Until now the totalitarian belief that everything is possible seems to have proved only that everything can be destroyed. Yet, in their effort to prove that everything is possible, totalitarian regimes have discovered without knowing it that there are crimes which men can neither punish nor forgive. When the impossible was made possible it became the unpunishable, unforgivable absolute evil which could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power, and cowardice; and which therefore anger could not revenge, love could not endure, friendship could not forgive. Just as the victims in the death factories or the holes of oblivion are no longer “human” in the eyes of their executioners, so this newest species of criminals is beyond the pale even of solidarity in human sinfulness.
-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Although Hannah Arendt never dedicated an entire chapter or essay to the emotion, she was nonetheless well aware of the insidious pull of resentment. In The Origins of Totalitarianism resentment is mentioned 16 times.
Early in the Origins, Arendt writes, “The social resentment of the lower middle classes against the Jews turned into a highly explosive political element, because these bitterly hated Jews were thought to be well on their way to political power.” Here resentment refers to the mobilization of mass antisemitism and the driving force behind the scapegoating of Jews.
By the end of Origins of Totalitarianism, in the lengthy passage quoted above, Arendt refers to resentment as one of many “evil motives” that had in the past made crimes understandable. With the advent of radical evil typical of the Third Reich, however, crimes against human plurality that could neither be punished nor forgiven could also not be explained away by unsavory human emotions and intentions. Here we can see a shift in meaning: in the beginning stages of Nazi occupation, resentment is an emotion that helps to make sense of antisemitic attitudes. With the advent of the death factories we find that evil human motives of self-interest, lust for power and resentment are no longer able to make sense of the world.
I find the ambiguity of the meaning of resentment in Arendt’s work fascinating. Origins begins with a fairly common understanding of the emotion as a kind of envious grudge that seeks revenge. But it would be a mistake to understand resentment as the psychological essence of totalitarian rule. For although Arendt acknowledges the role resentment played in the mobilization of social attitudes of antisemitism, she also reveals the limits of human emotions within the Nazi program of destruction. Resentment is not the cause of human destruction. Rather she says,
Propaganda and organization no longer suffice to assert that the impossible is possible, that the incredible is true, that an insane consistency rules the world; the chief psychological support of totalitarian fiction—the active resentment of the status quo, which the masses refused to accept as the only possible world—is no longer there.
But where does resentment go, and what replaces it? Ironically, Arendt saw resentment as the last remnant of humanly recognizable relations—relations that were quashed as a requirement of totalitarian destruction.
To illustrate this point, near the end of the book, Arendt makes a distinction in the torture practices first performed by the Nazi Party’s “Brown Shirts,” the Sturmabteilung (SA) and later by Hitler’s paramilitary, the Schutzstaffel (SS).
Whereas torture for the SA officer was provoked by a heated resentment against all those the SA guard perceived to be better than himself, torture of the magnitude required for the annihilation of a people—the kind that was effectively able to exterminate people long before they became biologically dead—was not the result of any human emotion. It was precisely the total lack of human emotion that enabled this atrocity. Arendt contrasts the irrational, sadistic type of torture driven by resentment and carried out by the SA to the rational calculations of the SS:
Behind the blind bestiality of the SA, there often lay a deep hatred and resentment against all those who were socially, intellectually, or physically better off than themselves, and who now, as if in fulfillment of their wildest dreams, were in their power. This resentment, which never died out entirely in the camps, strikes us as a last remnant of humanly understandable feeling (GH emphasis). The real horror began, however, when the SS took over the administration of the camps. The old spontaneous bestiality gave way to an absolutely cold and systematic destruction of human bodies, calculated to destroy human dignity; death was avoided or postponed indefinitely. The camps were no longer amusement parks for beasts in human form, that is, for men who really belonged in mental institutions and prisons; the reverse became true: they were turned into “drill grounds,” on which perfectly normal men were trained to be full-fledged members of the SS.
I glean two points from this passage. First, Arendt believed that the human destruction perpetrated by the Third Reich was an exemplification of what she called the “banality of evil.” This is to say that it was not pathologically sadistic and neurotically resentful and self-interested men, but rather “perfectly normal men” who, by following the rules, fulfilled the brutal logic of the Third Reich. Second, the annihilation of the Jews required cold calculation that in effect destroyed the very condition of possibility for resentment: human plurality. And this is where the irony of Arendt’s thinking shines through: Resentment disappeared in the camps because understandable human sinfulness disappeared. Through this irony Arendt exposes her readers to a provocative ambiguity: Resentment appears in Origins as both the provocation of criminality and a vague remnant of human plurality.