Hannah Arendt: The Philosophy of Totalitarianism

Between fleeing Hitler's Germany and understanding the role of her kind in the Holocaust, German-Jewish Hannah Arendt became one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century.

Jun 20, 2022By Monisha Choudhary, BA Art History
portrait of Hannah Arendt at Wesyleyan University Library
Hannah Arendt, one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers. (Photo courtesy of Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives.)

 

We recognize Hannah Arendt as a formidable seminal philosopher and political theorist of the twentieth century. Although she refused to be called a philosopher later in her life, Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1961) and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1964) are studied as significant works in twentieth-century philosophy.

 

Philosophers and peers since Hannah Arendt have often made the mistake of reading Arendt without referencing her life as a German Jew raised in a progressive family. She, therefore, received extreme remarks from her friends and family for her gallant words. Especially after Eichmann was published in the New Yorker, they accused her of being a self-hating Jew who had no regard for the Jews who suffered in Nazi Germany. Her report for the New Yorker remains on trial still, defending against charges of accusing the Jews of their own destruction. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, the responsibility of anyone who dares to put pen to paper on a subject is to understand. This article, therefore, attempts to understand Origins and Eichmann without isolating them from Hannah Arendt’s life as a Jew ostracized from her community for daring to think.

 

Situating Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein Portrait
Hannah Arendt in 1944, Portrait by Photographer Fred Stein.

 

Born to Jewish heritage in 1906 in West Germany, Hannah Arendt was raised in a Europe burdened with the ‘Jewish Question’. Although Arendt belonged to a family of Jewish reformists and Socialist Democrats, she was raised in a secular environment – which had a lasting impact on her. The death of her father at the age of 7 and the resilience of her mother seem to have affected Arendt significantly in her early years.

 

Hannah Arendt (originally named Johanna Arendt), took to Philosophy, Greek, and (later) Political Science. At the University of Marburg, Arendt met with the great German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, in 1920. Then eighteen-year-old Arendt was a student of Heidegger, who was a thirty-five-year-old married man. Their academic relationship quickly turned into a personal one- not free of its complexities. Their romantic and academic relationship was deeply strained by Heidegger’s commitment to the Nazi Party. Regardless, Arendt and Heidegger were acquainted for most of Arendt’s life.

 

Are you enjoying this article?

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Another key figure in Hannah Arendt’s life was the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. Jaspers was Arendt’s doctoral advisor at the University of Heidelberg, where Arendt got her doctorate in philosophy. Arendt has admitted that Jaspers influenced her greatly in her way of thought and articulation, many times. She remained apolitical regarding the socio-political circumstances of Germany until 1933, which can be seen in her exchanges with Israeli Professor Scholman. Scholman wrote to Arendt on the rise of Hitler to power in 1931 and warned her of what would follow; to which she responded of not having any interest in either history or politics. This changed when Arendt had to flee Germany in 1933, at twenty-six, with the aid of a Zionist organization run by close friends. In interviews and lectures that followed, Arendt repeatedly spoke to the cessation of her lack of interest in politics and history – “Indifference was impossible in the Germany of 1933”.

 

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein
Hannah Arendt in 1944, Portrait by Photographer Fred Stein, via Artribune.

 

Arendt fled to Paris and married Heinrich Blücher, a Marxist philosopher; they were both sent to internment camps. It was Blücher and his work in the opposing faction of the Communist Party of Germany that moved Arendt to political action. It wasn’t until 1941 that Arendt emigrated to the United States with her husband. Her German citizenship was revoked in 1937 and she became an American citizen in 1950 after fourteen years of statelessness. After 1951, Arendt taught political theory as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Princeton University, and the New School of Social Research in the US.

 

Philosophy and Political Thought

Hannah Arendt Zur Person interview
Hannah Arendt for Zur Person in 1964.

 

In an interview for Zur Person, Hannah Arendt distinguished between philosophy and politics based on the material these disciplines attend to. Earlier in the interview, she refused to be called a ‘philosopher.’ Philosophy, according to Arendt, is burdened greatly by tradition – of which she wanted to be free. She also clarifies that the tension between philosophy and politics is the tension between humans as thinking and acting beings. Arendt sought to look at politics with an eye unclouded by philosophy. This is also why she is seldom called a ‘political philosopher.’

 

Arendt’s distinction between philosophy and politics is informed by her distinction between vita activa (life of action) and vita contemplativa (life of contemplation). She attributes labour, work, and action to vita activa in The Human Condition (1959) – activities that make us human, as opposed to animals. The faculties of vita contemplativa include thinking, willing, and judging, she writes in The Life of the Mind (1978). These are Arendt’s most purely philosophical works (Benhabib, 2003).

 

Hannah Arendt at Chicago University
Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago 1966, via Museum.love

 

Arendt’s stern advocacy, on one hand, for constitutionalism, the rule of law, and fundamental rights (including the right to action and opinion) and critique of representative democracy and morality in politics, on another, have perplexed readers who wondered what her position in the political spectrum was. Nevertheless, Arendt is mostly perceived as a liberal thinker. For her, politics is not a means for the satisfaction of individual preferences or a way of organization around shared conceptions. Politics for Arendt is based on active citizenship – civic engagement and deliberation on issues affecting the political community.

 

Like much of her work, Arendt herself cannot be boxed into established methods of thinking, writing, or even being. Countless philosophers and scholars since Arendt have attempted to bracket her into conventional patterns, but to no avail. To this end, Arendt has truly freed herself from philosophical traditions with her original thoughts and unflinching convictions.

 

Prelude: Understanding Origins

American Jewish Committee Meeting Photograph
Leaders of the American Jewish Committee meet to discuss responses to European antisemitism in 1937, via the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

 

The Origins of Totalitarianism landed Hannah Arendt among one of the most crucial political thinkers of the century. In Origins, Arendt attempts to understand the most pivotal political issues of the time: understanding Nazism and Stalinism. Today, totalitarianism is understood as a dictatorial government that induces its population to total subservience. According to Arendt, totalitarianism (then) was unlike anything humankind had seen before – it was a novel government and not an extreme form of tyranny, as popularly believed. Origins, therefore, advanced a framework to comprehend the human condition in a political sphere like totalitarianism. Arendt conducts an in-depth analysis of totalitarianism in Origins through a three part analysis: antisemitism, imperialism and totalitarianism.

 

Arendt begins by quoting her mentor Karl Jaspers-

 

Weder dem Vergangen anheimfallen noch dem Zukünftigen. Es kommt darauf an, ganz gegenwärtig zu sein.”

 

‘To neither fall victim to the past nor the future. It is all about being in the present.’

 

The opening is more than a tribute to Arendt’s lifelong mentor and educator; it sets the tone for the rest of the book. Totalitarianism is not studied in Origins to understand its causes but its functionality – how and why it works. Post World War II, the entire world was troubled by the Jewish Question and simultaneously burdened to forget the grotesque undoing of Hitler’s Germany. “Why the Jews?” Many answered that antisemitism is an eternal condition of the world while the rest held that the Jews were but scapegoats in the given circumstances. Arendt, on the other hand, asks why antisemitism worked in those circumstances and how it led to the rise of an ideology like fascism. Arendt’s quoting of Jaspers, therefore, perfectly launches this inquiry into the (then) present workings of totalitarianism.

 

australian wounded warrior carried to hospital
An Australian bringing in a wounded comrade to hospital. Dardanelles Campaign, circa 1915, via the National Archives Catalog.

 

“Two world wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining world powers. This moment of anticipation is like the calm that settles after all hopes have died. We no longer hope for an eventual restoration of the old world order with all its traditions, or for the reintegration of the masses of five continents who have been thrown into a chaos produced by the violence of wars and revolutions and the growing decay of all that has still been spared. Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena-homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth
(Arendt, 1968).”

 

The preface compels the readers to take an interest and actively engage in the bewildering depths to which the events of the twentieth century have changed the world. “Homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth”, is a resounding reminiscence of the horrors the Jews faced in Nazi Germany as the world complied in silence.

 

“The People”, “the Mob”, “the Masses” and “the Totalitarian Leader” are some characterizations Arendt uses throughout Origins. “The People” being the working citizens of the nation-state, “the Mob” comprising the refuse of all classes who use violent means to accomplish political goals, “the Masses” referring to isolated individuals who have lost relations with their fellow people, and “the Totalitarian Leader” being those whose will is the law, typified by the likes of Hitler and Stalin.

 

The Development of Antisemitism

Antisemitic Childrens Book Illustration
Illustration from a German antisemitic children’s book titled Trust No Fox in the Green Meadow and No Jew on his Oath (translation from German). The headlines depicted in the image say “Jews are our misfortune” and “How the Jew cheats.” Germany, 1936, via the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

 

In the first part of OriginsAntisemitism, Hannah Arendt contextualizes the development of antisemitism in the modern age and argues that the Jews were atomized from society but accepted into the circles of those in charge. In feudal society, Jewish people worked in financial positions – handling the accounts of the nobility. For their services, they received interest payments and special benefits. With the end of feudalism, governments replaced monarchs and ruled over homogenous communities. This led to the formation of regions with unique identities, known as nation-states in Europe.

 

The Jewish people found themselves transformed into financiers of homogenous nation-states. Still out of the loop, they gained wealth and special privileges, effectively alienating them from the general polity.

 

Arendt gets into how imperialism took on Europe in the nineteenth century and the Jews lost influence in the second part of Origins, titled Imperialism. The economic crises of this period tore people from their former class, creating angry mobs. Already in conflict with the state, the mobs believed that they were actually in conflict with the Jews. While the Jews had wealth, they barely had any actual power. Regardless, these mobs made it a point to popularize the propaganda that the Jews were pulling the strings of European society from the shadows.

 

Alfred Dreyfus Rennes rehabilitation trial
The rehabilitation of Dreyfus, July 12, 1906, by Valerian Gribayedoff, via Wikipedia.

 

The greatest exhibit of nineteenth-century antisemite Europe remains the Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer, was accused of treason and prosecuted for a crime he did not commit. This prosecution was founded on the officer’s Jewish heritage. Although Anti-Dreyfus sentiments united the right and left factions, Clemenceau (the then leader of the Radical Party) was intent on believing in equality under an impartial law. He convinced the radicals that the opposition was essentially a herd of aristocrats and successfully led them to support Dreyfus. Eventually, Dreyfus was pardoned from life imprisonment. To the dismay of the likes of Clemenceau, however, the Dreyfus affair was but the tip of the iceberg.

 

The Rise of Imperialism 

British Battle Modder River South African War
British troops wading through the river at the Battle of Modder River, November 28, 1899, during the South African War (1899–1902), via Encyclopedia Britannica

 

In the second part of Origins Imperialism, Hannah Arendt draws attention to how imperialism laid the groundwork for totalitarianism. For Arendt, imperialism is much more than national expansion (to the colonies); it is also a method to affect the government of the imperialist nation (the Metropole). After the French revolution, no classes replaced the aristocracy, but the bourgeoisie became economically preeminent. The economic depressions of the nineteenth century (the 1870s) rendered a large number of people classless and the bourgeoisie were left with surplus capital but no market.

 

During the same time, the liquidation of British India led to the forfeit of the foreign possessions of European nations. To push the bourgeoisie off the edge, the highly individualistic nation-states could not provide an outlet for the overproduced capital. Combined with the nation-state’s inability to manage and regulate foreign affairs, the nation-state spelt doom for the bourgeoisie. So, the bourgeoisie began to invest in non-capitalistic societies all over the world by exporting capital with a political army to shield off any risks. This is what Arendt calls the “political emancipation of the bourgeoisie” and the beginning of imperialism. She says that before imperialism, the notion of ‘world politics’ had not been conceived.

 

It is important to note that the inferences of the nature of the bourgeoisie in Arendt’s works are informed by Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, whom Arendt considers the ‘thinker of the bourgeoisie’. In Leviathan, Hobbes places power at the center of human life and deems human beings incapable of any ‘higher truth’ or rationality. Arendt uses this placement, the fundamental need for power to understand the bourgeoisie and their role in society. Hobbes also becomes a digression used to justify the disgust Arendt feels towards the bourgeoisie in Imperialism.

 

India Colonized By British
India under Colonial Rule, via British Online Archives.

 

Conquest and imperialism are different according to Arendt. In both conquest (or colonization) and imperialism, capital is extended to peripheral nations, but unlike conquest, the law is not extended to peripheral nations in imperialism. This significant foreign political influence felt in a peripheral nation is not regulated by a fitting law, so the only rule becomes “the alliance between the capital and mob”, as Arendt calls it. The enraged mobs who have been robbed of their classes, align with the objectives of bourgeoisie – to be assigned to or regain a class. This economic and political effect of imperialism thus facilitates the emergence of such alliances on the national scale, while simultaneously creating a means for global politics on an international scale.

 

“Two new devices for political organization and rule over foreign peoples were discovered during the first decades of imperialism. One was race as a principle of the body politic, and the other bureaucracy as a principle of foreign domination
(Arendt, 1968).

 

Arendt then discusses the foundations of modern racism and bureaucracy in relation to imperialism. She begins with contemplating ‘race-thinking’, which is more of a social opinion than it is an ideology. Race-thinking was a tactic used by the French aristocracy to attempt to salvage itself from the revolution. This tactic falsely used history and evolution to justify why a particular kind of people behaved differently in mostly a homogenous society. This anti-national characteristic of race-thinking was later transferred to racism.

 

Boer troops battle British South African War
Boer troops lining up in battle against the British during the South African War (1899–1902), via Enciclopedia Britannica.

 

The case of South Africa is studied to understand race-thinking. The Boers, whom Arendt calls European ‘superfluous’ men, were human beings who lost their relations with other human beings and rendered unnecessary to society. In the nineteenth century, superfluous European men settled the colonies in South Africa. These men completely lacked social understanding and awareness, so they couldn’t understand African life. Their inability to comprehend or relate to these ‘primitive’ people made the idea of racism increasingly appealing. In an attempt to separate themselves from the natives, they established themselves as gods among the native residents citing racial grounds. The Boers greatly feared westernization because they believed it would invalidate their power over the natives.

 

Bureaucracy, on the other hand, is studied by referencing the dealings of Lord Cromer in India. The Viceroy of India, Lord Cromer, who turned into an imperialist bureaucrat. He established a bureaucracy in India and ruled by reports. His method of ruling was guided by Cecil Rhodes’ style of “rule through secrecy”. The need for expansion embodied by Lord Cromer and the likes drove the bureaucracy. The expansionary movement having only one end – more expansion. In a bureaucratic system, the law is replaced by decree- which is what happened in the colonies. The law is founded in reason and connected with the human condition, but a decree simply ‘is’. Therefore, for imperialism, the rule by decree (or bureaucracy) is the perfect method.

 

Imperialism and religion mikhail cheremnykh
Imperialism and Religion by Mikhail Cheremnykh, late 1920s, via MoMa

 

Race-thinking, later reshapes into racism, while bureaucracy facilitates imperialism and both combine to lay the grounds for Totalitarianism. In the latter chapters of Imperialism, Arendt adds another precursor to totalitarianism- “pan-” movements. Pan-movements essentially aim to geographically unite a nation, linguistic group, race, or religion. These movements are born from continental imperialism- a belief that there should be no geographical distance between the colony and the nation. This type of imperialism could not implicitly disregard the law, as it sought to unite a similar demographic.

 

They explicitly disregarded the law to further their objectives. Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism (linguistic movements) are prominent examples of these ideologies. These movements were organized and were expressly anti-state (and anti-party). As a result, the masses were lured into embodying the ideals of the movements. The deliberate opposition of the pan-movements led to the decline of the continental (multi-) party system; further weakening the nation-states. Arendt postulates that these movements bear semblance with the ‘totalitarian state’, which is only an apparent state. Eventually, these movements cease to identify with the needs of the people and are ready to sacrifice both the state and the people for the sake of its ideology (Arendt, 1968, p. 266).

 

Belgian Refugees World War Photograph
Leaving the homeland: Belgian refugees of the First World War, via rtbf.be

 

Imperialism worked towards the end of the nation-state, by exploiting its shortcomings. However, for Arendt, the total collapse of the nation-state came with World War I. Refugees were created in millions, constituting the first-ever ‘stateless’ persons. No state would or could readily accept refugees in such an overwhelming magnitude. The refugees, on the other hand, were best protected by ‘Minority Treaties’. Arendt begins now, her critique of universal human rights, or particularly, the Rights of Man. These rights were meant to be ‘natural’ rights and therefore inalienable. However, the refugees of the war were not protected as stateless persons.

 

Arendt concludes that the loss of community comes before the loss of rights because without a community, a person is not protected at all. She further argues that in the twentieth century, human beings had separated from both history and nature; so neither could be a basis for the notion of ‘humanity.’ The two world wars proved that ‘humanity’ could not enforce the Rights of Man because it was too abstract. On a large scale, such statelessness could reduce people into a “generalized” community, according to Arendt. And in some conditions, Arendt says, that the people would have to live as “savages”. Imperialism ends with a bitter note of the effects that capitalism and global politics has on the people.

 

Understanding the Mechanisms of Totalitarianism

Hitler Meets Japanese Delegation Heinrich Hoffmann
Adolf Hitler greets a Japanese naval delegation, by Heinrich Hoffmann in 1934, via the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

 

Finally, after having discussed the circumstances under which totalitarianism comes to be, as a manifestation of racism, bureaucracy, imperialism, statelessness, and rootlessness, Hannah Arendt elaborates on Nazism and Stalinism in the third part of her book. In the beginning of this third chapter, aptly titled Totalitarianism, Arendt  characterizes the totalitarian leaders (Hitler and Stalin) through their contagious fame and curious impermanence. These characteristics of the leaders are attributed to the fickleness of the masses and a “motion-mania”. This motion-mania essentially keeps the totalitarian movement in power through perpetual motion. As soon as the leader dies, the movement loses momentum. Although the masses can no longer continue the movement after the death of their leader, Arendt says it would be a mistake to assume that they forget the “totalitarian mentality”.

 

These totalitarian movements organize large superfluous masses, and can only function amidst such masses. The movements make the masses believe they are capable of affecting a minority that was controlling the politics (in the case of Nazism, the minority were the Jews). ‘How did these movements rise to power?’, we are bound to ask, as before destroying democracy in their own nations, both Hitler and Stalin were democratically elected. These totalitarian leaders embody a body politic that seems democratic while effectively plotting against a minority that doesn’t fit into an ideal homogenous society. These democratic delusions are integral to the movement. As Arendt puts it, in Nazi Germany, this was the result of the breakdown of the class system in Europe, which created classless and superfluous masses. And because the parties also represented class interests, the party system was also broken down – surrendering the state to the movement.

 

Camp Uniform Cap Photograph
Concentration camp uniform cap with 90065 worn by a Polish Jewish inmate, via the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

 

Another element that makes totalitarianism so encompassing is “atomization”. This is the process of isolating an individual from society and making them mere “atoms” of society. Arendt asserts that the totalitarian masses grow out of highly atomized societies. These masses share an ‘unjust experience’ (atomization) and selflessness (lack of social identity or significance or the feeling that they can be easily replaced and are mere ideological instruments).

 

The method used to win over these masses is propaganda. A salient feature of totalitarian propaganda is the prediction of the future, proofing it from any argument or reason, because there is no reliable evidence for their  statements. The masses, distrusting their own reality, succumb to such propaganda. In the case of Hitler, the Nazis convinced the masses that there was such a thing as a Jewish world conspiracy. And as the already superior race, Aryans were destined to save and win the rest of the world from their control – as the propaganda stated. It was repetition, not reason, that won over the masses. While the masses gave in to the movement, the elites had adopted an anti-liberal stance after the Great War and enjoyed seeing the movement shaking up the status quo.

 

Antisemitic Sign In Germany
An antisemitic sign (in German) reads, “Juda fort aus diesem ort”, via the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

 

Totalitarian movements are organized around the leader, as they are the supreme source of law in the state. This supremacy of the leader is coupled with an anonymous mass of organized members. As these organized members act per the will of the leader, they cannot take responsibility for their individual actions or even reason with the actions. Therefore, the members lose autonomy and become mere instruments of the totalitarian state. The totalitarian leader must thus, be infallible.

 

The totalitarian regime, however, is not free of its complexities. The tension between the party and the state further complicates the position of the totalitarian leader. With the de facto and de jure power residing in two separate entities, administrative inefficiency is created. Unfortunately, his structural failure further escalates the movement.

 

The totalitarian movement finds an “objective enemy” to gain and retain perpetuity. These enemies are not simple enemies of the state but are treated as threats due to their very existence. Arendt says that the Nazis did not actually believe that Germans were a master race, but that they would become the master race that would rule the earth (Arendt, 1968, p. 416). This means that the true goal was to be the master race, and not manage the threat of the Jews – the Jews were but scapegoats of history and tradition.

 

The totalitarian movement reduced people into ‘things’ –  as seen in concentration camps. Arendt contends that in Nazi Germany, individuals were treated as less than animals, indoctrinated, experimented with, and stripped of any spontaneity, agency, or freedom they had. Every aspect of the life of these individuals was manipulated to suit the collective sentiment of the movement.

 

Totalitarianism or Tyranny?

Hitler Salutes Austrian Crowd
Hitler salutes the welcoming crowd in Austria in 1936, via the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

 

The rise of totalitarianism as a movement, begs the question of difference – is it really that different from tyranny? Arendt distinguishes totalitarianism from the other forms of government from a jurisprudential standpoint. While the law is founded on a natural and historical basis, in a totalitarian regime, nature and history are the laws. These regimes terrorize people into inaction. A totalitarian movement thus becomes capable of total moral collapse by combining ideology with terror, which keeps the wheels of totalitarianism turning.

 

Ideologies, Arendt says, are not about being, but becoming. Totalitarian ideology, therefore, has the following characteristics: first, an elaborate explanation of the process of what will become (‘rooted’ in history); second, the independence of the claim from experience (so it becomes fictitious); and third, the inability of the claim to transform reality. This dogmatic approach is not synonymous with reality and creates an illusion of a “logical movement” of history. This “logical history” burdens the individual greatly, imposes a particular course of life and takes away their freedom, spontaneity, and individualism. Freedom, for Arendt, is the ability to begin, and this beginning is not determined by what came before it. This ability to begin is spontaneity, which is lost when an individual is atomized. These people become tools of history, effectively rendering them superfluous to their community. This threat to autonomy, agency, and spontaneity, and the reduction of human beings to mere things, makes totalitarianism a terrifying movement altogether.

 

Origins pieces together intricate political ideas by borrowing meticulously from a diverse set of scholars, making it a particularly difficult book to read. It is this peculiar method of analysis and original undertaking that has made Origins one of the most significant works of the twentieth century.

 

Arendt on Trial: The Case of Eichmann

Eichmann Taking Note In Trial Photograph
Eichmann takes notes during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961, via the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

 

In 1961, well after the Holocaust, World War II, and the death of Adolf Hitler, German-Austrian Adolf Eichmann, an S.S. Officer, was captured and tried in the courts of Jerusalem. Eichmann was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, and David Ben Gurion (the then Prime minister) had decided that only the Israeli courts could ever confer justice onto the Jews for the Shoah.

 

When Arendt heard of this, she immediately reached out to the New Yorker, asking to be sent to Jerusalem as a reporter. Arendt had to see this monster of a man, and she went to Jerusalem to report the trial. What happened next was not anything Arendt could have prepared for. Arendt’s report, Eichmann in Jerusalem, remains one of the most controversial pieces of writings of the 20th century, but for all the wrong reasons.

 

The report begins with an elaborate description of the courtroom, which looks like a stage prepared for a showdown – something Arendt expected the trial to become. Eichmann sat inside a box made of glass, made to protect him from the wrath of the audience. Arendt clarifies that the trial takes place per the demands of justice, but this demand is mocked when the prosecutor tries to put history on trial. Arendt feared that Eichmann alone would have to defend himself against the charges of the Holocaust, Nazism, and Antisemitism – which is exactly what happened. The prosecution had invited survivors and refugees of Nazi Germany to testify against Eichmann. Eichmann, however, simply seemed to not understand the depth and the magnitude of the effects of his undertaking. He was apathetic, disturbingly composed, and utterly unaffected.

 

Eichmann Listening In Trial Jerusalem Photograph
Eichmann listens as he is sentenced to death by the court, via the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

 

Eichmann was kidnapped, being tried under a retroactive law for crimes against humanity in a court in Jerusalem instead of an international tribunal. Therefore many intellectuals, including Arendt, were skeptical of the trial. Arendt clarifies that there was no ideology, no –ism, not even antisemitism that was on trial, but a shockingly mediocre man burdened by the weight of his staggering deeds. Arendt laughed at the sheer thoughtlessness of the man, as he repeatedly professed his allegiance to Hitler.

 

Eichmann was a true bureaucrat. He had pledged his allegiance to the Führer, and as he said, he had simply obeyed orders. Eichmann went so far as to say that if the Führer said his father was corrupted, he would kill his father himself, if the Führer provided evidence. To this, the prosecutor poignantly asked if the Führer had provided evidence that the Jews had to be killed. Eichmann did not answer. When asked if he ever thought about what he was doing and if he conscientiously objected to it, Eichmann replied that there was a split between conscience and his ‘self’ that had to perform obediently. He admitted to having abandoned his conscience during the discharge of his duty as a bureaucrat. While survivors broke down in court before Eichmann, he sat there in a box made of glass, pale from the absence of thought or responsibility.

 

In the proceedings, Eichmann says that he had never killed or so much as ordered to kill a Jew or a Non-jew. Eichmann consistently held that they could only convict him of aiding and abetting the Final Solution because he had no “base motivations”. What is particularly amusing is the readiness of Eichmann to admit to his crimes because he did not hate the jews at all because he simply had no reason to.

 

These habits of Eichmann’s created considerable difficulty during the trial—less for Eichmann himself than for those who had come to prosecute him, to defend him, to judge him, or to report on him. For all this, it was essential that one take him seriously, and this was very hard to do, unless one sought the easiest way out of the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them, and declared him a clever, calculating liar—which he obviously was not
(Arendt, 1963).

 

The Banality of Evil According to Hannah Arendt

Abba Kovner Testifying Eichmann Trial
Former Jewish partisan leader Abba Kovner testifies for prosecution during the trial of Adolf Eichmann. May 4, 1961, via the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

 

“The Banality of Evil”, writes Arendt, means that evil acts do not necessarily come from profoundly monstrous people, but from the people who have no motive; people who refuse to think. The people most capable of such monstrosity are people who refuse to be persons, because they give up their ability to think. Arendt says that Eichmann refused to think that he had any spontaneity as an officer, and was simply obeying the law. Soon after the trial, Eichmann was hanged.

 

Not much attention was paid to Arendt’s report itself as much as it was paid to a few pages that discussed the role of the Jews in the final solution. The Israeli prosecutor asked Eichmann if things would’ve been different had the Jews tried to defend themselves. Surprisingly, Eichmann said that there was barely any resistance. Arendt dismissed this question as foolish in the beginning but as the trial progressed, the role of Jewish leaders was brought to question consistently. To this end, Arendt, as a reporter for the trial, wrote that if some Jewish leaders (and not all) had not complied, that if they had resisted, the number of Jews lost to the Shoah would have been much smaller.

 

The book became a controversy even before it was published because Arendt was accused of being a self-hating Jew, who did not know better than to blame the Jewish people for their own destruction. To this, Arendt held that “To attempt to understand is not the same as forgiveness”. Arendt suffered greatly for her convictions. Personally, Arendt admitted that the only love she was capable of was the love for her friends; she did not feel she belonged to a particular people – which is proof of emancipation. Arendt proudly held that being Jewish was a fact of life. While her stance can be understood, due to her secular outlook and the stride of the Jewish people, the question still stands: should someone be ostracized for a purely intellectual endeavor, for something as honest as wanting to understand?

 

Hannah Arendt At Wesleyan Classroom Photograph
Arendt in a Classroom at Wesleyan, via Wesleyan’s official blog.

 

Among Jewish intellectuals, Hannah Arendt is yet to be exonerated. Even during her last years, she remained troubled by the conceptions of good and evil. Arendt was deeply upset that her report wasn’t read properly, that her use of Immanuel Kant’s ‘radical evil’ was not the focus of criticism. Evil, as Kant put it, was a natural tendency of humans, and radical evil was a corruption that took over them entirely. Arendt realized, some years after Eichmann, that there can never exist a radical evil: evil can only be extreme but that radical good exists. This is proof of the naive optimism of Arendt, an intellectual who had immeasurable faith in the world, an adventurer who was put on trial for her courageous inquiry. Perhaps it was too soon to rationalize what had happened, and her community needed her to empathize with the Jewish people. But for an intellectual giant like Arendt, it was never a choice.

 

The world keeps returning to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann and Origins to aid in understanding everything from Twitter’s vigilante mobs posing as warriors of justice to totalitarian regimes of the twenty-first century. “Homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth” has an agonizing ring to it today, with the rise of the Taliban, the Syrian and Rohingya crisis, and the diaspora of millions of stateless people.

 

If there is any method of homage to Arendt today, then it is in making an active choice to wield our individuality, our agency, freedom, and spontaneity: to think. Above all else, in the face of staggering adversity, good is in deliberately refusing to not be persons.

 

Citations (APA, 7th ed.): 

 

Arendt, H. (1968). The origins of totalitarianism.

Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem. Penguin UK

Benhabib, S. (2003). The reluctant modernism of Hannah Arendt. Rowman & Littlefield.



Author Image

By Monisha ChoudharyBA Art HistoryMonisha is a researcher, writer, and artist pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Arts and in Law from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. She has been engaged in performance arts, as a performer and a facilitator; and takes a keen interest in philosophy and politics.