It was 1961, and the notorious main architect outside of Adolph Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich, one Adolf Eichmann was on trial in the very new Jewish nation of Israel, a place founded in increments by Zionist guerillas beginning in the 1920s until British authorities lost control of the situation and the dam broke in 1948.
The rest as they say is history, history never dies, and it can cut both ways for everyone who was involved. History is full of contradictions because people are that way, and the world is what it is, say what you want. Almost unnoticed that year, after numerous rejections beginning in 1955, Raul Hilberg’s multi-volume The Destruction of European Jews was printed by an unknown publishing house in Chicago, Quadrangle Books. (1) Most everyone has heard of Hannah Arendt, but not many outside of those who have viewed Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985)
Time gains us perspective, and as every nation state is founded upon a layer of victim’s remains, an expected discovery was made in a dusty cemetery in May of 2013: in the Jaffa district of Tel Aviv, a mass grave of Palestinian skeletal remains was excavated from a subsidence—a hole opened up in the ground—containing as high as six-hundred corpses some with signs of violence to them. As far as anyone can tell further exploratory digging and a full accounting still has yet to occur. (2) What has really changed since the gates of Auschwitz swung open?
Those bodies were still rotting away underground while Hannah Arendt was in Israel covering the also televised trial—perhaps the first in human history—of an international war criminal a mere thirteen years after the slaughter in Jaffa and other locations the bodies having been crammed hastily into the vaults of Palestinian families. Eichmann, like many others had fled to South America and was granted citizenship under the assumed identity of Ricardo Klement and apparently worked his way up to being a foreman at a Mercedes-Benz plant. (3) Yes, by 1958, even the CIA knew that he was living openly in Argentina.
What is a hero? There’s a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson about heroes: “Every hero becomes a bore at last.”
There is a betrayal in story of one such bore, Hannah Arendt, and it is mostly well known—not by most of the public—but it is a settled fact: Arendt had plagiarized her key work on Eichmann, Jewish leadership under the Nazis, and totalitarianism, from another Jewish scholar, the late Raul Hilberg, the very first person to do a serious study of the Holocaust of European Jews.
Heroes are usually unknown to most people.
One could take numerous guesses as to why the legend of Arendt still holds, but it usually comes down to who gets their myth out first, and the internationally famous (and equally infamous) writer of Eichmann in Jerusalem (one of the specific books Hilberg found his own work in) and The Banality of Evil, I believe, knew exactly what she was doing when sometime in early 1959 she advised Princeton University’s publishing house not to print Hilberg’s then unknown study.
Two years earlier, Arendt had been asked by Princeton University Press to review the manuscript of The Destruction of the European Jews; she advised Princeton not to publish it. In a letter in her archives dated April 1959, which Hilberg himself discovered, Princeton editor Gordon Hubel thanked Arendt for her “invaluable assistance” and tried to assuage any guilt she might have felt about her decision: ‘after we had rejected this manuscript,’ Hubel confided, ‘we learned from Hilberg that he has $10,000 in financial backing toward the publication of this study, so I do not feel that our declining was in any way fatal to its eventual publication.’ (In the end, a $15,000 donation financed the book’s publication by Quadrangle.)
Not “fatal,” but they were kidding themselves about the morality of what she’d done, which is something many academics are known for when they routinely steal the work of others, usually their student research assistants. But both writers on the Holocaust held their own prejudices against Jews in the East, borne out in their subsequent work. It should be remembered, however, that Hilberg’s family had fled from Poland and Rumania to Austria. One treads on thin ice to call him one more “self-hating Jew” when he was championing the tenure of Norman Finklestein over a decade ago.
From Hilberg’s statements until his death in 2007, he felt that she looked at him similarly to the student assistant analogy: someone who had to do the heavy-lifting of actual research, a “worker,” an Austrian peasant of sorts, while she got the credit that was mostly due to him for her analysis and conclusions. There was a catch: Arendt took most of the hits, and she’d certainly earned them. At the same time, I believe that he viewed her as time went by as someone to avoid too much association with and that she’d accidentally helped him in the end; he would distance his conclusions from hers in his autobiography, which I’ve read along with Eichmann.
What would she have had to base her analysis from without his research? The “borrowings,” conscious and unconscious, would’ve rankled anyone to the point of yelling from the highest mountain, yet he only mentioned the Princeton editor’s letter after her death in his autobiography after coming upon it in her papers. No matter what anyone says, that letter and others, and her subsequent conscious and unconscious use of his findings, cannot be reconciled.
What does this do to her body of work now knowing that her work was tainted? It would be best to start at the beginning of Arendt the famous writer, but the rise was also gradual since she was well known for her reasonably late escape from Nazi-occupied Europe in 1940 and subsequent work trying to get more Jews out to safety and asylum. But most of that ended shortly after the war ended. There were refugees of every stripe sitting in camps in Europe well into the 1950s.
Also well known is the fact that Arendt studied under the legendary German philosopher Martin Heidegger during the 1920s. (4) To say that she was ambitious would be stating the obvious, and she was also twenty years older than Raul Hilberg, who was Austrian. Ageism, after all, goes both ways, but the likely added factor of northern German arrogance towards southern German Austrian speakers is, again, well known. (He too was possibly ashamed of his Eastern European background.) I think the factors of age, nationality, and social milieu would go a long way in explaining some of the reasoning behind what she later did to Raul Hilberg and what was a first momentous study by the late 1950s, rather than a popular catchphrase that catapulted her to fame, as well as infamy. But who blames people for the right reasons?
Both of their experiences during World War II were different: Hilberg was forced to flee Vienna around 1939, one of the fortunate few who arrived frightened children to the United States, somehow gaining legal entry at a time when it was difficult, but luck is luck, the Hilbergs had no strings to pull, and it has to be said that Arendt’s journey to North America during 1940-41was no less hazardous and difficult and was in fact worse at times; including Walter Benjamin, she lost numerous friends along the way and continued during the war in causes to free more European Jews. Hilberg did the same upon his arrival to Brooklyn, New York, without much to go on. Arendt, however, upon reaching NY State was given a great deal of support thanks to her credentials, which were solid thanks to studying under Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. In most areas of her life, she simply knew the right people. (Jones, ibid)
Hilberg would join the U.S. Army in 1944 serving until 1945 in a special infantry unit that eventually placed him in charge of Hitler’s personal library, an impressive feat for a young man in his twenties who had first struggled to survive in America to seeing European civilization in ruins and being on the other side of the push to Berlin. My own grandfather bore witness to it too.
What is Arendt’s legacy? The legacy of Hannah Arendt is spelled out on the foundation website and should be mostly familiar:
Arendt wrote intellectual history not as a historian but as a thinker, building upon events and exemplary actions to reach original and pregnant insights about the modern predisposition to totalitarianism and threats to human freedom posed by both scientific abstraction and bourgeois morality. (5)
These are lofty claims being made by her foundation.
During the war, Arendt wrote for various Jewish refugee papers and was also involved in the wartime call for the organizing of Jewish refugees into an army of their own in the fight. This mostly expressed itself later on in Aufbrau Jewish units with some women soldier units under British command in the Middle East. Hilberg himself simply went and enlisted. Yet, later, she wasn’t necessarily an historian or a philosopher, more often referred to as a “public intellectual,” which for me at least translates to a celebrity.
Both later American-Jewish scholars experienced the Nazi machine up close in its run up to the Final Solution and escaped. And so, Arendt wrote essays for emigre journals during the war as Hilberg fought his way with the U.S. Army across the river Rhine to the very end in Berlin, meeting Red Army troops who had made it there first. It’s one thing to sit back in “scientific abstraction and bourgeois morality,” quite another to face the death machine on the battlefield. The main battle is always going to be about the truth.
- Popper, Nathaniel. https://www.thenation.com/article/conscious-pariah/
- Milligan, Paul. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2334205/Mass-grave-uncovered-containing-dozens-Palestinians-killed-1948-war-founded-Israel.html
- Cavendish, Richard: https://www.historytoday.com/archive/months-past/adolf-eichmann-kidnapped-argentina
- Jones, Kathleen B. https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2014/marchapril/feature/the-trial-hannah-arendt
- Author unknown, Hannah Arendt Center “about” page: http://hac.bard.edu/about/hannaharendt/