Hannah Arendt and the Catastrophes of the 20th Century

A new film brings to life the persona of the much-debated philosopher.

hannah_arendt“If I can be said to ‘have come from anywhere’ it is from the tradition of German philosophy.”– Hannah Arendt

How can one preserve his/her humanity in dark times?  How and why does one lose his/her humanity? My reaction to the film about Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, with Barbara Sukowa in the leading role, is that the director successfully translated the drama of ideas into a cinematographic narrative, despite daunting difficulties of such a task. The movie captures the stakes of the great polemics in which Hannah Arendt was involved. It renders persuasively the way in which she perceived thinking (das Denken) as the essence of human identity. Thought for Arendt could not be separated from morality, that is the specific capacity and the particular obligation that, as Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian put it, elevate us a step above zoology. According to Arendt, when thought is separated from action, or  vice-versa, when human action takes place in the absence of thinking the realm of liberty is endangered. She argued in her volume The Human Condition that “[t]he chief characteristic of this specifically human life, whose appearance and disappearance constitute worldly events, is that it is always full of events which can ultimately be told as a story, establish a biography[.]” The promise of politics was for her the promise and imperative of living in truth.

The script of the film is, to a large extent, faithful to the facts, as it encompasses extensive excerpts from her lectures and from Hannah’s correspondence (with Mary McCarthy, Heinrich Blucher, Karl Jaspers, or with Kurt Blumenfeld, a dear friend who brought her close, in her youth, to Zionism). We witness how she became the target of a veritable symbolic lynching because the thinker broke with certain taboos and dared to publicly wash such dirty linen, so to speak. This was not about legitimate and honest criticism. Influent people accused her of self-hatred, of reneging on her identity, of loathing the state of Israel, etc. In this context, she was even labeled an "enemy of the state of Israel." Even her own colleagues indulged in what one calls
"character assassination." This woman (and I emphasize the word woman) was denied the right to publicly state her opinions. Or, even the right to hold such opinions. Arendt may have been wrong on many factual issues, yet her questions were invitations to uninhibited coming to terms with the past.

What is missing from the movie, and I believe it should have been mentioned, is the fact that Hannah Arendt believed that radical Evil can be equally incarnated in Auschwitz and the Gulag. She did not use the concept of the Gulag, but she extensively wrote on the role of ideology in the Stalinist genocidal terror. Moreover, when The New Yorker decided to send her as correspondent for the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Arendt had already written her masterpiece about the catastrophes of the 20th century, The Origins of Totalitarianism. In this volume, she developed an analysis of radical Evil based on a Kantian intuition. My former PhD student, Benli Shechter, wrote a superb dissertation on how the discussion about totalitarianism unfolded in the pages of the famous magazine Partisan Review under the influence of Arendt’s writings. This was also the place where Mary McCarthy published an anthological pamphlet against Hannah’s detractors, in the aftermath of the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. I would add about Mary McCarthy, an important character in the movie and Arendt’s dear friend, that she was one of the most significant voices of the American, liberal, anticommunist Left and that she took part in the creation of the Committee for Cultural Freedom in the US, an anti-Stalinist initiative whose purpose was to challenge communist and fellow travelers’ propaganda offensives.

Central to Arendt’ vision is the focus on the unique phenomenon of moral anesthesia, on the elimination of the difference between Good and Evil. The bureaucratic person carries out orders automatically. Thoughtlessness is the reason why radical Evil becomes banal Evil. When I use “becoming,” I mean it as the routinization of Evil. By no means do I think that the cold-blooded, morally emasculated planning of genocide is less of a manifestation of radical Evil. Those who read Himmler’s 1943 speech before SS cadres in Posen (Poznan) realize that Evil was justified on ideological bases without which the absolute crime that is the Final Solution could not be envisaged as the achievement of the Nazi’s historical mandate. In The Origins, Hannah Arendt quoted a Nazi ideologue, who defined the national-socialist state as a Weltanschauungsstaat (a state founded on a specific world-view), just as Lenin’s state was an ideocratic one. I discussed recently with a friend this topic. I believe that his standpoint ideally epitomizes my own views here: “What happens is that evil is no longer conceived of as evil, so, through thoughtlessness, it descends into everyday banality, when one is not required to take reasoned decisions, only administrative ones.” Writing about Arendt’s work, Romanian intellectual Monica Lovinescu remarked that the elimination of the moral and juridical person, of individuality, transforms totalitarianism into machinery manufacturing the absurd. Russian dissident Yuri Glazov wrote luminously about the moral abyss of the Soviet world.

The eradication of moral perception via ideology – this is the greatest problem addressed with unwavering courage by Hannah Arendt. She died in 1975, so she did not have the possibility to write about Gulag Archipelago. I am certain that she would have published an essay on Solzhenitsyn, which she would have included in a new edition of her volume  Men in Dark Times. In 1967, fifty years since the Bolshevik coup d’état generally known in history as the October Revolution, Arendt participated, along with Isaiah Berlin, Shlomo Avineri, George Kennan, Leonard Schapiro, Marc Ferro, Adam Ulam, and Bertam Wolfe, at a seminar at Harvard, organized by Richard Pipes. This was the moment when one of the most important books on revolutionary Russia came about.

I think it is worth emphasizing that the revisionist school of Sovietology, along with its present manifestations, attacked the very idea of the comparative study of communism and fascism as branches of the same totalitarian genealogical tree (the two totalitarian twins, as French historian François Furet put it). Another target was obviously the concept of totalitarianism proposed by Arendt during the fifties. The latter was disparaged for allegedly being an ideological legitimation of the Cold War.

It seems that what Jean-François Revel called the totalitarian temptation has yet to disappear. Presently, we witness the panegyrics of “the communist hypothesis” or of “the communist horizon.” Elena Bonner rightly put it in her speech upon receiving the “Hannah Arendt” Award from the city of Bremen, the “Henrich Boll” Foundation and the “Hannah Arendt” Association:

Reading Arendt is frightening even today. Her account of the general resemblance of the Nazi and Communist regimes has been confirmed by many others. On Hitler: “He was phenomenally false…lack of a sense of reality …indifference to facts” (Konrad Heiden). On Stalin: “revulsion for the truth of life,” “indifference to the real situation” (Nikita Khrushchev). In Germany: “The Führer is always right.” In the USSR: “The Party is never wrong.” Hitler: “The nation will be victorious or it must perish totally.” In the USSR, as a song put it, “Bravely we’ll go to war for the power of the Soviets and we will die as one in the fight.” Death camps and the Gulag. Gas was used in the former. The latter didn’t need to waste money on it—hunger and cold did the job.

The perpetrator of radical Evil never troubles oneself with ethics because he is completely estranged from morality. Appearances are banal, the essence is radical. This type of individual does not act only from a blind sense of discipline, but also because it shares the totalitarian ideology. We now know enough historical facts to argue so. Adolf Eichmann was not a detached, cold, indifferent bureaucrat. He was obsessed by the role of the Jews. He considered them harmful vermin. Ideology therefore sets up the pattern for the de-humanization of the Other, of the alleged enemy. The bureaucratic system allows these “exterminators” to act with the conviction of their historical mission, of a providential command and of impunity…

The scene of Arendt's final lecture is truly poignant. Especially if one takes into account that there have been people of great intelligence (e.g., Hans Jonas, one of Martin Heidegger’s favorite students, an expert in Gnosticism) who reacted, as the movie shows, with great sadness to what they perceived as Hannah’s “arrogance.” As I already mentioned, Mary McCarthy defended her in Partisan Review and wrote scathingly  about those who called Arendt “Hannah Arrogance”:  "These people get worse as they get older, and in this case it is just a matter of envy. Envy is a monster.” No one was spared in this context, neither Saul Bellow nor Alfred Kazin, themselves harsh critics of Arendt.

Hannah’s mentor, philosopher Karl Jaspers, showed understanding for her standpoint, but he was probably saddened by the fact that she accepted reconciliation with Martin Heidegger, whom he never forgave for his infatuation with Nazism. She would also be labeled Heidegger’s “literary agent.” But Karl and Gertrude Jaspers cared too much about Hannah to rebuke her for such things. They formally accepted her argument concerning Martin’s "naiveté." I doubt though that they considered it valid.

The main scandal concerned her evaluation of the role of the Judenrats that was rooted in Arendt’s attempt to shed light on some of the darkest and most unsettling pages of what she defined as “dark times.” For Hannah, the interrogation of the thorniest topics, telling the truth about things which others preferred to gloss over with suspect zeal, was a Socratic duty before humanity. She refused to fall back on what she considered “tribal” attachments. In a letter to Karl Jaspers, from 20 July 1963, discussing the ceaseless historical campaigns against her, Hannah confessed that, without realizing it, she enraged people highly influential in Israeli politics among whom were former members of the Jewish Councils during the Nazi era. Even so, she wrote, there was no reason to give in: “If I knew what would happened, I would probably still have done it.” (Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers, “Correspondence, 1926-1969,″ Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992, p. 511.) In a wise response, Jaspers urged Hannah not to indulge in conspiratorial fantasies.

When he broke with Hannah, thus ending their lifelong friendship, Kurt Blumenfeld spoke also for Gerschom Scholem, the  prominent Kabala expert, who had reproached her lack of love for the Jewish people. Her reply does not suggest coldness, but a different perspective on empathy. She loved her friends, she responded, but she did not feel love for a collectivity, ethnic or social. Did this mean that she was “arrogant”? I doubt it. Arendt and Scholem had been good friends with Walter Benjamin. She wrote the preface to Illuminations, published by  Schocken Books. In 1968, Scholem lambasted Hannah for her putative haughty detachment in relation with the cause that she once defended: “I knew Hannah Arendt when she was a socialist or half-communist and I knew her when she was a Zionist. I am astounded by her ability to pronounce upon movements in which she was once so deeply engaged, in terms of a distance measured in light years and from such sovereign heights.” Hans Jonas, in his turn, wrote in his memoirs that he was shocked by the anti-Zionist tone and especially by what he called “Hannah Arendt’s ignorance of Jewish matters.” Beyond their disagreements, on which, in later years, they ceased dwelling, Jonas was delivered a moving eulogy in honor of his old friend, in 1975, at the Riverside Memorial Chapel. The text was published in Social Research, the journal of the university where both of them taught (Hans Jonas, “Memoirs,” edited and annotated by Christian Wiese, translated form the German by Krishna Winston, Brandeis University Press, 2008). After she read a chapter of Jonas’s volume The Imperative of Responsibility, Arendt wrote to him: “One thing is certain. This is the book that the Good Lord had in mind when he gave life to you.”

The wound of the Judenrats’ collaboration remains open. In fact, can we talk of collaboration in those circumstances? What were the alternatives? Were there any alternatives? Maybe yes, if one is to think of the insurrection at the Warsaw Ghetto or the Vilna partisans. Bury Me Standing is the title of a volume by Isabel Fonseca about the conditions of the Roma in contemporary Europe. In 1961 though, the Israeli audience, and not only them, were not willing to explore such an issue. Taboos functioned in an intensively prohibitive manner. For the young state of Israel, the Holocaust was a foundational collective narrative. Those were times of emergency when one could hardly take into consideration metaphysical debates on the phenomenology of Evil. Eichmann’s trial had a nationally pedagogical value. Arendt’s questioning of prosecutor Gideon Hausner's rhetoric only made murky waters ever more troubled.

At the time, historian Walter Laqueur wrote about the lack of empathy for victims in Eichmann in Jerusalem. I think he was mistaken. There is empathy in the book, but it is mixed with immense suffering for what Arendt saw as the great error of the communities doomed to extermination. I cannot imagine how Arendt would have reacted if she had seen the recent Israeli documentary A Film Unfinished on Nazi propaganda, the Warsaw Ghetto, and memory’s labyrinth. She did not wonder what she would have done if she had been caught in the deadlock of an impossible choice similar to the one of Adam Czerniakow’s, the leader of the Warsaw Judenrat, who killed himself just before the departure of one of the last trains transporting Jews to their death.

The film presents Arendt's relationship with Martin Heidegger as a sort of hermeneutical key for understanding Hannah’s spiritual biography. I find this excessive. Equally important were, from a philosophical point of view, her relationship with Jaspers or with Blucher. Arendt was not “a left Heideggerian,” as one author once wrote. She created her own original work and she did not take an apologetic approach toward the writings of her first great teacher of metaphysics. Dana Villa correctly underlines the fact that Hannah never contested the role of Reason in politics, but she defended a deliberative vision of the political space  that excluded monopolistic ambitions, regardless of their coloring: “She shares with liberals like Isaiah Berlin and conservatives like Michael Oakseshott a deep suspicion of rationalism in politics and the pretenses of theory to guide a transformative practice. From Plato’s ‘tyranny of reason,’ to the French revolutionary terror, to Marxism’s catastrophic fulfillment in Stalinist totalitarianism, political rationalism has shown itself every bit as capable of generating moral horror as either religion or Romantic nationalism.” (v. Dana R. Villa, “Apologist or Critic? On Arendt’s Relation to Heidegger,” in Steven E. Aschheim, “Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem,” University of California Press, 2001, pp. 331-332).

Arendt learnt from Jaspers to be philosophical while loving humanity (amor mundi). She took from Heinrich Blucher a great admiration for Rosa Luxemburg and for workers’ councils as a form of direct democracy. Blucher’s ideas undeniably influenced her vision about what she called “the lost treasures of revolutionary tradition.” The sovereign heights, of which Scholem wrote so harshly, were actually that imaginary banister without which we descend into the abyss of self-destructive relativism and moral blindness.

Author's note: For illuminating insights into the topics explored in this article, I recommend  Jamie Glazov's symposium: Is Hannah Arendt Still Relevant?

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