A Review of Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview & Other Conversations

Anna Clark
Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview & Other Conversations
By Hannah Arendt
Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2013
144 pages. $15.95 (paperback)
Book cover image

In the “Last Interview” series, Melville House Publishing collects the final public conversations of the world’s most interesting thinkers. In slim, well-designed editions, Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, and Roberto Bolaño are among those asked provoking questions about their life, their work, and the modern moment. The most recent addition to the series — and the first to feature a female thinker — is Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview & Other Conversations.

It’s been a big year for Hannah Arendt. The political theorist is most famous for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, the classic that celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year, spurring no few reviews and revisitations, as well as an award-winning film.

Eichmann in Jerusalem was based on Arendt’s five-part series for the New Yorker about the trial and conviction of Josef Eichmann as a Nazi war criminal. In the book, Arendt contends that many villains of Nazism, like Eichmann, are not to be understood as evil monsters — indeed, that gives them too much credit. Instead, they were petty bureaucratic functionaries, too stupid to think for themselves, and so, not sophisticated enough to have a real opinion about Nazism.

This argument, paired with Arendt’s highly intellectualized tone, rubbed many readers the wrong way. One interviewer in this collection asks Arendt: “Is the criticism that your book is lacking in love for Jewish people painful to you?” She who had escaped Nazi Germany herself as a young woman, after being arrested for collecting anti-Semitic statements made by officials, faced charges of being a “self-hating Jew” for the rest of her life.

The Melville collection brings together four expansive and — in contemporary American terms — astonishingly in-depth television interviews from the twilight of Arendt’s career. There is the final one from 1973 with Roger Errera, a French journalist, who offers a short introduction on his acquaintance with Arendt, who died in 1975. There is also a 1970 interview with Adelbert Reif, and two from 1964 with Günter Gaus and Joachim Fest. All four are translated from the original languages, and appear with notes that give context to the jokes, references, and asides. All four interviewers are intimately familiar with Arendt’s writing, meaning that the collected conversations don’t waste time with prattle. They get right in the muck: politics, revolution, oppression, cruelty, Watergate, totalitarianism, the Pentagon Papers, Jewish culture, socialism, assimilation, the anxiety of influence, and being multi-lingual are among the many subjects Arendt digs into.

I admit that when I first paged through the book, I wondered if the first three interviews weren’t so much padding: a way to give artificial heft to the tantalizing hook of Arendt’s “last interview” — when, perhaps, her final interview wasn’t all that interesting. In fact, this is a thoughtfully edited collection. The “other conversations” are intriguing in their own right, and meaningful nuance comes through the juxtaposition. Subject matter sometimes overlaps — several times, Arendt is asked by interviewers if she might want to soften her argument from Eichmann in Jerusalem — but it does not feel redundant. The different approaches Arendt takes in responding are revealing.

Here is one way she explains her take on Eichmann:

You think that you can judge what’s good or evil from whether you enjoy doing it or not. You think that evil is what always appears in the form of temptation, while good is what you never spontaneously want to do. I think this is all total rubbish, if you don’t mind me saying so. Brecht is always showing the temptation towards good as something that you have to withstand. […] So Eichmann and many other people were very often tempted to do what we call good. They withstand it precisely because it was a temptation.

And later:

(A)s is well known, Eichmann said, “Remorse is for little children.” No one expressed remorse. On the other hand, we should imagine that when nobody expresses remorse, there ought to be at least one person who stands up for his actions and says, “Yes, actually, we did do it, for this and that reason, I still think the same way today. We lost. Whether we won or lost doesn’t affect the cause itself.” In actual fact, the case collapsed like a wet dishrag. And nobody did stand up. Nobody put forward any defense. And this seems quite crucial for the phenomenon you touched on just now — obedience. Don’t you think? In other words: they just wanted to go along.

Particularly fascinating is Arendt’s analysis of leftist student movements, which she discusses in the latter interviews. In America, where Arendt lived for more than three decades, she admired campus-based organizing that challenged segregation, racism, labor practices, and other injustices. As she saw it, this was

… the first time in a very long while a spontaneous political movement arose which not only did not simply carry on propaganda, but acted, and, moreover, acted almost exclusively from moral motives. […] It turned out that acting is fun. This generation discovered what the eighteenth century had called “public happiness,” which means that when a man takes part in public life he opens up for himself a dimension of human experience that otherwise remains closed to him and that in some way constitutes a part of complete “happiness.”

Arendt’s multicultural background and broad knowledge open the way for her to make fascinating comparisons between the leftist movement in America with its counterpart in other regions, and across time. Classical history is liberally cited in these interviews as a counterpoint or comparison to modern politics. Arendt was critical of overly intellectualized activism in her native country: “When American students demonstrate against the war in Vietnam, they are demonstrating against a policy of immediate interest to their country and to themselves. When the German students do the same, it is pretty much as with the shah of Persia; there is not the slightest possibility of their being personally held to account.” Meanwhile, in South America and Eastern Europe, she notes that “the protest movement is not directly dependent on the universities” and is instead more grounded in concrete experience and has “a large part of the population” behind it.

In short, for a 133-page book written in Q&A style, there is an amazing amount of wisdom here. Arendt’s ideas may provoke, and she sometimes grates with a certain self-satisfaction at being an intellectual, but there is no doubt that she is profoundly thoughtful, informed, honest, courageous, and — the most important gift of all for a thinker — curious. Reading her Last Interview, it’s difficult to not be inspired to cultivate those qualities in oneself.

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