“There exists in our society widespread fear of judging…[B]ehind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done…Who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?” (From Hannah Arendt, ”Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship.”)
It’s difficult to know where to begin to counter the errors, misreadings, and plain obfuscations of Arendt’s point of view in the essay by Richard Brody that appeared a few days ago in The New Yorker online. But perhaps the most glaring mistake Brody makes is to confuse what Arendt wrote about “thinking” with some form of “intellectualism.” To begin with, when, in her interview with Gunther Gaus, she makes the point that it was the betrayal by “friends” that she found most shocking this is not because she thought only intellectuals could think or were the only ones to have “ideas” but that they “believed”—without thinking!—the very “ideas” they had fabricated, without considering where these “ideas” might take them. They were “trapped” in their ideas, which is why Arendt, in the same interview, refused to call herself a philosopher, cut off from the world, and insisted she was a political theorist.
Thinking depends on letting the imagination go visiting, and Arendt argued it was Eichmann’s inability to think from the standpoint of anyone else that made him “thoughtless” and hence become unable to distinguish right from wrong. But the same could be said, for different reasons, of the “intellectuals” Arendt referred to and said she’d found so grotesque in the interview with Gaus. And, whether you like where it took her or not, thinking from the standpoint of others was exactly what she practiced in the case of her judgment of the leaders of the Jewish Councils. She imagined they might not have cooperated. Yes, they faced “fear and despair,” as Brody notes, but Arendt imagined it was still possible not to comply even in the face of significant threats and consequences. And the historical evidence indicates this to be the case: not everyone complied.
Yet nowhere does Arendt claim the ability to judge a situation means I myself (or she) necessarily would have done anything differently. The most chilling conclusion she reached from her reflections on the trial is that there are no guarantees “when the chips are down” that I will know the right thing to do, and just do it. And it was her confrontation with Eichmann’s banality—not what he did, but who he showed he was, and “how many were like him” during this time—that led Arendt to warn near the end of the book that once such crimes had entered the human experience it is entirely possible that “similar crimes may be committed in the future.”
In an interview with Roger Errera, from which Brody also quotes, Arendt remarked that her intention was in writing about Eichmann as she did was to “destroy the legend of the greatness of evil." As she was thinking about this issue she said she’d “found in Brecht the following remark: ‘The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.’" And her “tone” in Eichmann in Jerusalem was an attempt to do just that: expose the criminals to derision.
It was the banality of the criminals—not the crimes they committed—that gave Arendt such a shock she responded with laughter. And it’s a shame Brody doesn’t understand what this signifies: the humanization of perpetrators actually serves to humanize victims as well. She did not equate the responsibility of “persecutors and persecuted” for crimes committed by the Nazi state, as Brody claims. Not to allow victims and perpetrators to occupy the same moral universe is to traffic in the dangerous idea that guilt and innocence are not the result of human behavior but exist somehow independent of what people do.
Let me close with an excerpt from my new book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt:
Many people still find abhorrent Hannah’s claim that Eichmann, the man, was no monster. Everyone knows murder is wrong; certainly, then, murdering millions without a guilty conscience must be the classic example of monstrous behavior. Or madness. Surely only a monster or a madman could commit such heinous deeds. And that’s an understandable reaction. Most of us hold fast to a well-guarded belief that rules and standards used to tell right from wrong, rules we assume to be universal, cannot be easily discarded. Not I, we believers in our own inherent goodness insist; I would never comply with such an order. But Hannah wouldn’t let anyone rest on such a convenient way to avoid having to think for herself.
“The trouble with Eichmann,” she wrote, “was precisely so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied...that this new type of criminal...commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.[i]
The idea that “an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong” defies any ordinary understanding of good and evil. And yet, Hannah observed, “without much notice, all [these rules governing right and wrong] collapsed almost overnight...What happened? Did we finally awake from a dream?”[ii] How had it become so easy for so many to behave like Eichmann and participate in carrying out these atrocities?
Hannah explained it this way: the Nazi state had generated a “totality of...moral collapse...in respectable European society—not only in Germany but in almost all countries, not only among the persecutors but also among the victims.”[iii] And at that sentence, many people throw her book across the room in disgust, perhaps missing the other point she made: not everyone complied with the system.
But Hannah’s writing has made me wonder why we need to believe a solid wall separates the performers of horrible acts from the rest of us? And what holds that wall in place?
“When I think back to the last two decades since the end of the last war,” she wrote in the mid-1960s, “I have the feeling that this moral issue has lain dormant because it was concealed by something about which it is indeed much more difficult to speak and with which it is almost impossible to come to terms—the horror itself in its naked monstrosity.”[iv] Trying to think the unthinkable—the horror of state-ordered, socially coordinated manufacturing of corpses in the twentieth century, or of other genocides in previous centuries and in this one—can take one’s breath away. Not even time’s healing power seems to bring relief.
[T]his past has grown worse as the years have gone by so that we are sometimes tempted to think, this will never be over as long as we are not all dead...This past has turned out to be ‘unmastered’ by everybody, not only the German nation [v]
Yet Hannah insisted on confronting those concealed moral issues even though they looked like “side issues...compared with the horror.”[vi] She pushed past the speechless horror to grapple with the moral implications of the “ubiquitous complicity”[vii] surrounding the Holocaust. Because not grappling with those implications would allow Eichmann to gain what the monk Thomas Merton, deeply influenced by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, would have considered a “posthumous long life,” making us all, like it or not, “vulnerable to complicity in deeds of destruction.”[viii]
[i] Ibid., 276.
[ii] “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” in RJ, 50.
[iii] EiJ, 125-6, emphasis added.
[iv] “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” in RJ, 50.
[vi] Ibid., 56.
[vii] EiJ, 18.
[viii] Karl Plank, “Thomas Merton and Hannah Arendt: Contemplation after Eichmann,” The Merton Annual, 1990, vol. 3: 132.