Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities



 “It may well be the region of the spirit or, rather, the path paved by thinking, this small track of non-time which the activity of thought beats within the time-space of mortal men and into which the trains of thought, of remembrance and anticipation, save whatever they touch from the ruin of historical and biographical time. This small non-time-space in the very heart of time, unlike the world and the culture into which we are born, can only be indicated, but cannot be inherited and handed down from the past; each new generation, indeed every new human being as he inserts himself between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it anew.”

 —Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future

In the preface to Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt foregrounds the Nazi/German occupation of France. She does so in order to emphasize how intellectuals who had previously pursued only their own, private careers suddenly became involved in the greater cause of the Resistance. This period, she suggests, was one of an abrupt convergence between “deed and word.” Confronted with the horror of Hitler’s state of emergency, the usual careerist “masks” of “insincerity” were cast off. Then, the introduction of a real state of emergency—that of the Resistance —produced a “public space [within which] freedom could appear.”

After the Liberation and the return to “normal” life, deed and word bifurcated again. As quickly as the new public intellectuals had turned away from academic detachment during the occupation, most returned to it after the war. The overall lack of a common enemy, or at least one as unifying as Nazism had been, meant the dissolution of the new public culture. The end of the war heralded the return of “innumerable cliques” and “paper wars” and the loss of the public culture that that tragedy had inspired.


Arendt articulates a temporal dimension of this shift from private to public and back to private life. There is a time, Arendt writes, that is between past and future. I call this non-time. Here is how Arendt describes this non-time: It is

an in-between period which sometimes inserts itself into historical time, when not only the later historians but the actors and witnesses...become aware of an interval in time which is altogether determined by things that are no longer and by things which are not yet.

The ascendant public awareness of the gap between the “no longer” and the “not yet” is important since it enhances the collective capacity for remembrance and anticipation. Rather than freezing “the” present in a temporal vice-grip between “the” past and “the” future, non-time plasticizes past and future, loosening its hold. Existing in such a non-time enlivens public freedom, enabling the collective ability to resist transcendentally imposed temporal imperatives. In her time, of course, this meant above all else, resisting the trans-European spread of Nazism.

For a brief period during the war and the resistance, she writes, thought had fused with action and historical and biographical time gave way to the free, indeterminate time that Arendt inflects politically as “public freedom.” Her assertion is that non-time, unlike the historical time of past, present and future, is a more radically open yet situated temporality “at the very heart of time”—and at the core of public freedom as well.

Arendt, however, did not limit her analysis to the early-20th century politics of Europe. Indeed, she selected numerous instances of the transformative, freedom-enhancing capacities of non-time, including the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, as well as, in the aesthetic domain, the modernist literature of Franz Kafka. In doing so, Arendt suggested the dynamism and applicability of her concept to a wide variety of situations - including, potentially, our own.

In this way, the act of thinking slips humanity out of historical and biographical time and into a non-time that reconstitutes the world. In the midst of resisting harkenings back to “the” past or any harkenings forward to “the” future, non-time, for Arendt, emerges as a plasticity subject to intervention.

The point, for Arendt, was to bring forth “the treasure” of non-time, within new temporal conditions that situate subjects anew, such that these new subjects might in turn, resituate the new temporal conditions. As she writes: “each new generation, indeed every new human being as he inserts himself between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it [the ‘treasure’] anew”.

How might today’s public, some fifty years after Between Past and Future, begin the fight for the public freedom Arendt sought? How might non-time assist in such a task?

Consider the mass media ascription of a non-transformative teleology to the Occupy movement. One refrain of critics of the Occupy movement was that it was not “really” seeking revolution at all. In its most common form, the critique asserted that occupiers were nothing more than recent college graduates confronted with mounting student loan debt and murky career horizons. What they really sought, therefore, was careers. But from the perspective of non-time, was this judgment necessarily “correct”, or was it instead a bit of both?

The frequency with which the same mass media outlets publish pieces concerned with economic justice today is far less today than at the height of the movement’s influence. In late 2011 and early 2012 however, journalists wrote and editors published as though they too had abruptly become aware of the gap “determined by things that are no longer and by things which are not yet.” From the perspective of non-time, the plasticity of public freedom gave way to the historical and biographical time that renders it inert. It was this that allowed the ascription of a non-transformative teleology to hold sway after the decline of the new public culture.

Of course, overstating the revolutionary nature of the occupy movement would also be foolish. Zeitgeists such as those that brought forth the French Resistance, the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (not to mention, of course, literary modernism), are destined to decline by definition. The occupy movement proved no exception. That said, Arendt did provide some hints regarding how the treasure of non-time might be indicated amidst new, post-zeitgeist conditions, such as our own.


In her view, if humans are to move beyond the predetermined presentism of conditions set by the past, as well as the ascribed teleologism of past conditions in the future, the task is that of producing a critical, engaged public culture not as a periodic impulse, but as a permanent habit.

Doing so requires more than just heeding the often mis-read call to change the world “rather than” interpret it (as an excuse for acting without thinking). Instead, Arendt asserted, we must change the world, and at the same time, change the manner in which we interpret it. In other words, the transcendental hallucinations of time must be transformed by the immanent materiality of non-time. Why? Because, in contrast with those who speak, predictably, of “the” past or “the” future, for Arendt, the present is always an unknown moment of struggle between the past and the future.

- Jason Adams


Why the Jews?


Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews?

[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.

The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism:  “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.”


The point of the joke is clear: Anti-Judaism is as senseless and irrational as anti-bicyclists would be. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat,” Arendt writes, “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well”—even bicyclists. The question, then, is why the Jews? Grafton gives a clue to Nirenberg’s subtle answer:

 Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.

Nirenberg’s point is that anti-Judaism has nothing to do with Jews themselves. The negative ideas about Jews are held throughout history by a motley group of Christians, philosophers, tyrants, and martyrs. Shakespeare’s account of Shylock is only one of many examples in which an intellectual employs anti-Jewish stereotypes—the Jew as greedy moneylender—to make a wider social critique, this time of the dangers of capitalism. London is becoming a city of commerce. There are no Jews in London. Yet Shakespeare turns to Jews in order to find a way to criticize the emergent commercial culture.

The use of negative sentiments about Jews to bash capitalism was common, Nirenberg writes, and carries through history from Jerome to Marx. Marx couches his critique of capitalism through the lens of a critique of Jews. Shakespeare does the same with commercial society. Jews stand in for the oppressed in the world, so that oppressing Christians could be seen as making them Jewish. Jews at the same time were seen as powerful bankers and powerful agents of world domination, so that any group of conspirators from Bolsheviks in Russia to media moguls in Hollywood were tarred with the pungent scent of Judaism.

Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. . . . Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.

The only reservation Grafton voices concerns the univocality of Nirenberg’s account. As exceptional as the account of anti-Jewish opinion is, Nirenberg largely ignores other perspectives and examples where real and imaginary Jews were accepted, embraced, and even praised.

As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.

Grafton largely stops there and minimizes his “very small complaints….Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped.” But Grafton’s small complaints deserve a wider hearing, especially as concerns the leading question he and Nirenberg pose, “Why the Jews?”

The overarching argument of Anti-Judaism is one of eternal antisemitism: Anti-Judaism had nothing to do with the Jews themselves. It is an attitude that sees the Jews to be to blame and is concerned with imaginary Jews as opposed to real Jews. Anti-Judaism is powerful and impactful, but it has no rational connection to reality. Here is how Michael Walzer aptly sums up Nirenberg’s argument:

His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.

As Walzer notes in his own review of Anti-Judaism in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Nirenberg includes an epilogue that takes on the most famous opponent of his view of eternal antisemitism, Hannah Arendt. As Arendt understands Nirenberg’s view, “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.” Since anti-Judaism is eternal and unending, it has been normalized. If thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.”


The point is that Grafton’s minor complaint—that Nirenberg offers a magisterial account of Jew-hatred and ignores philo-semitism—is not so minor after all. By claiming that anti-Judaism is omnipresent and omnipotent—by focusing only on anti-Judaism and leaving aside those who embrace or praise Jews—Nirenberg risks normalizing antisemitism. Everyone traffics in Jew-hatred, even Jews. Such a move means, however, that we lose the ability to distinguish those who are antisemites from those who are not. Which is why Arendt argues that the eternal antisemitism thesis is one way to “escape the seriousness of antisemitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm center of events.”

Walzer and Nirenberg condemn Arendt for seriously asking the question “Why the Jews?” She insists that there are reasons for antisemitism, reasons that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews and not the bicyclists. There are such reasons, and anti-Judaism is not simply mysterious and irrational accident. She does not think those are good reasons. She of course never says that the Jews are to blame or that the Jews were responsible for the holocaust as Nirenberg and Walzer wrongly argue. But she does insist we confront the fact that Jews have proven such convenient targets for anti-Judaism, that we seek to understand why it is that over and over it is the Jews who are targeted. There is not one simple answer to that question, Why the Jews? But Arendt asks it seriously and courageously and seeks to come up with a series of potential answers, none of which have to do with her claiming that the Jews are to blame.

If you have The Origins of Totalitarianism on your shelf, take it out and read Chapter One on “Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense.” Then read Grafton and Walzer on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism. It will be a sad but thrilling weekend.



I Feel Like a Bullet Went Through My Heart


The response has been swift and negative to the Rolling Stone Magazine cover—a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who with his now dead brother planted deadly homemade bombs near the finish-line of the Boston Marathon. The cover features a picture Tsarnaev himself posted on his Facebook page before the bombing. It shows him as he wanted himself to be seen—that itself has offended many, who ask why he is not pictured as a suspect or convict. In the photo he is young, hip, handsome, and cool. He could be a rock star, and given the context of the Rolling Stone cover, that is how he appears.


The cover is jarring, and that is intended. It is controversial, and that was probably also intended. Hundreds of thousands of comments on Facebook and around the web are critical and angry, asking how Rolling Stone could portray the bomber as a rock-star. They overlook or ignore the text accompanying the photo on the cover, which reads: “The Bomber. How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster.” CVS and other retailers have announced they will not sell the magazine in their stores.

That is unfortunate, for the story written by Janet Reitman is exceptionally good and deserves to be read.

Controversies like this have a perverse effect. Just as the furor over Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem resulted in the viral dissemination of her claims about the Jewish leaders, so too will this Rolling Stone cover be seen by millions of people who otherwise would never have heard of Rolling Stone. What is more, such publicity makes it ever less likely that the story itself will be read seriously, just as Arendt’s book was criticized by everyone, but read by few.

Reitman’s narrative itself is unexceptional. It is a common story line: young, normal kid becomes radicalized and does something none of his old friends can believe he could do. This is a now familiar narrative that we hear in the wake of the tragedies in Newtown (Adam Lanza was described as a nice quiet kid) and Columbine (Time’s cover announced “The Monsters Next Door.”)


This is also the narrative that Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana embraced to defend the Cover on NPR arguing it was an "apt image because part of what the story is about is what an incredibly normal kid [Tsarnaev] seemed like to those who knew him best back in Cambridge.” It was echoed too by Erin Burnett, on CNN, who recently invoked Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil.”  In the easy frame the story offers, Tsarnaev was a good kid, part of a striving immigrant family, someone who loved multi-racial America. And then something went wrong. He found Islam; his family fell apart; and he became a monster.

This story is too simple. And yet within the Rolling Stone story, there is a wealth of information and reporting that does give a nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of Tsarnaev’s journey into the heart of evil.

One fact that is important to note is that Tsarnaev is not Eichmann. Eichmann was a member of the SS, a nationalist security service engaged in world war and dedicated to wiping certain races of peoples off the face of the earth. He committed genocide as part of a system of extermination, something both worse than and yet less messy than murder itself.  It is Tsarnaev, who had no state apparatus behind him, who become a cold-blooded murderer. The problems that Hannah Arendt thought that the court in Jerusalem faced with Eichmann—that he was a new type of criminal—do not apply in Tsarnaev’s case. He is a murderer. To understand him is not to understand a new type of criminal. And yet it is a worthy endeavor to try to understand why more and more young men like Tsarnaev are so easily radicalized and drawn to murdering innocent people in the name of a cause.

Both Eichmann and Tsarnaev were from upwardly striving bourgeois families that struggled with economic setbacks. Eichmann was white and Austrian, Tsarnaev an immigrant in Cambridge, but both were economically disaffected. Tsarnaev wanted to make money and, like his parents, dreamed of a better life.

Tsarnaev’s family had difficulty fitting in with U.S. culture. His father was ill and could not work. His mother sought to earn money. And his older brother, whom he idolized, saw his dreams of Olympic boxing dashed partly because he was not a citizen. He increasingly turned to a radical version of Islam. When Tsarnaev’s parents both returned to Dagestan, he fell increasingly under the influence of his older brother.

Like Eichmann, Tsarnaev appears to have adopted an ideology that provided a coherent and meaningful narrative that gave his life significance. One can see this in a number of tweets and statements that are quoted in the article. For example, just before the bombing, he tweeted:

"Evil triumphs when good men do nothing."

"If you have the knowledge and the inspiration all that's left is to take action."

"Most of you are conditioned by the media."

Like Eichmann, Tsarnaev came to see himself as a hero, someone willing to suffer and even die for a noble cause. His cause was different—anti-American jihad instead of anti-Semitic Nazism—but he was an ideological idealist, a joiner, someone who found meaning and importance in belonging to a movement. A smart and talented and by most accounts good young man, he was lost and adrift, searching for someone and something to give his life purpose. He found that someone in his brother and that something in jihad against America, the land that previously he had so embraced. And he became someone who believed that what he was doing was right and necessary, even if he understood also that it was wrong.

We see clearly this ambivalent understanding of right and wrong in the note Tsarnaev apparently scrawled while he was hiding in a boat before he was captured. Here is how Reitman’s article describes what he wrote:

When investigators finally gained access to the boat, they discovered a jihadist screed scrawled on its walls. In it, according­ to a 30-count indictment handed down in late June, Jihad [Tsarnaev's nickname] appeared to take responsibility for the bombing, though he admitted he did not like killing innocent people. But "the U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians," he wrote, presumably referring to Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I can't stand to see such evil go unpunished. . . . We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all," he continued, echoing a sentiment that is cited so frequently by Islamic militants that it has become almost cliché. Then he veered slightly from the standard script, writing a statement that left no doubt as to his loyalties: "Fuck America."


Eichmann too spoke of his shock and disapproval of killing innocent Jews, but he justified doing so for the higher Nazi cause. He also said that when he found out about the sufferings of Germans at the hands of the allies, it made it easier for him to justify what he had done, because he saw it as equivalent. The fact that the Germans were aggressors, that they had started the war, and that they were killing and torturing innocent people simply did not register for Eichmann, just as it did not register for Tsarnaev that the people in the Boston marathon were innocent. There are, of course, innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan who have died at the hands of U.S. bombs. Even for those of us who were against the wars and question their sense and justification, however, there is a difference between death in a war zone and terrorism.

The Rolling Stone article does a good job of chronicling Tsarnaev's slide into a radical jihadist ideology, one mixed with conspiracy theories.

The Prophet Muhammad, he noted on Twitter, was now his role model. "For me to know that I am FREE from HYPOCRISY is more dear to me than the weight of the ENTIRE world in GOLD," he posted, quoting an early Islamic scholar. He began following Islamic Twitter accounts. "Never underestimate the rebel with a cause," he declared.

His rebellious cause was to awaken Americans to their complicity both in the bombing of innocent Muslims and also to his belief in the common conspiracy theory that America was behind the 9/11 attacks. In one Tweet he wrote: "Idk [I don’t know] why it's hard for many of you to accept that 9/11 was an inside job, I mean I guess fuck the facts y'all are some real #patriots #gethip."

Besides these tweets that offer a provocative insight into Tsarnaev's emergent ideological convictions, the real virtue of the article is its focus on Tsarnaev's friends, his school, and his place in American youth culture. While his friends certainly do not support or condone what Tsarnaev did, many share some of his conspiratorial and anti-American beliefs. Here are two descriptions of the mainstream nature of many of his beliefs:

To be fair, Will and others note, Jahar's perspective on U.S. foreign policy wasn't all that dissimilar from a lot of other people they knew. "In terms of politics, I'd say he's just as anti-American as the next guy in Cambridge," says Theo.

This is not an uncommon belief. Payack, who [was Tsarnaev's wrestling coach and mentor and] also teaches­ writing at the Berklee College of Music, says that a fair amount of his students, notably those born in other countries, believe 9/11 was an "inside job." Aaronson tells me he's shocked by the number of kids he knows who believe the Jews were behind 9/11. "The problem with this demographic is that they do not know the basic narratives of their histories – or really any narratives," he says. "They're blazed on pot and searching the Internet for any 'factoids' that they believe fit their highly de-historicized and decontextualized ideologies. And the adult world totally misunderstands them and dismisses them – and does so at our collective peril," he adds.

The article presents a sad portrait of youth culture, and not just because all these “normal” kids are smoking “a copious amount of weed.” The jarring realization is that these talented and intelligent young people at a good school in a storied neighborhood come off so disaffected. What is more, their beliefs in conspiracies are accepted by the adults in their lives as commonplaces; their anti-Americanism is simply a noted fact; and their idolization of slacking (Tsarnaev's favorite word, his friends say, “was "sherm," Cambridge slang for ‘slacker’”) is seen as cute. There is painfully little concern by adults to insist that the young people face facts and confront unserious opinions.

In short, the young people in Tsarnaev's story appear to be abandoned by adults to their own youthful and quite fanciful views of reality. Youth culture dominates, and adult supervision seems absent. There is seemingly no one who, in Arendt’s language from “The Crisis in Education”, takes responsibility for teaching them to love the world as it is.

The Rolling Stone article and cover do not glorify a monster; but they do play on two dangerous trends in modern culture that Hannah Arendt worried about in her writing: First, the rise of youth culture and the abandonment of adult authority in education; and second, the fascination bourgeois culture has for vice and the short distance that separates an acceptance of vice from an acceptance of monstrosity. If only all the people who are so concerned about a magazine cover today were more concerned about the delusions and fantasies of Tsarnaev, his friends, and others like them.

Taking responsibility for teaching young people to love the world is the very essence of what Arendt understands education to be. It will be the topic of the Hannah Arendt Center upcoming conference “Failing Fast: The Crisis of the Educated Citizen.” Registration for the conference opened this week. For now, ignore the controversy and read Reitman’s article “Jahar’s World.” It is your weekend read. It is as good an argument for thinking seriously about the failure of our approach to education as one can find.



Ideological Blindness


It would be too much to hope that my plea to end the ideological warfare over Hannah Arendt would win over either those who insist she is a Nazi-lover or those who thinks she walks on water. That said, I have been pleasantly surprised that most people saw my essay for what it was: a call for an end to the ideological warfare that leads both Arendt’s supporters and critics to interpret every fact and every statement as evidence for their side. Similarly, I ended my essay with a claim about the relevance of Arendt’s work in today’s overly heated ideological environment.


I expressed the hope that thinking deeply about Arendt’s characterization of Adolf Eichmann as a joiner might help defuse the petrified ideological positions of contemporary politics. I wrote:

At a time when confidence in American institutions is at an all-time low, Arendt’s insistence that we see Eichmann as a terrifyingly normal “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family” who was radicalized by an idealistic anti-state movement should resonate even more urgently today. That is ever more reason to free Arendt’s book, once again, from the tyranny of the conventional wisdom. 

Good luck. In a post responding to my essay in the Magazine Commentary, Jonathan Tobin has this to say:

While he doesn’t say so bluntly, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Berkowitz is making a not terribly subtle reference to those middle-class Americans who want smaller government and a less intrusive federal oversight of their lives as being somehow the moral equivalent of Eichmann. I’ve read more than my share of attempts to justify Arendt’s banality of evil thesis, but this is the first that attempts to enlist her in the fight against the Tea Party.

The sheer chutzpah as well as the colossal inappropriateness of Berkowitz’s insinuation is, by itself, enough to disqualify him as a rational voice about the subject.

Let’s note a few facts. First, as Tobin admits, I nowhere mention the Tea Party. Second, he somehow insists that my worry about middle-class, anti-state, movements is a “not terribly subtle” left-wing swipe at the Tea Party. Third, Tobin decides to ignore what I write, inserts his own interpretation, and concludes that I  am disqualified as a rational voice on the subject.  Talk about chutzpah!

If Mr. Tobin had simply bothered to do a modicum of homework, he could have found past articles in which I ascribed anti-state tendencies to both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Here is one example from 2011: “Occupy Wall Street is, like the Tea Party, driven by an apparent disdain of government, elites, and traditional institutions.”  My argument is clearly a critique of tendencies on both the left and the right.

What is more, in the version of the essay that I originally wrote and handed in to the Times, I mentioned four groups in the final paragraph as examples of what I meant as “idealistic anti-state movements.” Yes, I included the Tea Party. But I also mentioned Occupy Wall Street, the radical environmental movement, and the anti-tax crusade. Hardly a one-sided and partisan group.

What unites these diverse movements is that they are all anti-state in important ways. The Tea Party and the anti-Tax movement seek to limit or immobilize government. At the same time, Occupy Wall Street and radical environmental movements are decidedly internationalist movements that either reject national politics in the favor of international solidarity or seek to subordinate national democratic will to international bureaucratic regulations. What all of them share, as movements, is a drive to create adherents and victories rather than a desire to actually govern.

Granted these examples are not in the final version run by the Times, but with or without my examples, there is absolutely nothing in my essay to suggest a liberal or a conservative agenda. This does not stop Tobin from branding me a “liberal ideologue” who seeks to tar “contemporary conservatives as somehow would-be Eichmanns.” Honestly, how he gets from my essay to such a ridiculous conclusion beggars belief. Tobin’s perverted fantasy of what he thinks I may have written is simply a prime example of the rabid ideological fervor that grips so many in this country, on both sides of the ideological divide.

Tobin displays an extraordinary ignorance beyond his ideological blindness. He writes:

Contrary to [Berkowitz’s] assertion, Nazism was not an “anti-state movement” whether one wishes to call it “idealistic” or monstrous. It was, in fact, a classic example of a movement that worshiped the state and sought to sacrifice individual rights on the altar of the collective. In the case of Germany, it was the glorification of the German state and its leader while in Russia it was the socialist ideal and a different evil monster. Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand the Nazis, Eichmann or the Holocaust he helped perpetrate.

Excuse me, but Nazism was not a movement that worshipped the state, and to say that it was is simply false. Nazism was an imperialist and internationalist movement. Like Bolshevism, it sought a world-wide community based on a tribal identity (Aryanism or Bolshevism). What Hitler desired was an international “Third Reich” that stretched beyond the German state. In Mein Kampf, he wrote, that in Vienna he “laid the foundations for a world concept in general and a way of political thinking in particular.” Hitler spoke of a German people (Volk) that stretched beyond state borders, saying, “Wherever we may have been born, we are all the sons of the German people.” Ernst Hasse, founder of the anti-Semitic Pan-German League, wrote that the German people (and not the German state) “had the same right to expand as other great peoples and that if [they were] not granted this possibility overseas, [they would] be forced to do it in Europe.” As Arendt concludes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Hostility to the state as an institution runs through the theories of all pan-movements…. The Pan-Germans, who were more articulate politically, always insisted on the priority of national over state interest, and usually argued (citing the founder of modern anti-Semitism Georg Ritter von Schoenerer) ‘world politics transcends the framework of the state,’ that the only permanent factor in the course of history was the people and not states; and that therefore (citing Ernst Hasse again) national needs, changing with circumstances, should determine, at all times, the political acts of the state.”


In the pursuit of world domination, Nazism elevated party membership and blood purity above state identity. It set the party and national Volk above the institutions of the state.  It was an imperialist and global movement, one that saw traditional state boundaries and institutions as bourgeois limitations that interfered with its global ambitions.  That Tobin condemns me for saying so and simply asserting that Nazism “worshipped the state” is simply to parade his ignorance.

Tobin’s screed is filled with similar unsupported assertions, as when he writes “most serious thinkers understood [Arendt’s] misleading characterization of Adolf Eichmann was bad history.” The most esteemed historical biographer of Adolf Eichmann, Bettina Stangneth, largely embraces Arendt’s account, but not as a fawning admirer, just as someone who looks objectively at the facts. She takes issue with a few particular conclusions Arendt arrives at, but largely confirms Arendt’s understanding of Eichmann. And even the much more partisan and anti-Arendt-book by David Cesarani concedes that Arendt was generally right, and that Eichmann was no monster. But admitting these clear facts is something Mr. Tobin is clearly incapable or unwilling to do.

Shouting the same tired slogans over and over plays to the converted. But I ask you to judge whose arguments should be disqualified from rational discourse. You can read Tobin’s rant here, if you want. Compare it to my essay in the New York Times.



Yes and No: The Split the Difference Approach to the Banality of Evil


“Hannah Arendt” the movie by acclaimed Director Margarethe von Trotta, opened in the United States this week at Film Forum in New York. It will begin its national release on June 6th.  Around the world the movie has garnered rave reviews and played to excited audiences. Reviews in the U.S. are appearing, including a rave by A.O. Scott in the New York Times.

In reading the many reviews and comments on the film, one trend stands out. This trend is epitomized by Fred Kaplan’s essay in the New York Times last weekend. Kaplan plays umpire and seeks to adjudicate whether Arendt was right or wrong in her controversial judgment of Adolf Eichmann. And like so many others in recent years, Kaplan tries to have it both ways. He writes that Arendt was in general right about the fact that “ordinary people become brutal killers,” but she was wrong about Eichmann. In short, Kaplan claims that Arendt’s thesis about the banality of evil is right, but Eichmann himself was not banal, he was a monster.


This Yes and No reading of Arendt’s judgment is now a commonplace. One sees it pop up in reviews of the new film in Europe and here in the U.S. Take, for example, Elke Schmitter, reviewing the film in the German Weekly Der Spiegel. Schmitter likes the film, and writes that von Trotta has “made an extremely vivid cinematic essay, thrilling in its every minute, deeply moving in its seriousness and suitably unsettling.” Yet Schmitter’s review prefigures Kaplan’s in its Janus faced analysis. She points to the interview with Eichmann by Willem Sassen as evidence that Arendt was deceived by Eichmann:

The [Sassen] tapes clearly show that Eichmann was an ardent anti-Semite, incapable of the direct use of force, and yet determined to exterminate the Jewish people. His performance in Jerusalem was a successful deception.

For both Kaplan and Schmitter, the larger truth of Arendt’s thesis that evil emerges from thoughtlessness must not obscure the apparent fact that Eichmann put on an act at trial and deceived Arendt. This view of Eichmann the actor who pulled the wool over Arendt’s eyes has become now the dominant reading of Arendt’s analysis. My colleague and fellow political thinker David Owen agrees with this basic Yes/No thesis.  Writing on the Hannah Arendt Center Blog, Owen argues:

And it must be noted that while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann. As David Cesarani and, more recently, Bettina Stangneth have compellingly argued, Arendt was — like almost everyone else — taken in by Eichmann’s strategy of self-presentation in the trial as a nobody, a mere functionary, a bureaucratic machine. Yet the evidence of Eichmann’s commitment to Nazism and, contra Arendt, his commitment to anti-Semitism that has emerged in more recent years, especially well-documented by Stangneth’s study Eichmann vor Jerusalem, suggests that Jonas was right — Eichmann was a monster who hated Jews.

The Yes and No analysis of Arendt’s argument relies largely on what are now known as the Sassen tapes, based on an interview with Eichmann done by Willem Sassen, a fellow member of the SS who also fled to Buenos Ares. Partial transcripts of the tapes were published in Life Magazine before the Eichmann trial and were read by Arendt, but the tapes and the entire transcript only became available much later. Scholars like David Cesarani, Bettina Stangneth, and Deborah Lipstadt argue that the tapes show Arendt was—through no fault of her own, they usually emphasize to display their magnanimity—wrong in her judgment of Eichmann. It is simply a matter of the emergence of new facts.

This “factual claim” has gotten a free pass. What exactly do the Sassen tapes show? Above all, the tapes show that Adolf Eichmann was an anti-Semite. Here is one quotation that is nearly always referred to and that Kaplan brings forth. Eichmann says: “I worked relentlessly to kindle the fire. I was not just a recipient of orders. Had I been that, I would have been an imbecile. I was an idealist.”

Kaplan actually leaves out an extra sentence between the last two quoted sentences, in which Eichmann adds: “Instead, I was part of the thought process. I was an idealist." Leaving out that line is hardly innocent as it establishes the context of Eichmann’s remarks, his claim to general participation in the Nazi thought process.

Critics point to the tapes to show that Eichmann was an anti-Semite. This is nothing new. Everyone knew Eichmann was an anti-Semite. And of course Arendt knew it. There are a few who argue that she denies this and some who go so far to argue that she thought Eichmann was a Zionist, but these are crazed and irresponsible Jeremiads. Arendt scoffed at Eichmann’s self-professed Zionism. She said that he said he was a Zionist and that he claimed he had no animus towards Jews. She did not credit these claims.

The revelation in the tapes is not that Eichmann was anti-Semitic. The claim is that if she had heard the tapes or seen the transcript, she would have been compelled to admit the ferocity of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism and thus the fact that his anti-Semitism contributed to his actions to a far greater extent than she believed.

Now this is an important point. Recall that the essence of Arendt’s rarely understood argument about the banality of evil is that evil motivations—that which really drives modern bureaucratic evil—is superficial, not deep. There is, of course, evil that is rooted deeply in hatred, as for example when I out of rage at a colleague who insults me I intentionally stick a dagger into his breast or when a suicide bomber blows himself and civilians up in a café from out of hatred and infinite hope that his actions will change the world. But such crimes, as horrible as they are, are not the true face of evil in the modern world. That face is recognizable in the mass administrative exterminations of innocent people for no justifiable reason other than their race or religion or creed. There are of course reasons for such evil acts, but those reasons have more to do with the internal logic of movements than personal animus. Such evil, she argues, may be initiated by psychopaths, but it is carried out by thoughtless nobodies. Eichmann, as a mid-level bureaucrat in charge of Bureau IV-B-4, the Gestapo division in charge of Jewish Affairs, was such a mid-level bureaucrat.

Now, if Arendt’s critics are correct, we must not only question her analysis of Eichmann, but her more general claims as well. Two scholars who recognize this are S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher. These two psychologists have written an intriguing paper taking on both Arendt and Stanley Milgram. As is well known, Milgram was led by the Eichmann trial to conduct experiments where residents of New Haven were asked to assist researchers in teaching students by administering what they thought were painful—and potentially lethal—electric shocks to students who gave wrong answers. The assistants largely did as they were instructed. Milgram concluded that most people will obey authority even when commands violate their deepest convictions; obedience, he argued, does not entail support. For many, Milgram’s experiment is confirmation of Arendt’s banality of evil thesis.

Arendt did not share this view; she insisted that obedience involves responsibility. She was shocked that her critics assumed that thoughtful people would act as Eichmann had. She worried experiments like Milgram’s would normalize moral weakness. Indeed, she saw the angry reaction to her book—her critics’ insistence on seeing Eichmann as a monster—as proof that they feared that they too lacked the moral independence and the ability to think that would allow them to resist authority.

The importance of Haslam and Reicher’s essay is to take the criticism that Eichmann was actually motivated by anti-Semitism to its logical conclusion. Haslam and Reicher say that Arendt’s portrayal was partial, and like Deborah Lipstadt, they fault Arendt for not staying to the end of the trial. But Arendt poured over the transcripts, and did view much of the trial. It is not at all clear what more viewing of Eichmann would have done to change her mind of his clownishness, an opinion shared by many who did watch the whole trial. But let’s assume that someone who watched the whole trial and heard the tapes came to a different conclusion. Namely, (Haslam and Reicher’s summation of the historical research):

Eichmann was a man who identified strongly with anti-semitism and Nazi ideology; a man who did not simply follow orders but who pioneered creative new policies; a man who was well aware of what he was doing and was proud of his ‘achievements’…. In short, the true horror of Eichmann and his like is not that their actions were blind. On the contrary, it is that they saw clearly what they did, and believed it to be the right thing to do. 

Haslam and Reicher argue that if one looks closely at Milgram’s and other related studies, one sees that people do not blindly and mindlessly obey. Some do and others do not. So from these obedience studies, they write,

It is not valid to conclude that people mindlessly and helplessly succumb to brutality. Rather both studies (and also historical evidence) suggest that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology. This leads them to advance that ideology knowingly, creatively and even proudly…. People do great wrong, not because they are unaware of what they are doing but because they consider it to be right.

For Haslam and Reicher, the question is not: why are people thoughtless cogs in bureaucratic machines, but rather, why do people identify with hateful ideologies that allow them to participate in mass excursions of evil? Their point is that if indeed Eichmann committed his crimes because of his virulent anti-Semitism, that suggests that the bureaucrats who participate in great schemes of administrative evil are not simply unthinking nobodies and that Arendt’s overarching thesis about the banality of evil is wrong as well.

Haslam and Reicher have done a great service with their essay insofar as they at least pierce the halo that surrounds Milgram’s conclusions. What they show, and here they agree with Arendt against Milgram, is that human beings are not simply slaves to their situations. Character and thoughtfulness (or thoughtlessness) matter. Human action is not simply behavior. Or, as Arendt writes, in political and moral matters, obedience and support are the same.

At the same time, however, Haslam and Reicher are altogether too sure of their ability to know why Adolf Eichmann acted. Like David Cesarani, Deborah Lipstadt, Bettina Stangneth, and others, they believe that somehow listening to the Eichmann tapes gives them more insight into Eichmann’s true character than Hannah Arendt’s viewing of him on the witness stand for three weeks.  There is, it seems, an uncritical acceptance of the idea that Eichmann’s boasts about his importance and his refusal to express regrets in his conversations amongst former Nazis is better evidence of his character than his testimony in Jerusalem.  


But why privilege the interviews over the trial? In both the trial and the interviews, Eichmann refused to express regret for what he did. In both, he admitted wanting to carry out his job to the fullest of his abilities. In both he denied murdering or killing anyone. The real difference is that at trial in Jerusalem Eichmann claimed to have wanted to help the Jews and in Argentina he claimed to share the Nazi anti-Semitism and hatred of the Jews. Of course, no one in Jerusalem believed his claims of philo-Semitism, least of all Arendt. What she saw and what she argued is that his anti-Semitism alone was not of the type that would lead someone to do what he had done.

To evaluate the factual claim made by Kaplan and his fellow critics, we must also consider the context of the Sassen interviews themselves. Amongst the community of former Nazis in Buenos Aires, Eichmann was different. Many of these Nazis repudiated the final solution, claiming it was Allied propaganda. Eichmann, who had been mentioned frequently in Nuremburg, could confirm or reject that claim. It was thus that Sassen, who was working as a journalist, sought Eichmann out through Eberhard Fritsch, another Nazi who published a German-language journal in Buenos Ares and argued for a new ascent of National Socialism. Fritsch, Sassen, and Eichmann met for a series of conversations that Sassen taped and used for articles he wrote that appeared in Life Magazine. 

Eichmann himself had much to gain from these interviews. The Adolf Eichmann who agreed to be interviewed by Sassen was living as a poor man struggling to support his family. It was a far cry from his position of power and relative wealth in Germany during the War. And if there is one quality of Eichmann that Arendt and her critics can agree upon it is his vanity. Eichmann was, as Arendt noted, quite boastful. He desperately desired to be important and meaningful. Bettina Stangneth saw the same quality in Eichmann: “Eichmann hated being anonymous. He missed power. He wanted to matter again. On some level I think he even enjoyed his trial.” It is far from clear that Eichmann bared his true soul to Willem Sassen.

How to know whether the Eichmann speaking to former Nazis and seeking friends and importance is the truer Eichmann than the Eichmann brought before posterity at the trial in Jerusalem? One can, of course, argue that neither is the true Eichmann, that he would say whatever he thought would endear him to the crowd he was in, but that would simply go to support and confirm Arendt’s thesis that Eichmann was a nobody, a joiner. If Eichmann thought that lying about his anti-Semitism would convince anybody, and if he thought that saying he was just obeying orders would help him whereas it hadn’t his predecessors at Nuremburg, he was as thoughtless as Arendt said he was. In any case, there is nothing in the Sassen transcripts that shows Arendt’s factual analysis of the trial to be wrong. 

Arendt thought that it was a fact that Eichmann was thoughtless. Listening to his clichés and his boasts and hearing how he worshipped bureaucratic hierarchy, she determined that he had insulated himself from thinking. Her critics, in response, say he was creative and intelligent in carrying out his tasks. He was. He was not stupid, Arendt writes. He was thoughtless. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t anti-Semitic. What she means by thoughtlessness, contrary to much commentary, is not simple.

Arendt’s argument about thoughtlessness is complex and subtle.  First, Arendt says that what drove Eichmann to join the SS was not virulent hatred of Jews, but the need of a job and the desire to find meaning in his life. On this point, she and her critics largely agree. As a Nazi officer, Eichmann became a virulent anti-Semite. He adopted the rhetoric and language of those around him, even as he took pride in his ability to work with Jewish leaders. Even such an anti-Semite, however, insisted he did not kill Jews himself. That was important to him. He knew such killing was wrong. While he may indeed have wanted Germany to be free of Jews, and while he may have spoken in favor the killing itself, he knew that gassing Jews was wrong. He was not the kind of psychopath that breathes blood and relishes pulling the trigger. Eichmann describes how he was initially bothered and unsettled by the decision to gas the Jews, but that, over the course of about four weeks, he came to see the transport of Jews not as wrong, but as his legal obligation, one that he took pride in carrying out. In the space of one month, his moral universe around the question of genocide was upended. This is the famous inversion of Eichmann’s conscience that is at the core of Arendt’s argument.

It is this transition from anti-Semite who knows killing innocents is wrong to bloodless bureaucratic executioner who imagines it his conscientious and moral duty to follow the laws and orders by implementing the Final Solution that, Arendt argues, has its source neither in anti-Semitism nor a lack of goodness, but in moral weakness and thoughtlessness. In this sense, thoughtlessness is a willingness to abandon one’s common sense of right and wrong in order to fit in, be part of a movement, and attain success in the world. What thoughtlessness means is a lack of self-reliance, in an Emersonian vein, or, as Arendt puts it, the inability to think for oneself.

At the source of modern thoughtlessness is what Arendt calls the break in tradition that occurs in the modern era. Throughout history people have done wrongs, even great wrongs. But they eventually came to understand the wrongness of those wrongs as against religious, traditional, and customary rules. The rules persisted as rules, even in their breach. The distinction of the modern era and totalitarianism is that the old rules no longer held good. Eichmann and thousands like him in Germany and Soviet Russia were able to see bureaucratic genocide as lawful and right. They could only do so by abandoning their moral sense to the conventional wisdom of those around them. This is what Arendt means by thoughtlessness. The core of Arendt’s argument is that while anti-Semitism can explain hatred of the Jews and even pogroms and murdering of Jews, it cannot explain the motivation behind generally normal people putting aside their moral revulsion to murder and genocide and acting conscientiously to wipe out a race of human beings.

It is very possible that Arendt is wrong or that her argument is overstated. It may be as Haslam and Reicher argue that such action is motivated out of hatred and ideology. But all who think that should read Arendt’s book and see Margarethe von Trotta’s movie and look at the simplicity and clownishness and pettiness of Adolf Eichmann—and decide for themselves.


The question we who confront her text should ask is not, “is she right or wrong.” Rather, we should seek with her to understand how it is possible for Eichmann and people like him to have done what he did. If Arendt is wrong about Eichmann, than her thesis that thoughtlessness is the motivation for modern evil is questionable as well.

We must be honest: the hypothesis that "she was right in general, but wrong about Eichmann" is contradictory. If she was right and mechanized evil is only possible with bureaucratic thoughtlessness, then how can Eichmann not be bureaucratically thoughtless? Why do we insist on making him a monster? The answer is that we still don't fully accept her argument that Eichmann transformed from a normal anti-Semite with a moral sense into someone for whom morality meant following the law requiring him to destroy Jews. In denying Eichmann’s normality we still need to make him into a monster and thus refuse to confront—and also to resist— the dangerous truth Arendt is seeking to make visible. 

As you prepare to see Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt,” do some reading. For one, read my review of the movie in The Paris Review and A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times. Also read Fred Kaplan’s essay in the New York Times. I suggest as well David Cesarani’s Becoming Eichmann. And then read S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher’s “Questioning the Banality of Evil.” Finally, check out the Arendt Center’s collection of Reviews of the film here. Best of all, of course, re-read Eichmann in Jerusalem itself. There is a lot to get through here, but take your tablet to the beach. You have a lot to get through for your weekend read.



Defining Humanism

Martin Heidegger's Letter on Humanism is one of the great works of the 20th century. It was written in 1946 after his experience of the war and being stripped of teaching duties as Rectorship of Freiburg University as well as losing his membership in the Nazi party. The Letter is an attempt to re-cast his past work on a current and future path, seeking to save humanity from inhumanity.

The Letter remains controversial for many reasons, not least because Heidegger refuses to see Nazism as the name for the inhumanity threatening our world. Instead, he attributes the dehumanization of mankind, including Nazism, to a general homelessness that has its roots in what he calls the age of Technik.

I am just finishing up a semester-long seminar on Heidegger's Letter on Humanism, a course I try to teach every other year. I always end the course by reading the one text on Heidegger's Letter that I find both intelligent and provocative.

In Rules for the Human Zoo: A Response to the Letter on Humanism, Peter Sloterdijk sets Heidegger's text in the context of humanism. While this may seem obvious, it is not. Heidegger goes through a history of humanism in two short pages of his text, and never addresses it again. But for Sloterdijk, the text is to be read as a last effort to save a dying humanist tradition.

The core of the humanist tradition, in Sloterdijk's provocative telling, is the book as love letter. Books, he writes, citing the poet Jean Paul,  "are thick letters to friends." Humanism, as love letters, are messages sent out in printed form looking for friends. A humanist writes a book to move others to love what he himself loves. Humanism is thus a "communitarian fantasy" in which "participation through reading the canon reveals a common love of inspiring messages."

The power of humanist writing is the power to communicate love of humanity to others whom one does not know. It is to awake in others the love for being human, for living as human, in the way and manner of a human being. And for most of Western humanism, the essence of that human being that inspires such love and devotion has been the human capacity to think, to reason, and to create. It is because humans can create beautiful works of art, found great empires, and devote themselves to truth and to God that humans are different from animals and worthy of our love.

Humanists must, Sloterdijk knows, distinguish themselves from animals. Thus:

Anyone who is asking today about the future of humanity and about the methods of humanization wants to know if there is any hope of mastering the contemporary tendency towards the bestialization of humanity.

Sloterdijk sees humanism as the effort to tame the human beast—the beast in the human. It is the desire to influence for the good the constant tension in human beings between beastialization and humanization.

It is because humanism is always one side of a struggle against a perceived threat of the bestialization of human beings that humanists must, of necessity, stand apart not only from animals, but also from mass culture. Sloterdijk presents this point in the context of Roman humanism with clarity:

Ancient humanism can be understood only when it is grasped as one opponent in a media contest: that is, as the resistance of the books against the amphitheater, and the opposition of the humanizing, patient-making, sensitizing philosophical reading against the dehumanizing, impatient, unrestrained, sensation-mongering and excitement-mongering of the stadium. What the educated Romans called humanitas would have been unthinkable without the need to abstain from the mass culture of the theaters of cruelty.

From these premises, Sloterdijk makes the surprising claim that humanism, "the question of how a person can become a true or real human being becomes unavoidably a media question."  The great event of our time, in Sloterdijk's telling, and that which ends the humanist endeavor, is the telecommunications revolution. The end of the book, the loss of the medium of high culture that will distinguish itself from the masses and thus the massification and bestializaiton of man is, he writes, a death knell for the very idea of a humanity that is to be held separate from and higher than animals.

Hannah Arendt fought her life against efforts of human rights activists to reduce man to a living being and against the dreams of social scientists to make of man a predictable member of a mass.

Her fight was, on her own terms, the fight to preserve an idea of the human distinct from animals that also powers Heidegger's exploration of humanity in the Letter on Humanism. Sloterdijk's account of Heidegger's effort, and his judgment of its unavoidable failure, is well worth your time this weekend. It is your weekend read.



“Eternal Antisemitism” – Kathleen 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