Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

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Our tradition of political thought had its definite beginning in the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. I believe it came to a no less definite end in the theories of Karl Marx.


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Lecture: Eichmann in Jerusalem
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Historian and political philosopher. She received her doctorate in philosophy at Heidelberg. Her works include Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), and Eichmann in Jerusalem, a Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). In Arendt's analysis, genocide is seen as an action against the human status and an attack against human diversity.

Born of secular Jewish parents in Hanover and raised in Konigsberg (the hometown of her admired precursor Immanuel Kant) and Berlin, Arendt studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger at the University of Marburg. She appears to have had a short romantic relationship with Heidegger, an entanglement that has occasioned much criticism due to his later Nazi sympathies. After breaking off the relationship, Arendt moved to Heidelberg to write a dissertation on the concept of love in the thought of St. Augustine, under the direction of the existentialist philosopher-psychologist Karl Jaspers.

The dissertation was published in 1929, but Arendt was prevented from habilitating (writing a second dissertation that would earn her permission to teach in German universities) in 1933 because she was a Jew, and thereupon fled Germany for Paris, where she met and befriended the literary critic and Marxist mystic Walter Benjamin. While in France, Arendt worked to support and aid Jewish refugees. However, with the German invasion and occupation of France during World War II, and the deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps, Hannah Arendt had to flee from France. In 1940, she married the German poet and philosopher Heinrich Blucher. Hannah Arendt emigrated with her husband and her mother to the United States with the assistance of the American journalist Varian Fry. She then became active in the German-Jewish community in New York and wrote for the weekly Aufbau.

After World War II, she had a reconciliation of sorts with Heidegger, and testified on his behalf in a German denazification hearing.

Arendt's work deals with the nature of power, and the subjects of politics, authority, and totalitarianism. In her reporting of the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, she raised the question whether evil is radical or simply a function of banality - of the failure of good or just ordinary people to take risks. She also wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, which attempted to trace the roots of communism and fascism and their link to anti-semitism. This book was controversial because it compared two subjects that many scholars believed were, by definition, opposites.

On her death in 1975, Hannah Arendt was buried at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where her husband taught for many years. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Hannah Arendt.]

In 1949 Arendt used this well-worn affidavit of identity "in lieu of a passport, which I, a stateless person, cannot obtain at present." Also seen here is Arendt's draft of the introduction to the third edition of Origins Of Totalitarianism, her first major book. [Adapted from Library of Congress]

A Question of Justice
Russell McNeil
March 9, 1995

Why are we studying the holocaust? Is it because it coloured within the framework of the biggest cataclysm in human history (Table I). Sixty one countries representing three quarters of the world population contributed 110 million combatants in a struggle which over six years claimed 60 million lives, cost over $1 trillion dollars, and altered the geopolitical landscape of the globe as never before. The First War involved half as many combatants, claimed a third as many lives, and cost a fifth as much in economic terms.

Table I

Direct War Losses

Country: Military (Civilian)

USSR: 13,000,000 (7,000,000)
China: 3,500,000 (10,000,000)
Germany: 3,500,000 (3,800,000)
Poland: 120,000 (5,300,000)
Japan: 1,700,000 (380,000)
Yugoslavia: 300,000 (1,300,000)
Romania: 200,000 (465,000)
France: 250,000 (360,000)
British Empire: 410,000 (60,000)
Italy: 330,000 (80,000)
Hungary: 120,000 (280,000)
Czechoslovakia: 10,000 (330,000)
United States: 407,000 (-)
Canada: 42,000 (-)

Totals: 24,000,000 (30,000,000)

1. Scale

A lot of folks died and terrible things happened. Is that reason enough to look at this? Maybe it is because we have here a vivid example of what can happen when a lot of really nasty blood thirsty criminal types are given the chance to run the world their way: nasty little men like Eichmann under the sway of tyrannical brutes like Himmler, Hitler, and Hess.

Another set of statistics. These are the five to six million indirect fatalities that defined the holocaust. Although 90 to 97 percent were Jews, Jews were not the only target. Estimates of the number of gypsies exterminated range from 200,000 to 500,000. Thousands of
Soviet prisoners of War were also gassed in the camps along with an unknown number of male homosexuals, habitual criminals, Jehovah's Witnesses, vagrants, and habitual criminals.

We've labeled this pogrom, the holocaust. Yet, the it wasn't the first instance of genocide in recorded history. It wasn't even the first in this century. Between 1915 and 1923, up to 1.5 million Armenians were driven from their homes or massacred by the Turkish government. In
1975 the Khmer Rouge, a despotic regime, took over Cambodia and brutalized its people. Over a four period 3 million Cambodians were systematically executed. Closer to the present events in Bosnia and Rwanda show that human capacity for genocidal behaviour has not
been eradicated. Why then the holocaust. Why not Bosnia, or Armenia, or Rwanda or Cambodia?

2. Personal Responsibility

Perhaps it has something to do with the particular history of the Jews and our unique relationship to the Jew within the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition? Perhaps we are especially interested in this instance because at some deep level we feel more culpable for this
than for other atrocities. Many express anger for "flogging this dead horse." It's an interesting response. The case for paying more attention to other atrocities is sound. But the intensity of the criticism one hears for focusing our attention on this one merits some reflection too.

Anti-semitism does have a long history in our culture. In the ancient Roman Empire, the devotion of Jews to their religion and special forms of worship was used as a pretext for political discrimination against them, and very few Jews were admitted to Roman citizenship. Since the 4th century AD (and possibly before), Jews have been regarded as the killers of Jesus Christ.

With the Enlightenment, increasing separation of church and state, and the rise of modern nation-states, Jews experienced less religious and economic persecution and were gradually integrated into the economic and political order; however, acceptance was superficial and ran in cycles, depending on economic and social conditions.

In Germany, the process of Jewish emancipation was completed with the formation of the German Empire in 1871. Although legal reforms put an end to discrimination on religious grounds, racist hostility grew.

Opposition to the Jews was more open in Eastern Europe. The persecution of Jews there was climaxed by a series of organized massacres, or pogroms, that began in 1881. Some of the worst
outbreaks occurred in 1906 after the unsuccessful 1905 revolution in Russia. The pogroms resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Jews and the looting and destruction of their property. These pogroms were justified by a notorious forgery known as the "Protocols of the Elders of
Zion," which purported to reveal details of an international Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. Such deliberate distortions were also used during the pogrom after the 1917 revolution, which claimed hundreds of thousands of victims.

Similar anti-Semitic propaganda was also circulated in the United States, A notable event was the temporary embracing of anti-Semitism by Henry Ford, who reprinted the discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his newspaper the Dearborn Independent. Ford later apologized for this action.

And we can't forget that it wasn't until the Second Vatican Council in 1962 that the Roman Catholic Church publicly stopped blaming Jews for the death of Christ.

3. The Dark Side of the Enlightenment

Another thought. A darker one. In a strange twisted way it is possible to argue that the holocaust is a product of the enlightenment! It seems a contradiction in terms. How can enlightened thinking have a dark side? Reason and science were the enlightenment's crowning achievements. But, the racial theories the Nazi's used to justify this genocide--as Anne shared with us--were grounded in science. Bad science perhaps. But science nonetheless. The theories were developed through French diplomat and social philosopher Gobineau and the German philosopher and economist Karl Duhring. They were the Phillippe Rushtons of their day.

We saw how de Tocqueville railed against these theories as unprovable and unhelpful. Yet they were applied in the interests of "social hygiene" by the Nazis to "cleanse" the human condition. Science dictated duty. The Jewish Question was resolved by science. Jews would be given "special treatment."

And it was carried out with scientific precision. Auschwitz, near Krakow, was the largest death camp. Prisoners there were carefully segregated and clearly identified. The yellow star of David identified the Jew. Other inmates wore colored inverted triangles. Political prisoners wore red; habitual criminals green; Jehovah's Witnesses purple; vagrants black; and male homosexuals pink.

At peak efficiency Auschwitz's crematoria has the capacity to handle 12,000 corpses a day or over 4 million per year. The figures here indicate the camps capacity was not fully utilized. Unlike the other camps which relied mainly on carbon monoxide, Auschwitz used quick-working hydrogen cyanide for the gassings. The gassings were perfected as an art. Two German firms, Tesch and Degesch, produced Zyklone-B gas after they acquired the patent from Farben. Tesch supplied two tons a month, and Degesch three quarters of a ton. Zyklon-B is a powerful insecticide which serves as a carrier for the gas Hydrocyanic acid, or HCN. HCN was used in execution gas chambers in the US as early as 1920. About 300 ppm will kill people in fifteen minutes or so according to "CRC handbook of Chemistry and Physics."

The scientific attitude towards the exercise of the extermination policy at Auschwitz expressed itself too in the free acceptance of the German scientific community towards using Jewish subjects in a variety of medical experiments.

Several of the seventy or more medical-research projects conducted by the Nazis were conducted at Auschwitz. These projects involved experiments conducted with human beings against their will. And at least seven thousand were so treated. About two hundred German medical doctors were involved in the concentration camp experiments. They maintained close professional ties with the German medical establishment, and used the universities and research institutes in Germany and Austria in their work.

There were three broad classes of experiments. The German Air Force conducted experiments dealing with survival and rescue, including research into the effects of high altitude, freezing temperatures, and the ingestion of sea water.

Medical treatment constituted a second class, and involved research into the treatment of battle injuries, gas attacks, and the formulation of immunization compounds to treat contagious and epidemic diseases.

Finally, there were racial experiments, including research into dwarfs and twins, serological research, and skeletal examination. Professor Carl Clauberg injected chemical substances into wombs during normal gynecological examinations. Thousands of Jewish and Gypsy women were subjected to this treatment. The injections totally destroyed the lining membrane of the womb and seriously damaged the ovaries of the victims, which were then removed and sent to Berlin to test the effectiveness of the method.

The so called "Angel of Death" Joseph Mengele promoted medical experimentation on inmates, especially dwarfs and twins. He is said to have supervised an operation by which two Gypsy children were sewn together to create Siamese twins; the hands of the children became badly infected where the veins had been connected. Mengele's purpose, was to establish the genetic cause for the birth of twins, in order to facilitate the formulation of a program for doubling the birthrate of the 'Aryan' race. The experiments on twins affected 180 persons, adults and children.

Dr. Horst Schumann's work, "on the influence of X-rays on human genital glands" done at Auschwitz involved forcible sterilization of men and women who were positioned repeatedly for several minutes between two x-ray machines aimed at their sexual organs. Most subjects died or were gassed immediately because the radiation burns from which they suffered rendered them unfit for work. Men's testicles were removed and sent to Breslau for histopathological examination.
And so the science went.

4. Banality

Then of course is the question of banality. Banality means commonplace, trite, uninteresting. The injustice that this case study illuminated was not perpetrated by monsters and madman. That has always been a convenient picture in explaining "evil." Evil deeds must be matched with evil beings. But it isn't at all clear anymore how this all works. Eichmann was not the nasty little man our psyche demanded. He wasn't deranged. His human faults weren't all that unusual.

The old picture of "evil" is turned on its head here. And, we find that deeply troubling. I became personally aware that there was something wrong with this picture after a summer's work as a Rohr Schlosser Helfer (pipe fitter's mate) at Kieler Howaltswerke in Northern
Germany in 1967. The company had built U Boats during the war. Many of the men I worked with had worked there during the war, and had served in the armed forces. Some has been prisoners of war. The exasperation for me from this experience was unsettling. "Warum?," I would ask. "Why?" How could it happen?

It was plain to me that I was surrounded by people who had been raised in a magnificent cultural milieu. More unsettling was their take on me. I and other young Canadians and Americans were seen by them as a bit rough on the edges -- this was the 60's -- but, I was embraced as a cultural cousin. I was not an "other." They were not an "enemy." Our cultural traditions converged. It felt like "home." I was nicknamed "rot," inhaled horrible German cigarettes, guzzeled good beer, listened to fine music, and very quickly developed an incurable taste for blackbread, sauerkraut and Bratwurst.

Some part of my consciousness had been deceived. It wasn't "supposed to be that way.

I've been trying to process this experience for the past 28 years. The best I've been able to do has been the realization, a long time in coming, that the fraternity extended to me by my German cousins must be reciprocal. We were more alike than we were different.

What that means is sobering. It could have been reversed. The thought experiment isn't difficult to perform. The right combination of historical precedents and accidents could just as easily have emerged here as there. Tyranny -- if it was tyranny -- in some form could have
transformed this milieu into something "other" than what we know now. If it had happened here, if it ever does happen here, we too would, could, might be swept into a similar vortex and find ourselves facing the same kinds of choices that our cultural cousins did in 1933. How many
of us would, could, might buy into a tyrannical movement here? Some of us, many of us, most of us? Perhaps, like Eichmann, most of us would fail to process the choice or even notice that we had been presented with one. Anyway, it's only a thought experiment.

5. The Question of Justice

A final thought. The holocaust was unique in one important way. The international community responded. This genocide led to a change in the rules. This arguments advanced during the Nuremberg and Eichmann tribunals brought the burning question of justice back for global review. What is justice? We began in 301 with the trial of Socrates. We conclude in 402 with the Trial of Eichmann. What were the questions? What were the responses? What were the moral choices? What have we learned? Ironically the charges against Socrates and Eichmann emerge from similar abhorrences: corruption of human values.

At the 1945 war crimes trials, the Nuremberg Tribunal established the principle of individual accountability of those who were responsible for carrying out Nazi extermination policies. The following year, the UN General Assembly drafted the convention to outlaw the
practice of genocide.

Was this progress? According to Plato, good is an essential element of reality. Evil does not exist in itself but is, rather, an imperfect reflection of the real, which is good. Virtue lies in the fitness of a person to perform that person's proper function in the world.

The human soul has three elements-intellect, will, and emotion-each of which possesses a specific virtue and role in the good person: wisdom is attached to intellect; courage to will; and temperance to the emotions.

Plato saw the ultimate virtue, justice, as the harmonious relation of all the others, each part of the soul doing its appropriate task and keeping its proper place. Plato maintained that the intellect should be sovereign, the will second, and the emotions subject to intellect and will. The just person, whose life is ordered in this way, is therefore the good person. Disharmony is evil.

Plato had thus focused human thinking about justice and its importance in human affairs. That attitude towards justice seeded enlightenment thinking. Rousseau, Kant, de Tocqueville, and others established the framework for human interactions--internally and externally.

The product of this current of enlightenment ideas was made flesh, so to speak, with the Declaration of the inalienable Rights of Man by the National Assembly of France in 1789.

These inalienable rights included participation, through chosen representatives, in the making of laws; equality of all persons before the law; equitable taxation; protection against loss of property through arbitrary action by the state; freedom of religion, speech, and the
press; and protection against arbitrary arrest and punishment.

The declaration had great influence on political thought and institutions throughout the Western world. It was used as a model for most of the declarations of political and civil rights adopted by European states in the 19th century including the bill of rights of the constitution of the Weimar Republic of Germany (1919-33).

This and other modern constitutional arrangements were profoundly influenced by Hobbes and Rousseau. Rousseau's Social Contract defined the sovereign is an artificial body into which each of us alienates a portion of his power in common and under supreme control of the general will.

Government, according to Rousseau is an intermediate body established between the subjects and the sovereign charged with the maintenance of liberty (p.119).

For Rousseau the will of the prince (government) is the general will. If the prince has a particular will more active than that of the sovereign and uses public force to obey his particular will, there [are] two sovereigns, one by right and one by force. When that happens,
according to Rousseau, the social union would instantly vanish, and the body politic dissolved (p.120, SC).

The instant the government usurps sovereignty, the social pact is broken, and all common citizens are rightfully returned to their common liberty, and are forced but not obligated to obey (p.138, SC).

From the Platonic perspective there is no justice in such an arrangement. For Plato, intellect and its associated virtue wisdom should rule. The hierarchy is: intellect, will, temperance. What is the relationship between intellect and will when government displaces the
sovereign? Which survives? Does will not triumph--Triumph of the will? But triumph over what? Was it triumph over intellect?

Of course the question one needs to ask is the degree to which conditions in Germany during the Reich fit those just described by Rousseau. Was the Third Reich a government which had in fact usurped sovereign power--and thus was no longer an intermediate between subjects and sovereign? And if so what then were the obligations of the subjects if the social pact was broken? What does Rousseau mean to be forced but not obligated to obey? The relationship between the Prince and subject now, according to Rousseau, would be one between a Master and Slave. In such a relationship what is the duty of the slave? As citizen was Eichmann not a slave and indeed no longer a citizen? Is the understanding and realization of this transformation something we all at some level come to know whenever it occurs?

Adolf Hitler through his 25 point National Socialist plank had always been quite clear on the relationship between sovereign and government. Point 25 expresses a marked rejection of Rousseau. "For modern society, a colossus with feet of clay, we shall create an unprecedented centralization which will unite all powers in the hands of the government. We shall create a hierarchical constitution, which will mechanically govern all movements of individuals."

There is no pretense here of a Rousseauean or Platonic tri-partite state. It is clearly a two tiered and blatantly non-harmonious master-slave arrangement between government and subject. Again, if we regard justice as a harmonious relationship amongst three elements of state, then this plank, by definition is a formula for injustice.

In the Enabling Act of March 23, 1933, the legislative powers of the Reich stag were passed to the cabinet. We should remember that with less than a 20 percent share of the popular vote, the National Socialists could not lay claim to having a mandate for expression of general will. Nevertheless, the act granted Hitler dictatorial powers and signified the end of the Weimar Republic. By a law enacted on December 1, 1933, the Nazi party was "indissolubly joined to the state."

I'm sure Rousseau was spinning in his grave.

6. Conclusion

In the end, perhaps the main we are looking at this horrific episode is to reflect again on the question of justice in light of a newly defined crime: genocide. In Arendt's expression, genocide is seen as an action against the human status and an attack against human diversity.

Eichmann and his superiors believed they had a right to decide who should and who should not inhabit the world. But the idea of human diversity and equal human rights and freedoms which Eichmann and his superiors denied--had sprung from centuries of reflection on the question of justice and our understanding of justice as a virtue guided by wisdom. Eichmann's denial of human diversity was in the end the denial of justice. And for that he has found guilty.

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1 comment:

Barak Steady said...

This is such an intelligent essay. It's approached brilliantly. That juxtaposition between experience and narrative, and the essentially same culprit of propaganda that propels all suffering.