This is What Thinking Looks Like (Günter Gaus Interviews Hannah Arendt) (1964)

arendt trust arendt blinks

I just saw Barbara Sukowa play Hannah Arendt in Margarethe von Trotta’s film. (And no, Arendt’s ideas did not “change the world.”) Not terribly happy with the film, I went to look for the real deal and found this old 1964 interview from West German television, with English subtitles. The transcript of the interview with Günter Gaus was published in German, and then as “What Remains? Language Remains” in The Portable Hannah Arendt. I usually don’t like Youtube clips of talks by or with famous philosophers, but this one’s transfixing. Here is what thinking looks like. It’s slow and deliberative, not sharp and declarative, moving in circles, not straight lines.

You can see the interview at:

The interview ranges broadly. There’s Arendt’s talking about the difference between philosophy and politics, about gender and philosophy. There’s her disdain for others, in particular her disdain for intellectuals, her disdain for philosophy and philosophers, as well as testy and defensive remarks about the Eichmann controversy, and the warmest words of love for Jaspers. She touches upon assimilation, anti-Semitism, Auschwitz, Germans and Jews and Judaism before and after the war. There’s a little bit about Zionism and Israel, but more about Germany and German. The interview concludes more philosophically with remarks drawn from The Human Condition. Expressed in tribute to Jaspers, they relate to worldliness and unworldliness, public self-exposure, risk and the starting of things, action and the network of relations, and then, and then, to the ultimate importance of trust, of trusting human persons.

But something doesn’t quite jibe, and you’ll see it in the interview, a painful disjoint between Arendt’s remarks relating to The Human Condition versus those relating to Eichmann in Jerusalem. About the Eichmann controversy, Arendt is not entirely persuasive, responding as if the problem was a problem of tone and false accusations. There is something sharp and closed in her judgments about Eichmann and the heads of the Jewish Councils that is at odds with the more open spirit that animates The Human Condition. It’s the one false note in the interview, this stubborn refusal to even understand the contours of the provocation she provoked. At issue was not so much the lack of love for a people, but rather the merciless moral substance of judgment by which she judged Eichmann one way and the heads of the Jewish Councils the other way. What I don’t myself understand here is this. Say what you want about them, the heads of the Jewish Councils tried to act politically situation of extremis for whatever combination of motives. They made what Arendt calls, speaking elsewhere in the interview about other things, a “venture” (in German, Wagnis, namely the kind of venture or wager involving risk, hazard, and chance). It’s a venture, one that could only have gone terribly wrong, but one that she should have understood more clearly and with a little more sympathy, by the measure of her very own thought. But she didn’t, and you wonder why. I think it has more to do with shame than with “self-hate.”

Watching the interview, as opposed to reading the transcript, you can see the strain as a contradiction begins to expose itself. In the interview, Arendt’s more general remarks about the Holocaust, the political, and those bitter words about the Eichmann controversy come first. What follows is peculiar. There are warm words about what she pictures as the intimate old worldless, i.e. apolitical Jewish world that existed just prior to the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. And then come those words from The Human Condition that touch upon trust as the basis of politics and the human condition.

But that’s what makes no sense, because the former comments about trust stand in direct contradiction to what she herself says, what she herself knows about Auschwitz. This goes much deeper than the precariousness of the human condition, as since theorized by Judith Butler. For Arendt, Auschwitz outstrips political enmity. She says this in the interview. The Holocaust would represent the abyss and abjection that grind trust and the human condition into dust. Auschwitz throws the human condition into complete confusion. If you ask me, there’s no judgment, not of Eichmann, and not of the heads of the Jewish Councils that can sort this out, restore the polis and politics, “the world,” this “space of appearance,” and make it right.

And then you see it. This is what thinking looks like. After that last word, there’s silence, absolute silence. The camera continues to roll for about 8 interminable seconds. Arendt sits there motionless, as if struck dumb. Her eyes just blink, and her mouth saddens. There’s this sense of having stumbled into something deep, counterintuitive, and true about the human condition, counterintuitive and painful because it makes no sense in relation to the Holocaust and to Eichmann and the heads of the Jewish Councils. That’s the very last we see of Arendt in the film, her face and the image of her face, the human condition. The director then cuts to the music and to the closing credits. And you just sit there, amazed at and unsure of what you have just been given to see, the moving image of a thought, at what by now is a 50 year interval in the privacy of your own home.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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13 Responses to This is What Thinking Looks Like (Günter Gaus Interviews Hannah Arendt) (1964)

  1. efmooney says:

    Zak, I find this very moving. I mean your careful moving back and forth, struggling to make sense of a woman who is surely extraordinary yet, as I picture it (not yet having seen the interview– I will tomorrow) is so very vulnerable for all her strength. (Past 30, she never sat in a restaurant without a view of the front door, having had to escape through a ladies room transom as gestapo entered in Germany — and having to be just as alert for escape routes in Paris.) She was a marvelous friend of a friend of mine, Glen Gray, a post-war acquaintance of Heidegger and translator. In her letters to Gray she speaks of a bright young man named Caputo, whose Heidegger work should be encouraged. Her strength and anguish so movingly conveyed by your response to the interview remind me of Robert McNamara who at the end of “The Fog of War” nearly crumbles, his lined face crushed under the pressure of knowing the folly and evil of an Iraq invasion yet remembering his championing the carpet bombing of Japan and Vietnam — not knowing how to reconcile his sense that he did what he did, and that he is not evil, and yet what he did was evil. The agonized, silenced, crumpled face of a 90 year old super-brain and Kennedy whizkid, there, agonizing over the world his grand kids will inherit. Somehow it seems to map on the agonized silence you report, Arendt leaving a darkening screen and our hearts (my heart) darkened. (I’d call it an image of agony, not of thinking, but . . .) My own take is that she thought SOMETHING other than the cliches of moral outrage should attach to the Trial — though I’m sure something deeper than outrage boiled and ate like acid. Yet then she fell into a trap of exposition of something beyond exposition and then got defensive and defensive about her defensiveness. She must have known that her pique and counterattacks were ill-suited, in ugly bad taste, even as she became haughty and condescending in self-defense — in a way her friends never saw her. You capture all that, to my ear, very movingly, poignantly, Zak. We should judge her harshly and gently and not at all. Thus are we silenced by the enormity of what she has been witness to, tries to expose, and succeeds and fails to speak and bespeak — as both a great and a terribly fallible woman.

  2. evanstonjew says:

    I find the hesitation to condemn Arendt for her book on Eichman troubling. At the time the intellectual world was divided. I remember it as a big deal. But since then we have learnt much more about her personal life…how she remained attached to Heidegger throughout her life, how the attachment was more than just an admiration of his philosophy, early or late, and how she did apologetics on his behalf to rehabilitate his reputation. A women this close to an important unrepentant Nazi should never have accepted the assignment from the New Yorker, or at least publicly acknowledge her love affair and continued attachment to Heidegger. She was not an impartial observer. Had the NY intellectual world known back then all that we know now, no one would have defended her.

    • efmooney says:

      I agree that whatever Arendt says about Eichman should be open to scrutiny. In the film Zak slides our way, she denies the common charges against her, but we can fact-check that. However that check turns out, what should be at issue is the book and its claims, not the person. Her personal life was certainly much more that a connection to Heidegger. She married an anti-Nazi, and a close American friend after the War was a battle-seasoned veteran. A public life emerges from her private one that overshadows whatever that personal life may have contained. After all, she worked tirelessly (and unsuccessfully) during WWII for the formation of a Jewish army to fight against the Nazis. She worked in Berlin against the Nazi’s risking her life. And after her arrest by the Nazis there, and and her subsequent illegal flight, without papers, to Paris, and then to NYC — she worked full time for Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, getting the papers, getting them relocated, and was in no sense “soft” on Nazi ideology or atrocities. Her romantic association with Heidegger, begun as a student long before Hitler’s rise, shouldn’t blot out her brave and committed anti-Nazi labors.

  3. evanstonjew says:

    Timothy Snyder has written an important essay with great significance for this discussion. He gives multiple reasons why German Jews had a very different understanding of the Holocaust and why the Arendt-Hilberg framework is inadequate.

    • efmooney says:

      Snyder’s essay is masterful. But he relies on a contrast between seeing the destruction of German civilization through virulent antisemitism as a ‘morality tale’ told by outsiders lamenting the destruction, and more nuanced accounts where ‘insider’s stories, from German Jews and non-Jews, would play a part. The question then becomes, is Arendt an insider or an outsider? To my ear, she’s clearly both. —

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  6. Guido says:

    To my eyes, it looks like you are reading the “disjoint” into Arendt simply because you agree and like with some things she said, but find others objectionable, perhaps to the point of incredulity. In the interview, and in her writing before and after Eichmann, I see no such disjoint. Her relative “condemnation” of the Jewish councils is wholly compatible with her view of politics and responsibility. She may have had her facts wrong (which I don’t know as I am no historian), but that is another issue and has nothing to do with the supposed disjointed character of her position.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, Guido. The disjoint as I saw it was not between HA’s views on the Judenrat versus responsibility. The disjoint that I saw was in the interview itself. This is the one between the kinds of claims made about the political in reference to her remarks about Jaspers versus what she said about the Holocaust in the same interview, which were far less irenic.

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