Hell on earth Hannah Arendt in the face of Hitler1

Chapter 7
Hell on earth Hannah Arendt in the face of Hitler

Jacob Rogozinski

In 1933 Karl Kraus, an Austrian writer and journalist, decided that his review Die Fackel would no longer appear. He announced, ‘Mir fällt zu Hitler nichts ein’ (‘I can’t think of anything to say about Hitler’).2 It is quite possible that there is nothing to be said on the question of Hitler and of everything that the name implies. It is quite possible that any discourse, with all the inevitable pathos and narcissistic posturing which it would involve, would be out of place, and that any effort of thought would be incommensurable with what happened. And yet silence too does injustice to memory. It is this fact which requires us, as Hannah Arendt writes, to try to say and ‘to understand and to come to terms with’ what happened.3 To understand, she continues, ‘examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us – neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight’, and without trying to deny what is repugnant.4 But here thought runs up against its limit, against the limit of an experience, which cannot be communicated, the memory of which cannot provide us with any more illumination ‘than can the uncommunicative eye-witness report’.5

This limit is the limit of language itself. There is no name which could capture this reality. For this event, which breaks the bounds of common sense, implies ‘the appearance of some radical evil, previously unknown to us’.6 It is unnamable, because it is radically new and without precedent in the long tradition of human misery. As is well known, this is one of Arendt’s central theses: ‘totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship’.7 It is the essence of total domination which is revealed in the camps. ‘There are no parallels to the life in the concentration camps’, not penal colonies, nor religious persecutions, nor ancient slavery – these are superficial analogies which lead our judgement astray.8 Nevertheless, when Arendt struggles to think the unspeakable, one word recurs in her text. The word is ‘hell’.

Concentration camps can very aptly be divided into three types corresponding to three basic Western conceptions of a life after death: Hades, Purgatory, and Hell. … Purgatory is represented by the Soviet Union’s labor camps, where neglect is combined with chaotic forced labor. Hell in the most literal sense was embodied by those types of camp perfected by Nazis, in which the whole of life was thoroughly and systematically organized with a view to the greatest possible torment.9

To understand what happened, we must try to grasp what she means by hell. But this is precisely what has become impossible. As belief in God has diminished in the modern West, belief in the immortality of the soul, in hell and in heaven, in the devil and the angels, has lost all meaning. And here we have a paradox: at the very moment when human beings cease to believe in a hell located in the beyond, the reality of this world becomes infernal. Confronted with this paradox, Arendt’s thought branches out in two very different directions. In ‘The Crisis of Culture’, the doctrine of hell is presented as a political myth, consciously elaborated by Plato to allow the philosopher king to subjugate the multitude by using the threat of eternal punishment.10 St Augustine is said to have deliberately introduced this ‘noble lie’ into Christian dogma in order to reinforce the political authority of the Church. It certainly looks as though Arendt shares this ‘Platonic’ confidence in the political efficacy of religious myths. She does not hesitate to reduce the religious dimension to a mere political myth, an instrumental fiction consciously forged for purposes of domination. This type of analysis betrays one of the limits of her thought: her failure to acknowledge the importance of the symbolic.11 This leads her, for example, to abandon any interpretation of Nazi anti-Semitism based on religious schemas, in favour of vague socio-economic considerations which in no way make it possible to understand why the Jews should have been the primary target of Nazi terror.12 This failure derives from a fundamental tendency of her thought, which leads her to limit politics to the immanent scene of action in the domain of the visible, to reduce it to the phenomenon of the political, as this is revealed in the clear light of action, without taking any account of the invisible horizon which surrounds it.

However, her remarks on the camps and on hell pointed on to another direction. She suggested that what is at stake here is not simply an external analogy, but that the emergence of total domination is closely and strangely related to the religious belief in hell, that it materializes this belief by incarnating it in immanence. In a strict sense the camp realizes hell on earth. And this monstrous incarnation is undoubtedly integral to the delirium which claims to realize the Millenium or the New Jerusalem as a classless, communist society or as a thousand-year Reich, as if the beyond were collapsing entirely into the here and now, and heaven and hell were being joined together on a devastated earth.

Suddenly it becomes evident that things which for thousands of years the human imagination had banished to a realm beyond human competence can be manufactured right here on earth, that Hell and Purgatory, and even a shadow of their perpetual duration, can be established by the most modern methods of destruction and therapy. … Nothing perhaps distinguishes modern masses as radically from those of previous centuries as the loss of faith in a Last Judgement: the worst have lost their fear and the best have lost their hope. Unable as yet to live without fear and hope, these masses are attracted by every effort which seems to promise a man-made fabrication of the Paradise they had longed for and of the Hell they had feared. … The one thing that cannot be reproduced is what made the traditional conceptions of Hell tolerable to man: the Last Judgement, the idea of an absolute standard of justice combined with the infinite possibility of grace.13

We are here brought back to the heart of the paradox. Arendt tries to reach the core of truth in the myth of religion. She attempts to grasp what it is, in the belief in hell, which arouses the anxiety of men and orients their desire. It thus appears that representations of hell and of paradise – far from being an illusory dogma – perform a major symbolic function. They allow us to project into the beyond, outside the power of the human being, the focuses of fear and hope. When the belief in immortality disappears, the representations which supported it do not vanish, but continue to orient desire. The way is then open for the fabricators of heaven and hell, who promise to give substance to the blissful communion of the saints and the torments of the damned in this world. ‘[T]he totalitarian hell proves only that the power of man is greater than they ever dared to think, and that man can realize hellish fantasies without making the sky fall or the earth open.’14 And yet, in this gesture of mad excess, which claims to make hell incarnate here below, the truth of the Christian hell has already been lost. What ‘realizes’ total domination is a mutilated hell, devoid of its ultimate core of meaning, devoid of ‘the idea of an absolute standard of justice combined with the infinite possibility of grace’;15 in other words, devoid of – although Arendt avoids naming him – the idea of God. God is he whose sovereign justice and love justify the existence of hell for the believer. Are we even capable of understanding the strange figure of a God of goodness, whose infinite love is unleashed in the form of anger and hatred? How can we account for this enigmatic movement, for this historical turn – this ‘rescendence’, to use Heidegger’s term – in which God and his Law, heaven and hell, are reappropriated by the human Subject?

In this metaphysical transposition of the religious horizon, it is not only the avatars of the idea of God, and Good and Evil, but also those of the Law which must be analysed. In fact it is impossible to understand totalitarianism, and its radical newness, without taking account of its relation to the Law. What distinguishes it from the tyrannies of the past, ‘lawless’ regimes submitted to an arbitrary will, is the fact that ‘it operates neither without guidance of law nor is it arbitrary, for it claims to obey strictly and unequivocally those laws of Nature or of History from which all positive laws always have been supposed to spring’.16 Thus totalitarian politics promises ‘to establish the rule of justice on earth because it claims to make mankind itself the embodiment of the law’.17 Arendt underlines this fact repeatedly: this immanent law of movement, which legitimates extermination, has nothing in common with the eternal Law of Justice which the tradition identified with the divine will. And yet is it not after all the same law which the totalitarian project seizes hold of, even though monstrously disfigured? What are we to make of this law of Hitler, whose imperative Eichmann claimed to respect to the very end? It is not only in an ironic sense that Arendt describes Eichmann as ‘a law-abiding citizen’ who only did his duty in organizing the extermination.18 She recounts that, during his police examination, Eichmann ‘suddenly declared with great emphasis that he had lived his whole life according to Kant’s moral precepts, and especially according to a Kantian definition of duty’.19 Taking in consideration Kant’s moral philosophy, ‘this was outrageous, on the face of it’, Arendt comments.20 Eichmann himself admitted that ‘from the moment he was charged with carrying out the Final Solution he had ceased to live according to Kantian principles’.21 He seemed to recognize that there was nothing in common between the Kantian law of duty and the law of Nazi terror except the nominal identity of the word ‘law’. But such is not Arendt’s view. According to her, Eichmann ‘had not simply dismissed the Kantian formula as no longer applicable, he had distorted it’.22 He had assimilated it to the Hitlerian ‘categorical imperative’ formulated by Hans Frank: ‘Act in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it.’23 This amounts to reducing the universal law of practical reason, which exceeds all finite subjectivity, to the judgement of a particular subject: to considering Hitler as the author of the Law, its sovereign Subject. For Arendt, such a ‘deformation’ would maintain intact the essential structure of the Law. She concludes that ‘there is not the slightest doubt that in one respect Eichmann did indeed follow Kant’s precepts’.24 Thus the meaning of this distortion must be elucidated. However, Arendt is scarcely interested in this. The Eichmann case attracts her attention for other reasons. For her, it is an exemplary image of the banality of evil.

The reference to hell appeared at first as the metaphor of an unspeakable horror. It was the only name appropriate to the appearance of a radical evil which was unknown to us before. But this metaphor is without doubt the indication of a limit of thought.

It is inherent in our entire philosophical tradition that we cannot conceive of a ‘radical evil’, and this is true both for Christian theology, which conceded even to the Devil himself a celestial origin, as well as for Kant, the only philosopher who, in the word he coined for it, at least must have suspected the existence of this evil even though he immediately rationalized it … Therefore, we actually have nothing to fall back on in order to understand a phenomenon that nevertheless confronts us with its overpowering reality and breaks down all standards we know.25

The Western tradition has continually affirmed that no one is wicked voluntarily, that Being and the Good are the same, and that evil comes from nothingness, that it is nothing but impotence and privation of being. It is for this reason that judgement found itself disarmed when confronted with the outbreak of radical evil. The experience of the camps invites us to break with this tradition, to try to approach the mystery of a bad will, which could decide freely for evil ‘as evil’ – something which, according to Kant, cannot be found in man, since the consequence would be that ‘the subject would be made a diabolical being’.26

In the final chapters of The Origins of Totalitarianism it is evident that Arendt’s thought should have followed this path. In fact, when she tackles the question again, in connection with the Eichmann trial, it is no longer the radicality of evil which she emphasizes, but its banality. She claims that there was no ‘diabolical or demonic profundity’ in Eichmann, not even perverse or pathological profundity.27 ‘He “personally” never had anything whatever against Jews.’28 There was no desire to do evil as a matter of principle, since Eichmann was precisely incapable of knowing or feeling that he had done evil: ‘[h]e merely … never realized what he was doing’.29 The true moral challenge which is posed by the Eichmann case consists in its frightful normality. Does this mean that every ‘normal’ human being is threatened by the same ‘banality’: that in certain circumstances any of us could have been Eichmann? This is an almost unbearable question, whose challenge a radical ethics could not avoid taking up. Arendt, however, refuses to take it into account: Eichmann’s banality is said to be too banal to be universal. In fact, she defines it in a purely negative manner, by incriminating Eichmann’s ‘lack of imagination’, ‘sheer thoughtlessness’, his ‘inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else’.30 Evil becomes, in the most classical manner, a mere lack, a failure of judgement, an involuntary fault. The 1951 text already supported such an interpretation. Arendt wrote that ‘radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous’.31 It is the desolation of the individual lost in the mass – in the ‘economically superfluous and socially rootless human masses’ of the modern society – which brings about the lack of common humanity characteristic of Eichmann.32 In this sense, the radicality of evil is not opposed to its banality: it is here that it finds its source. It originates in this feeling of desolation and of abandonment (a word which has the same root as ‘banality’), in this banalization of life which deprives the individual of all belonging to the world; which annihilates the capacity for judgement and action. It is then that this banal individual emerges, the totalitarian murderer, who is all the more dangerous in that he mocks himself for never having lived, for never having been born, who is equally capable of taking on either the role of victim or that of torturer. Radical evil is not the work of a bad will, but of an absence of will, of a freedom which has renounced itself, to the point of identifying with blind necessity. No one is wicked voluntarily. The judges of Nuremberg and Jerusalem condemned only puppets.

The flaw in this analysis is that it examines only the attitude of the agent, who carries out his sinister task without remorse and without hatred. Eichmann, it seems, was painfully surprised when his boss informed him of the decision to put the Final Solution into effect. But where did this order itself come from, if not from an initial decision? By concentrating on the case of Eichmann, Arendt avoids the essential issue. If one wishes to understand the hell of totalitarianism, it is the decision of Hitler himself which must be elucidated. But Arendt cannot bring herself to do this, and for good reason. It would destroy the keystone of her thought, that is, her conception of freedom, which she identifies with transcendental freedom, with the power of absolutely beginning a series of events, dissociating it from ethical freedom, from the capacity to commit oneself to good or evil. This prohibits her from evaluating the advent of the new from an ethical standpoint. For her, every beginning, as a beginning, is already a miracle of Being and should be celebrated as such. Undoubtedly, this is the price which she has to pay for her continuing fidelity to Heidegger’s thought. That the totalitarian movement, the most implacable enemy of human freedom, could itself originate in a free decision, which makes a breach in time and brings something new into the world, that it therefore belongs to the sphere of action – this is what Arendt cannot tolerate.33 In denying that it could be the result of an act of freedom she tends, paradoxically, to accept the representation of itself which the totalitarian movement puts forward. For we know that it considered itself as the agent of an objective necessity, of inexorable laws of nature and history. However, some of Arendt’s analyses allow us to glimpse another dimension of the totalitarian project. In the course of her examination of the organization of the Nazi party she points out that it was constituted on the model of a conspiracy, like ‘secret societies established in broad daylight’.34 This is not a matter of a tactical choice intended to facilitate the conquest of power. ‘The totalitarian movements which, during their rise to power, imitate certain organizational features of secret societies and establish themselves in broad daylight create true secret society only after their ascendancy to rule’.35 The clandestine organization is in fact in charge of a secret: ‘the strictly esoteric knowledge’ concerning the camps and extermination programme, which makes every SS man a Geheimnisträger, the bearer of a secret.36 Thus the movement tends to develop into a vast conspiracy, organized around the opaque core of a secret, into a global conspiracy directed towards world conquest. Arendt even goes as far as to suggest that the Nazi party used ‘the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as a model for the future organization of the German masses for “world empire”’.37 This ‘model’, rather than the ‘pompous scientism’ of official discourse, is said to represent the true ideology of the regime. ‘Thus the Protocols presented world conquest as a practical possibility’ which ‘did not depend upon objective and unalterable conditions, but only on the power of organization’.38 Moreover, they ‘implied that the affair was only a question of inspired or shrewd know-how’.39 The choice of such a model tells us that at the heart of the totalitarian project we find desire and hate, vengeance, trickery and envy. We find that for Hitler the law of the world is the law of the Subject, of a conscious will which aspires to domination. Or, more precisely, that he imagines history to be a closed arena in which two hostile wills confront each other and struggle to the death for the mastery of the world. Hitler imagines that, in this implacable struggle, the sovereign place, that of master and model, is at present occupied by the Jew, whom Hitler must therefore imitate. He must take him as a model, identify with him – the better to annihilate him.

I believe it is possible to analyse this motif of world conspiracy in the light of the Arendtian categories of work and of action, and of her interpretation of revolution. When she evokes the Protocols, which Hitler is said to have learned by heart, Arendt points out that the notion of ‘the uninterrupted existence of an international sect that has pursued the same revolutionary aims since antiquity is very old and has played a role in political backstairs literature ever since the French Revolution, even though it did not occur to anyone writing at the end of the eighteenth century that the “revolutionary sect” … could be the Jews’.40

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