All that good, expensive gas wasted on the Jews!

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.


  1. Scott Preston October 31, 2012 at 10:50 pm | #

    I used to think there was no end to human perversity until I read William Blake. So, now I know there is a limit to that perversity: “if the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise”. Blake didn’t specify a deadline, though — only that there would be a limit to the march of folly, difficult as that seems to appreciate.

    I think this has the same tenor as Carl Jung’s (after Heraclitus) notion of enantiodromia — reversal at the extremity, or ironic reversal — the moment of coincidentia oppositorum where thesis and antithesis become one and the same (or action and reaction become indistinguishable). That is, today, called “unintended consequence”, “revenge effect”, “perverse outcome”, “reversal of fortune”, or “blowback.” More generally, I think, it is the pervasive sense of the “absurd”. I think we are approaching that convergence or coincidence of opposites, presently, as the breakdown of the dialectic and therefore of the mental-rational structure of consciousness (“point-of-view-line-of-thought” consciousness). It’s the game-changer.

    At least, I certainly hope so because I can’t bear the thought that the mentality and attitude described in The Reactionary Mind can persist indefinitely.

    • marcsobel (@marcsobel) October 31, 2012 at 11:04 pm | #

      “At least, I certainly hope so because I can’t bear the thought that the mentality and attitude described in The Reactionary Mind can persist indefinitely.”

      Can you please call my primary care physician to have her prescribe whatever you are taking.

  2. K. Matteson October 31, 2012 at 11:34 pm | #

    Corey, lovely short piece — I read it over my dinner — but isn’t that “because she had time” comment in this case von Lehnsdorff’s? Or is her devastating encapsulation of it her own?

  3. emmryssEmmryss November 1, 2012 at 3:07 pm | #

    Then there’s this: In a letter of June 1939, Walter Benjamin mentioned the following item: the Viennese gas company had stopped supplying its Jewish clients, as precisely the most important consumers were using the gas to commit suicide and consequently left their bills unpaid.

    • Corey Robin November 1, 2012 at 3:38 pm | #

      Wow, do you have a link or something for that?

      • emmryss November 1, 2012 at 3:59 pm | #

        I came across it in a book called “Holocaust Remembrance: The Shape of Memory” edited by Geoffrey Hartman (in the course of background reading for a book of poetry, “The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild,” due out next spring from Hagios Press). The original quote is from: Walter Benjamin, Briefe 2 (Suhrkamp, Frakfurt am Main, 1978), p. 820.

  4. batocchio November 2, 2012 at 4:00 am | #

    I know Arendt has her critics, but I’ve always appreciated her sharp eye and facility for describing complex dynamics (as with Eichmann’s trial). That doesn’t mean I always agree with her, but a mind is at work there, grappling with some thorny subjects. The Brecht comparison is apt; it’s a dark wit.

    (Meanwhile, that Benjamin passage sounds fascinating.)

  5. matt November 2, 2012 at 5:00 pm | #

    Eichmann is her best book, by far I think. She was a better portraitist/historian/journalist than philosopher, I think. They had some good editors at the New Yorker, too.

  6. Will Boisvert November 2, 2012 at 7:16 pm | #

    I’m afraid I don’t quite get the Arendt parable of the woman with the varicose vein.

    The only way Arendt’s sledge-hammer punchline works as an ironic riposte to the moral fatuity of the German bourgeoisie is if we read the woman’s statement as sincere: if she really did hope Hitler would gas her before the Russians closed in, then the joke is indeed on her and her presumed bourgeois indifference to the Nazis’ victims. It’s conceivable that that was the woman’s meaning given the atrocities the Red Army committed against German civilians, but it seems unlikely.

    To me the woman’s remark about Hitler gassing Germans to save them from the Russians sounds more like a bitter anti-Nazi sarcasm, one that perhaps obliquely voices a guilty sympathy for Jews—or the mentally ill—who were gassed. That seems to be how Lehnsdorff took it. The reason he “look[s] around furtively” is that any SS man who overheard the exchange might have had the woman shot for expressing disloyalty and defeatism.

    If Arendt understood the story the second way, then her final gloss is just a creaky, heavy-handed reprise of the woman’s comment. But if she understood it the first way, and really meant to rebuke the woman’s addled morality, then she missed the rather pithier irony of the woman’s statement. Or maybe the woman was simply distraught and mentally, rather than morally, addled, in which case there’s not much point in making her the poster-girl of bourgeois ethical corruption.

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but this passage doesn’t sell me on Arendt. I have further misgivings about her whole Eichmann thesis, which amplified the popular 1950s critique of the Organization Man by adding genocide to the list of charges. There’s considerable evidence that Eichmann was not, as she argued, a mere bureaucrat who abdicated his moral responsibility out of banal careerist motives, but a committed anti-Semite who considered the extermination of Jews a moral duty.

    • Corey Robin November 2, 2012 at 8:11 pm | #

      I think Arendt clearly understood the woman’s comment in the first way. But she interpreted her statement not as a symptom of the woman’s justified fear of the Russians but as a sign of her credulous worship of the Führer and her belief in his beneficence toward his people. So strained was that belief — this is ca. 1945, when it was clear to most that Hitler had plunged the German people into a course of self-destruction — Arendt is suggesting, that it could lead an otherwise sane person to view Hitler’s willingness to gas his own people as in fact an act of deliverance and of his good will. Arendt thinks that hallucination is clearly a sign of mental failure but she believes it issues from a moral failure, a moral failure to actually think about what one is doing and saying in relation to other people, who are real. Which incidentally is one of the topics of Eichmann in Jerusalem, and whether she got him right on that score — it’s true that her failure to take his anti-Semitism seriously is the great flaw of the book; on the other hand, the book is one of the few to actually reckon with what the mass annihilation of the Jews qua Jews was as a crime — it’s a major theme of Holocaust studies.

    • Scott Preston November 2, 2012 at 9:06 pm | #

      As an undergraduate, I once read Peter Viereck’s Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, which proposed the intriguing thesis that Nazism had its roots in Richard Wagner’s music (I’ll have to read that again). The thing that Hitler found most heroic in Wagner, according to Viereck, was die Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods or Doom of the Powers), the last act of the four-part cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Viereck saw in the Wagnerian myth Hitler’s own psychology and programme, and the blueprint for his attempt to impress it’s aesthetic — the heroic and ultimately nihilistic mythology — upon the German nation. The “Twilight of the Gods” was what I read in that remark that so befuddled Lehnsdorff. The ironic final realisation and fulfillment of the Wagnerian myth; the completion of the cycle, and the closing of the circle.

  7. Will Boisvert November 4, 2012 at 2:26 pm | #

    “The Jews preferred to use the gas to commit suicide.”

    Has anybody fact-checked Walter Benjamin’s claim that the Viennese gas company cut off Jewish customers because they were committing mass suicide with the gas? (I could find no source for it online except for Benjamin’s oft-quoted letter.)

    I can think of two other possible reasons for the gas cutoff, if it happened.

    1) Maybe the Nazis ordered the gas company to shut off service to Jews as part of their anti-Semitic policy.

    2) Anti-Semitic laws had deprived Jews of their livelihoods and imposed other extortions, so they couldn’t afford to pay their gas bills.

    Either of these possibilities seems much more plausible than Benjamin’s mass-suicide theory. Some Viennese Jews in 1939 may well have committed suicide because of Nazi persecution, but were there really so many that the signal was identifiable in the gas company’s statistics?

    I’m not sure the ironic perspective reveals all that much about the Holocaust, anyway.

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