Hannah Arendt Was Wrong — but Also Right
Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), the German-born American
I admit my bias against her. She was once the mistress of Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, who supported the party, ejected Jewish philosophers from German universities and never recanted or apologized. Arendt continued to defend him, against all logic and justice.
Arendt is known to Jewish audiences mainly through her book on the Eichmann trial: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, in which she used the expression “the banality of evil” to say that evil is not a radical deviation but rather thoughtlessness — a tendency for ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inaction.
She thought that the Eichmann trial was more show than a legitimate judicial procedure, and she was highly critical of the way that some Jewish leaders acted during the Holocaust. She even tried to compare the thoughtless obedience of some Jewish community leaders to that of Eichmann, which remains a blot on her memory.
Even so, in the end she wrote: “Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations — as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world — we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”
I find reading books about the Holocaust to be exceedingly painful and emotionally disturbing. But I have just read Why?: Explaining the Holocaust, by Peter Hayes. In it, he points out the fact that Arendt was completely gulled by Eichmann. Diaries and conversations we now have from his time in Argentina prove without doubt that Eichmann knew full well what he was doing, volunteered for it and had a long record of antisemitism. He was an instigator, not a pen-pushing bureaucrat.
In a similar example of being blinded by prejudice, the leader of the neo-Nazi party in Germany that has won seats in the new Bundestag, now claims that Germans should be proud of their wartime soldiers — because it was only the SS and their subordinates who were the genocidal murderers. But this is a lie.
Hayes, in his book, offers documentary evidence to prove that ordinary German soldiers and officers in the Wehrmacht delighted in mass murder at every opportunity and as a matter of norm, rather than exception.
While Arendt is the last person that I would turn to on any issues relating to Judaism and Jews, her rationalism still has something to offer. She emphasized individual choice and freedom — as opposed other systems, such as Marxism. And she was right. Just look at the horrors that socialist regimes have visited on Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Cubans and now Venezuelans.
In her book The Human Condition, Arendt argued that human life always evolves within societies, but that only a few of these societies, mainly Western democracies, allow for individuals to achieve freedom through the construction of a voluntary common worldview. Only by accepting different cultures, narratives and religions can one hope for a truly open, tolerant society. But this works — and this is where European societies have failed — if the incoming minorities are willing to accept the values of the host societies, or at the very least, are unwilling to try you overturn them against the majority will. This is Islam’s greatest challenge, and our challenge as we deal with massive migration. Arendt presents a philosophical case for caution, and that — of course — is why she is no longer popular.
Arendt’s primary criticism of human rights is that their enforcement is often in conflict with national sovereignty. Since there is no political authority above that of sovereign nations, state governments have little incentive to respect human rights when such policies conflict with national interests. Of course, this could just as well be a criticism of nationalism as of human rights. But either way, the European Union bureaucracy is an example of a supranational government trying to impose its ideology on its members, which is why it is having so much trouble keeping itself together.
State governments in the past, particularly religious ones, have tended to emphasize national interests and winning elections over doing the right thing. This explains why Jews were turned away by almost every country when fleeing Nazism — and why even today, Jews require a national state of their own for cultural integrity and protection.
Attempts at naturalizing and assimilating refugees in the modern era has largely failed — partly because nowadays because refugees themselves have resisted assimilation and attempted to maintain their own ethnic and national identities. But also because of the failure of host societies to integrate them, because they tend to see the refugees as undesirables who threaten their national identity.
Arendt, following Heidegger’s emphasis on national identity, contended that states have a primary obligation to protect national identities. This is why modern critics claim that Arendt is implicitly defending racism and religious discrimination. She does not say discrimination is morally right; she does say the state should allow its citizens to be different, so long as they accept the primacy of the state. She rightly predicted the problem of integrating those who ideologically cannot accept the values of societies they move to, and try to impose themselves on others.