Sunday, 22 September 2013

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

The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress
In 1963 Hannah Arendt said that she had "been thinking for many years, or, to be specific, for thirty years, about the nature of evil." (see Grafton document in Eichmann file) It had been thirty years since the Reichstag, the German parliament, was burned in Berlin, an event followed immediately by the Nazis' illegal arrests of thousands of communists and others who opposed them. Though innocent of any crime, those arrested were taken to concentration camps or the cellars of the recently organized Gestapo and subjected to what Arendt called "monstrous" treatment. With his political opposition effectively forestalled, Hitler could establish as a matter of policy the Jew-hatred that in his case was obvious to anyone who read Mein Kampf (My Struggle), the diatribe he dictated in prison and published in 1925. Which is to say that with the consolidation of Nazi power anti-Semitism ceased to be a social prejudice and became political: Germany was to be made judenrein, "purified" by first demoting Jews to the status of second class citizens, then by ridding them of their citizenship altogether, deporting them, and, finally, killing them. From that moment on Arendt said she "felt responsible." But responsible for what? She meant that she, unlike many others, could no longer be "simply a bystander" but must in her own voice and person respond to the criminality rampant in her native land. "If one is attacked as a Jew," she said, "one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man."
The year was 1933. Within a few months Arendt was arrested, briefly detained for her work with a Zionist organization, and, when the opportunity presented itself, left Germany abruptly. After her stay in France and upon arriving in America in 1941, she wrote more than fifty articles for the German-Jewish weekly Der Aufbau addressing the plight and duty of Jews during World War II.1 Arendt first heard about Auschwitz in 1943, but with Germany's defeat in 1945 incontrovertible evidence of the existence of Nazi "factories" of extermination came to light, and at that time information concerning slave labor installations in the Soviet Gulag also gradually emerged. Struck by the structural similarity of those institutions Arendt turned her attention to the function of concentration camps under totalitarian rule. Her analysis has to be read to be fully appreciated and only a few indications of its power and originality, and fewer of its subtlety, can be given here.
Caption Below
The camps haunted Arendt's writing until Stalin's death in 1953. Then, after she published The Human Condition in 1958, a theoretical study of the three activities of active life (labor, work, and action) and their career in the modern age, and embarked on an analysis of the American, French, and Russian Revolutions, the camps reappeared on the horizon of her thought when she attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann (the chief coordinator of the transportation of Jews to the death camps) in Israel in 1961. In one way or another the Nazi camps played a major role in the controversy that followed the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963, and, although she ceased to write directly about them after 1966, it is fair to say that what she called the "overpowering reality" of totalitarian concentration camps lay behind her preoccupation with the problem of evil, a concern that lasted until the end of her life.

Arendt saw Eichmann, on trial for his life, as a "buffoon" whose

inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such . . . [It was] proof against reason and argument and information and insight of any kind (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapters 3 and 5).
Having encountered such a man, Arendt saw that the banality of evil is potentially far greater in extent--indeed limitless--than the growth of evil from a "root." A root can be uprooted, which is what she meant to do when she spoke of "destroying" totalitarianism, but the evil perpetrated by an Eichmann can spread over the face of the earth like a "fungus" precisely because it has no root. Furthermore, the case of Eichmann led Arendt to see that at least one evildoer was not "corruptible." Having overcome or in his case forgotten any inclination he may have had to halt or hinder the organization and transportation of millions of innocent Jews to their deaths, Eichmann boasted that he had done his duty to the end! Unlike Himmler, his ultimate superior in the chain of command and a chief architect of the "final solution," Eichmann never attempted to "negotiate" with the enemy when it became clear that the Nazi cause was lost. He declared, on the contrary, "that he had lived his whole life . . . according to a Kantian definition of duty," (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 8) and Arendt noted that "to the surprise of everybody, Eichmann came up with an approximately correct definition of [Kant's] categorical imperative," though he had "distorted" it in practice. She admitted, moreover, "that Eichmann's distortion agrees with what he himself called the version of Kant 'for the household use of the little man,'" the identification of one's will with "the source" of law, which for Eichmann was the will of the F├╝hrer.
Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Eichmann in Jerusalem is its study of human conscience. The court's refusal to consider seriously the question of Eichmann's conscience resulted in its failure to confront what Arendt called "the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century." The Israeli judges understood conscience traditionally as the voice of God or lumen naturale, speaking or shining in every human soul, telling or illuminating the difference between right and wrong, and this simply did not apply in the case of Eichmann. Eichmann had a conscience, and it seems to have "functioned in the expected way" for a few weeks after he became engaged in the transport of Jews, and then, when he heard no voice saying Thou shalt not kill but on the contrary every voice saying Thou shalt kill, "it began to function the other way around." (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 6) And this was by no means true only for Eichmann. Arendt was convinced by testimony presented at the trial that a general "moral collapse" had been experienced throughout Europe, from which even respected members of the Jewish leadership were not exempt.5 (seeEichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 7)
And so the controversy raged. Arendt may have exaggerated the extent to which the attacks against her were prompted by a "conspiracy" of the Jewish establishment and leveled against a book that was "never written." (see "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship") Certainly not everyone who disagreed with her, sometimes vehemently, was malevolent or ill-informed (see letter from Hans Jonas to H.A. marked "etwa Januar 1964"). Much that was said was indeed preposterous, for example, that she attempted to exonerate Eichmann when she had done exactly the opposite; or that she was morally insensitive in asking why Jews had not fought back, a question raised by the prosecutor but never by Arendt, who understood that the processes of dehumanization precluded rebellion. Yet many were deeply disturbed by her depiction of an Eichmann who was not an ideological anti-Semite nor even criminally motivated--he wanted to rise in rank not by murdering anyone but by "conscientiously" doing his job. "Intent to do wrong" was not, in Arendt's opinion, proved against him. He was not "morally insane" for in his own "muddled" way he distinguished between right and wrong, and the results of psychological tests showed that he was not a "monster" but frighteningly normal.
Eichmann was not stupid; he knew but did not think what he was doing, not in the past and not in Jerusalem. He contradicted himself constantly, but he did not lie; his conscience did not bother him; and he did not suffer from remorse: "He knew that what he had once called his duty was now called a crime, and he accepted this new code of judgment as if it were nothing but another language rule" (see "Thinking and Moral Considerations"). Therefore it was important to Arendt that the justice of the death sentence delivered by the court be seen by all, and for that reason she offered her own judgment, addressing Eichmann in the following terms:

Just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations--as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world--we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to share the world with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, "Epilogue" -- part one and part two").



The "Epilogue" to Eichmann in Jerusalem deals with the legality of the Jerusalem trial, which for the most part Arendt defended, but she thought it necessary to clarify what the Israeli court's judgment left obscure. Eichmann was guilty of "an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the 'human status' without which the very words 'mankind' or 'humanity' would be devoid of meaning." Arendt recognized in Eichmann, who struck her as "not even strange" (nicht einmal unheimlich) (see letter from H.A. to Heinrich Bluecher, April 15, 1961), the exemplary criminal capable of committing "the new crime, the crime against humanity." He "supported and carried out" the physical destruction of European Jewry and would have done the same for any group or anyone at all whom a power higher than himself had decreed unfit to live. 

With the establishment of the state of Israel Jews were finally able "to sit in judgment on crimes committed against their own people"; they no longer needed "to appeal to others for protection and justice, or fall back upon the compromised phraseology of the rights of man." Arendt had long known that universal human rights are a chimera for those who lack the power to defend them. She knew from her own experience that despite any proclamation of their universality such rights are not "independent of human plurality" and are not possessed by human beings "expelled from the human community." (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, "Imperialism," chapter 9, "The Perplexities of the Rights of Man") She spoke, therefore, of "a right to have rights," a right "to live in a framework where one is judged by one's actions and opinions," and it was that right, denied by totalitarianism, that she hoped would be seen by all as the basic principle of human solidarity. The right to have rights, the right of a plurality of people "to act together concerning things that are of equal concern to each," was for Arendt the minimum condition of a common human world. That right, the source of the rights of freedom and justice, would be "politically secured" if and only if it were set forth as the principal tenet of international law, a law "above nations," the enforcement of which would be legally binding on all peoples and all nations, transcending any "rules of sovereignty."6 (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, first edition, "Concluding Remarks") After having written of a "right to have rights" but before encountering Eichmann Arendt spoke of the "thunder" of the "explosion" of totalitarian crimes that nevertheless leaves us silent when "we dare to ask, not 'What are we fighting against' but 'What are we fighting for?'" (see "Tradition and the Modern Age" in Between Past and Future (originally in "Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought," long manuscript); cf. "The Difficulties of Understanding") She did not answer that question directly, presumably because she wanted her readers to think it through for themselves. It seems safe to say that Arendt herself considered the fundamental right to have rights something worth "fighting for."
The difficulty is that the right to have rights, as well as the rights of man, had never been "philosophically established." Here too the Eichmann trial, in particular the question of conscience, pointed the direction for the most challenging part of Arendt's late work. In a sense she deconstructed the phenomenon of conscience into something like the rules of a changing game or, better, the changing rules of the same game. She was not satisfied with that, however, and wanted to find out what we mean when we talk about moral phenomena insofar as they are not rules, customs, or habits. She found that what had traditionally been considered the voice of conscience was in fact the actualization of consciousness in the activity of thinking. Thus the relation of thoughtlessness to evil became concrete. What is most elusive and difficult to grasp is that Arendt meant literally the activity of thinking and not its results, not things thought, from which at best new rules might be derived which would either dissolve in further thinking or become unthought customs and habits.
What Arendt meant by the actualization of consciousness was not consciousness in the psychological sense but a knowing-with-oneself (con-scientia) that imposes limits when it is experienced. The crucial point is that the activity of thinking provides an intense and ineluctable experience of plurality. While thinking, i.e., while experiencing the silent dialogue of thought, the ego splits in two, disclosing an inner difference within an apparent identity. At lightning speed these "two-in-one," as Arendt called them, converse as long as the activity of thinking lasts. She found that these thinking "partners" have to be on good terms, essentially in agreement, because they cannot go on or resume thinking if they contradict one another. Arendt grounded, existentially, the logical law of non-contradiction in the congeniality of the two-in-one. By the same token it is in the activity of thinking that the explicitly human relationship between a plurality, though it be only of two, is first established. Again, it is not an "idea" but the experience of sheer activity that makes the one not only respect and relish but refuse to abrogate at any cost the right of the other to freely exercise the right to think. Socrates, who never wrote anything, preferred to die rather than live apart from his thinking "partner" and in Arendt's many references to him stands forth as the diametric opposite of Eichmann. Eichmann's contradictions indicated not that he had lost consciousness but that he had no experience of inner plurality, no contact with himself, and that therefore he could be relied upon to do anything, anything at all, that his "conscience" assured him was his duty.7
The foregoing amounts to no more than a glance at Arendt's late work. It should at least be added that thinking is only one of three mental activities that concerned her. Willing depends in a different way on inner plurality. It is a restless and inharmonious activity in which the willing ego is split two or more times and pulled in different directions. Willing generates power to affect the future, yet it is only with the cessation of the activity that the individuated self "springs" into action. Judging, on which we do not have Arendt's last word, is politically the most important of these activities. As its own witness it curbs the willing ego by manifesting in the world the justness implicit in the relationship of the two-in-one of thinking. Unlike either thinking or willing judging embraces the plurality of the outer world, of distinct men and women, of persons. The major texts that Arendt wrote following Eichmann in Jerusalem revolutionize the meaning of personal responsibility and the nature of moral judgment. Although with few exceptions they have played a minor role in the abundant secondary literature that has grown up around her work, today there are indications, especially among younger readers and scholars, of a new interest in these texts. In general Arendt's thought has proved stimulating because of the depth, passion, and independence of her mind and because she had the courage to write against the grain of accepted political prejudgments or prejudices. The later works that are here made accessible (see "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship," "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy," "Basic Moral Propositions," "Philosophy and Politics: What is Political Philosophy?" "Thinking and Moral Considerations," "Kant's Political Philosophy," and The Life of the Mind: "Thinking" and "Willing") add a different dimension to the attention that in all likelihood will be paid to Arendt in the future, a philosophic dimension that was there from the beginning, to be sure, but which she began to articulate only at the end of her life and did not live to fulfill. Hannah Arendt's legacy to the generations coming after her is not so much a teaching to be learned as a challenge to be met.


6. Arendt consistently opposed the idea of sovereignty as a power above law.




1. While in France she wrote essays on the Jewish Question and the Minority Question, and began a historical study of modern anti-Semitism (see "Judenfrage," "Zur Minderheitenfrage," and "Antisemitismus").