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The Lesson of Hannah Arendt



Hannah Arendt dated her awakening to February 27, 1933, the day the Reichstag burned down. From the moment Adolf Hitler began using the fire as a pretext to suspend civil liberties and crush dissent, Arendt said, “I felt responsible.”1 She took responsibility for observing the inhuman uses of power and for summoning her generation to judgment and action.

Born in 1906, Arendt grew up in Königsberg (then part of Germany) and attended the University of Marburg, where she studied theology, ancient Greek literature, and, under Martin Heidegger, philosophy. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Saint Augustine’s concept of love, working at the University of Heidelberg with the philosopher Karl Jaspers, who became her mentor. With the Nazi crackdown in 1933, Arendt, who was Jewish, went into political opposition, and began to collect evidence of the persecution of German Jews. She was arrested by the Gestapo, and upon her release, she fled to Paris, becoming a stateless person, which she remained for eighteen years.

In France she worked for a Zionist organization, Youth Aliyah, helping to secure the transport of Jewish children to Palestine. In 1940 she was detained and sent to an internment camp in Gurs, from which she escaped. Together with her husband, Heinrich Blücher, she managed to evade the Nazis and crossed the Spanish border. The pair then made their way, via Lisbon, to New York, where they arrived, speaking little English, in May 1941. The Origins of Totalitarianism, which she dedicated to Blücher, was published exactly a decade later, in 1951, the same year that she became an American citizen. In a generally favorable review in The New York Times, E.H. Carr described the book as “the work of one who has thought as well as suffered.”2

If the Reichstag fire galvanized Arendt, it was knowledge of Hitler’s death camps that changed her. She first got wind of the “fabrication of corpses” in early 1943, but for six months neither she nor her husband was able to accept the reports of extermination. Reason got the better of them. “At first we didn’t believe it,” she said later, “because militarily it was unnecessary and uncalled for.” But once the gruesome had become real, she said, it was “as if an abyss had opened.”3

After her initial incomprehension, Arendt was so moved by the horrors of the concentration camps that she undertook a study of monumental scope. In late 1944 she began submitting outlines to Houghton Mifflin for a proposed volume, The Elements of Shame: Anti-Semitism—Imperialism—Racism, which she also referred to as The Three Pillars of Hell.4 At a time when most scholars, and even a great many Jews, were turning away from the unbearable details of the Final Solution, Arendt was determined to uncover the essence of the system that produced it. But even as she studied Hitler’s atrocities and ideology of elimination, she took note of the ghastly developments in the Soviet Union. At the eleventh hour, with her prospective publisher pressing her to deliver her overdue manuscript, Arendt decided to concentrate her book on the subject of totalitarianism and to include an analysis of Stalinism as well as of Nazism. Skeptical of all “isms,” Arendt divided the book among three of the most lethal: anti-Semitism (Part I), imperialism (Part II), and totalitarianism (Part III).

Arendt naturally was less familiar with Soviet totalitarianism than she was with Nazi rule. Although she recognized the imbalance, she chose to combine her discussion of the two regimes. This enabled her to draw general conclusions with immediate relevance. Communist takeovers and Soviet-style revolutions seemed destined to proliferate. And she thought it important to amend the prevailing view that Nazism stemmed entirely from the sui generis mix of Germany’s condition and Hitler’s fanaticism. “The reality is that ‘the Nazis are men like ourselves,’” she wrote in a 1945 essay, “the nightmare is that they have shown, have proven beyond doubt what man is capable of.”5

Both the title and the structure of Origins are misleading. They suggest that Arendt intended to demonstrate a causal connection between nineteenth-century anti-Semitism and imperialism and twentieth-century totalitarianism. In fact, after Arendt decided to develop the third section, she did not edit the sections on anti-Semitism and imperialism in order to shape the book into a coherent whole. She was in a hurry. Since she believed “world political developments may well again crystallize around hostility to the Jews,”6 and since Stalin continued his monstrous rule over those trapped behind the Iron Curtain, Arendt was rushing in order to sound the alarm. “An insight into the nature of totalitarian rule, directed by our fear of the concentration camp,” she wrote, might “introduce the most essential political criterion for judging the events of our time: Will it lead to totalitarian rule or will it not?”7

The book’s failure to show causality was also partly deliberate—a testament to the way Arendt saw history. She detested the false necessity so often imposed by hindsight, warning readers against any attempt at “deducing the unprecedented from precedents.” Arendt insisted that a “grotesque disparity” often separated an event from those that preceded it. To view a subsequent happening as predictable bordered on seeing it as inevitable, which a believer in human agency and political action could never do. Arendt was adamant: there was nothing in the nineteenth century, indeed nothing in human history, that led to—or could have prepared us for—the frightful barbarity of the twentieth.

In Origins, which might better have been titled “The Originality of Totalitarianism,” Arendt thus attempted two tasks that were in tension with each other. She presented what she saw as evidence of historical continuity—what she called “certain fundamental concepts which run like red threads through the whole”8—and at the same time she argued that totalitarianism constituted a huge rupture with all that had come before. Responding to critics, she herself admitted that the book “does not really deal with the ‘origins’ of totalitarianism—as its title unfortunately claims—but gives a historical account of the elements which crystalized into totalitarianism.”9 What Arendt gave us was not roots, but seeds. And even as she did, she never stopped reminding her readers that history need not have unfolded as it did.

Arendt began Origins by tracing the ebb and virulent flow of anti-Semitism, through the Dreyfus Affair, which she deemed a “dress rehearsal” for the Final Solution. For much of modern Jewish history, she wrote, quoting Proust, “the question is not as for Hamlet, to be or not to be, but to belong or not to belong.” But transient belonging was no substitute for true citizenship, she insisted, making no effort to mask her frustration with Jews who assimilated and lapsed into denial. They were welcomed only because of their usefulness, which they were sure to lose as the economy modernized and they became dispensable. “It has been one of the most unfortunate facts in the history of the Jewish people that only its enemies, and almost never its friends, understood that the Jewish question was a political one,” she wrote. While men obey real power, she argued, they detest “wealth without power” as “parasitical, useless, revolting.” Thus the Jews swayed, alternately and unstably, from the status of “parvenu” to that of “pariah,” living “in a twilight of favor and misfortune.”

Arendt’s critique of European Jewry’s “political ignorance,” combined with her later charge in Eichmann in Jerusalem that certain Jewish community leaders had cooperated with the Nazis in the Holocaust, earned her the wrath of several generations of critics. Leon Wieseltier argued in The New Republic that Arendt was laying the blame in the wrong place: the sources of anti-Semitism were

to be found…not in Jewish achievement, but in the pitiful inability of certain political cultures to tolerate it; not in the Jewish insistence upon difference, but in the non-Jewish insistence upon sameness. Study the goyim, in short, not the Jews….10

Arendt of course insisted on studying both, but in so doing, she occasionally came close to suggesting that Jews bore a measure of blame for their extermination.11

In the second section of Ori-gins, Arendt distinguished between nineteenth-century imperialism in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and what she called “Continental imperialism,” the pan-Slavic and pan-Germanic movements in Europe, in which nationalism, supplemented by anti-Semitism, became the “precious cement” that bound together Europeans who had been divided by the atomization of the industrial age.

Arendt argued that European states proved ill-suited to both forms of imperialism. Unable to win consent from subjugated peoples, their rule was precarious and often brutal. European conquest tended to awaken national consciousness in the trampled territories. This in turn prompted further tyranny, which was justified by newly popularized race theories. “Imperialism would have necessitated the invention of racism as the only possible ‘explanation’ and excuse for its deeds, even if no race-thinking had ever existed,” Arendt wrote. While post-Enlightenment talk of equality remained pervasive, mankind was thereupon divided into higher and lower races. Since the “lower” breeds were said to lack specifically human characteristics, “when European men massacred them they somehow were not aware that they had committed murder.” In the end, imperial ventures taught their instigators and implementers to become dependent upon an assertion of difference—the tribal “savage” in Congo and, eventually, the Jewish neighbor in Cologne could both be portrayed as different enough to be exempt from moral rules.

Origins culminates in Arendt’s discussion of totalitarianism. She never defines the term, but she is determined—some say too determined—to distinguish the exceptional totalitarian state from the one-party dictatorship, the despot, or the “merely” Fascist regime. She argues that totalitarian regimes are distinct in a number of ways. They manage to attract both the mob, afflicted by its “mixture of gullibility and cynicism,” and the elites. They tell lies. They take advantage of the unthinkability of their atrocities (“the very immensity of the crimes guarantees that the murderers who proclaim their innocence with all manner of lies will be more readily believed than the victims who tell the truth”). They target “objective enemies,” whole classes of people—“harmless citizens without political opinions”—who must be liquidated not because of their particular views or deeds, but simply because of their group membership (Jews and Poles under the Nazis; the former ruling classes and kulaks under Stalin).

They organize themselves with a “planned shapelessness,” creating ever-shifting structures and “a carefully graduated hierarchy of militancy.” They pose as interpreters of scientific historical forces that are beyond human control. They rely upon concentration camps (“no totalitarian government can exist without terror and no terror can be effective without concentration camps”12 ). They become so entranced by their own schemes for global primacy that they take steps that in fact lessen their chances even for self-perpetuation (for example, Hitler’s requisitioning of transport routes for extermination camps even though it was clear that they were essential for shifting troops and materiel to the Eastern Front; and Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture, which decimated vital crops and livestock). They demand “total loyalty” and manage “total domination” of the individual and the collective: “Total domination, which strives to organize the infinite plurality and differentiation of human beings as if all of humanity were just one individual.” And they aspire to conquer and rule the world.

  1. 1

    ‘What Remains? The Language Remains’: A Conversation with Gunther Gaus,” translated by Joan Stambaugh, in Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954, edited by Jerome Kohn (Harcourt, Brace, 1994), p. 5.

  2. 2

    E.H. Carr, “The Ultimate Denial,” The New York Times, March 25, 1951.

  3. 3

    ‘What Remains? The Language Remains’: A Conversation with Gunther Gaus,” pp. 13–14.

  4. 4

    Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (Yale University Press, 1982), p. 200.

  5. 5

    Hannah Arendt, “Nightmare and Flight,” in Essays in Understanding, p. 134.

  6. 6

    Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt, p. 205, citing a letter to Elliot Cohen accompanying the December 10, 1948, draft of “Memo: Research Project on Concentration Camps.”

  7. 7

    Hannah Arendt, “The Concentration Camps,” Partisan Review, July 1948, p. 747.

  8. 8

    Hannah Arendt, “A Reply” to Eric Voegelin, in The Review of Politics, January 1953, p. 78.

  9. 9

    Arendt, “A Reply,” p. 78.

  10. 10

    Leon Wieseltier, “Understanding Anti-Semitism: How Hannah Arendt Misperceived the Origins of the Century’s Greatest Crime,” The New Republic, October 7, 1981, p. 32.

  11. 11

    Examples: “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.” Or, “The Jews stumbled from one role to the other and accepted responsibility for none.” See The Origins of Totalitarianism , pp. 16, 17.

  12. 12

    Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt, p. 204, citing Arendt’s December 10, 1948, draft of “Memo: Research Project on Concentration Camps.”

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