The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought

Evil: The Crime against Humanity
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University


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From Eichmann in Jerusalem The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

To confront the evil of totalitarian criminality requires a way of thinking that reflects the human experience of being superfluous, the futility and meaninglessness of "not belonging to the world at all." That experience was forced by terror upon the inmates of the camps, but Arendt also saw that the "laboratories" of slave labor and extermination changed the nature of those who wielded the instruments of destruction. It was not a matter of choice but "an accident of birth [that] condemned" some to life and some to death, and both "functioned to the last moment . . . frictionlessly." (see "The Image of Hell") Furthermore, having "no place in the world recognized and guaranteed by others" was the experience of the uprooted, unemployed, and unwanted masses of mankind which did not cause but made possible the "lying" world of totalitarianism. More than any other single factor, the failure of "the Rights of Man," "formulated" and "proclaimed" in the American and French Revolutions but never "politically secured" or "philosophically established," enabled a form of government to appear that, though made by men, denied humanity and in which the meaninglessness of life and indifference towards death was the primary common experience. As Eichmann put it: "We did not care if we died today or only tomorrow, and there were times we cursed the morning that found us still alive." (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 6, "The Final Solution: Killing")

Arendt was of course aware of the gulf in human suffering that separates the oppressed from their oppressors, but her point was different. Contrary to popular accounts that seek to "demonize" the oppressors, Arendt saw the totalitarians themselves, often in their own estimation, as superfluous human beings. S.S. officers (the black-shirted Schutzstaffel or security service) were selected by photographs, by "objective" racial characteristics, and not by interviews in which their inclination or disinclination, their psychological suitability or unsuitability for the horrendous tasks they were called upon to perform, could be assessed. The S.S. was as far beyond the reach of law as its prisoners, for although the Nazis never formally revoked the constitution of the German Republic, its laws had no authority when they conflicted with the Führer's will. The slave labor and extermination camps succeeded in extirpating the moral being of the destroyers as well as those they destroyed. Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the complex Nazi police and security forces, told S.S. officers that they had to become "superhumanly inhuman," that is, to cease being human if they were to carry out the "great task that occurs but once in two thousand years." Obedience and devotion are required but conviction and agreement despised, since the latter imply at least the possibility of a last remnant of spontaneous thought and action. Eichmann, who evinced no spontaneity, spoke in his defense of "the obedience of corpses (Kadavergehorsam)." (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 8, "Duties of a Law-Abiding Citizen")

Those who support a totalitarian system, according to Arendt, may be "bearers of orders" or "bearers of secrets" but in the eyes of the movement they bear no responsibility for what they do. Without the structure of responsibility the reality of the world becomes "a mass of incomprehensible data." Human beings "can be tortured and slaughtered, and yet neither the tormentors or the tormented . . . can be aware that what is happening is anything more than a cruel game." The supporters are pawnlike "embodiments" of the will of the leader who, as the sole repository of "responsibility," is infallible. That infallibility has nothing to do with truth or trustworthiness, however, as Stalin's faithful servants discovered when they became his victims in the Great Purge trials of the mid-1930s. The accused had not, as charged, betrayed the Party, but were defenseless and remained largely passive when confronted with Stalin's inexorable will. In much the same sense, when facing certain defeat Hitler did not consider surrendering to save German lives but on the contrary declared the entire German nation unfit to go on living, unfit to be members of the "Aryan" race, if and when it failed to enact his will. And yet Hitler and Stalin, unlike ordinary dictators, were as much the "products" as the leaders of their respective movements, their directions as much as their directors. "All that you are, you are through me; and all that I am, I am through you alone," Hitler said to the S.A. (the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung or storm troopers) who preceded the "elite" S.S. in the ever changing "hierarchies" of Nazism. He spoke of himself as a "magnet" that attracted the "steel" of the German people. As the will of a totalitarian movement the leader is irreplaceable; as a function of that movement, however, he is replaceable by virtually any of his henchmen, and both Hitler and Stalin knew that. Hence Arendt referred to them both as "non-persons" or "non-entities."


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The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought