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The Lesson of Hannah Arendt

Arendt was years ahead of her time in her readiness to grapple with a catastrophe that most wished away. It was not until the late 1960s that Holocaust scholarship and remembrance began in earnest. By grouping Hitler and Stalin in a single category, Arendt also gave readers a jarring introduction to the inner, savage workings of two extreme ideologies that had seemed to be opposites. Arendt was, of course, disturbed by the ways in which her ideas were appropriated. Anti-Communists on the right used the association she made between Stalinism and Nazism to justify increasingly ruthless measures during the cold war. And many on the left resented her failure to leave open the possibility of a humane and just Marxist revolution.13 But Arendt concentrated on the lesson that Hitler and Stalin had taught: it was in fact possible to bring politics to an end, and the end of politics meant the ruin of lives.

Arendt noted the “horrible originality” of the totalitarian movements of her lifetime. But while she believed that the totality of their domination of political and private life was unprecedented, she surmised that the worst was not behind us. “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes,” she wrote, “in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.”

2.

The Terror of Our Times

At a memorial service for Arendt, her longtime friend Hans Jonas said, “To call her a ‘great thinker’ is for none of her contemporaries to presume, nor to predict how her thought will withstand the onslaught of time.” Over the last half-century no regime has met all of Arendt’s exacting criteria to qualify as “totalitarian.” Mao’s China, which came closest, was not really committed to global domination. Nonetheless, in contemporary debates over ethnic conflict, genocide, international human rights, sovereignty, and terrorism, her writings have retained profound pertinence.

In the decades since the Holocaust, human beings throughout the world who had never before committed even petty theft chose to suppress their individual identities in order to join a pliant, aggressive, and eventually murdering collective. Although not “totalitarian,” a wide range of states have sought to control individual thought and action, and to homogenize society by ridding it of difference. Arendt herself died just after the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 in Cambodia. In a savage ideological purification campaign akin to Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Pol Pot targeted people who wore eyeglasses or had completed the seventh grade. In the end, as Arendt forecast, the Khmer Rouge even purged those who expressed the greatest loyalty to the revolution. Some two million people were killed. In the Balkans in the 1990s, “ethnic cleansing” became a household term, as ethnic chauvinists and land-grabbers set out to create a Greater Serbia. In their quest to make the state synonymous with the (Serbian) nation, militants classified minorities as subhuman. At the time, the Yugoslav theorist Vladimir Gligorov, no friend of the Serbian regime, posed a rhetorical question that summed up the deadly mantra of his day (and of the pan-national movements that Arendt described before): “Why should we be a minority in your state when you can be a minority in our state?”14

If Arendt had lived into the twilight of the twentieth century, she would likely have been taken aback by the extraordinary efficiency of the Rwandan Hutu majority, who, in 1994, managed to kill 800,000 Tutsi in one hundred days, using garden tools, hammers, bicycle handlebars, and their weapon of choice, the machete. But she understood as few others had that the killing implement was far less essential than the will to kill, the organizational apparatus, and the usurpation of law so that the age-old admonition “Thou shalt not kill” could become “Thou shalt kill.”15 She understood that barbarous regimes could not come into being overnight. Gradualism was required on two fronts. First, those who would take up arms against their neighbors had to be progressively lured into finding unthinkable acts not only thinkable, but necessary. The incremental seduction had to leave citizens convinced that they were confronted with a threat so existential that no holds could be barred.

Second, the targets of persecution also had to be subtly removed from the realm of legal, national, and ultimately moral obligation. In Origins, Arendt showed totalitarian regimes only gradually denying a person his legal right to have rights, or his government’s protection; forcing him into such subhuman conditions that he began to lose his capacity for human solidarity; and destroying his individuality and spontaneity so that nothing remained “but ghastly marionettes with human faces.” By the end of this sequential, determined process, the “rightless,” as Arendt classified them, had become not merely a means to an end, but an utterly “superfluous” subsection of humanity.

Now, while such systematic degradation is still evident today, something new and important has taken shape since Arendt wrote Origins, something that should have drastically improved the odds of the persecuted: the international human rights movement. In the wake of the Nazi horrors, where German law was one tool among many for repression, the United Nations and its member states negotiated a variety of human rights treaties that would, in principle, enable the victims of state terror to appeal to a set of laws higher than those theoretically enforced in national courts. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention, passed unanimously within a day of each other in 1948, were followed by the Geneva Conventions, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Torture Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and others. The second half of the twentieth century brought about a true revolution in the development of norms and the enshrining of those norms in international law. And during the last decade of the century, special international courts were created to enforce the prohibition against war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide—the UN International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the permanent International Criminal Court in The Hague.

But what of it? As has been made plain by the genocide in Rwanda, and the ongoing, preventable AIDS deaths of millions of Africans, even the most fundamental of rights—the right to life—remains insecure, arguably as insecure as it was during World War II. The welfare of individuals depends now, as it did then, upon the determination of a state to respect and protect the rights of its own citizens, and, in the event of a state’s desertion of its duties, the will of outside powers to step in as a fallback.

What is most remarkable about Origins is Arendt’s prophetic skepticism about the enforceability of international human rights. Arendt did not get bogged down, as other theorists did, in ranking or justifying human rights. Her emphasis was on politics, and her prediction (born, as always, of observation) was that politics would fail human rights. “No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with more poignant irony,” she wrote,

than the discrepancy between the efforts of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as ‘inalienable’ those human rights which are enjoyed only by the citizens of the most prosperous and civilized countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves.

Arendt flagged the paradox inherent in the worthy and necessary notion of international human rights. The reason rights were needed was that states could not be trusted to restrain themselves or to advance the welfare of their citizens. Yet the evolving human rights system left those same untrustworthy states in charge of enforcing these allegedly inalienable rights. Arendt had seen the League of Nations simply aggregate the selfishness of its members. Unless the whole concept of the state were rethought, or the new United Nations were given a mind, an army, and a bank account of its own, she was sure paper laws would again yield few concrete dividends.

The problem was structural. A state’s political and military leaders would always be tempted to grant privileges to some citizens over others, or to rank their own accumulation of power above the overall dignity and well-being of their constituents. If international law stood any chance of checking these impulses, it would need enforcers. And while most states would be willing to sign an international treaty, few abusive states would allow other states to meddle in their affairs, and few outsiders would be eager to do the meddling. In Western democracies, for example, voters elected leaders who would advance their needs, not those of distant strangers. Thus the voters’ interests—conceived narrowly and usually defined by election cycles—would take precedence over the suffering of those in foreign lands. If alliances with repressive regimes served the “national interest,” they would usually be maintained, even in the face of staggering human loss. “The Rights of Man,” Arendt wrote,

had been defined as “inalienable” because they were supposed to be independent of all governments; but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum [international human] rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them.

The human rights movement was predicated on the shared nature, needs, and aspirations of all humans—regardless of their location, ethnicity, religion, gender, or nationality. But Arendt believed that concentration camp survivors and refugees crammed into forgotten squalor revealed that “the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger.”

In Origins Arendt offered contradictory impressions of the nation-state. In her discussions of anti-Semitism and imperialism, she pronounced the nation-state’s imminent demise. Yet in her discussion of twentieth-century human rights abusers, she suggested that it was the durability of the nation-state that boded ill for the persecuted. It is difficult to discern what Arendt herself wished for states. It was clear that governments could not be counted on to prevent suffering inside their borders, or to redress suffering outside. The excluded, the poor, the powerless, the stateless, would regularly be left orphaned by a community of well-wishing liberal internationalists. Yet the very selfishness of states also meant that human beings were most likely to see their rights enforced if they looked not to some abstract international community, but to their own governments. If this was true, she seemed to suggest, then however poisonous the track record of states, only they could offer inclusive, enforceable constitutional protections and remedies for their citizens.

Arendt’s suspicions about the false promise of liberal internationalism were well-founded, but what she underestimated was the intrinsic appeal of human rights principles around the world—a resonance that has resulted more in the bottom-up promotion of human rights than in the top-down protection envisaged in 1948. In 1975, when Arendt died, Amnesty International, which had been founded in 1961, had an annual budget of $860,000. Arendt could not have envisaged a day when a nonstate entity like Human Rights Watch would spend more than $22 million per year, and would conduct its own rigorous field investigations to shame criminal officials, their abettors, and the world’s bystanders. And far more important than international human rights groups are the hundreds of thousands of indigenous human rights groups—led by labor organizers, women’s suffrage advocates, AIDS activists, fledgling independent newspaper journalists, and others—throughout the developing world. It is with these groups that hope lies. It is these committed and engaged people who have the most at stake in their countries’ futures, and who see themselves not as “human beings in general,” but as political actors who may eventually ensure that election results are respected, the military and police are restrained, and individual rights are enforced.

In some countries state control is so fierce that independent voices are silenced and marginalized, power and wealth are concentrated among elites, and injustice flourishes. In others, war or occupation has brought such ruin and humiliation that civil society cannot emerge and no amount of organizing can restore living standards or human dignity. It is from some of these countries that contemporary terrorist threats come, and it is here that Origins offers further wisdom for today’s dark times—wisdom that we ignore at our peril.

Militant Islam is not well understood by those who feel most threatened by it. Some of its legions of followers have been drawn by the exclusionary and radical conservatism of its vision; others have been attracted by a sense of belonging, a desire for power, or a hunger for revenge. Those who have flocked to terrorist organizations have faith—in religion, or in an ideology that can double as a religion. If one could pierce the veil of mystery that shrouds al-Qaeda, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad, one might well find some of the qualities Arendt associated with totalitarian movements:

Supreme disregard for immediate consequences rather than ruthlessness; rootlessnesss and neglect of national interests rather than nationalism; contempt for utilitarian motives rather than unconsidered pursuit of self-interest; “idealism,” i.e., their unwavering faith in an ideological fictitious world, rather than lust for power.

Arendt wrote of German and Soviet selfless devotion to the idealized collective, but what greater testament to such selflessness can there be but martyrdom of the kind that thousands of young Muslim men and women are queuing up to undertake today?

In the United States since September 11, 2001, Americans have begun asking, “Why do they hate us?” The response tends to fall between two extremes. Bush administration officials say, in effect, they hate us for who we are. As President Bush has put it, “They hate progress, and freedom, and choice, and culture, and music, and laughter, and women, and Christians, and Jews, and all Muslims who reject their distorted doctrines.”16 Adherents of this view ignore the devastating impact of specific US policies on those who have learned to hate. At the opposite extreme stand those who insist that young men and women are flocking to martyr themselves exclusively because of what the United States has done. They cite uncritical US support for Israel, its backing of corrupt and repressive Middle Eastern states, and its exploitation of the world’s natural resources. But adherents of this position often ignore the role played by a variety of other social, political, and economic factors in contributing to local misery.

Arendt would likely avoid both rigid views and summon us to do three things simultaneously: meet the threat abroad, preserve essential freedoms at home, and be unafraid to explore the motives and aims of the enemy. In meeting the threat, she would argue that lethal collective movements cannot be met with words alone, but must also be met with force. As one disgusted by the convenient patience and wishful thinking of European statesmen before and during the Holocaust, Arendt would undoubtedly urge us to rid ourselves of our “common-sense disinclination to believe the monstrous” and make all necessary sacrifices to guard against chemical attacks, dirty bombs, and other atrocities that our imaginations can hardly dare to broach. But while Arendt valued what today is termed “hard power,” she also knew firsthand the danger of state overreaching in the name of self-defense, and the prospect that a merciless “counter-ideology” could emerge. Today, in the name of fighting a war of infinite duration, it has again proven far too tempting for our liberal democracy to give security absolute priority over liberty, slighting or scrapping the values so central to American constitutionalism, and surrendering before a new ideology of counterterrorism.

Origins shows that Arendt would not be satisfied with a policy that aimed to violently crush today’s threat without seeking to understand it. In the preface to Origins, she set out “to discover the hidden mechanics by which all traditional elements of our political and spiritual world were dissolved,” leading to a situation “unrecognizable for human comprehension.” We have landed in a similarly unimaginable place today. Yet thus far, in their desire to avoid legitimating a murderous cause by considering its origins, our leaders have refused to try to understand the hidden mechanics of how we got to where we are. Arendt used the phrase “radical evil” to describe totalitarianism, and this is an idea that has been brought back into circulation. Yet while Arendt did not allow such branding to deter her from exploring the sources of that evil, the less subtle minds who invoke the concept today do so to mute criticisms of their responses. (Who, after all, can be against combatting evil?)

But sheltering behind black-and-white characterizations is not only questionable for moral or epistemological reasons. It poses a practical problem because it blinds us from understanding and thus undermines our long-term ability to prevent and surmount what we don’t know and most fear. “Evil,” whether radical or banal, is met most often with unimaginativeness. Terrorism is a threat that demands a complex and elaborate effort to distinguish the sympathizers from the militants and to keep its converts to a minimum. Terrorism also requires understanding how our past policies helped give rise to such venomous grievances. Origins is chilling to read today because it reveals that even the most radical evils, Nazism and Stalinism, were driven by an internal logic and a self-perceived morality. It simply has to be true, given the human costs and nuclear stakes of the contemporary showdown, that we can never know too much about terrorist movements, and that we can never try too hard to alleviate the indignities and inequalities that may help fuel the threat.

Hannah Arendt had what W.B. Yeats called the uncommon ability “to hold in a single thought reality and justice.” In Arendt’s preface to Origins, she noted:

This book has been written against a background both of reckless optimism and reckless despair. It holds that Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition, not of faith.

In order to move beyond superstition, which is what we cling to today, it is politics that has to be brought to bear. We are afraid, and fear is dangerous. It can justify excesses and can lead to escapism. The gravest temptation is an overwhelmed, apolitical retreat into private life. But it is not enough to lament the burden of our time; we citizens must shape the response. It is only in the public sphere, through voting, voicing, and mobilizing, that our fates become our own. While fear is dangerous, fear can also concentrate the mind and lead citizens to take political action. The coming years—where we find ourselves again suspended “between a no-longer and a not-yet”17—are years of danger and promise, and we can only hope, as Arendt did, that the tug toward apathy will be overcome by the lure of human improvement and self-preservation.

  1. 13

    See Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, preface to the second edition of Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, to be published by Yale University Press in October, 2004.

  2. 14

    Vladimir Gligorov, “Is What Is Left Right? (The Yugoslav Heritage),” in Transition to Capitalism?: The Communist Legacy in Eastern Europe, edited by János Mátyás Kovács (Transaction, 1994), p. 158.

  3. 15

    Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin, 1994), p. 150.

  4. 17

    Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), p. 90.

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