Unlearning with Hannah Arendt by Marie Luise Knott, book review: One woman's quest to understand Nazi horrors

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Reading about a white Englishwoman who apparently used to play in a punk band, converted to Islam, moved to Iraq and now dreams of sticking "Christian heads on spikes", Hannah Arendt's well-known phrase about "the banality of evil" comes to mind.

This woman's thoughts are clearly evil. At the same, they are hackneyed and imitative – as if she had condensed the scripts of a hundred dire horror movies before recasting herself as an Islamic version of Freddy Krueger.

Arendt employed the famous phrase about banality in her book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Now almost a cliché, it is easy to forget the storm it once generated.

As a former victim of Nazi persecution in Germany who had later worked for the Zionist cause in Palestine, many Jewish writers had expected her book on the trial to reinforce their own conviction that Nazism represented a radically new type of evil. To her own surprise, Arendt was unable to oblige.

Eichmann was not a demonic force but a buffoon, she concluded, who inhabited a thought world of platitudes. A banal obsession with process and following orders, not some special, radical type of evil, had enabled him to commit crimes on a massive scale. Arendt's critics had misunderstood her if they ever thought that her Zionist past meant she was going to play the part of the "good Jew" in approaching Eichmann's crimes. As Knott writes, she had "long since ceased to feel like a Jewish woman", seeing herself simply as an outsider.

The critics were also wrong in suggesting she minimised Nazi crimes. She disputed the characterisation of the crimes, not their extent. "It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never 'radical', that it is only extreme," she wrote. As Marie Luise Knott recalls, she did not reach this position without difficulty, however, as it involved "unlearning" almost everything she thought she had ever known about the Nazis – as well as disowning her own words in her earlier book, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Knott explores four fields in which Arendt "unlearned" the ideas she had inherited, the other three concerning forgiveness, translation and dramatisation. Most readers will probably find the section on translation the most accessible, because the difficulty of moving from one language milieu to another is easy to identify with. Arendt had never "felt like a German woman", she once wrote. Even so, years after moving to America, she still laboured to write in English. It was "incomparably easier to make a philosophical statement in German than English", she lamented.

This is a short, powerful book. Reading it is like drinking a very challenging espresso on an empty stomach; it delivers a kick out of all proportion to its size.

It is also timely. Arendt warned in the 1960s that the world appeared to be standing at one of "those decisive turning points of history which separate whole era from each other". Too true. In this new-old era of religious strife, those words, like many others of Arendt's, have lost none of their potency.