Tag Archives: Hannah Arendt

It is more than twenty years ago that I first read Arendts Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. Since that time I have regularly referred to the work in classes, and further pondered the consequences of her research into the role Adolf Eichmann played in the murder of millions of European Jews. What remained with me most was her view on the problematic side effects of bureIMG_3703aucracy. The positive goal of bureaucracy can be described as the equal treatment of citizens, and the efficient delivery of goods delivered by state and non-state organizations. Its negative side effect is that it offers the possibility for individuals to wash their hands from their complicity in malfunctioning and even evil procedures. Eichmann the bureaucrat, as he could be seen in the Jerusalem court after his capture in 1960, showed, according to Arendt, an incapacity to think, to put himself in someone else’s shoes, to see a human being as having a right to its own life.

When the political atmosphere in Europe became more xenophobic over the last ten years, and organizations simultaneously relied more and more on bureaucratic procedures to optimize their functioning, I read Arendt’s view on the banality of evil as offering a model to understand present times. I saw the disappearance of individual responsibility of managers and administrator, of teachers, police, scientists and doctors behind protocol as a moral danger for society.  I didn’t realize, however, that for evil to happen, it is not enough that someone with evil intent, or just a morally weak character, can hide behind procedures. Because a well-functioning bureacracy, with well-described responsibilities, and procedures for complaint, still contains obstacles to abuse, which protect the rights of individuals affected.

What the new historical research of Stangneth, which I am currently reading, shows, is that Eichmann and his complicits not just surfed on the possibilities of normal bureaucratic structures, but that, under the guise of being very well organized, Nazi rule actually internally destroyed certain essential elements of bureaucracy, especially official hierarchies of responsibility. I speak here of something different from what, in a recent post, I called ‘freedom to act’. Freedom to act essentially exists for every individual, in those pockets where bureaucratic and legal systems fail to reach. To put it simply: at all times any individual can try to go around the system, calling on an original freedom to act as a human being. What Stangneth shows to have happened in Nazi rule is something else: it is the selective taking more power than ‘the system’ allows by certain individuals, under the protection of the ‘highest power’, the ideological leader of the movement (the ‘Führer’), a highest power which promises its loyal servants to back them up by unlimited violence.

So this new study on Eichmann ‘before Jerusalem’ makes clear how Eichmann actually had much more power than he claimed to have had when he defended his actions in court. He did not have a high rank, but this was not very important in Nazi dealings. It was even beneficial, in order to carry out things that should remain hidden from the public. Being “on the Führer’s special mission”, Eichmann did not need to call on hierarchical responsibilities to get things done: ‘in a regime governed by relationships, only personal access to someone in power carried any real influence.’ (Stangneth, p. 40) Stangneth further analyzes many sources which were not available to Arendt (especially the so called Sassen interviews, held while Eichmann lived in Argentina), but also departs from a quite different anthropology. While for Arendt an evil person is one who lacks the potential to live the idea of Aristotelean practical reason, someone who goes along with a system that ignores humanity, for Stangneth an evil person is a responsible agent, who is perhaps not highly intelligent, but who shows talent in using a psychology of fear to rule others. ‘”Much more power… was attributed to me than I actually had”, Eichmann explained. And “this fear” of his presumed power meant that “everyone felt he was being watched.”‘ (Stangneth, p. 26)

Now, through this new book, we can see how ambitious, to the point of megalomania, Eichmann was. Still, Stangneth’s analysis doesn’t fall back on the simple and dangerous idea that there are just certain evil persons who are to blame for the worst crimes of history. While restoring full responsibility to the criminal, she also maintains the importance, shown by thinkers like Arendt and Foucault, of scrutinizing structures of power to explain what happened. What is new, however, in her work, is that her analysis of how those structures work is more rich, more complex – dissecting the different workings of journalism, state violence, the psychology of fear, and the effects of symbolism on human thinking  – to provide a more real and a less naive understanding of how evil in the midst of ‘modern civilization’ can be organized and carried out. Like Raul Hilberg she follows the view, not of the victim, but of the perpetrator, to understand the workings of what was done.

As to Eichmann, she makes clear that he was a great actor, putting forward a different image of himself as circumstances required. What he did was make use of people’s unreflected ideas about humanity. Thus it could happen, Stangneth writes, that ‘even someone of average intelligence (Eichmann, AR) can induce a highly intelligent person (Arendt, AR) to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.’ (Stangneth, p. xxv) Why this book fascinates, is, therefore, because it shows how a new kind of writing history is necessary for a philosophical understanding of humanity. A writing of history that investigates the psychological, moral, and cultural epistemic frameworks that guide common understanding – to prevent following them naively, and to make sure to count with the possibility that, apart from their already inherent distortions, they may also be used to consciously mislead. Such a historiography warns philosophical anthropology to not take its own idealism as its unreflected point of departure, but to scrutinize its own hopes, dreams, judgments, i.e. all of its normative frameworks, as a potential heel of Achilles.

Citations are taken from Regina Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem. The unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. London: Penguin Random House, 2014.

Finally I watched the film titled Hannah Arendt. I hesitated a long time, as I could not imagine the time had yet come for any filmmaker to understand and do justice to her life and thought. Who expects a biopic, as the title suggests, will be disappointed. The film is not about her life, nor about her intellectual and philosophical development. It orders some fragments of her life around this one event: her presence at and reporting about the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Not an unimportant event, but also not her most significant contribution to understanding our world, I think. More, the film does not analyze the process of her understanding the trial and of Eichmann, it focuses on the resistance that her thesis of ‘the banality of bureaucratic evil’ met, by Jews in Israel and the USA, and by those still believing in a final Victory over fascist evil. Essentially it provides a statement about this kind of evil, the statement that it expresses the troublesome aspects of modernism that we haven’t up till now been able to address. As such it is a film about our present time, more than one about the time of Hitler, or of Arendt.

Somewhere during Hannah Arendt someone warns the philosopher for the misconceptions that will arise over her work on Eichmann, saying something like: ‘following that line of thought, Hitler will become just a footnote in the history of modernism’. The one important line. Well, I do not think that Hitler will ever become a footnote in that history, as he represents one of the most crazy and gruesome expressions of it. But it becomes ever more clear to me that the opposition that we, children of postwar Europe, were made to believe in, that of Freedom over against Dictatorship was not the truth. It was a way to create a smoke curtain to keep us functioning in a political and economic system that has a lot in common with some main goals of nazi politics, as well as with state communism (the other dictatorial regime we were learned to be aware of). I wrote before on the false opposition of left and right that kept people in the seventies and eighties divided. Only now, when the true ugly face of the post-cold-war world is becoming clear – as it is systematically creating short, nasty and brutish lives for the most of mankind, while promising wealth and success to everone who is willing to play the game, is the time to see parallels between those systems, left and right, who created so much unfreedom for so many.

In a novel about the nazi camps I read just recently this interpretation: the camps wanted to learn its inhabitants that there was no relation between work and productivity, between crime and punishment, between your personal talents and what you could achieve or evade. You would be punished when you had done nothing wrong, you would be given work in the most ineffective conditions, and you would achieve nothing doing it, not even the security of survival. Although this system was used to kill people, it was more, and that has been said before: it tried to unlearn its victims (as well as those hired as perpetrators) normal human dignity, moral responsibility, as well as pride and joy in working – as all these aspects of a good human life were disowned, taken over by the system and made ridiculous. With the effect that Eichmann could say seriously: ‘I was just doing my job’. The cruelty of the nazi years was so intense and systematic, its racism so evident and central that one tends to see it as a unique horrific example of possible human evil, but all the same racism (or other forms of discrimination) and systematic cruelty are never absent in other oppressive systems. Nazi terror was an excess, an excessive experimentation to try to dehumanize people and make them puppets in some crazy production process: producing highways and cars as well as military machinery, chemicals to heal and to kill, bureaucrats and killers, and in the end corpses and more corpses.

With the difference that in the present system, in which states are losing more and more power to economical forces and their representatives, cruelty is more diffuse and not centralized as it might be in a dictatorial system, a lot of principles experimentally discovered by the early twentieth century dictators are still functioning to rule our lives: dehumanization, the taking away of responsibility, of dignity, of decency, of ownership of one’s talents and the produce of one’s work. These principles rule life in the richer parts of the world, but show their more gruesome effects in the poorer ones, of course. Hitler will never be a footnote. And the work of Hannah Arendt can only begin to be really understood in our time. The contribution of Arendt is well stated by Seyla Benhabib, who studied her life and work intensively: ‘Her work demonstrated how one can “think” about politics while resisting the temptation to system building. […] We read her today precisely because of the problematic distinctions and juxtapositions she creates, and not despite them; we read her because she helps us think politically, not because she answers our political questions.’ Because building systems and having an answer to questions proved to be part of the destructive and dehumanizing effects of modernism.

I referred to the film Hannah Arendt, 2013, directed by Margaretha von Trotta.

The work by Arendt which plays  a central role in it is Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil, originally published in 1963.

I cited from Seyla Benhabib The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, originally published in 2000, new edition in 2003.

A long time ago our philosophy department had its monthly magazine for and by its students. One of the most outstanding teachers that worked with us was the heart behind the project. She had this column for which she asked all of us, her colleagues, which one book had inspired them most. Of course no one mentioned a philosophical book. We are multilayered beings, and those books that are multilayered too are the ones that inspire us most. The ones that address the head as well as the subliminal realm, that touch our aesthetic faculty and make us think all the same. I did not have to ponder long which was ‘my’ book – it was Miroslav Krleza’s On the Edge of Reason, which I have read and reread over the years in the magnificent Dutch translation that exists.

It is frustrating to try to cite from this book, as it’s strongest point are it’s long quasi-automatically written waterfalls of thought, of which it is so hard to know where they begin and where they end, that it is almost as if, at the end of the book, you are at the beginning, which makes one want to read it again. I could describe some of it’s layers: it contains a criticism of bourgeois modes of being, and the political oppression that goes along with them. Well, one attempt to show how this works:

‘Folly wears a top hat on its highly learned head, and this top-hatted folly is a form I have studied fairly closely. Indeed, I have had both the honor and the good fortune to spend my whole humble, insignificant life as a modest member of the middle class, so modest as to be almost invisible, among top-hatted people. Our domestic, autochtonous, so to speak national and racial top-hatted man, homo cylindriacus, who, as a rule, is at the head of some man-established institution, thinks of himself, in the glamour of his civic dignity, as follows: …’ (the rest you will have to look up)

Another layer of the book consists of a criticism of knowledge and of ideology – all struggles that are being fought concerning so-called truths show these to be ideological. Our understanding of the world is, says the main character, nothing else than the light of a firefly, breaching only in the smallest manner the great darkness which surrounds us. This is not a pessimistic view. It is the best view, where I am concerned, as it makes us humble. At least it prevents the self-glorification which goes along with so many systems of belief, which claim to have found the answers to the human condition.

A final layer consists of showing that the critical mind, the mind that sees oppression (which is, as I have written here: the precondition of being moral) has to near insanity. Here Krleza’s point comes close to that of Derrida in Specters of Marx, where he analyses the near-insanity of Hamlet as the flipside of his clear view of the injustices in the kingdom of Denmark. Reason, as Hannah Arendt has shown in her study of Eichmann, valuable as it is, can easily become the slave of a cruel totalitarianism. That mode of reason which is, in her words, not ‘thinking – that is thinking from the standpoint of someone else’. Insanity pure is, of course, not desirable – it is the condition of the mind that has surrendered to the overpowering injustices of human life. The condition which we need to counter injustice and cruelty is, as Krleza put it very precisely, on the edge of reason. The edge of reason is very sharp – it has the quality of a knife which can cut through common complacencies that express our fear of seeing the dangers as they are.

Miroslav Krleza lived from 1893 until 1981. He is considered the greatest Serbo-Croatian writer and I consider him one of the greatest writers tout court. The work which has been translated in English as On the Edge of Reason, appeared originally as Na rubu pameti in 1938.

The ethics conference which I hope to visit in August has in it’s title ‘Ethics of an Open Future’. And furher it is on Climate Change and Sustainability. It should be on the major problems which face humanity, therefore (although one never knows whether this will remain so when academics start to talk shop). I chose to discuss there in my paper two rather radical books – Derrida’s 1993 study Specters of Marx and Marcuse’s 1964 work on One Dimensional Man. Both philosophers explicitly draw (among so many other sources) on the thought of Karl Marx, but do so in the most original manner, writing not as followers or disciples of the great nineteenth century analyst of his times, but as analysts of their own times, searching for tools to unhinge the silence that hides the current power structures. Should I write ‘silence’, or ‘innocence’?

Heidegger coined the word ‘Seinsvergessenheit’  which should mean a having-forgotten about being to such a degree that one has even forgotten the forgetfulness. To many a reader this will be vague, as it is hard to understand why we should be aware of ‘being’. Heidegger’s most original pupil, Hannah Arendt, used this idea of something lost and out of sight, and stuck it on a more urgent matter – the forgetting of politics, as a critical exchange between free human beings. As politics became, in the twentieth century, management of society instead of this critical exchange, she named this ‘Weltverlust’, loss of world. World meaning for her the public space which human beings create with each other when they exchange their different, perspectivated views. Differing, daring to discuss and criticize creates the ‘room to move’ for the human spirit, individually as well as in community.

Marcuse must have been inspired by her work when he titled the second chapter of his book ‘The Closing of the Political Universe’. Modern society, which measures it’s succes with an eye to it’s technological progress, blinds itself to this goal – ‘progress’. When technological progress is the ultimate goal, in industry, in consumption, as well as in scientific research and argumentation, society goes blind to the quality of human life – that is – to the idea that first fired the struggle for modernity: freedom. We have lost public space (to a great extent), as we live in a closed political universe. That is, when we have lost the possibility to criticize the principles by which our society propells itself into the future. One could also say that we live in a situation of a closed future. Slaves of progress, without any thought in our minds on where this should lead us…

And here comes the relationship with ethics: when we cannot criticize society for it’s goals, when we cannot discuss what we want in life as human beings, when we are, therefore, not free – we can neither be moral. A moral agent is supposed to be a free agent, and both Derrida in his mentioned work and Marcuse, have tried to show their contemporaries that we loose our morality when the political universe is closed. Their work is a work of titanic proportions, as they had to do away with the ideology of the Cold War (and it’s supposed ending in Derrida’s case) that had stifled the thought of an entire era. Re-opening the political universe is not an easy thing, and the majority of the work still has to be done. It means we have to disengage ourselves of the society of needs – of the economy of scarcity, that is, and of the metaphors of war which are used to support it. It is understandable that they went back to Marx, as his analysis of the economical universe is still worthy of further interpretation. Their search for words to articulate the hinge that decides on openness/freedom over against closure/repression – living our difference, our multi-dimensionality, our plurality – owes to my view more than said to that great twentieth century analyst of the political: Hannah Arendt. But that is not the point here – the point is that we can not reclaim our status of moral agents unless we decide to dare to be political once more.

Hannah Arendt The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press 1998 [originally published in 1958]

Jacques Derrida Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge 1994 [original French edition 1993]

Herbert Marcuse One Dimensional Man. Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Routledge 2002 [first edition 1964, second edition 1991]