"If people think that one can only write about these things in a solemn tone of voice...Look, there are people who take it amiss—and I can understand that in a sense—that, for instance, I can still laugh. But I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a buffoon..."
Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, fell on the 27th day of the month of Nisan or in April this year. It begins at sundown and continues into the next day. A memorial to the six million Jewish people who were slaughtered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945, it is a time to call these events to mind and consider their continued resonance and relevance in our own dark times. How shall we, in the words of Hannah Arendt, bear the burden of such a past? With what attitude should such events be commemorated?
Fifty years ago, on October 28, 1964, a televised conversation between the German-Jewish political theorist, Hannah Arendt, and the well-known German journalist, Günter Gaus, was broadcast in West Germany. Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her controversial analysis of the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, had just been published in German in the Federal Republic and Gaus used the occasion to generate a “portrait of Hannah Arendt.” The interview ranged across a wide field of topics, including the difference between philosophy and politics, the situation in Germany before and after the war, the state of Israel, and even Arendt’s personal experiences as a detainee in Germany and France during the Second World War.
Already a cause célèbre in the United States the book had brought Arendt lavish praise and no small amount of damnation. What Gaus especially wanted to know was what Arendt thought about criticism levied against her by Jews angered by her portrait of Eichmann and her comments about Jewish leaders and other Jewish victims of the Holocaust. “Above all,” said Gaus, “people were offended by the question you raised of the extent to which Jews are to blame for their passive acceptance of the German mass murders, or to what extent the collaboration of certain Jewish councils almost constitutes a kind of guilt of their own.”
Gaus acknowledged that Arendt had already addressed these critics, by saying that such comments were, in some cases, based on a misunderstanding and, in others, part of a political campaign against her, but he had already crossed a contested border. Without hesitation, she corrected Gaus:
First of all, I must, in all friendliness, state that you yourself have become a victim of this campaign. Nowhere in my book did I reproach the Jewish people with nonresistance. Someone else did that in the Eichmann trial, namely Mr. Hausner of the Israeli public prosecutor’s office. I called such questions directed to the witnesses in Jerusalem both foolish and cruel.
True, Gaus admitted. He had read the book and agreed that Arendt had not made that point exactly. But, he continued, some criticism had been levied against her because of “the tone in which many passages are written.”
“Well,” Arendt replied, “that is another matter...That the tone of voice is predominantly ironic is completely true.”
What did she mean by ironic? “If people think that one can only write about these things in a solemn tone of voice.... Look, there are people who take it amiss—and I can understand that in a sense—that, for instance, I can still laugh. But I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a buffoon...” To convey the shock she experienced when, contrary to her own expectations, Eichmann “in the flesh” appeared to be more a clown than a monster, Arendt countered with a reverse shock, adopting a sardonic, unsentimental voice to unmask what she later termed “the banality of evil.” It could be read as her way to diminish the self-aggrandizement of the architects of the Final Solution to middling size. The trouble was she used this voice rather undiplomatically to describe not only Eichmann’s actions but also the complicity of others, including some members of the Jewish community she judged harshly for cooperating with Nazis. “When people reproach me with accusing the Jewish people, that is a malignant lie and propaganda and nothing else. The tone of voice is, however, an objection against me personally. And I cannot do anything about that.”
“You are prepared to bear that?” asked Gaus. “Yes, willingly,” Arendt claimed. What she had not anticipated was how unprepared many who read her were to take on this new shock of the “banality of evil” on top of the horrifying accounts of Jewish suffering conveyed at the trial.
In fact, “bearing the burden of the past,” thinking about the past in its morally perplexing and disconcerting entirety, was the focus of Arendt’s writing, from her earliest essays to her last. And in no case did this burden bearing affect her more personally than when she published Eichmann in Jerusalem. When she returned from a European trip taken for a needed rest soon after the book’s release, she found stacks of letters waiting for her. Some correspondents praised the bravery of her truth-telling, but the lion’s share found her book detestable. A few included death threats.
Was her refusal to concede that her “tone” had anything to do with the hostility the book generated merely a matter of sheer stubbornness? Or was the ironic tone itself emblematic of Arendt’s ideas about the danger implicit in thinking and the burden of responsibility that lay at the heart of judgment?
In the introduction to The Life of the Mind, Arendt offered this account of the generation of her controversial and still frequently misunderstood concept of “the banality of evil”:
In my report of [the Eichmann trial] I spoke of ‘the banality of evil.’ Behind that phrase I was dimly aware of the fact that it went counter to our tradition of thought—literary, theological, or philosophic—about the phenomenon of evil...However, what I was confronted with was utterly different and still undeniably factual. I was struck by the manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer—at least the very effective one now on trial—was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous...Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty of telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?...Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?
But, Arendt insisted, thinking’s ability to condition people against evil-doing did not mean “that thinking would ever be able to produce the good deed as its result, as though ‘virtue could be taught and learned’—only habits and customs can be taught, and we know only too well the alarming speed with which they are unlearned and forgotten when new circumstances demand a change in manners and patterns of behavior.” What cold comfort, then, this thinking business seemed to be, offering no guarantee that evil will be avoided and good prevail.
Arendt had removed the guarantee of absolute innocence and automatic guilt from the question of moral responsibility. What did she put in its place? The capacity to exercise an “independent human faculty, unsupported by law and public opinion, that judges in full spontaneity every deed and intent anew whenever the occasion arises.” And who evidenced this capacity? They were not distinguished by any superior intelligence or sophistication in moral matters but “dared to judge for themselves.” Deciding that conformity would leave them unable to “live with themselves,” sometimes they even chose to die rather than become complicit. “The dividing line between those who think and therefore have to judge for themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences.”
Nonetheless, Arendt’s tone made it seem as if she knew she would have acted more valiantly than those who cooperated with the Nazis. Outraged by her moral judgment of Jewish leaders many asked: Who is she to judge those who were forced to make difficult decisions and, in the interests of saving the many sacrificed the few? Arendt answered this question in a 1964 essay entitled “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” “Since this question of judging without being present is usually coupled by the accusation of arrogance, who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”
—Kathleen B. Jones
This Quote of the Week is adapted from an essay originally appearing in Humanities Magazine, March/April 2014.
“There exists in our society widespread fear of judging…[B]ehind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done…Who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”
-Hannah Arendt, "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship"
It’s difficult to know where to begin to counter the errors, misreadings, and plain obfuscations of Arendt’s point of view in this essay by Richard Brody that appeared a few days ago in The New Yorker online. But perhaps the most glaring mistake Brody makes is to confuse what Arendt wrote about “thinking” with some form of “intellectualism.” To begin with, when, in her interview with Gunther Gaus, she makes the point that it was the betrayal by “friends” that she found most shocking this is not because she thought only intellectuals could think or were the only ones to have “ideas” but that they “believed”—without thinking!—the very “ideas” they had fabricated, without considering where these “ideas” might take them. They were “trapped” in their ideas, which is why Arendt, in the same interview, refused to call herself a philosopher, cut off from the world, and insisted she was a political theorist.
Thinking depends on letting the imagination go visiting, and Arendt argued it was Eichmann’s inability to think from the standpoint of anyone else that made him “thoughtless” and hence become unable to distinguish right from wrong. But the same could be said, for different reasons, of the “intellectuals” Arendt referred to and said she’d found so grotesque in the interview with Gaus. And, whether you like where it took her or not, thinking from the standpoint of others was exactly what she practiced in the case of her judgment of the leaders of the Jewish Councils. She imagined they might not have cooperated. Yes, they faced “fear and despair,” as Brody notes, but Arendt imagined it was still possible not to comply even in the face of significant threats and consequences. And the historical evidence indicates this to be the case: not everyone complied.
Yet nowhere does Arendt claim the ability to judge a situation means I myself (or she) necessarily would have done anything differently. The most chilling conclusion she reached from her reflections on the trial is that there are no guarantees “when the chips are down” that I will know the right thing to do, and just do it. And it was her confrontation with Eichmann’s banality—not what he did, but who he showed he was, and “how many were like him” during this time—that led Arendt to warn near the end of the book that once such crimes had entered the human experience it is entirely possible that “similar crimes may be committed in the future.”
In an interview with Roger Errera, from which Brody also quotes, Arendt remarked that her intention was in writing about Eichmann as she did was to “destroy the legend of the greatness of evil. As she was thinking about this issue she said she’d “found in Brecht the following remark: ‘The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.’ " And her “tone” in Eichmann in Jerusalem was an attempt to do just that: expose the criminals to derision.
It was the banality of the criminals—not the crimes they committed—that gave Arendt such a shock she responded with laughter. And it’s a shame Brody doesn’t understand what this signifies: the humanization of perpetrators actually serves to humanize victims as well. She did not equate the responsibility of “persecutors and persecuted” for crimes committed by the Nazi state, as Brody claims. But not to allow victims and perpetrators to occupy the same moral universe is to traffic in the dangerous idea that guilt and innocence are not the result of human behavior but exist somehow independent of what people do.
Let me close with an excerpt from my new book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt:
Many people still find abhorrent Arendt’s claim that Eichmann, the man, was no monster. Everyone knows murder is wrong; certainly, then, murdering millions without a guilty conscience must be the classic example of monstrous behavior. Or madness. Surely only a monster or a madman could commit such heinous deeds. And that’s an understandable reaction. Most of us hold fast to a well-guarded belief that rules and standards used to tell right from wrong, rules we assume to be universal, cannot be easily discarded. Not I, we believers in our own inherent goodness insist; I would never comply with such an order. But Arendt wouldn’t let anyone rest on such a convenient way to avoid having to think for herself.
“The trouble with Eichmann,” she wrote, “was precisely so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied...that this new type of criminal...commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.
The idea that “an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong” defies any ordinary understanding of good and evil. And yet, Arendt observed, “without much notice, all [these rules governing right and wrong] collapsed almost overnight...What happened? Did we finally awake from a dream?” How had it become so easy for so many to behave like Eichmann and participate in carrying out these atrocities?
Arendt explained it this way: the Nazi state had generated a “totality of...moral collapse...in respectable European society—not only in Germany but in almost all countries, not only among the persecutors but also among the victims.” And at that sentence, many people throw her book across the room in disgust, perhaps missing the other point she made: not everyone complied with the system.
But Arendt’s writing has made me wonder why we need to believe a solid wall separates the performers of horrible acts from the rest of us? And what holds that wall in place?
“When I think back to the last two decades since the end of the last war,” she wrote in the mid-1960s, “I have the feeling that this moral issue has lain dormant because it was concealed by something about which it is indeed much more difficult to speak and with which it is almost impossible to come to terms—the horror itself in its naked monstrosity.” Trying to think the unthinkable—the horror of state-ordered, socially coordinated manufacturing of corpses in the twentieth century, or of other genocides in previous centuries and in this one—can take one’s breath away. Not even time’s healing power seems to bring relief.
[T]his past has grown worse as the years have gone by so that we are sometimes tempted to think, this will never be over as long as we are not all dead...This past has turned out to be ‘unmastered’ by everybody, not only the German nation.
Yet Arendt insisted on confronting those concealed moral issues even though they looked like “side issues...compared with the horror.” She pushed past the speechless horror to grapple with the moral implications of the “ubiquitous complicity” surrounding the Holocaust. Because not grappling with those implications would allow Eichmann to gain what the monk Thomas Merton, deeply influenced by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, would have considered a “posthumous long life,” making us all, like it or not, as Karl Plank observed in his essay about Merton, “vulnerable to complicity in deeds of destruction.”
-Kathleen B. Jones
“We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands...Thus it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship...But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse...The converse (in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world.”
-Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, p. 24
As the year comes to an end, in many English-speaking countries, including the U.S., Arendt’s adopted country, friends and neighbors may gather to sing Auld Lang Syne, the song adapted from the verse of Scottish poet, Robert Burns and traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight, as one year fades into the next. An evocation of memory, and times long ago, it resonates also with an image of a long-lasting friendship. So, in tune with the season, I chose for commentary an image of friendship Arendt crafted in her essay on Lessing, the opening piece in Men in Dark Times. “The essence of friendship consisted in discourse…concerned with the common world.”
Both memory and friendship are important themes in Arendt’s writing. “We can no more master the past than we can undo it. But we can reconcile ourselves to it. The form for this is the lament, which arises out of all recollection.” (Men in Dark Times, p. 21) Recollection, or remembrance, becomes, in Arendt’s view, a pathway to reconcile ourselves to what has happened. Bearing the burden of the past and the responsibility past events places on us meant, for Arendt, facing up to reality, no matter what it might have been.
When Arendt wrote about bearing the burden of the past she had in mind the terrible weight that the most momentous events of the twentieth century—the emergence of totalitarianism and the catastrophe of the Holocaust—had put upon the shoulders of modern humanity. In the aftermath of these events, we face new difficulties: “the bitter realization that nothing has been promised to us, no Messianic Age, no classless society, no paradise after death.” (Origins of Totalitarianism) Referring to this as humanity’s “coming of age,” she recognized that its first “disastrous result...is that modern man has come to resent everything given, even his own existence—to resent the very fact that he is not the creator of the universe and himself. In this fundamental resentment he refuses to see rhyme or reason in the given world.”
But remembrance does not so much dwell in the past as allow the possibility of action in the future through the cultivation of gratitude. The opposite of passivity, which is the unconscious reception of everything that happens, has happened or might happen, gratitude might be said to be the active acceptance of the chance I have been given to make some mark in the world within the endowment of time, however brief or long, I have to live in it. As Arendt wrote in Origins, “[S]uch gratitude expects nothing except, in the worlds of Faulkner--‘one’s own one anonymous chance to perform something passionate and brave and austere not just in but into man’s enduring chronicle...in gratitude for the gift of [one’s] time in it.’ ” And, in many ways, these words echo sentiments Arendt expressed in her doctoral dissertation: “[G]ratitude for life having been given at all is the spring of remembrance, for a life is cherished even in misery: ‘Now you are miserable and still you do not want to die for no other reason but that you want to be.’ What ultimately stills the fear of death is not hope or desire, but remembrance and gratitude.” The kind of friendship Arendt calls “political” (because of its concern with the common world) is the model for those relationships that facilitate remembrance and cultivate gratitude.
There were, in fact, two types of friendship in Arendt’s life--those that were most like her characterization of friendship in her portrait of Lessing in Men in Dark Times (quoted above), which she called “friendship among citizens,” and those she called “intimate.” Sometimes, but only rarely, the two types were interwoven in the same friend. Besides her relationship with her husband, Heinrich Blucher, Arendt’s friendship with Mary McCarthy provides another glimpse into the practice of these two types of friendship with the same person.
Though an unlikely partnership, and one that got off to a rocky start, the improbable friendship between Hannah and Mary McCarthy found a way to begin and lasted nearly three decades, nourished by several streams of intellectual and emotional sustenance each offered the other. Littered throughout the McCarthy/Arendt correspondence are recommendations for books to read and write, places to visit, and ways to think about current issues. But the undertone of dialogue between them is one of growing intimacy and fervor, whether engaging topics worldly or personal.
When McCarthy read Men in Dark Times she thought the centrality of friendship as a theme in Men in Dark Times came through so strongly she told Arendt she thought the book to be “very maternal...mutterlich, if that is a word. You’ve made me think a lot about the Germans and how you/they are different from us. It’s the only work of yours I would call ‘German,’ and this may have something to do with the role friendship plays in it, workmanly friendship, of apprentices starting out with their bundle on a pole and doing a piece of the road together.” Hannah replied that she was not sure why McCarthy thought the book was ‘German.’ But she heartily embraced the idea of friendship that McCarthy had characterized: “And of course friendship in the sense of ‘doing a piece of the road together’--as distinguished from intimacy. Thanks!”
A year after Heinrich Blücher’s death, Arendt traveled with McCarthy and her husband, Jim West, to Greece, visiting many places Hannah had been with her Blücher, on an earlier trip. “I know it was painful for you to revisit so many of the places you had been with Heinrich,” McCarthy wrote to Hannah after she’d returned to New York. “That has never happened to me, to repeat an experience, with different people, that I’d shared with someone now lost...I can only hope the good outweighed the disagreeable or discordant.” Arendt replied indirectly to McCarthy’s worries. “During the last months I have often thought of myself--free like a leaf in the wind...And all the time I also thought: Don’t do anything against this, that is the way it is, let no ‘autocratic will’ interfere...Let me come back once more to the ‘leaf in the wind.’ It is of course only half true. For there is, on the other hand, the whole weight of the past (gravitas). And what Hölderlin once said in a beautiful line: ‘Und vieles/Wie auf den Schultern eine/Last von Scheitern ist/Zu behalten--And much/ as on your shoulders/ a burden of logs/ is to bear and keep.’--In short: remembrance. Much, much love. Yours, Hannah.”
“What ultimately stills the fear of death….is remembrance and gratitude.”
-Kathleen B. Jones
Whatever the source of moral knowledge might be—divine commandments or moral reason—every sane man, it was assumed, carried within himself a voice that tells him what is right and what is wrong, and this regardless of the law of the land and regardless of the voices of his fellowmen.
-Hannah Arendt, Some Questions of Moral Philosophy, in Responsibility and Judgment, p. 61.
In a series of lectures she wrote for two courses she taught, one in 1965 at the New School and the second in 1966 at the University of Chicago, Arendt mapped out some of her complicated thinking about moral philosophy and the “perplexities inherent in the human faculty of willing.” In these lectures, she drew heavily on Kant and Nietzsche, but began her reflections by calling attention to the historical motivation for her concerns: “We—at least the older ones among us—have witnessed the total collapse of all established moral standards in public and private life during the nineteen-thirties and –forties, not only...in Hitler’s Germany but also in Stalin’s Russia.” (54). The distinction between right and wrong that it was assumed “every sane man” heard like a voice within him had not stood the test of time.
How easily, Arendt observed, ordinary people had changed their habits of mind, exchanging one set of values for another “with hardly more trouble than it [took] to change the table manners of an individual or a people.” (50). How had this happened? If acting morally, and not just legally, depended on the “thinking” conversation one had with oneself about what one should or shouldn’t do, then it was as if large sections of the population in every strata had simply stopped thinking, did what they were told to do, and then proceeded to forget.
Two weeks ago today, Anders Behring Breivik, the 33-year-old Norwegian man who admitted to killing 77 people last July in two separate attacks, entered a specially outfitted courtroom in Oslo to stand trial for criminal acts of terrorism and mass murder. After the charges against him were read, Mr. Breivik pleaded not guilty. "I acknowledge the acts, but not criminal guilt - I claim I was doing it in self-defense." He would have preferred, he added, to appear before a military tribunal; he was, he contended, a political activist involved in a war in Europe.
Since he admitted his acts, the trial now turns on the question of Breivik’s sanity. Two psychiatric reports have produced contradictory conclusions; the first found him insane at the time of the killings, suffering from paranoid schizophrenic delusions, while the second declared him sane. “[E]very sane man, it was assumed, carried within himself a voice that tells him what is right and what is wrong.” In his own words, Breivik was no exception. Before he started shooting, Breivik explained at his trial last week, he heard “ ‘100 voices’ in his head telling him not to do it.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17789206) But that moment of hesitation passed; he had prepared himself for years through a process he described as a deliberate program of dehumanization. Steeling himself against the comprehension of what he had done was important, he added, because “he would break down mentally” if he allowed himself to empathize with his victims.
“The criterion of right and wrong, the answer to the question, what ought I to do? depends in the last analysis neither on habits and customs, which I share with those around me, nor on a command of either divine or human origin, but what I decide with regard to myself,” Arendt observed in the same essay on moral philosophy. (97) What keeps a person from committing atrocities, or “evil” acts, is, for Arendt, the capacity to be a “thinking being, rooted in his thoughts and remembrances, and hence knowing that he has to live with himself.” This same capacity produce “limits to what he can permit himself to do, and these limits will not be imposed on him from the outside, but will be self-set.” These same limits, she continued, “are absent when men skid only over the surface of events, where they permit themselves to be carried away without ever penetrating into whatever depth they may be capable of.”
Breivik’s description of his yearlong “sabbatical” playing a video game, World of Warcraft, for up to 16 hours per day serves as an indication of the program of dehumanization to which he subjected himself. And his years’ long immersion in the ideology and methods of radical terrorism, with, ironically, his endorsement of Al Qaeda as “the most successful revolutionary movement in the world” serves as an example of the kinds of “thoughtlessness” that can become a willed experience, in individuals and in groups, and is a necessary prelude to despicable acts. But then, Breivik never imagined he would survive July 22; he envisioned his action as a suicide mission, perhaps the ultimate act of forgetfulness, the annihilation of the possibility of thought and judgment themselves.
-Kathleen B. Jones
“There is hardly an aspect of contemporary history more irritating and mystifying than the fact that of all the great unsolved political questions of our century, it should have been this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem that had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Seventy years ago, on January 20, 1942, a group of leading Nazi officials met at a conference in a posh residence in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” the Nazi's euphemism for their planned physical extermination of the Jews. What was perhaps most startling about the meeting is that there was no real deliberation about whether such a policy should be carried out, but only how. No one objected to the program of mass extermination, which S.S. General Reinhard Heydrich announced as the Fuhrer’s command.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, her masterful exploration of the rise of Nazism, Hannah Arendt outlined the social and political factors that drove “the Jewish people into the storm center of events” and made “the Jewish question and antisemitism…the catalytic agent..for the rise of the Nazi movement,…for a World War of unparalleled ferocity, and finally for the emergence of the unprecedented crime of genocide in the midst of Occidental civilization.” (OT, with a new introduction by Samantha Power, 2004, p. 7) That “this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem…had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion” was, in her words, an “outrage [to] our common sense.” (OT, p. 11) Despite the outrage, Arendt took seriously the fact that antisemitism formed the core of Nazi ideology. She thought its widespread acceptance set the stage for the extermination of the Jews becoming the legitimated purpose of Nazi policy.
As she sought ways to understand the rise of antisemitism and its enshrinement at the core of Nazi ideology, Arendt rejected certain explanations, including the scapegoat theory. Not only refusing to accept the idea that the choice of victims was accidental or arbitrary, she also resisted explanations, such as “eternal antisemitism,” that absolved the Jewish people of any responsibility for the development of those disastrous circumstances in which they found themselves in the middle of Europe in the 1930s.
To Arendt, the idea of “eternal antisemitism” as an unbroken continuity of persecution of Jews beginning at the end of the Roman Empire and continuing into the twentieth century was a dangerous fallacy. To the question of why the Jews of all people were the target of such genocidal enmity the idea of eternal antisemitism offered what Arendt labeled the “question begging reply: Eternal hostility.” She would have none of it. “Comprehension,” Arendt wrote, “does not mean…deducing the unprecedented from precedents.” (OT, p. xxvi ) To interpret the virulent form of antisemitism at the core of Nazi ideology as only a more modern variant of “eternal antisemitism” would, she contended, inherently negate “the significance of human behavior” and “bear a terrible resemblance to those modern practices and forms of government which, by means of arbitrary terror, liquidate the very possibility of human activity.” (OT, p. 18.) Instead, she argued, we must bear consciously the burden that the horrific events of the twentieth century placed on us and examine the behavior of both the perpetrators and their chosen victims in historical perspective. (OT, p. 7.) And for the next several hundred pages of Origins, that is exactly what she set out to do.
It’s not so difficult to imagine that perpetrators of murderous crimes have the choice to behave differently and are responsible for their actions. In fact, we are used to accepting the reasoning that if someone’s actions cause another harm the one who did the harming is fully responsible for the damage done. So used to this logic, in fact, that we become reluctant to excuse the perpetrator simply because her life’s circumstances gave her few options, and especially not just because everyone around her was behaving equally badly. What’s harder to swallow is the notion that the actions or attitudes of the chosen victim might have contributed in any way to their initial selection. So if someone contests the victim’s absolute innocence we are likely to recoil in horror and accuse the person putting forth such an idea of blaming the victim.
When Arendt turned to Jewish history she found there “certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries” that, for her, contained “elementary clues to the growing hostility between certain groups of society and the Jews,” (OT, p. 19.) clues she thought Jews had ignored or misread to their increasing peril.
What actually happened was that great parts of the Jewish people were at the same time threatened with physical extinction from without and dissolution from within. In this situation, Jews concerned with the survival of their people would, in a curious desperate misinterpretation, hit on the consoling idea that antisemitism, after all, might be an excellent means for keeping the people together, so that the assumption of eternal antisemitism would even imply an eternal guarantee of Jewish existence. (OT, p. 16-17)
Not stopping at this biting observation, Arendt carried her indictment of the concept of “eternal antisemitism” even further:
The more surprising aspect of this explanation…is that it has been adopted by a great many unbiased historians and by an even greater number of Jews. It is this odd coincidence which makes the theory so very dangerous and confusing. Its escapist bias is in both instances the same: just as antisemites understandably desire to escape responsibility for their deeds, so Jews, attacked and on the defensive, even more understandably do not wish under any circumstances to discuss their share of responsibility. (OT, p. 16.)
“Modern anti-Semitism,” she wrote, “must be seen in the more general framework of the development of the nation-state, and at the same time its source must be found in certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries.” (OT, p. 17.) To put it bluntly, Arendt criticized the actions and inactions of specific groups of Jews in the centuries preceding the twentieth for contributing to the development of the constellation of events that crystallized in the rise of Nazism and the extermination of six million Jews. Was her theory, then, nothing more than a textbook case of blaming the victim? Or were her ideas about individual and collective responsibility bound to a theory of human agency and action necessary features of her anti-fatalistic view of history?
We’ll discuss these and other questions in the 2012 NEH Summer Seminar on Arendt’s political theory. Applications now being accepted. The Seminar will be held at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.
-Kathleen B. Jones
“It is the function…of all action…to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably.”
-Hannah Arendt, On Violence
Writing at a time when she perceived and worried about an increase in support for violence as a means to right wrongs on behalf of the dispossessed, Arendt wrote On Violence. In it, she argued for a clear distinction between violence and power. To Arendt, power was the “human ability to act in concert” and “it belongs to a group” and continues to exist “only as long as the group keeps together.” Rule by violence signals the absence of power. In its fullest expression such rule is sustained by terror, which depends upon social atomization, or the isolation of people from one another, to achieve domination. How can such rule be undone? Will violence be required to undo violence?
After fourteen years of civil war in her native Liberia, Leymah Gbowee had had enough conflict and violence. Helping mobilize a group of women across ethnic and religious divides, she rallied them to participate in actions of civil disobedience aimed to bring the brutal dictatorship of Charles Taylor to an end. Thousands of women descended on the capital city of Monravia, putting themselves between the Taylor government and rebel leaders. When peace talks stalled they barricaded the site of negotiations until a deal was settled. The tactics the women deployed are a clear illustration of Arendt’s concept of power. Fasting, praying, and protesting together, they demonstrated that power grows not out of the barrel of a gun but through concerted action.
In her book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, Gbowee described the moment when the women appeared at city hall to bring their demands for peace to the warring sides: “In the past, we were silent,” I told the crowd. “But after being killed, raped, dehumanized and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying no to violence and yes to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails!” The women erupted. “Peace! Peace!”
Where the rebels had failed to oust Taylor, Gbowee’s protests succeeded. Because she brought an end to the long war in Liberia and helped secure women’s participation in open elections that brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power, Africa’s first democratically elected woman president, Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor she shared with Sirleaf, and Tawakul Karman of Yemen. The Nobel committee recognized the non-violent actions of all three women, who struggled for women’s rights and demonstrated the importance of women’s involvement in peace movements. Gbowee’s actions were featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the second of five films in the PBS series, Women, War, and Peace.
Arendt did not take an absolutist stand against violence. She acknowledged that sometimes violence was needed to “dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention.” But she cautioned that even the use of violence to achieve short term goals was dangerous. The danger lay in the ever-present possibility that the means of violence would “overwhelm the end” and become the end itself. Gbowee’s statement that her experience of war had taught her that a future was possible only by saying no to violence expresses the Arendtian principle that only action can interrupt “what otherwise would have proceeded automatically.” And even if Arendt’s worry that the capacity for action was fragile and threatened in particular by the conditions of the modern age, we need to keep such stories as those of the women of Liberia central in our imagination as reminders that power is the opposite of violence.