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The Disfigured Self: What Hannah Arendt Got Right

This is Arendt’s point about totalitarianismu2014it disfigures the self, changes it into something other than what it is under a free regime.

In her 2011 book, Eichmann vor Jerusalem: Das unbehelligte Leben eines Massenmörders (Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer), Bettina Strangneth sets about proving something generally known: that Adolf Eichmann was a zealous Nazi – that he was one during World War II, when he was elevated to the status of Jewish expert and transport Czar, and that he remained one after the War ended, when he and many of his colleagues fled to South America but remained in contact with a broad network of unreconstructed Nazis still in Germany.

Although Strangneth elaborates at great length on these facts, nothing that she writes comes as news. Yet her book was translated from the German, published by the venerable Knopf publishing house in 2014, and widely reviewed here and abroad. The primary reason for this attention is that the book positions itself, as its title suggests, as a response to Hannah Arendt’s 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Strangneth asserts early on that Eichmann Before Jerusalem “is a dialogue with Hannah Arendt,” and it is this promise of a dialogue that makes her book a marketable commodity.

Arendt was an intellectual star who became a lightning rod for controversy when Eichmann in Jerusalem was first serialized in The New Yorker in 1963. Recently, a number of factors have brought her back into public consciousness and revived the controversy surrounding her ideas. These include the 2009 revelation that she used anti-Semitic sources in her Origins of Totalitarianism and that she continued a friendship with her former teacher and lover, the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, after the War. In 2012, a film, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, dramatized Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial, and in 2013, Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations was published, which includes statements about Eichmann in Jerusalem made before her death in 1975.

Strangneth’s account appears in the context of this media landscape. But while she professes to be in dialogue with Arendt’s book, she does not wrestle with its argument in more than a superficial way.

Part of the problem, admittedly, has to do with the argument itself. Arendt was not always clear or consistent in the presentation of her ideas, nor was she especially diplomatic in raising the points she did. But, then, Eichmann in Jerusalem was trying to make sense of something monstrous and seemingly illogical; it was thus bound to be incomplete, messy, and at times, wrong-headed. Yes, Arendt got some of the details wrong about Eichmann. She was wrong to assume that he was less a committed Nazi than a careerist and a bureaucrat, less a zealot than a company man and thus not a Nazi when not employed by the “company.” But this distinction, which Strangneth makes the focus of her book, seems, ultimately, a semantic one. It turns on where you think the “company” begins and ends.

Eichmann’s Relation to Nazism

Strangneth notes that the Nazis who gathered around Eichmann in Argentina did so with the belief that the defeated regime would rise again – that the “company” was not definitively out of business. This idea is supported indirectly by Arendt, in one of her asides, notes: “Would any one of them [Nazis later brought to justice] have suffered a guilty conscience if they had won?” And later, more provocatively, but along the same lines: “Is it conceivable that none of them [German Jews] ever asked himself how many of his own group would have done just the same if only they had been allowed to?” Then, after raising the unsettling question of what German Jews might have done if allowed to ally themselves with their non-Jewish German compatriots, she brings the argument back to the issue of guilt: “But is their condemnation today any the less correct for that reason [i.e., the fact that they might have acted as their oppressors did, had the situation been different]?” Elsewhere, she elaborates on this point: “guilt and innocence before the law are of an objective nature, and even if eighty million Germans had done as you [Eichmann] did this would not have been an excuse for you.”

The question leads us to another point of divergence between Strangneth and Arendt that, on examination, may be less divergent than it seems. Both note Eichmann’s invocation of Kant during his trial, but where Arendt sees this as another instance of his “empty talk” – a kind of gibberish philosophy – Strangneth sees it as logical and deliberative. She argues that Arendt was too caught up in her German literary training to see that Eichmann was using Kantian philosophy, not stupidly, but for his own ends. But again, the distinction seems semantical. Arendt sees Eichmann’s use of Kant as a nonsensical form of the categorical imperative, replacing “Act in such a way that one would will the act to be a universal law” with “Act in such a way that the Fuhrer, if he knew your action, would approve it.” Arendt is trying again to “place” Eichmann within the degenerate context in which he and other Germans were operating, where the Fuhrer could assume the role of a consummate moral as well as political dictator, an idea that makes no sense unless one happens to be inside a totalitarian regime in which all independent thought has been eliminated.

In short, Strangneth, despite her claim, is not in dialogue with Arendt; they are not on equal footing. Strangneth’s book is small. Arendt’s is big; it deals with issues that were then and still are morally charged and difficult to grasp. These include: the failure of Jews in many instances to resist their oppressors; the complicity with the Nazis of certain Jewish leaders; the relationship between forced emigration and the creation of the state of Israel (alongside the Arab displacement that occurred in the process); the kidnapping of Eichmann from Argentina to stand trial in Israel; the validity and nature of that trial; and the full, existential meaning of the crimes under indictment. She touches on all of these subjects, and explores them at variable length, but does not arrive at complete or consistent conclusions. Yet raising these subjects was enough to incite an extraordinary backlash.

In her epilogue, written for the book’s publication after its serialization in The New Yorker, Arendt took note of the way the work had been pilloried in many quarters. She protested, with a certain disingenuousness: “the clamor centered on the ‘image’ of a book which was never written, and touched upon subjects that often had not only not been mentioned by me but had never occurred to me before.” It seems true that the image rather than the content of the book was under attack, often, as Arendt noted, by people who had never read it, but, contrary to her protestation, I don’t think there were any subjects that didn’t occur to her. Everything occurred to her. That was her crime in the eyes of her detractors: she did not keep certain subjects off limits out of respect for the recent dead or for those whose trauma was still fresh. Her thought process required that these subjects be brought into play. As Philip Green, a critic who knew her, recently observed, she represented, whether she was right or wrong, “a model of how to think with difficulty but also with absolute integrity and fearlessness about issues that are difficult to think about clearly at all.”

A Philosopher’s Analysis of Totalitarianism

Arendt’s thought process in Eichmann in Jerusalem seems an extension of that in her previous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. There, she drew a distinction between autocratic systems that consolidate political power, and totalitarian ones that consolidate social and psychological as well as political power. A totalitarian regime permeates all aspects of its citizens’ existence, and, through violence and fear, creates a society of accomplices. If Arendt was/is condemned for noting that Jewish leaders had a role in first helping with the emigration of Jews to Israel, then in saving some (and sacrificing others), and finally, in organizing deportation to the camps, she does so in order to explain the gradual, systemic degeneration that the Nazi state brought into being. The S.S. understood, she explains, “that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold … is incomparably the best for keeping a whole people in slavery.” The term “banality” as she used it in the subtitle of her book, refers to such behavior, that becomes part of everyday life in a totalitarian regime.

Arendt was a philosopher. Philosophers are generalizers, people who, attached to their theories, often don’t see the trees for the forest. I would argue that Arendt’s profile of Eichmann is a case in point. What she was trying to do in writing Eichmann in Jerusalem was explain the phenomenon of Nazism – how it was that an otherwise seemingly normal person could participate in actions that retrospectively were blatantly, uninflectedly evil. She raises this question and then answers it: “yes, he had a conscience, and his conscience functioned in the expected way for about four weeks, whereupon it began to function the other way around.” Given that Arendt had developed this idea in The Origins of Totalitarianism, it makes sense that she “bought” Eichmann’s bumbling, Everyman performance at his trial. She failed to see – or want to see – that he was not a particularly good example of her thesis.

But Arendt’s credulity with respect to Eichmann does not discredit her theory with respect to the German people more generally. In this, she opposes, at least superficially, Daniel Goldhagen, who, in his 1996 book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, argued that the German Everyman, far from being a mindless cog in a machine, was a knowing accomplice, possessed of a deep-seated, long-standing hatred for the Jewish people.

But again, on closer examination, one finds that Goldhagen does not diverge as radically from Arendt as it first seems. According to Goldhagen, the totalitarian regime that underlay the German Final Solution was not the Third Reich but the Church, which, since medieval times, saw the Jews as both the murderers of Christ and the stubborn opponents to the revelations of Christianity. The result, as Goldhagen put it, was that “a thoroughgoing antipathy toward Jews was integral to the moral order of society.” When this sort of thinking was combined with other factors central to German society at the time – overweening nationalism and economic distress – the anti-Semitism, already present in the society, turned toxic. Not only could Everyman embrace the killing of Jews without feeling that this opposed his moral code; he could see it as supporting his moral code – Jews having been formally relegated to non-human status. As a result, the German Everyman could be, like Eichmann, a murderer of Jews and a Kantian at the same time.

Goldhagen’s thesis, in this sense, is a less inflected version of Arendt’s. In Arendt’s view, an entire population did help to facilitate mass genocide, but some of those who facilitated it were Jews themselves. These people, within an atmosphere of escalating violence and fear, behaved in ways that they would not have done under other circumstances. Arendt takes pains to make this point as she shows how people from different countries responded to the Nazi occupation, and how that behavior affected how the Nazis themselves behaved. In Bulgaria, and in Denmark most notably, the native population refused complicity with the result that the occupying Germans shifted gears and did not become the brutes that they became elsewhere.

All this makes sense. What is wrong with Arendt’s thesis is its level of generalization. For while we can see differences in the way the general population behaved from country to country, high-level Nazis cannot be viewed in the same context. A man who rose to the heights that Eichmann did is different in kind from the man who followed along. In this regard, Arendt seems to have been overly credulous. Indeed, most people, even those intrigued by her book when it was published, did not fully buy her thesis.

The Question of the Self

If one considers how Arendt used the phrase “the banality of evil,” one can argue that, for all that her book is brilliantly insightful in many respects, there is something philosophically banal about its depiction of Eichmann and his compatriots. It reflects an attempt to rationalize (if not excuse) the behavior of a nation that she must have continued to feel emotionally and intellectually tied to and, perhaps more, to rationalize the heinous behavior of her teacher and former lover. This last point can be derived from Elzbieta Ettinger’s 1997 book, Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger, which portrays Arendt as a woman in thrall to a romantic infatuation. Some reviewers dismissed the book as a tabloid-style account, unrelated to Arendt’s role as a serious philosopher. But compartmentalization of this sort makes no sense. As much as a philosophical position can sometimes determine an individual’s behavior, more often it is the behavior that drives the philosophy. One is reminded of the literary theorist Paul de Man, whose theory of deconstruction seems, retrospectively, to be an elaborate rationalization for his having written anti-Semitic articles before and during World War II (work that only came to light after his death).

Arendt, in her last interview, spells out this point when she states:

I still think that it belongs to the essence of being an intellectual that one fabricates ideas about everything. No one ever blamed someone if he ‘coordinated’ because he had to take care of his wife or child. The worst thing was that some people really believed in Nazism! For a short time, many for a very short time. But that means that they made up ideas about Hitler, in part terrifically interesting things! Completely fantastic and interesting and complicated things! Things far above the ordinary level! I found that grotesque.

This statement is typical of Arendt. It is at once insightful and evasive, cogent and contradictory – and, most notably, unable to make the final leap from others to herself.

And yet – for all that I see Arendt as engaging in unconscious rationalization, I do not feel that this discredits her thesis. She makes us see, even through the example of her own case, the difficulty of drawing the line between coerced or unconscious complicity and responsible, deliberate malevolence. Indeed, by representing Eichmann as an Everyman, she at moments erases the distinction: “guilt and innocence before the law are of an objective nature, and even if eighty million Germans had done as you [Eichmann] did this would not have been an excuse for you.” We are left to ponder what this means for those whom her thesis implies share this guilt – including herself and certainly her revered teacher.

Strangneth, however, doesn’t raise the complicated issue of such guilt, placing Eichmann in a category entirely distinct from the general population and elaborating his story using recently recovered documents. What can we learn from this exhaustive excavation beyond the fact that Eichmann was what our imagination leads us to think he was – a deep-seated anti-Semite, responsible for the deaths of millions, who, given the opportunity, would have continued on his murderous course.

The great question that lurks at the heart of all Holocaust study, it seems to me, is the question of the self. What would I have done if I had been there? Rarely do authors take this issue on. They either distance themselves due to their identification with the victims – Goldhagen, for example, is the son of Holocaust survivors. Or they highlight the aberrant thinking and behavior of certain perpetrators, as Strangneth does in her study of Eichmann. Arendt is unique in making that question present for us – though she always sidesteps it, in keeping with her impersonal editorial stance, which, when interrogated, is the stance that she condemns elsewhere as typical of the intellectual rationalizer. Nonetheless, she makes it possible for those of us so inclined to think about the question in personal terms, by way of her thesis about the banality of evil. Intellectuals too can be banal, even if they are brilliant.

Unpleasant as it is to contemplate, it seems imperative that we acknowledge that human beings committed the atrocities of the Third Reich or stood by while they were being committed, and that we share our humanity with the people who did these things. This is not to condone or even forgive what was done. It is only to be honest about the weakness and malleability of the human race when placed in certain circumstances. This is Arendt’s point about totalitarianism – it disfigures the self, changes it into something other than what it is under a free regime. It makes possible the immoral acts of ordinary and even brilliant people.

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