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Film tells story of unconventional philosopher

By Kathleen McWilliams
On February 19, 2014

Following the theme of "Aftermath: Human Rights and the Consequences of War," the Human Rights Institute screened the film Hannah Arendt.
Those who have taken a European History class will remember Arendt as a philosopher whose unconventional ways of explaining the Holocaust shocked the world. A German Jew, Arendt relocated to France in the early days of the Nazi's regime and was interned there until she was granted an exit visa to the United States. While in the U.S., Arendt rose to fame as a scholar on remembering the Holocaust, not as an anomaly in human history, but as an event that was allowed to happen by ordinary people who did not resist. However, as Northeastern University philosophy Professor Serena Parekh said, Arendt's philosophies on the Holocaust, while considered unusual and insensitive at the time, were some of the first scholarship done in the field.
"After the Holocaust there was very little scholarship on it," Parekh said.
According to Parekh, Arendt was one of the first to fill that void with her first book, "The Origins of Totalitarianism." While this scholarly work attempted to explain totalitarianism, her most famous book that remains a bestseller, "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" made the most waves.
When Arendt learned that the Israeli government had kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, a former Nazi transportation official, in Argentina and brought him to stand trial in Israel, she asked The New Yorker to allow her to travel there and cover the story. The results of her reporting in 1961 were compiled into a 1963 book that defined her most famous principal, "the banality of evil."
"Adolf Eichmann was a completely unremarkable individual," Parekh said. "He never killed anyone; he claimed to have no anti-Semitic feelings."
Yet, as Parkeh pointed out, Arendt was sitting at his trial in a country that had not existed at the time that Eichmann was efficiently managing the German transportation system. Of course, in the 1940s the transportation system consisted of filling trains with Jews and sending them to concentration camps, Parkeh said. From her perspective at the trial Arendt began to see that the Holocaust did not happen because of Hitler's psychosis, but because people refused to think critically, to reflect and develop a conscious, said Parekh.
Parkeh explained how Arendt watched Eichmann's trial and formulated the "banality of evil" philosophy by asserting that Eichmann was not a monster and that the Nazi's could not have killed as many Jews had the Jewish elders not been complicit with the Nazis. While Parekh told students and faculty that these truths are painful, she also encouraged attendees to escape the limitations of how we understand tragedy.
"I encourage you to keep in mind how difficult it is to think about human rights in unconventional ways," Parekh said.
At the root of the film, Parkeh said, was the quest for understanding why the Holocaust happened and why it was allowed to happen.
The film was a beautifully created portrait of Arendt that focused not only on her discovery of the "banality of evil" but one her role as a female intellectual during the '50s and '60s. She is hindered by her husband's ill health, perturbed by a former lover becoming a Nazi apologist and yet she overcomes it all. The film depicts her sticking by her ideas, even when they were fervently challenged.

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