Tag Archives: Mary McCarthy

Did Hannah Arendt Ever See Eichmann Testify? A Second Reply to Richard Wolin

2 Oct

In his critique of Seyla Benhabib’s account of the Arendt/Eichmann controversy, which I wrote about earlier today, Richard Wolin makes an additional claim I’ve been puzzling over:

Second, a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence indicates that so great was her impatience with the proceedings that she never saw Eichmann testify. Arendt endured chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s lengthy opening statement and, following an absence of several weeks, returned to Jerusalem to witness the final verdict. But, remarkably, she never saw Eichmann himself take the stand. (Here, one suspects that Arendt’s rather brazen disregard for the value of testimony, not to speak of the norms of journalism, is an instance of Germanic philosophical arrogance. As J. G. Fichte said, if the facts fail to accord with the sublimity of the idea, so much the worse for the facts!)

I’ve spent the better part of this evening re-reading Arendt’s letters to her three main correspondents during the Eichmann trial—the philosopher Karl Jaspers, her husband Heinrich Blücher, and her friend Mary McCarthy—and I cannot find any evidence for Wolin’s claims; in fact, there’s much in the letters indicating that they are incorrect.

It helps first to remember three key dates from the Eichmann trial:

April 11, 1961: first day of the Eichmann trial

June 20, 1961: Eichmann takes the stand

December 11, 1961: the Israeli court issues its verdict

Right off the bat, it’s clear that Wolin’s chronology is off: Arendt could not have been in Jerusalem for the prosecutor’s opening statement only, left for a few weeks, and then returned for the verdict. Roughly eight months separate the first day of the trial from the announcement of the verdict.

And indeed, when the verdict was issued in December, Arendt was either in New York, nursing Blücher back to health (he had suffered from a ruptured aneurism), or in Middletown, Connecticut, where she would have been wrapping up a seminar on Machiavelli she had been teaching at Wesleyan that fall. The one place she would not have been was in Jerusalem, as is clear from a letter she wrote to Jaspers on December 30, 1961, and from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography.

But once I started poring over the correspondence, it became clear that Wolin got more than the dates of the trial and Arendt’s attendance wrong. He also seriously misstates what Arendt saw and heard at the trial and her attitude to the trial and its testimony. Most important, the centrally damning claim he makes—that Arendt never saw or heard Eichmann testify—is in all likelihood wrong. What’s more, the very evidence for its wrongness comes from the very sources Wolin cites as evidence: namely, Arendt’s correspondence.

Arendt arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday April 9, 1961, two days before the trial began, and headed straight for Jerusalem. At the trial, she listened intently not only to Hausner’s opening statement, but also to lengthy recordings of Eichmann’s depositions. As she wrote to Blücher on April 20:

Here everything is going as expected…with the ghost in the glass cage listening to his voice sounding from the magnetic tape.

Arendt also heard testimony from a great variety of witnesses for the prosecution, including one of the leaders of the Warsaw Uprising; the father of Herschel Grynszpan, whose assassination of Ernst vom Rath had provided the pretext for Kristallnacht; and Salo Baron, the eminent Jewish historian. In fact, as the days went on, Arendt grew increasingly frustrated by this testimony, as so little of it had to do with Eichmann himself. As she wrote to Blücher on May 6:

The basic mistake—if one can say such a thing—is not only that Eichmann has been completely forgotten, his name often not mentioned for days on end (really typical, e.g.,: After the prosecution put 29 volumes [!] concerning Hans Frank on the table, Servatius [me: Eichmann’s attorney] rose and asked: “Does the name Eichmann appear in any of these volumes!” The answer: “No”)…

Far from being uninterested in what Eichmann had to say, Arendt was profoundly interested in him and his testimony. She watched him closely throughout the trial: “Eichmann is no eagle; rather, a ghost who has a cold on top of that,” as she wrote to Jaspers on April 13. And throughout her stay in Jerusalem and in the time after that, she kept recurring to the six volumes of testimony (more than 3000 pages) he had given in his depositions. Not to mention the lengthy trial transcript she pored over for months as she prepared her articles for The New Yorker.

Then, on May 6, she writes to Blücher that she is leaving Jerusalem the next morning for Switzerland, where she will visit Jaspers. As she’s about to leave, she wonders:

The question is: Should I come back here again for the defense? I imagine I should, but I’m not sure….Of course it also depends on my appointments. Zurich on June 24th—etched in stone!

That date, the 24th of June, was a reference to a long-planned reunion between her and Blücher, who would be meeting Jaspers and his wife, both of whom had played such an important role in Arendt’s life, for the very first time.

As the weeks go by, first in Switzerland with Jaspers, and then in Germany, Arendt decides she must return to Jerusalem. The only question is when. “If I only knew when I have to go back to Jerusalem,” she writes McCarthy on May 31.

Why was Arendt so eager to return to Jerusalem? Simply and solely to see and hear Eichmann testify. And what did she mean by “if I only knew when I have to go back to Jerusalem”? The date that Eichmann was to assume the witness stand. Contrary to everything Wolin explicitly states and implicitly suggests in his piece, seeing and hearing Eichmann testify was a top priority for Arendt between the time of her first and second visit to Jerusalem.

On June 4, Arendt tells Blücher that she thinks she’ll be in Jerusalem by the 17th. And adds, “With a bit of luck, it might happen in the week of June 17 that Eichmann will be called to the witness stand.”

On June 14, a Wednesday, she writes Blücher:

So I’m flying to Israel on Saturday, as I already wrote you. The trial will start again on the 20th, and I’m afraid that Hausner will try to delay matters even further. But I have at least to try to see Eichmann <editor’s note: on the witness stand>….I will leave there on Friday the 23rd, either directly for Zurich, or via Athens—it all depends.

So, that’s all. Here’s my address again, just to be sure: Hotel Eden, Jerusalem till Friday the 23rd. After that, with you: Waldhaus Dolderer, Zurich.

On June 16, a Friday, she writes Jaspers: “I’m off tomorrow morning.”

Unfortunately, the three editions of her correspondence do not include any letters from this second visit to Jerusalem. Probably because she knew she was going to be seeing Jaspers and Blücher, the two people she corresponded with most intently during that time, within days.

What we do know, from Lipstadt, is that Eichmann did indeed take the stand on the 20th of June, and unless Arendt canceled her trip to Jerusalem at literally the last minute (“I’m off tomorrow morning”), we also know that she was in the city when he took the stand. It would seem strange if, after all these expressions of desire to see Eichmann in court, she decided not to stop by.

I should say that I’ve only managed to consult the sources I’ve cited here. There may be other sources out there that would confirm Wolin’s claims. If there are, I apologize in advance. But I would also like to claim an exemption on two grounds. First, I didn’t have access to those sources; I did the best that I could with the books that I have and the books I could access on the web. Second, Wolin himself claims that it was “a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence” that led him to the conclusion “that she never saw Eichmann testify.” Limiting myself to that correspondence, which I read carefully rather than perused, should have yielded at least some evidence for his conclusion. It has not, so I believe I am justified in concluding, that at least by Wolin’s own lights, his claim is not correct.

Update (7:30 am)

I’m getting reports this morning that Deborah Lipstadt, whose The Eichmann Trial I link to above, makes a similar claim as Wolin. I don’t have her book and was able to access those pages regarding the chronology of the Eichmann trial that I mention above only through Google. I’ll try to get a copy of the book and report back what I find. Lipstadt is a careful scholar, so I’ll definitely want to see what she says and what sources she cites. Perhaps Wolin got his claim from her, perhaps she has further information. Anyway, will report back once I have more information.

Update (10:30 am)

I’ve now been able, with the help of Amazon and Google Reader, to find out what Lipstadt says in The Eichmann Trial. The crucial passages are on pp. 178-180. Long story short, she confirms what I said in my post.

First, Lipstadt says that after traveling in Switzerland for five weeks (also Germany, actually), Arendt returned to Jerusalem to see Eichmann on the witness stand. There, she saw and heard Servatius, Eichmann’s attorney, ask him questions.

Second, Lipstadt’s criticism of Arendt is that Arendt did not stay to witness Hausner’s cross-examination of Eichmann. Had she stayed, says Lipstadt, Arendt might have seen something about Eichmann, under Hausner’s withering critique, that she could not have gleaned from the transcript.

None of us, of course, knows if that’s true, but I suspect Lipstadt’s wrong. Given that Arendt was so irritated by Hausner’s and the prosecution’s general line of attack—Arendt felt that rather than trying Eichmann for his deeds, the state was more interested in narrating the larger history of the Holocaust—I suspect that seeing the cross-exam for herself would have only further confirmed Arendt’s premonitions. But that’s speculation. And in any event, immaterial to the larger issue of whether Arendt was ever there to see Eichmann testify. She was.

Third, Lipstadt is very careful to point out that simply because Arendt wasn’t there for part of the trial does not invalidate her conclusions; a great many accounts of trials, Lipstadt says, are based entirely on a reading of the transcript.

So, bottom line: Lipstadt does not provide any evidence for Wolin’s claim.

Lipstadt’s footnotes in this section make reference to Arendt’s correspondence with Jaspers and McCarthy, which I examined carefully last night and the results of which I reported in my post. Lipstadt also refers in her footnotes to p. 149 of Raul Hilberg’s memoir. Hilberg was a historian of the Holocaust. Indeed, he wrote the first genuinely comprehensive history of the Holocaust, from which Arendt drew extensively in her book—much to Hilberg’s chagrin; he felt like he never got the proper acknowledgment from her or from subsequent scholars of the controversy.

On p. 149 of his memoir, Hilberg claims that Arendt stayed in Jerusalem for ten weeks and then left three days before Eichmann assumed the stand. He claims that Arendt’s published correspondence with Jaspers shows this. Hilberg might be Wolin’s source, though I took Wolin’s “a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence” to mean that Wolin had done the perusing. In any event, Hilberg is wrong on all accounts: Arendt did not stay in Jerusalem for ten weeks; she did not leave three days before Eichmann assumed the stand; and her correspondence with Jaspers does not show any of this.

Two other sources.

According to a commenter on the blog, David Cesarini, no friend of Arendt’s, claims in his book on Eichmann that she was there for the first days of Eichmann’s testimony. Which fits with my account and Lipstadt’s.

Daniel Maier-Katkin, a professor at Florida State, has reconstructed the timeline of Arendt and the trial in footnote 44 of this post (h/t Patchen Markell). I don’t know what his sources are (I’ve emailed him to ask but have not yet heard back), but his reconstruction of the chronology largely fits with mine, albeit with some additional details:

The trial was in session between April 11 and July 24. Arendt was present in the courtroom from April 11 through May 8. Between May 8 and June 23 the trial was dominated by sessions on the admissibility of more than 1000 documents; Arendt, who was travelling in Europe during those weeks, had full access to all of those documents. Arendt was present between June 20 and 23 to hear the first sessions of Adolf Eichmann’s testimony, but not for the final two weeks of trial when he was cross-examined by Gideon Hausner, whose approach to the trial as a telling of the story of the Holocaust rather than a juridical inquiry into Eichmann’s role Arendt found tiresome and disquieting.

So, again, nothing in the correspondence even remotely suggests that Arendt was not there to witness personally at least some of Eichmann’s testimony. And much in the correspondence—and now secondary accounts—demonstrates precisely the opposite.

 

 

The History of Fear, Part 4

30 Sep

Today, in part 4 of our series on the intellectual history of fear, we turn to Hannah Arendt’s theory of total terror, which she developed in The Origins of Totaltarianism (and then completely overhauled in Eichmann in Jerusalem.)

I’m more partial, as I make clear in my book, to Eichmann than to Origins. But Origins has always been the more influential text, at least until recently.

It’s a problematic though fascinating book (the second part, on imperialism, is especially wonderful). But one of the reasons it was able to gain such traction is that it managed to meld Montesquieu’s theory of despotic terror with Tocqueville’s theory of democratic anxiety. It became the definitive statement of Cold War social thought in part because it took these received treatments and mobilized them to such dramatic effect. (And one of the reasons, I further argue in the book, that Eichmann provoked such outrage was that it revived some of the ways of thinking about fear that we saw in Hobbes.)

Again, if you want to get the whole picture, buy the book.

• • • • •

Mistress, I dug upon your grave

To bury a bone, in case

I should be hungry near this spot

When passing on my daily trot.

I am sorry, but I quite forgot

It was your resting-place.

Thomas Hardy

It was a sign of his good fortune—and terrible destiny—that Nikolai Bukharin was pursued throughout his short career by characters from the Old Testament. Among the youngest of the “Old Bolsheviks,” Bukharin was, in Lenin’s words, “the favorite of the whole party.” A dissident economist and accomplished critic, this impish revolutionary, standing just over five feet, charmed everyone. Even Stalin. The two men had pet names for each other, their families socialized together, and Stalin had Bukharin stay at his country house during long stretches of the Russian summer. So beloved throughout the party was Bukharin that he was called the “Benjamin” of the Bolsheviks. If Trotsky was Joseph, the literary seer and visionary organizer whose arrogance aroused his brothers’ envy, Bukharin was undoubtedly the cherished baby of the family.

Nikolai Bukharin

Nikolai Bukharin

Not for long. Beginning in the late 1920s, as he sought to slow Stalin’s forced march through the Russian countryside, Bukharin tumbled from power. Banished from the party in 1937 and left to the tender mercies of the Soviet secret police, he confessed in a 1938 show trial to a career of extraordinary counterrevolutionary crime. He was promptly shot, just one of the 328,618 official executions of that year.

Not long before his murder, Bukharin invoked a rather different biblical parallel to describe his fate. In a letter to Stalin, Bukharin recalled the binding of Isaac, the unwitting son whose father, Abraham, prepares him, on God’s instruction, for sacrifice. At the last minute, an angel stops Abraham, declaring, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” Reflecting upon his own impending doom, however, Bukharin envisioned no such heavenly intervention: “No angel will appear now to snatch Abraham’s sword from his hand.”

The biblical reference, with its suggested equivalence of Stalin and Abraham, was certainly unorthodox. But in the aftermath of Bukharin’s execution it proved apt, for no other crime of the Stalin years so captivated western intellectuals as the blood sacrifice of Bukharin. It was not just that this darling of the communist movement, “the party’s most valuable and biggest theoretician,” as Lenin put it, had been brought down. Stalin, after all, had already felled the far more formidable Trotsky. It was that Bukharin confessed to fantastic crimes he did not commit.

For generations of intellectuals, Bukharin’s confession would symbolize the depredations of communism, how it not only murdered its favored sons, but also conscripted them in their own demise. Here was an action, it seemed to many, undertaken not for the self, but against it, on behalf not of personal gain, but of self-destruction. Turning Bukharin’s confession into a parable of the entire communist experience, Arthur Koestler, in his 1941 novel Darkness at Noon, popularized the notion—later taken up by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and Terror and Jean-Luc Godard in his 1967 film La Chinoise—that Bukharin offered his guilt as a final service to the party. In this formulation it was not Stalin, but Bukharin, who was the true Abraham, the devout believer who gave up to his jealous god that which was most precious to him.

But where Abraham’s readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice has aroused persistent admiration—Kierkegaard deemed him a “knight of faith,” prepared to violate the most sacred of norms for the sake of his fantastic devotion—Bukharin’s has provoked almost universal horror. Not just of Stalin and the Bolshevik leadership, but of Bukharin himself—and of all the true believers who turned the twentieth century into a wasteland of ideology.

Sacrifice of Isaac

Sacrifice of Isaac

Moralists may praise familiar episodes of suicidal sacrifice such as the Greatest Generation storming Omaha Beach, but the willingness of the Bukharins of this world to give up their lives for the sake of their ideology remains, for many, the final statement of modern self-abasement. Not because the sacrifice was cruel or senseless—not even because it was undertaken for an unjust cause or was premised on a lie—but because of the selfless fanaticism and political idolatry, the thoughtless immolation and personal diminution, that are said to inspire it. Communists, the argument goes, collaborated in their own destruction because they believed; they believed because they had to; they had to because they were small.

According to Arthur Schlesinger, communism “fills empty lives”—even in the United States, with “its quota of lonely and frustrated people, craving social, intellectual and even sexual fulfillment they cannot obtain in existing society. For these people, party discipline is no obstacle: it is an attraction. The great majority of members in America, as in Europe, want to be disciplined.” Or, as cultural critic Leslie Fiedler wrote of the Rosenbergs after their execution, “their relationship to everything, including themselves, was false.” Once they turned into party liners, “blasphemously den[ying] their own humanity,” “what was there left to die?” Abraham believed in his faith and was deemed a righteous man; the communist believed in his and was discharged from the precincts of humanity.

As we now know, Bukharin’s confession, like so many others of the Stalin era, was not quite the abnegation intellectuals have imagined. From 1930 to 1937, Bukharin resisted, to the best of his abilities, the more outlandish charges of the Soviet leadership. As late as his February 1937 secret appearance before the Plenum of the Central Committee, Bukharin insisted, “I protest with all the strength of my soul against being charged with such things as treason to my homeland, sabotage, terrorism, and so on.” When he finally did admit to these crimes—in a public confession, replete with qualifications casting doubt upon Stalin’s legitimacy—it was after a yearlong imprisonment, in which he was subject to brutal interrogations and threats against his family.

Bukharin had reason to believe that his confession might protect him and his loved ones. Soviet leaders who confessed were sometimes spared, and Stalin had intervened on previous occasions to shield Bukharin from more vicious treatment. Threats against family members, moreover, were one of the most effective means for securing cooperation with the Soviet regime; in fact, many of those who refused to confess had no children. Instead of manic self-liquidation, then, Bukharin’s confession was a strategic attempt to preserve himself and his family, an act not of selfless fanaticism but of self-interested hope.

But for many intellectuals at the time, these calculations simply did not register. For them, the archetypical evil of the twentieth century was not murder on an unprecedented scale, but the cession of mind and heart to the movement. Reading the great midcentury indictments of the Soviet catastrophe—Darkness at Noon, The God That Failed, 1984, The Captive Mind—one is struck less by their appreciation of Stalinist mass murder—it would be years before Solzhenitsyn turned the abstraction of the gulag into dossiers of particular suffering—than by their horror of the liquidated personality that was supposed to be the new Soviet man. André Gide noted that in every Soviet collective he visited “there are the same ugly pieces of furniture, the same picture of Stalin and absolutely nothing else—not the smallest vestige of ornament or personal belonging.” (Writers consistently viewed public housing, whether in the Soviet Union or in the United States, as a proxy for leftist dissolution. Fiedler, for instance, made much of the fact that the Rosenbergs lived in a “melancholy block of identical dwelling units that seem the visible manifestation of the Stalinized petty-bourgeois mind: rigid, conventional, hopelessly self-righteous.”) Perversely taking Stalin at his word—that a million deaths was just a statistic—intellectuals concluded that the gulag, or Auschwitz, was merely the outward symbol of a more profound, more ghastly subtraction of self. Even in the camps, Hannah Arendt wrote, “suffering, of which there has been always too much on earth, is not the issue, nor is the number of victims.” It was instead that the camps were “laboratories where changes in human nature” were “tested” and “the transformation of human nature” engineered for the sake of an ideology.

If we owe any one thinker our thanks, or skepticism, for the notion that totalitarianism was first and foremost an assault, inspired by ideology, against the integrity of the self, it is most assuredly Hannah Arendt. A Jewish German émigré to the United States, Arendt was not the first to make such claims about totalitarianism. But by tracing the ideologue’s self-destruction against a backdrop of imperial misadventure and massacre in Africa, waning aristocracies and dissolute bourgeoisies in Europe, and atomized mass societies throughout the world, Arendt gave this vision history and heft. With a cast of characters—from Lawrence of Arabia and Cecil Rhodes to Benjamin Disraeli and Marcel Proust—drawn from the European landscape, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism made it impossible for anyone to assume that Nazism and Stalinism were dark emanations of the German soil or Russian soul, geographic accidents that could be ascribed to one country’s unfortunate traditions. Totalitarianism was, as the title of the book’s British edition put it, “the burden of our times.” Not exactly a product of modernity—Arendt repeatedly tried to dampen the causal vibrato of her original title, and she was as much a lover of modernity as she was its critic—but its permanent guest.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

Yet it would be a mistake to read The Origins of Totalitarianism as a transparent report of the totalitarian experience. As Arendt was the first to acknowledge, she came to the bar of political judgment schooled in “the tradition of German philosophy,” taught to her by Heidegger and Jaspers amid the crashing edifice of the Weimar republic. Making her way through a rubble of German existentialism and Weimar modernism, Arendt gave totalitarianism its distinctive cast, a curious blend of the novel and familiar, the startling and self-evident. Arendt’s would become the definitive statement—so fitting, so exact—not because it was so fitting or exact, but because it mixed real elements of Stalinism and Nazism with leading ideas of modern thought: not so much twentieth-century German philosophy, as we shall see, but the notions of terror and anxiety Montesquieu and Tocqueville developed in the wake of Hobbes. As Arendt confessed in private letters, she discovered “the instruments of distinguishing totalitarianism from all—even the most tyrannical—governments of the past” in Montesquieu’s writings, and Tocqueville, whose work she read while drafting The Origins of Totalitarianism, was a “great influence” on her.

But within a decade of publishing The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt changed course. After traveling to Israel in 1961 to report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann for The New Yorker, she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, which turned out to be not a trial report at all, but a wholesale reconsideration of the dynamics of political fear. Not unlike Montesquieu’s Persian Letters or the first half of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Eichmann in Jerusalem posed a direct challenge to the account of fear that had earned its author her greatest acclaim. It produced a storm of outrage, much of it focused on Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann, her savage sense of irony, and her criticism of the Jewish leadership during the Holocaust. But an allied, if unspoken, source of fury was the widespread hostility to Arendt’s effort to upend the familiar canons of political fear: for in Eichmann, Arendt showed that much that Montesquieu and Tocqueville—and she herself—had written about political fear was simply false, serving the political needs of western intellectuals rather than the truth. Arendt paid dearly for her efforts. She lost friends, was deemed a traitor to the Jewish people, and was hounded at public lectures. But it was worth the cost, for in Eichmann Arendt managed “a paean of transcendence,” as Mary McCarthy put it, offering men and women a way of thinking about fear in a manner worthy of grown-ups rather than children. That so many would reject it is hardly surprising: little since Hobbes had prepared readers for the genuine novelty that was Eichmann in Jerusalem. Forty years later, we’re still not prepared.

Victims of the Great Purge

Victims of the Great Purge

If Hobbes hoped to create a world where men feared death above all else, he would have been sorely disappointed, and utterly mystified, by The Origins of Totalitarianism. What could he possibly have made of men and women so fastened to a political movement like Nazism or Bolshevism that they lacked, in Arendt’s words, “the very capacity for experience, even if it be as extreme as torture or the fear of death?” Hobbes was no stranger to adventures of ideology, but his ideologues were avatars of the self, attracted to ideas that enlarged them. Though ready to die for their faith, they hoped to be remembered as martyrs to a glorious cause. For Arendt, however, ideology was not a statement of aspiration; it was a confession of irreversible smallness. Men and women were attracted to Bolshevism and Nazism, she maintained, because these ideologies confirmed their feelings of personal worthlessness. Inspired by ideology, they went happily to their own deaths—not as martyrs to a glorious cause, but as the inglorious confirmation of a bloody axiom. Hobbes, who worked so hard to reduce the outsized heroism of his contemporaries, would hardly have recognized these ideologues, who saw in their own death a trivial chronicle of a larger truth foretold.

What propelled Arendt in this direction, away from Hobbes? Not the criminal largesse of the twentieth century—she repeatedly insisted that it was not the body counts of Hitler and Stalin that distinguished their regimes from earlier tyrannies—but rather a vision, inherited from her predecessors, of the weak and permeable self. Between the time of Hobbes and that of Arendt, the self had suffered two blows, the first from Montesquieu, the second from Tocqueville. Montesquieu never contemplated the soul-crushing effects of ideology, but he certainly imagined souls crushed. It was he who first argued, against Hobbes, that fear, redefined as terror, did not enlarge but reduce the self, and that the fear of death was not an expression of human possibility but of desperate finality. Tocqueville retained Montesquieu’s image of the fragile self, only he viewed its weakness as a democratic innovation. Where Montesquieu had thought the abridged self was a creation of despotic terror, Tocqueville believed it was a product of modern democracy. The democratic individual, according to Tocqueville, lacked the capacious inner life and fortified perimeter of his aristocratic predecessor. Weak and small, he was ready for submission from the get-go. So strong was this conviction about the weakness of the modern self that Arendt was able to apply it, as we shall see, not only to terror’s victims but, even more wildly, to its wielders as well.

Melding Montesquieu’s theory of despotic terror and Tocqueville’s account of mass anxiety, Arendt turned Nazism and Stalinism into spectacular triumphs of antipolitical fear, what she called “total terror,” which could not “be comprehended by political categories.” Total terror, in her eyes, was not an instrument of political rule or even a weapon of genocide. One will look in vain throughout the last third of The Origins of Totalitarianism, where Arendt addresses the problem of total terror, for any reckoning with the elimination of an entire people. Total terror, for Arendt, was designed to escape the psychological burdens of the self, to destroy individual freedom and responsibility. It was a form of “radical evil,” which sought to eradicate not the Jews or the kulaks but the human condition. If Arendt’s totalitarianism constituted an apotheosis, it was not of human beastliness. It was of a tradition of thought—established by Montesquieu, elaborated by Tocqueville— that had been preparing for the disappearance of the self from virtually the moment the self had first been imagined.

All that good, expensive gas wasted on the Jews!

31 Oct

People sometimes ask why I’m a fan of Hannah Arendt. I’ve a complicated relationship to her work, so I wouldn’t characterize myself as a complete fan. But I do love reading her, and one of the reasons I do is that she had such a brutal and unforgiving sense of irony, which she often held in reserve for only the most morally addled sectors of the bourgeoisie. (In this respect she was quite like Brecht and other Weimar modernists.)

Nowhere is this more on display than in Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is probably my favorite Arendt text. Here’s a representative passage (pp. 110-111).

My next story is even more to the point, since it concerns someone who was not a “leader,” may not even have been a Party member. It happened in Königsberg, in East Prussia, an altogether different corner of Germany, in January, 1945, a few days before the Russians destroyed the city, occupied its ruins, and annexed the whole province. The story is told by Count Hans von Lehnsdorff, in his Ostpreussiches Tagebuch (1961). He had remained in the city as a physician to take care of wounded soldiers who could not be evacuated; he was called to one of the huge centers for refugees from the countryside, which was already occupied by the Red Army. There he was accosted by a woman who showed him a varicose vein she had had for years but wanted to have treated now, because she had time. “I try to explain that it is more important for her to get away from Königsberg and to leave the treatment for some later time. Where do you want to go? I ask her. She does not know, but she knows that they will all be brought into the Reich. And then she adds, surprisingly: ‘‘The Russians will never get us. The Führer will never permit it. Much sooner he will gas us.’ I look around furtively, but no one seems to find this statement out of the ordinary.” The story, one feels, like most true stories is incomplete. There should have been one more voice, preferably a female one, which, sighing heavily, replied: And now all that good, expensive gas has been wasted on the Jews!

That “because she had time” is so perfect — and so echt Arendt.

And just as an addendum, or an aside, here’s a passage from a letter Mary McCarthy wrote Arendt in 1970, which captures the bitchy fun—and political seriousness—of their relationship.

Five days, nearly, in London, very social. I saw a lot of fashion-mad people, including the current Women’s Lib idol, an absurd Australian giantess [Germaine Greer] who made remarks like “We must make them understand that fucking is a political act.” And here’s a marvelous one, quoted from Sonia [Orwell] by Stephen Spender: “Auschwitz, oh, dear no! That person was never in Auschwitz. Only in some very minor death camp.”

Update (November 2, 10:30 pm)

Over at my Tumblr, I posted this chilling story (provided by one of my readers) that Walter Benjamin wrote about to Margarette Steffin in 1939:

Karl Kraus died too soon after all. Listen to this: the Vienna gas board has stopped supplying gas to Jews. A consequence of the gas consumption of the Jewish population was that the gas company lost money, since it was precisely the biggest users who did not pay their bills. The Jews preferred to use the gas to commit suicide.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,238 other followers