The Analysis of Antisemitism in Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism

“There is hardly an aspect of contemporary history more irritating and mystifying than the fact that of all the great unsolved political questions of our century, it should have been this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem that had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion.” (Origins of Totalitarianism)

Seventy years ago, on January 20, 1942, a group of leading Nazi officials (Adolf Eichmann among them) met at a conference in a posh residence in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” the Nazi’s euphemism for their planned physical extermination of the Jews. What was perhaps most startling about the meeting is that there was no real deliberation about whether such a policy should be carried out, but only how. No one objected to the program of mass extermination, which S.S. General Reinhard Heydrich announced as the Fuhrer’s command.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, her masterful exploration of the rise of Nazism, Hannah Arendt outlined the social and political factors that drove “the Jewish people into the storm center of events” and made “the Jewish question and antisemitism…the catalytic agent..for the rise of the Nazi movement,…for a World War of unparalleled ferocity, and finally for the emergence of the unprecedented crime of genocide in the midst of Occidental civilization.” (OT, with a new introduction by Samantha Power, 2004, p. 7) That “this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem…had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion” was, in her words, an “outrage [to] our common sense.” (OT, p. 11) Despite the outrage, Arendt took seriously the fact that antisemitism formed the core of Nazi ideology. She thought its widespread acceptance set the stage for the extermination of the Jews becoming the legitimated purpose of Nazi policy.

As she sought ways to understand the rise of antisemitism and its enshrinement at the core of Nazi ideology, Arendt rejected certain explanations, including the scapegoat theory. Not only refusing to accept the idea that the choice of victims was accidental or arbitrary, she also resisted explanations, such as “eternal antisemitism,” that absolved the Jewish people of any responsibility for the development of those disastrous circumstances in which they found themselves in the middle of Europe in the 1930s.

To Arendt, the idea of “eternal antisemitism” as an unbroken continuity of persecution of Jews beginning at the end of the Roman Empire and continuing into the twentieth century was a dangerous fallacy. To the question of why the Jews of all people were the target of such genocidal enmity the idea of eternal antisemitism offered what Arendt labeled the “question begging reply: Eternal hostility.” She would have none of it. “Comprehension,” Arendt wrote, “does not mean…deducing the unprecedented from precedents.” (OT, p. xxvi ) To interpret the virulent form of antisemitism at the core of Nazi ideology as only a more modern variant of “eternal antisemitism” would, she contended, inherently negate “the significance of human behavior” and “bear a terrible resemblance to those modern practices and forms of government which, by means of arbitrary terror, liquidate the very possibility of human activity.” (OT, p. 18.) Instead, she argued, we must bear consciously the burden that the horrific events of the twentieth century placed on us and examine the behavior of both the perpetrators and their chosen victims in historical perspective. (OT, p. 7.) And for the next several hundred pages of Origins, that is exactly what she set out to do.

It’s not so difficult to imagine that perpetrators of murderous crimes have the choice to behave differently and are responsible for their actions. In fact, we are used to accepting the reasoning that if someone’s actions cause another harm the one who did the harming is fully responsible for the damage done. So used to this logic, in fact, that we become reluctant to excuse the perpetrator simply because her life’s circumstances gave her few options, and especially not just because everyone around her was behaving equally badly. What’s harder to swallow is the notion that the actions or attitudes of the chosen victim might have contributed in any way to their initial selection. So if someone contests the victim’s absolute innocence we are likely to recoil in horror and accuse the person putting forth such an idea of blaming the victim.

When Arendt turned to Jewish history she found there “certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries” that, for her, contained “elementary clues to the growing hostility between certain groups of society and the Jews,” (OT, p. 19.) clues she thought Jews had ignored or misread to their increasing peril.
What actually happened was that great parts of the Jewish people were at the same time threatened with physical extinction from without and dissolution from within. In this situation, Jews concerned with the survival of their people would, in a curious desperate misinterpretation, hit on the consoling idea that antisemitism, after all, might be an excellent means for keeping the people together, so that the assumption of eternal antisemitism would even imply an eternal guarantee of Jewish existence. (OT, p. 16-17)

Not stopping at this biting observation, Arendt carried her indictment of the concept of “eternal antisemitism” even further:

“The more surprising aspect of this explanation…is that is has been adopted by a great many unbiased historians and by an even greater number of Jews. It is this odd coincidence which makes the theory so very dangerous and confusing. Its escapist bias is in both instances the same: just as antisemites understandably desire to escape responsibility for their deeds, so Jews, attacked and on the defensive, even more understandably do not wish under any circumstances to discuss their share of responsibility.” (OT, p. 16.)

“Modern anti-Semitism,” she wrote, “must be seen in the more general framework of the development of the nation-state, and at the same time its source must be found in certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries.” (OT, p. 17.) To put it bluntly, Arendt criticized the actions and inactions of specific groups of Jews in the centuries preceding the twentieth for contributing to the development of the constellation of events that crystallized in the rise of Nazism and the extermination of six million Jews.

Was her theory, then, nothing more than a textbook case of blaming the victim? Or were her ideas about individual and collective responsibility bound to a theory of human agency and action necessary features of her anti-fatalistic view of history?

We’ll discuss these and other questions in the 2012 NEH Summer Seminar on Arendt’s political theory. Applications now being accepted.

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