on my head to pay attention. So, although groggy, I did listen, and now dutifully document the message.
The message was….. the important of being human…
Hannah Arendt’s coverage of Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial
Hannah Arendt, (1906 to 1975) was interned in France during the Nazi occupation for being a Jew, but luckily escaped being sent to an extermination camp.
One of her most famous works is The Origins of Totalitarianism. This DVD captures the story of when she went to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, and her subsequent controversial report: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
The DVD shows a lot of footage from the actual trial, which people all over the world watched intently. Watching Eichmann himself sitting in a bullet-proof glass cage, giving his testimony is bewildering. He is extremely honest and at one stage, when prosecutors are struggling to believe him, he protests very strongly and says something like:
“Hey! I promised I’d come here and tell the truth, and this is it!”
“His” truth is that he was just following orders. He did not personally kill any Jews. His loyalty was to the law. He was a bureaucrat whose job was to arrange the transportation of Jews to extermination camps, where he knew they’d be killed, but he didn’t see this as his choice. He saw it as a decision of The State, and felt no personal guilt.
Otto Adolf Eichmann 1906 – 1962
In reflecting upon this, Arendt poses that ‘evil’ is not what people expect it to be – some big conspicuous monster-like person or event, but rather presents itself when people stop being ‘human.’ That is, they absolve themselves of attributes which make us ‘human’ – as distinguished from a ‘machine.’ That is, the ability to ‘think;’ to independently consider right and wrong; or feel empathy.
Ironically, what caused Arendt the greatest backlash from this article was her other historical reflection – that some Jewish leaders failed to display ‘civic courage’. I say ‘ironic’ because it was this judgment that was regarded as being ‘in-human’ and without compassion. It was decried as a betrayal of Jewish people and as victim-blaming.
As the storm broke, Arendt explained that Nazi Germany saw the total decay of the moral fabric of society. When once there was an ethical code, “do not kill;” in this warped reality “do not stop killing” OR “kill” became the law – and also the new ethical code. This societal moral decay, she said, is what allowed masses of people to act in the way that Eichmann did.
She proposes that it affected not only the perpetrators but the victims too because it distorted the way people thought. Those Jewish leaders who, as a survival-based mechanism, may have tried to cooperate with the Nazi’s, (and I don’t know enough to know whether this is true or not) in Arendt’s view, also acquiesced to a new moral code where they also abdicated their humanity.
I can understand the backlash against this, as it seems to lack a “human” understanding of the realities of how brutal Nazi power worked. Speaking up may have meant immediate death, while some ‘cunning’ negotiation may have saved some lives. It is very complex. Perhaps she is right, this was the final act of brutality; forcing people to choose between either dying, or living – but living with less of what makes one ‘human’ in the first place – less of one’s humanity.
It seemed strange as this grim DVD finished, that my screen was immediately lit up with pictures, and the voice, of the late-Lady Diana. But what a relief!
Diana, Princess of Wales
“She was just so human” … British citizen in documentary…
How she struggled, how she overcame. She cried, she fainted, she got up. In the face of the bureaucratic machine-cog machinations of Monarchy duty, she didn’t acquiescence her humanity. She had been sold a lie – she was picked as a virgin bride (of suitable breeding) to be the Princess, even while Charles was involved with Camilla. She called out the lie; re-affirming good ‘human’ values as she did so. Yet for this she faced ostracism from many within the Monarchy and much criticism.
She role-modelled caring and compassion – that it is ‘right’ to show caring to AIDS or land-mine victims. She did this before others did. She was a leader, she showed the way. She showed that being human hurts at times, – you feel things, you may get attacked for speaking up, that it is devastating to be betrayed. But through that pain and storm she moved to more strongly stick to her values – to retain her humanity. In the documentary, she credits this as her greatest achievement, to keep going – with good actions – despite attack and slander.
Hannah Arendt wrote about it. Dianna did it. Staying ‘human’ in the face of inhumanity and cruelness, (which may not appear as overtly ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’ on the outside, only as accepted procedures and norms) may be one of the strongest and most courageous acts of all. “How?” to do it? Listen to your heart, as Roxette sings. Forget ‘labels’ like “left” or “right.” Just be human. It may be the life-raft that keeps us all afloat.