Students, professors, and Middletown residents gathered from Thursday, Sept. 26 through Saturday, Sept. 28 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hannah Arendt’s most famous work, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”
Director of the Center for the Humanities and Professor of History and Letters Ethan Kleinberg, Associate Professor of German Studies Ulrich Plass, and Assistant Professor of Government Sonali Chakravarti organized the conference to offer different perspectives on Arendt’s most controversial work.
Arendt was a prominent political and philosophical thinker of the 20th century who was sent to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker. Upon returning to the United States and while in residence at Wesleyan’s Center for Advanced Studies, she compiled her articles into a text that discusses the nature of evil and political society.
Plass elaborated on the nature of Arendt’s work.
“It’s not straightforward political theory because it doesn’t actually give you a theory of justice, but it’s a text that’s interested in how you can account for something that is radically new in a terrible sense,” Plass said.
He also explained the reasons why the text remains relevant in today’s culture.
“Questions of crimes against humanity are unfortunately still very topical, and we don’t really have an effective way of adjudicating it, and we constantly have this crisis because we don’t quite know what to do,” Plass said. “It’s unfortunately something that hasn’t gone away with the end of the Second World War.”
The conference was hosted by the Center for the Humanities (CHUM) in Bennet Hall, the Center for Film Studies, and Russell House, among other locations. It featured a variety of panels discussing Arendt’s controversial conclusions about the “banality of evil.” Many prominent scholars participated in conversations about everything from understanding Arendt’s conclusions about evil to judging crimes against humanity in the present day. The event was offered for free to all students, teachers, and community members, and registration was not mandatory for panel attendance.
Chakravarti explained that the panels challenged the attendees.
“Many of us know the text quite well, and there are these set things that we say about the text about the banality of evil, about who Eichmann was,” Chakravarti said. “These panels are really asking us to look a second, third, tenth time at the text and uncover what Arendt meant from a slightly different perspective and not become complacent of the Eichmann trial.”
The conference opened on Thursday evening with introductions by President Michael Roth and Director of the College of Letters Kari Weil, as well as a keynote lecture about the nature of the text.
“At this conference we have a chance to stop and think together about some [of] the most pressing issues in political philosophy,” Roth said in his introductory speech.
The keynote speech, given by Director of the Einstein Forum Susan Neiman, discussed Eichmann’s nature and how evidence that has arisen since the trial, such as a series of letters written by Eichmann, challenges Arendt’s conclusions.
Ari Ebstein ’16, who attended the keynote speech, commented on how it affected his view of Arendt’s work.
“It called into question whether [the banality of evil] is a real phenomenon,” Ebstein said. “A lot of people said Arendt got Eichmann wrong, but the phenomenon is real. But Arendt is not interested in theories…. She’s interested in fact, in an observable phenomenon. She wants to say the banality [of] evil is not a theory; it’s a fact that’s clear to anyone who saw Eichmann at the trial.”
The conference also included two screenings of the film “Hannah Arendt,” directed by Margarette von Trotta, which tells the story of Arendt’s trip to Jerusalem and the controversy that arose from her report. The showing on Friday night was part of the Wesleyan film series and included a question-and-answer session with the co-screenwriter, Pam Katz P ’16. The second screening was followed by a discussion with several renowned Arendt scholars about the film representation.
Sonya Levine ’17, who attended one of the screenings, found that the film changed her perspective on evil.
“I never known the perspective that people operated and functioned out of loyalty and sticking to command rather than [having an] evil ideology,” Levine said. “[The film] totally changed the way that I look at the Holocaust. I’ve only ever been taught that it was evil, pure evil, and out of blind devotion, but it’s a lot more intricate than that.”
The final panel of the event focused on Arendt’s time at the University. Several of her former students and colleagues attended the conference to reflect on her as a thinker and teacher.
“I think what this conference has that most conferences don’t have is this sense of the thinker as a person,” Chakravarti said. “We’re getting that through this film or through people who knew her, students who really immersed themselves in her life and her work. It feels not just like a celebration of ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ but a celebration of Hannah Arendt as a thinker.”