Called the “most original and profound…political theoretician of our times” for her work on totalitarianism, perhaps more than any other modern thinker, Hannah Arendt helps us understand the politics of terror and confront the awful reality that not only “monsters” but also ordinary people commit atrocities against one another. As Hans-Ulrich Thamer, the curator of a new exhibition at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, “Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime,” noted, “As a person, Hitler was a very ordinary man. He was nothing without the people.” (New York Times, October 16, 2010, p. 1)
In the post-9/11 world, Arendt’s wisdom seems more germane than ever. Reading Arendt now against the backdrop of the “war on terror” and in the context of what is called “globalization” means confronting profound political and moral issues that emerge in different ways in history, social studies, and literature classrooms. Is sovereignty the highest good of the state? Do nations have obligations to one another? Are there universal human rights? Are these rights enforceable? Is evil a problem of human nature or culture? What explains the rise of totalitarian power and the use of terror and fear as instruments of politics? As the language of good and evil circulates in politics and the media, filters into all our classrooms and affects the social dynamics of “insider/outsider” operating informally on many school campuses today, Arendt invites us to think about the human condition? Her writing urges us to think about the roots of “the problem of evil,” about the meaning of human plurality and diversity, and about the use of terror and violence by both state and non-state actors to resolve conflict or redress grievances. My hope is that studying Arendt together with a diverse group of colleagues will encourage us to encourage our students and peers to think before we act.
Each of the two central texts chosen for this seminar represents distinct, yet interwoven, aspects of Arendt’s reflections on what she called the “human condition of plurality.” Each explores the philosophical implications of different crises generated by social conflict in the twentieth century. Together they continue to have remarkable cogency and relevance. They repay the patient reader of these difficult works with the rewards of being challenged to reconsider the complex historical roots of totalitarianism and the persistence of tensions between freedom and equality even in democratic societies.
Perhaps the most disconcerting of Arendt’s writing we will examine is Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann is a haunting book. Originally commissioned as a series of articles written for The New Yorker, it became Arendt’s meditation on morality. Written as what she called a “report” on the Israeli trial of Nazi deportation coordinator Adolf Eichmann, Arendt reached disturbing conclusions in it about who bore responsibility for the Final Solution.
Sitting in that Jerusalem courtroom, Arendt said, she was struck by an odd and disturbing thought–that the evil reflected in Eichmann’s crimes, the atrocities against humanity he had committed, was the product neither of a madman nor a wicked man nor a monster, but rather of an ordinary, normal human who had acted without thought. To Arendt, Eichmann was terrifying because he was “thoughtless.” The real trouble, she said, was so many were like him, normal people who did awful things to one another.
The controversy surrounding the publication of Eichmann raged for many years and the wisdom of Arendt’s tone and conclusions continue to be debated. The timely release of Hannah Arendt: The Movie, combined with the fiftieth anniversary in 2013 of the publication of Eichmann has stimulated interest in the book all over again. Most recently, Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem countered Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann with extensive new scholarship on Eichmann’s career. Yet, the importance of what she wrote about the problem of evil warrants consideration, especially in light of the ease with which different groups target others for vilification today.
In a dense book published more than fifty years ago, The Origins of Totalitarianism (OT), Arendt sought to “discover the hidden mechanics by which all the traditional elements of our political and spiritual world [had been] dissolved.” After the book’s publication she explained she hadn’t intended to provide a linear history but wanted to identify the peculiar “fixed and definite forms” into which various aspects of western political theories and practices had crystallized in the “event” of totalitarianism. To Arendt, totalitarianism represented the “crystallization” of elements of racism and conquest present in European thought as early as the eighteenth century, but which the disintegration of the nation-state system following the First World War had exacerbated.
To bring into relief patterns of interaction among those elements, Arendt painted an enormous canvas of the political and social history of modern Europe in broad, bold strokes. She argued that racism and imperialism combined to erode the principles of a common humanity through the creation of “laws of exception” or separate sets of rights for stateless peoples, codified in the post-WW I peace treaties known as the Minority Treaties. And she identified the emergence of mass movements as forms of “negative solidarity” developing out of what she termed the “breakdown of the class system,” highlighting how such movements rested on majority consensus.
What is especially instructive for the contemporary reader of OT is the fact that Arendt located the origins of terror and ideology within Western, democratic societies. She urged reading the record of what she then called the “truly radical nature of Evil” in totalitarianism as a cautionary tale about the “subterranean stream of Western history” (emphasis added). Arendt’s story of the hidden underbelly of western history provides a controversial counterpoint for the seminar to engage in critical thinking about the apparently prevalent contemporary identification of terrorism with non-western societies today. At the same time, Arendt’s identification of the Holocaust as a unique and unprecedented event remains a particularly thorny dimension of her work.
To round out our consideration of Arendt as a “public intellectual in the public square,” we will also explore selected additional essays of hers, including “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship,” “The Crisis in Education,” “Reflections on Little Rock,” and some pieces she wrote in the 1940s before the state of Israel was created.