Hannah Arendt – Beyond the Movie

Ladislau Dowbor (1)
March 14, 2014
The film causes an impact. The central point of the thought of Hannah Arendt is to reflect on the nature of evil. The background is Nazism, and the trial of one of the greatest evildoers of the time, Adolf Eichmann. Hannah followed the trial for the New Yorker, hoping to see the monster, the murderous beast. What she saw, and only she saw, was the triviality of evil. She saw a bureaucrat concerned with following the orders, for whom these orders were a  substitute for reflection or any other thought except that of carrying out the orders. A technical rationale, divorced from ethics, a triviality that makes life so much easier, the easiness of following orders. The analysis of the trial, published by The New Yorker, brought about scandal, particularly among the Jewish community, as if she were acquitting the defendant, pardoning monstrosity.

The triviality of evil, however, is the crux of the matter. My father was tortured during World War II, in southern France. He was not a Jew. Furthermore, by speaking so much about Jews and about the Holocaust whose tragic dimension can no one will deny, one forgets that this war killed 60 million people, including 6 million Jews. The persecution reached the left in general, union leaders or activists of all nationalities, besides Gypsies, homosexuals and all that smacked of something different. The fact is that the issue of torture, extreme violence against another human being, influenced me ever since childhood, although I was unaware that I would one day be submitted to it. Were those who tortured my father, monsters? There could even be a particularly perverted tormentor, taking pleasure in the suffering, but overall,   they were men like the other men placed under conditions of generalized violence, trivialization of suffering, in a process that brought to light the worst there is in many of us.

Why is this so important and why is the message of the movie authentic and significant? Because the monstrosity is not inherent to the person but inherent to the system. There are systems that trivialize evil. This implies that the really meaningful solutions, those which protect us from totalitarianism,  from the right of a dominant group to  rule  over the life and suffering of others, are in the structuring of legal processes, institutions of a democratic culture that allow us to live in peace. The greatest danger and evil are not the existence of the mentally ill who enjoy the suffering of others – for example some skinheads setting a poor person sleeping in the street,  on fire for no reason, for fun – but is  the systematic violence exercised by trivial people.

Among those who interrogated me at DOPS (Brazilian political police at the time) in São Paulo, I met a police agent who had studied at “Colégio Loyola” of Belo Horizonte, where I had studied in the 1950s, a school of Jesuit tradition, where one was taught to love one another. I found him a normal person, who explained to me that by extracting more information he would be promoted, and he explained the levels of possible promotions. Apparently he wanted to progress in life. I met another, a violent Northeastern ex-gunman, who obviously considered torture a commonplace thing that certainly had been part of his life on the farms since childhood. Monsters?  They practiced monstrous things, but what was more monstrous was the ease with which violence is practiced.

A torturer at the OBAN gave me a large A – Z folder with copies of all the testimonials of my companions who had been tortured previously. His request was simple: since they did not want to have too much trouble, he asked me to look at the testimonials of others, and write mine confirming the truths, nonsense or lies that were written there. He explained that if I wrote a statement that repeated what they already knew, it would please the colonels who were reading testimonials upstairs (the colonels avoided getting their hands dirty), because they would see that everything was confirmed, although the things stated were absurd. According to him, if there were discrepancies, they would have to call back the prisoners who were already at the Tiradentes prison, to interrogate them until everything matched. He wanted to save work. Under torture, most people confirm anything.
He was not German. He followed the bureaucracy of the system. In the concentration camps during WW II, it was IBM that managed the screening and classification of inmates, then with punch card machines. In the documentary, The Corporation, IBM clarifies that it only provided technical support.


The evil is not in the torturers, but it is in the men with clean hands who create a system that allows trivial men to do trivial things like torture in a pyramid ranging from the man who dirties his hands with blood up to Rumsfeld who addresses a note to the American army in Iraq, requiring that interrogations be harsher, that is to say, more violent. Hannah Arendt was not pardoning torturers she was pointing out the real dimension of the problem, which is much more serious.


Understanding the systemic dimension of the deformities has nothing to do with patting the head of the criminals who agreed to carry out or who ordered the monstrosities. Hannah Arendt fully and openly endorsed the subsequent hanging of Eichmann. I am convinced that those who ordered, organized, administered and practiced torture should be tried and punished. In Brazil the very military conceded themselves amnesty, generously including the tortured prisoners. General amnesty for both sides, they declared.


The second powerful argument that emerges from the film comes from the hysterical reactions of Jews when she did not consider Eichmann a monster. Here, the issue is just as serious as the first. She was depriving the masses from the immense compensatory pleasure of the accumulated hatred, from the immense catharsis of seeing the culprit hanged. People had, and have today the right to this hatred.  The point here is not to delegitimize the reaction to the suffering inflicted. But the fact is that by removing from the executioner the feature of a monster, Hannah was taking away the taste of hatred, disturbing the dimension of balance and counterpoise that hatred means for those who had suffered. The feeling is understandable, but dangerous. It is even widely used in politics, with the worst results. Hatred, according to the goals may represent a fertile ground for those who want to manipulate it.


While in exile in Algeria, during the military dictatorship, I met Ali Zamoum, one of the great fighters for independence, who was tortured, sentenced to death and then saved by independence. Friends in the security of the new regime located one of his torturers on a hinterland farm. They took Ali to the farm, where he found a trivial idiot, terrified, in a corner. What would he do? Torture a torturer? He just left him there to be jailed and judged. General disappointment. I once asked Ali how he envisaged the mental disorders of the victims of torture. In his opinion, those who achieved a better  balance where those ,  who after independence, continued to struggle, no longer against the French, but  for the reconstruction of the country, for the  ongoing  battle  did not erase what  they had suffered, but  gave it meaning and reason.


In the 1984 by Orwell, officials were regularly gathered for a session of collective hatred. On the screen appeared the figure of a man to be hated, and everyone felt physically transported and upset by the figure of Goldstein. General catharsis. And to hate collectively is catching. We would be blind, if we today, remained unaware of the use of such procedures in multimedia shows. The Murdochs of this world are professionals.


The text by Hannah, pointing out a worse evil, which are the systems that generate monstrous activities by trivial men, simply was not understood. That educated and intelligent men are unable to understand the argument is by itself very impressive and socially powerful. As Jonathan Haidt says, to justify irrational attitudes, we invent rational or rationalizing arguments. (2)  In this case, Hannah would be against Jews, she would have betrayed her people; she had dated a teacher who became a Nazi. Arguments abound, as long as hatred is preserved, and with it the pleasant feeling of its legitimacy. The scary people who spread hate from high ethical grounds.

This point needs to be stressed. Instead of hating and fighting the system, which requires a rational understanding, it is much more emotionally satisfying to balance the emotional fragility that results from suffering, focusing the entire emotional load in personalized   hatred. And in the hysterical reactions and blatant deformities, by intelligent people, about what Hannah wrote, we find the search for emotional balance. Do not mess with our hatred. Large corporate groups that paved the way for Hitler, such as Krupp, or enterprises that automated the management of concentration camps, such as IBM, are thankful.

The film is a mirror that forces us to see the present through the prism of the past. Americans feel fully justified in maintaining a comprehensive system of torture – always outside the American territory, because it would cause certain legal annoyances – Israel created through Mossad the most sophisticated torture center, military and academic research centers today are developing  electronic and biological instruments of torture that outweigh in  pain inflicted all that  has been  invented so far. The NSA created a system of penetrating in all computers, personal messages and contents of telephone communications on the planet. Young Americans in Iraq filmed with their mobile phones the torture practiced in Abu Ghraib. They are young girls and boys, healthy, well educated in schools, and they find fun in filming what they do. In subsequent interviews, to say the truth, many were the young people who denounced the barbarism, or even refused to practice it. But they were the minority. (3)

The third issue of the film, and a central thought of Hannah, is the dehumanization of the object of violence. Torturing a fellow man clashes with ​​inherited or learned values. Therefore, it is essential that it is no longer a fellow man, a person who thinks, cries, loves, suffers. It is a Jew, a communist, or, in modern police jargon, a “perp”. In the view of KuKluxKlan, a Negro. On the international scene of today, the terrorist. On television programs, a fringe element. We even have fun, watching the persecutions live on TV. Are they human beings? The key is to stop seeing the victim as a human being, an individual, a person, and make it a category. Did they choke 111 prisoners in the cells? Well! Order had to be restored, and most of all, they were vermin, or something of the kind.


Sebastian Haffner, a law student in Germany in 1930, wrote a book at the time – Defying Hitler: a memoir – an abandoned manuscript, recently retrieved by his son who published it with this title. (4) The book shows how a middle class family student will adhere to the Nazi party, simply by pressure from peers, the media, the context, repeating messages with the masses. In the review I did in 2002 , I  wrote that “what should frighten in  totalitarianism,ian ideological fanaticism , is not  the  diseased torturer , but how normal people are drawn into  pathological social dynamics , viewing  them as a normal path.”  At that time, in Germany 50% of the physicians enrolled in the Nazi party. The next political fanaticism will not use a mustache or a boot, nor shout Heil as do the idiot skinheads. It will use a suit, tie and multimedia. And surely will seek to impose totalitarianism, but in the name of democracy, or even of human rights.


(1) Ladislau Dowbor is a full professor at PUC-SP, and consultant of several agencies of the United Nations. Author, among others of “Economic Democracy”, http://dowbor.org/09economicdemocracykd.doc and The Broken Mosaic (Zed Books). His texts are available in http://dowbor.org

(2) Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mindhttp://dowbor.org/2013/06/jonathan-haidt-the-righteous-mind-why-good-people-are-divided-by-politics-and-religion-a-mente-moralista-por-que-boas-pessoas-sao-divididas-pela-politica-e-pela-religiao.html/

(3) The best thing is to watch the movie.  Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, available in YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TpWQj0MjvI&feature=youtube_gdata_player  About the net of Death Squads and torture centers in Iraq see research by BBC in http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/06/pentagon-iraqi-torture-centres-link?INTCMP=SRCH

(4) Sebastian Haffner – Defying Hitlerhttp://dowbor.org/2003/08/defying-hitler-a-memoir.html/