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Collection Hannah Arendt Papers

Evil: The Crime against Humanity

Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago, undated. Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Trust.

In 1963 Hannah Arendt said that she had "been thinking for many years, or, to be specific, for thirty years, about the nature of evil." (see Grafton document in Eichmann file) It had been thirty years since the Reichstag, the German parliament, was burned in Berlin, an event followed immediately by the Nazis' illegal arrests of thousands of communists and others who opposed them. Though innocent of any crime, those arrested were taken to concentration camps or the cellars of the recently organized Gestapo and subjected to what Arendt called "monstrous" treatment. With his political opposition effectively forestalled, Hitler could establish as a matter of policy the Jew-hatred that in his case was obvious to anyone who read Mein Kampf (My Struggle), the diatribe he dictated in prison and published in 1925. Which is to say that with the consolidation of Nazi power anti-Semitism ceased to be a social prejudice and became political: Germany was to be made judenrein, "purified" by first demoting Jews to the status of second class citizens, then by ridding them of their citizenship altogether, deporting them, and, finally, killing them. From that moment on Arendt said she "felt responsible." But responsible for what? She meant that she, unlike many others, could no longer be "simply a bystander" but must in her own voice and person respond to the criminality rampant in her native land. "If one is attacked as a Jew," she said, "one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man."

The year was 1933. Within a few months Arendt was arrested, briefly detained for her work with a Zionist organization, and, when the opportunity presented itself, left Germany abruptly. After her stay in France and upon arriving in America in 1941, she wrote more than fifty articles for the German-Jewish weekly Der Aufbau addressing the plight and duty of Jews during World War II.1 Arendt first heard about Auschwitz in 1943, but with Germany's defeat in 1945 incontrovertible evidence of the existence of Nazi "factories" of extermination came to light, and at that time information concerning slave labor installations in the Soviet Gulag also gradually emerged. Struck by the structural similarity of those institutions Arendt turned her attention to the function of concentration camps under totalitarian rule. Her analysis has to be read to be fully appreciated and only a few indications of its power and originality, and fewer of its subtlety, can be given here. (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, chapter 12, "Totalitarianism in Power"; "Concluding Remarks" from the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism; "Social Science Techniques and the Study of Concentration Camps"; "Die Menschen und der Terror" ["Mankind and Terror"])

The camps haunted Arendt's writing until Stalin's death in 1953. Then, after she published The Human Condition in 1958, a theoretical study of the three activities of active life (labor, work, and action) and their career in the modern age, and embarked on an analysis of the American, French, and Russian Revolutions, the camps reappeared on the horizon of her thought when she attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann (the chief coordinator of the transportation of Jews to the death camps) in Israel in 1961. In one way or another the Nazi camps played a major role in the controversy that followed the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963, and, although she ceased to write directly about them after 1966, it is fair to say that what she called the "overpowering reality" of totalitarian concentration camps lay behind her preoccupation with the problem of evil, a concern that lasted until the end of her life.

From Eichmann in Jerusalem, "Epilogue," The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

As was her wont Arendt offers an "elemental" account of the development of bureaucratically administered camps in which whole segments of populations were interned, and it is against that background that the unprecedented evil of the role of the camps in totalitarian systems of domination becomes manifest. Concentration camps were not invented by totalitarian regimes but were first used in the late nineteenth century by the Spanish in Cuba and the British during the Boer War (1899-1902). The equivocal legal concept of "protective custody"--referring to the protection either of society from those interned or of those interned from "the alleged 'wrath of the people'"--which has always been used to rationalize and justify their existence was invoked by British imperial rule in India as well as South Africa. In World War I enemy aliens were regularly interned "as a temporary emergency measure," (see "Memo: Research Project on Concentration Camps") but later, in the period between World Wars I and II, camps were set up in France for non-enemy aliens, in this case stateless and unwanted refugees from the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Arendt also noted that in World War II internment camps for potential enemies of democratic states differed in one important respect from those of World War I. In the United States, for instance, not only citizens of Japan but "American citizens of Japanese origin" were interned, the former maintaining their rights of citizenship under the Geneva Conventions while the latter, uprooted on ethnic grounds alone, were deprived of theirs by executive order and without due process.

Although the containment and brutal elimination of political opposition was a factor in the camps established during the revolutionary stages of the rise to power of totalitarian movements, it is in the post-revolutionary period, when Hitler and Stalin had become the unopposed leaders of huge populations, that Arendt brought the camps into focus as entirely new phenomena. Their newness consisted in the determination of so-called "objective" enemies and "possible" crimes, and is borne out by the fact that not their existence but the conditions under which the camps operated were kept hidden from the German and Russian populations at large, including most members of the regimes' hierarchies. She called the knowledge of what actually transpired in the camps the true secret of the secret police who in both cases administered them, and she wondered, disturbingly, about the extent to which that secret knowledge "corresponds to the secret desires and the secret complicities of the masses in our time."

Arendt was not a victim of the camps, nor did she write in "empathy" (to her an ethical and cognitive presumption) with those who had actually experienced their terror. She wrote, as always, at a mental distance from events that makes judgment possible. In a revealing passage she said: "Only the fearful imagination of those who have been aroused by [firsthand] reports but have not actually been smitten in their own flesh, of those who are consequently free from the bestial, desperate terror which . . . inexorably paralyzes everything that is not mere reaction, can afford to keep thinking about horrors," adding that such thinking is "useful only for the perception of political contexts and the mobilization of political passions."

The trouble with most accounts from recollection or by eyewitnesses is that in direct proportion to their authenticity they are unable "to communicate things that evade human understanding and human experience." They are doomed to fail if they attempt to explain psychologically or sociologically what cannot be explained either way, that is, to explain in terms that make sense in the human world what does not make sense there, namely, the experience of "inanimate men" in an inhuman society. Moreover, survivors who have "resolutely" returned to the world of common sense tend to recall the camps as if they "had mistaken a nightmare for reality." The "phantom world" of the camps had indeed "materialized" with all the "sensual data of reality," but in Arendt's judgment that fact indicates not that a terrifying dream had been experienced but that an entirely new kind of crime had been committed. One of the underlying reasons for the controversy created by Arendt's study of Eichmann was and remains the failure of many readers, both Jews and non Jews, to make the tremendous mental effort required to transcend the fate of one's own people and see what was pernicious for all humanity. The notion of a "crime against humanity" was introduced in the Nuremberg trials of major war criminals in 1946, but in Arendt's opinion the crime was confused there with "crimes against peace" and "war crimes" and had never been properly defined nor its perpetrators clearly recognized. To Arendt the genocide of the Jews throughout Nazi-controlled Europe was a crime against the human status, a crime "perpetrated on the body of the Jewish people" that "violated the order of mankind . . . and an altogether different community," the world shared in common by all peoples and the comity of all nations (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, "Epilogue" -- part one and part two). Not only distance but courage are required to grasp what Arendt meant by the absolute evil of totalitarianism, to see that, in the case of the Nazis, what is attributable to "the long history of Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism" is "only the choice of victims [and] not the nature of the crime."

From "Ideology and Propaganda," The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

Both Hitler and Stalin discovered in the camps the means to realize their belief in total power, a belief that meant not only that "everything is permitted" but implied the far more radical proposition that "everything is possible." The camps were designed as "laboratories" in which "experiments" were conducted to test that proposition, and what those experiments demonstrated was that "the omnipotence of man" is bought at the price "of the superfluity of men." (see "Ideology and Propaganda") In the camps all men were remade into one man, all human beings into one utterly predictable "living corpse," a body permanently in "the process of dying." Human beings were reduced "to the lowest common denominator of organic life," (see "The Image of Hell") rendered "equal" in the sense of being interchangeable which, it should be noted, is exactly the opposite of political equality. Arendt understood political equality as the equality of peers, the achievement of a plurality of distinct individuals who join together in freedom to generate power and take responsibility for their common world.

Human existence, according to Arendt, is in part conditioned and in part free, but the terror induced in the concentration camps corrodes from within the part that is free. Unlike fear that is intelligible in its relation to an object in the world, or to the objectivity of a threatening world, terror conditions human beings in much the same way that the behavior of animals is conditioned by such means as electric shock. Pavlov's dog, which Arendt called a "perverted" animal, was conditioned to salivate not when it was hungry but when a bell was rung, and systematically starved men and women were likewise conditioned to behave inhumanly in the hope of being fed.2 In the contrived world of the camps the categories of right and wrong, virtue and vice, individual innocence or guilt, and almost everything else that since time immemorial has been associated with the specific nature of human beings ceased to make sense. As yet, at least so far as is known, totalitarian camps are the only places on earth where the total domination of the human person was "scientifically" implemented and accomplished.

When compared with its "insane end-result"--the realization of hell in the midst of life without pretense to "an absolute standard of justice" or recourse to "the infinite possibility of grace"--the assault on human nature in the camps was methodological and threefold. The "first, essential step" is the destruction of juridical or political man by disfranchisement; secondly, the moral person is destroyed by rendering his or her conscience impotent; and thirdly, the "unique identity" of the individual is obliterated by annihilating the human capacity for spontaneity in thought and action. Disfranchisement means the elimination of every legal status, including even that of the criminal. Human beings are subjected to torment not only unfit for any conceivable crime but also unrelated to anything they have done; they are punished for having been born a Jew, for being the representative of a dying class, for being "asocial," or mentally ill, or the carrier of a disease. New categories would be invented when old categories became exhausted, or victims would have to be selected at random, as in fact they finally were in Stalin's "more perfect" system. The arbitrariness of the choice of victims aims at destroying "the civil rights of the whole population," and such destruction is by no means a matter of brainwashing since it is not "consent" that is wanted but only absolute "discipline." In the camps every legal right and political institution that for centuries had been wrought to stabilize the world and clear a space for human freedom, including the expression and debate of diverse opinions, is swept away as if it had never existed. In this sense the destruction of juridical or political man "is a prerequisite for dominating him entirely."

Next, the ability to make a conscientious choice is negated. Prisoners are made to choose not between good and evil but between evil and evil. When a mother is forced to choose one of her children to be murdered in order to save the life (or postpone the death) of another, she is implicated in the crime committed against her. Martyrdom was not possible since the camps were what Arendt called "holes of oblivion," places completely cut off from the outside world in which a martyr's story might be told, remembered, and become an example for others. The dead are immediately forgotten "as if they had never existed," their deaths as superfluous as their lives had been. Finally, the concentration of human beings, massing them together and binding them in terror's "band of iron," destroys every relation to and distinction from one another, obliterating not only their individual place in the world but their individuality itself. They are submitted to torture, not to learn what they know but to so hurt them that they became bundles of insensate flesh. Far from being able to act spontaneously, to begin anything new by acting or thinking, they walk "'like dummies to their death'" (David Rousset, Les jours de notre mort [Paris, 1947], quoted by Arendt). In the slave labor camps of the Gulag, with their supposed economic "rationale," the laborers are starved or frozen to death, at once replaced by others whose lives and deaths are no less superfluous than those of their predecessors.

From Eichmann in Jerusalem The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

To confront the evil of totalitarian criminality requires a way of thinking that reflects the human experience of being superfluous, the futility and meaninglessness of "not belonging to the world at all." That experience was forced by terror upon the inmates of the camps, but Arendt also saw that the "laboratories" of slave labor and extermination changed the nature of those who wielded the instruments of destruction. It was not a matter of choice but "an accident of birth [that] condemned" some to life and some to death, and both "functioned to the last moment . . . frictionlessly." (see "The Image of Hell") Furthermore, having "no place in the world recognized and guaranteed by others" was the experience of the uprooted, unemployed, and unwanted masses of mankind which did not cause but made possible the "lying" world of totalitarianism. More than any other single factor, the failure of "the Rights of Man," "formulated" and "proclaimed" in the American and French Revolutions but never "politically secured" or "philosophically established," enabled a form of government to appear that, though made by men, denied humanity and in which the meaninglessness of life and indifference towards death was the primary common experience. As Eichmann put it: "We did not care if we died today or only tomorrow, and there were times we cursed the morning that found us still alive." (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 6, "The Final Solution: Killing")

Arendt was of course aware of the gulf in human suffering that separates the oppressed from their oppressors, but her point was different. Contrary to popular accounts that seek to "demonize" the oppressors, Arendt saw the totalitarians themselves, often in their own estimation, as superfluous human beings. S.S. officers (the black-shirted Schutzstaffel or security service) were selected by photographs, by "objective" racial characteristics, and not by interviews in which their inclination or disinclination, their psychological suitability or unsuitability for the horrendous tasks they were called upon to perform, could be assessed. The S.S. was as far beyond the reach of law as its prisoners, for although the Nazis never formally revoked the constitution of the German Republic, its laws had no authority when they conflicted with the Führer's will. The slave labor and extermination camps succeeded in extirpating the moral being of the destroyers as well as those they destroyed. Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the complex Nazi police and security forces, told S.S. officers that they had to become "superhumanly inhuman," that is, to cease being human if they were to carry out the "great task that occurs but once in two thousand years." Obedience and devotion are required but conviction and agreement despised, since the latter imply at least the possibility of a last remnant of spontaneous thought and action. Eichmann, who evinced no spontaneity, spoke in his defense of "the obedience of corpses (Kadavergehorsam)." (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 8, "Duties of a Law-Abiding Citizen")

Those who support a totalitarian system, according to Arendt, may be "bearers of orders" or "bearers of secrets" but in the eyes of the movement they bear no responsibility for what they do. Without the structure of responsibility the reality of the world becomes "a mass of incomprehensible data." Human beings "can be tortured and slaughtered, and yet neither the tormentors or the tormented . . . can be aware that what is happening is anything more than a cruel game." The supporters are pawnlike "embodiments" of the will of the leader who, as the sole repository of "responsibility," is infallible. That infallibility has nothing to do with truth or trustworthiness, however, as Stalin's faithful servants discovered when they became his victims in the Great Purge trials of the mid-1930s. The accused had not, as charged, betrayed the Party, but were defenseless and remained largely passive when confronted with Stalin's inexorable will. In much the same sense, when facing certain defeat Hitler did not consider surrendering to save German lives but on the contrary declared the entire German nation unfit to go on living, unfit to be members of the "Aryan" race, if and when it failed to enact his will. And yet Hitler and Stalin, unlike ordinary dictators, were as much the "products" as the leaders of their respective movements, their directions as much as their directors. "All that you are, you are through me; and all that I am, I am through you alone," Hitler said to the S.A. (the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung or storm troopers) who preceded the "elite" S.S. in the ever changing "hierarchies" of Nazism. He spoke of himself as a "magnet" that attracted the "steel" of the German people. As the will of a totalitarian movement the leader is irreplaceable; as a function of that movement, however, he is replaceable by virtually any of his henchmen, and both Hitler and Stalin knew that. Hence Arendt referred to them both as "non-persons" or "non-entities."

From "Ideology and Propaganda," The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

For Arendt the principal consideration was not the amount of suffering or the number of victims, but the fact that in the camps human beings were destroyed without cause or reason. "Just as the victims in the death factories or the holes of oblivion are no longer 'human' in the eyes of their executioners, so this newest species of criminals is beyond the pale even of solidarity in human sinfulness." The crimes that were committed had no humanly comprehensible motives. The sheer, irresponsible momentum of this new kind of criminality was like a juggernaut or fireball that, if unchecked, might ravage the human world and reduce it to ashes until there was nothing left for it to consume but itself. Its capacity for total destruction was the reason, in Arendt's judgment, that totalitarian terror was radically evil. It was as if for the first time the root of evil appeared in the world from wherever it had been kept hidden by laws, conscience, and such principles as honor and excellence, and even the fear which individual human beings manifest when they are still free to do so.

The "total domination of man" was radically evil, in Arendt's eyes, not only because it was unprecedented but because it did not make sense. She asked:

Why should lust for power, which from the beginning of recorded history has been considered the political and social sin par excellence, suddenly transcend all previously known limitations of self-interest and utility and attempt not simply to dominate men as they are but to change their very nature; not only to kill whoever is in the way of further power accumulation but also innocent and harmless bystanders, and this even when such murder is an obstacle, rather than an advantage, for the accumulation of power?
(see "Ideology and Propaganda")

There is no ready answer to that question. In Hitler's case it is well known that his unrelenting dehumanization and destruction of those who presented no threat to him hindered his ability to fight effectively against his real enemies at the end of World War II. What is the point of dominating men at any cost, not as they are but in order "to change their very nature"? If it is for the sake of "the consistency of a lying world order," as she went on to suggest, what is the point of a system that even if it succeeded in destroying the human world would not end in the creation of a "thousand-year Reich" or "Messianic Age" but only in self-destruction? Arendt, to be sure, never thought the suicidal "victory" of totalitarianism likely. That would first require global rule by one totalitarian power, and in that regard she believed that Hitler's invasion of Russia in 1941 was symbolically significant in spite of his pact with Stalin two years earlier and in spite of the two leaders' mutual admiration which she emphasized. Moreover, she saw that "no system has ever been less capable [than totalitarianism] of gradually expanding its sphere of influence and holding on to its conquests." Most important of all, because plurality is the inescapable condition of human existence--"not Man but men inhabit this planet"--Arendt increasingly came to consider farfetched the notion that a single totalitarian regime could ever destroy the entire world.

That totalitarianism appeared in two countries at almost the same time is an irrevocable fact, and its recurrence is more easily imagined than its first occurrences ever were. There are certainly important lessons to be pondered about its origins, the "elements" out of which totalitarian movements arose. Today the widespread existence of masses and mass societies, alienated from the world and attracted not only to ideologies but to isms of any kind as answers to their sense of homelessness, constitutes such a lesson. Yet Arendt stated over and over that the evil of totalitarian domination confounds human understanding, that it explodes "our categories of political thought and our standards for moral judgment." (see "The Difficulties of Understanding") That such evil cannot be encompassed by conventional categories of thought, that it has no humanly comprehensible motives, is its radicality. It is one thing to understand the "idea" of totalitarianism, but coming to terms with "actions [that] constitute a break with all our traditions" is another. Having pondered that impasse for years, Arendt turned her attention to a critique of the entire tradition of Western political thought (see "Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought") and experimented with rethinking such basic political concepts as action, power, and law. She asked herself such questions as "What is authority?" "What is freedom?" and "What is politics?" (see "What Is Authority?" and "What Is Freedom?" in Between Past and Future, "Was Ist Politik?" and "Einführung in der Politik I, II") It was then that she encountered Adolf Eichmann.

From letter to Scholem, July 24, 1963. The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

When Eichmann was taken captive in Argentina by agents of the Israeli government and brought to trial in Jerusalem, Arendt saw an opportunity, unusual for philosophers, to confront the "realm of human affairs and human deeds . . . directly." (see "Concern with Politics in Recent European Philosophical Thought") She reported on the trial for The New Yorker magazine and shortly after Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was published in 1963, prompted by questions submitted by a journalist, she reflected on why she, "a writer and teacher of political philosophy . . . had . . . undertaken a reporter's job." It was, she said, because the trial offered her the opportunity to encounter "in the flesh" a notorious Nazi criminal, and she was eager to grasp, if possible, his individual guilt, why he had done what he did, which, she added, was "not relevant" to her more theoretical considerations in The Origins of Totalitarianism. In the earlier work she had dealt with the "type" of totalitarian criminals, but now she sought to know "Who was Eichmann?" and "What were his deeds, not insofar as his crimes were part and parcel of the Nazi system" but insofar as he was a distinct human being? She had, she said, "the wish to expose myself--not to the deeds which, after all, were well known--but to the evildoer himself." That was "the most powerful motive in my decision to go to Jerusalem."3 (see Grafton document)

Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1960s.
Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Trust.
Mary McCarthy with Hannah Arendt, Aberdeen, Scotland, ca. 1974.
Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Trust.

There are ways in which Eichmann in Jerusalem recalls the last sections of The Origins of Totalitarianism, but there are also important respects in which it differs. Arendt laid considerable emphasis on these differences in a number of letters. To Mary McCarthy she mentioned three of them. She wrote first that she no longer believed in "holes of oblivion" because "there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible." Secondly, she realized that "Eichmann was much less influenced by ideology" than she would have assumed before attending the trial. What had become clear to her was that "extermination per se" did not depend on ideology. Thirdly, and this was by far the most important difference, the phrase banality of evil "stands in contrast to . . . 'radical evil.'" This last distinction is developed in more detail in a letter to Gershom Scholem (see letter to Scholem, July 24, 1963). There she wrote: "It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never 'radical,' that it is only extreme." "Thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated." That there is nothing in evil for thought to latch onto is what Arendt meant by the banality of evil. Not the murderous deeds but the evildoer she faced in Jerusalem and the massiveness of the evil he inflicted on the world are banal in that sense.4 The realization that the most extreme evil has no meaning that the human mind can reveal, that it is not only senseless in its own terms but meaningless in any terms, was momentous; to say the least it afforded Arendt relief from a burden she had borne for many years.

In a later letter to McCarthy, who had written of the moral exhilaration that reading Eichmann in Jerusalem afforded her, Arendt noted: "you were the only reader to understand what otherwise I have never admitted--namely that I wrote this book in a state of euphoria." In a letter to a German correspondent (see letter to Meier Cronemeyer, July 18th, 1963) she said that twenty years after she had learned of the existence of Auschwitz she experienced a cura posterior, i.e., a healing of her inability to think through to its root the evil of totalitarian criminality. In style Eichmann in Jerusalem is unlike anything else in the corpus of Arendt's writings. As the account of a trial of criminal action it is dramatic. In an interview Arendt said: "That the tone of voice is predominantly ironic is completely true," adding that "the tone of voice in this case is really the person," i.e., herself, the dramatist. She might have remained silent and not written the book at all, she said, but she could never have written it "differently." The posterior or later cure is important in another sense, for here, in a trial whose only purpose was to mete out justice, the terrible injury inflicted on the Jewish people would, at least in her judgment, at long last be vindicated as a crime against humanity.

From Eichmann in Jerusalem "Epilogue". The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

Arendt saw Eichmann, on trial for his life, as a "buffoon" whose

inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such . . . [It was] proof against reason and argument and information and insight of any kind (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapters 3 and 5).

Having encountered such a man, Arendt saw that the banality of evil is potentially far greater in extent--indeed limitless--than the growth of evil from a "root." A root can be uprooted, which is what she meant to do when she spoke of "destroying" totalitarianism, but the evil perpetrated by an Eichmann can spread over the face of the earth like a "fungus" precisely because it has no root. Furthermore, the case of Eichmann led Arendt to see that at least one evildoer was not "corruptible." Having overcome or in his case forgotten any inclination he may have had to halt or hinder the organization and transportation of millions of innocent Jews to their deaths, Eichmann boasted that he had done his duty to the end! Unlike Himmler, his ultimate superior in the chain of command and a chief architect of the "final solution," Eichmann never attempted to "negotiate" with the enemy when it became clear that the Nazi cause was lost. He declared, on the contrary, "that he had lived his whole life . . . according to a Kantian definition of duty," (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 8) and Arendt noted that "to the surprise of everybody, Eichmann came up with an approximately correct definition of [Kant's] categorical imperative," though he had "distorted" it in practice. She admitted, moreover, "that Eichmann's distortion agrees with what he himself called the version of Kant 'for the household use of the little man,'" the identification of one's will with "the source" of law, which for Eichmann was the will of the Führer.

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Eichmann in Jerusalem is its study of human conscience. The court's refusal to consider seriously the question of Eichmann's conscience resulted in its failure to confront what Arendt called "the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century." The Israeli judges understood conscience traditionally as the voice of God or lumen naturale, speaking or shining in every human soul, telling or illuminating the difference between right and wrong, and this simply did not apply in the case of Eichmann. Eichmann had a conscience, and it seems to have "functioned in the expected way" for a few weeks after he became engaged in the transport of Jews, and then, when he heard no voice saying Thou shalt not kill but on the contrary every voice saying Thou shalt kill, "it began to function the other way around." (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 6) And this was by no means true only for Eichmann. Arendt was convinced by testimony presented at the trial that a general "moral collapse" had been experienced throughout Europe, from which even respected members of the Jewish leadership were not exempt.5 (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 7)

And so the controversy raged. Arendt may have exaggerated the extent to which the attacks against her were prompted by a "conspiracy" of the Jewish establishment and leveled against a book that was "never written." (see "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship") Certainly not everyone who disagreed with her, sometimes vehemently, was malevolent or ill-informed (see letter from Hans Jonas to H.A. marked "etwa Januar 1964"). Much that was said was indeed preposterous, for example, that she attempted to exonerate Eichmann when she had done exactly the opposite; or that she was morally insensitive in asking why Jews had not fought back, a question raised by the prosecutor but never by Arendt, who understood that the processes of dehumanization precluded rebellion. Yet many were deeply disturbed by her depiction of an Eichmann who was not an ideological anti-Semite nor even criminally motivated--he wanted to rise in rank not by murdering anyone but by "conscientiously" doing his job. "Intent to do wrong" was not, in Arendt's opinion, proved against him. He was not "morally insane" for in his own "muddled" way he distinguished between right and wrong, and the results of psychological tests showed that he was not a "monster" but frighteningly normal.

Eichmann was not stupid; he knew but did not think what he was doing, not in the past and not in Jerusalem. He contradicted himself constantly, but he did not lie; his conscience did not bother him; and he did not suffer from remorse: "He knew that what he had once called his duty was now called a crime, and he accepted this new code of judgment as if it were nothing but another language rule" (see "Thinking and Moral Considerations"). Therefore it was important to Arendt that the justice of the death sentence delivered by the court be seen by all, and for that reason she offered her own judgment, addressing Eichmann in the following terms:

Just as you 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 share the world with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, "Epilogue" -- part one and part two").

The "Epilogue" to Eichmann in Jerusalem deals with the legality of the Jerusalem trial, which for the most part Arendt defended, but she thought it necessary to clarify what the Israeli court's judgment left obscure. Eichmann was guilty of "an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the 'human status' without which the very words 'mankind' or 'humanity' would be devoid of meaning." Arendt recognized in Eichmann, who struck her as "not even strange" (nicht einmal unheimlich) (see letter from H.A. to Heinrich Bluecher, April 15, 1961), the exemplary criminal capable of committing "the new crime, the crime against humanity." He "supported and carried out" the physical destruction of European Jewry and would have done the same for any group or anyone at all whom a power higher than himself had decreed unfit to live.

From "Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship". The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

With the establishment of the state of Israel Jews were finally able "to sit in judgment on crimes committed against their own people"; they no longer needed "to appeal to others for protection and justice, or fall back upon the compromised phraseology of the rights of man." Arendt had long known that universal human rights are a chimera for those who lack the power to defend them. She knew from her own experience that despite any proclamation of their universality such rights are not "independent of human plurality" and are not possessed by human beings "expelled from the human community." (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, "Imperialism," chapter 9, "The Perplexities of the Rights of Man") She spoke, therefore, of "a right to have rights," a right "to live in a framework where one is judged by one's actions and opinions," and it was that right, denied by totalitarianism, that she hoped would be seen by all as the basic principle of human solidarity. The right to have rights, the right of a plurality of people "to act together concerning things that are of equal concern to each," was for Arendt the minimum condition of a common human world. That right, the source of the rights of freedom and justice, would be "politically secured" if and only if it were set forth as the principal tenet of international law, a law "above nations," the enforcement of which would be legally binding on all peoples and all nations, transcending any "rules of sovereignty."6 (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, first edition, "Concluding Remarks") After having written of a "right to have rights" but before encountering Eichmann Arendt spoke of the "thunder" of the "explosion" of totalitarian crimes that nevertheless leaves us silent when "we dare to ask, not 'What are we fighting against' but 'What are we fighting for?'" (see "Tradition and the Modern Age" in Between Past and Future (originally in "Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought," long manuscript); cf. "The Difficulties of Understanding") She did not answer that question directly, presumably because she wanted her readers to think it through for themselves. It seems safe to say that Arendt herself considered the fundamental right to have rights something worth "fighting for."

The difficulty is that the right to have rights, as well as the rights of man, had never been "philosophically established." Here too the Eichmann trial, in particular the question of conscience, pointed the direction for the most challenging part of Arendt's late work. In a sense she deconstructed the phenomenon of conscience into something like the rules of a changing game or, better, the changing rules of the same game. She was not satisfied with that, however, and wanted to find out what we mean when we talk about moral phenomena insofar as they are not rules, customs, or habits. She found that what had traditionally been considered the voice of conscience was in fact the actualization of consciousness in the activity of thinking. Thus the relation of thoughtlessness to evil became concrete. What is most elusive and difficult to grasp is that Arendt meant literally the activity of thinking and not its results, not things thought, from which at best new rules might be derived which would either dissolve in further thinking or become unthought customs and habits.

What Arendt meant by the actualization of consciousness was not consciousness in the psychological sense but a knowing-with-oneself (con-scientia) that imposes limits when it is experienced. The crucial point is that the activity of thinking provides an intense and ineluctable experience of plurality. While thinking, i.e., while experiencing the silent dialogue of thought, the ego splits in two, disclosing an inner difference within an apparent identity. At lightning speed these "two-in-one," as Arendt called them, converse as long as the activity of thinking lasts. She found that these thinking "partners" have to be on good terms, essentially in agreement, because they cannot go on or resume thinking if they contradict one another. Arendt grounded, existentially, the logical law of non-contradiction in the congeniality of the two-in-one. By the same token it is in the activity of thinking that the explicitly human relationship between a plurality, though it be only of two, is first established. Again, it is not an "idea" but the experience of sheer activity that makes the one not only respect and relish but refuse to abrogate at any cost the right of the other to freely exercise the right to think. Socrates, who never wrote anything, preferred to die rather than live apart from his thinking "partner" and in Arendt's many references to him stands forth as the diametric opposite of Eichmann. Eichmann's contradictions indicated not that he had lost consciousness but that he had no experience of inner plurality, no contact with himself, and that therefore he could be relied upon to do anything, anything at all, that his "conscience" assured him was his duty.7

The foregoing amounts to no more than a glance at Arendt's late work. It should at least be added that thinking is only one of three mental activities that concerned her. Willing depends in a different way on inner plurality. It is a restless and inharmonious activity in which the willing ego is split two or more times and pulled in different directions. Willing generates power to affect the future, yet it is only with the cessation of the activity that the individuated self "springs" into action. Judging, on which we do not have Arendt's last word, is politically the most important of these activities. As its own witness it curbs the willing ego by manifesting in the world the justness implicit in the relationship of the two-in-one of thinking. Unlike either thinking or willing judging embraces the plurality of the outer world, of distinct men and women, of persons. The major texts that Arendt wrote following Eichmann in Jerusalem revolutionize the meaning of personal responsibility and the nature of moral judgment. Although with few exceptions they have played a minor role in the abundant secondary literature that has grown up around her work, today there are indications, especially among younger readers and scholars, of a new interest in these texts. In general Arendt's thought has proved stimulating because of the depth, passion, and independence of her mind and because she had the courage to write against the grain of accepted political prejudgments or prejudices. The later works that are here made accessible (see "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship," "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy," "Basic Moral Propositions," "Philosophy and Politics: What is Political Philosophy?" "Thinking and Moral Considerations," "Kant's Political Philosophy," and The Life of the Mind: "Thinking" and "Willing") add a different dimension to the attention that in all likelihood will be paid to Arendt in the future, a philosophic dimension that was there from the beginning, to be sure, but which she began to articulate only at the end of her life and did not live to fulfill. Hannah Arendt's legacy to the generations coming after her is not so much a teaching to be learned as a challenge to be met.

By Jerome Kohn, Trustee, Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust


  1. While in France she wrote essays on the Jewish Question and the Minority Question, and began a historical study of modern anti-Semitism (see "Judenfrage," "Zur Minderheitenfrage," and "Antisemitismus"). [Return to text]
  2. Arendt quotes the Polish poet Tadeusz Borowski on his experience in Auschwitz: "Never before was hope stronger than man, and never before did hope result in so much evil. . . . We were taught not to give up hope. That is why we die in the gas oven." Agreeing that hope "stronger than man" is "destructive"of humanity, she added that the victims' innocence, "even from the viewpoint of their persecutors," further dehumanizes them: that their "apathy" toward their own death is "the almost physical, automatic response to the challenge of absolute meaninglessness" (see "Why Did the World Remain Silent?" reprinted in The Jewish World 2 [September 1964]). [Return to text]
  3. The entire Eichmann file is among the most important components of the collection of Arendt's papers in the Library of Congress. It is a treasure of documents, including notes by Eichmann, transcriptions, and accounts of the proceedings. There are many letters both pro and contra Arendt which testify to the depth and the bitterness of the controversy that sprang up immediately after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. [Return to text]
  4. From the first the notion of the banality of evil proved highly contentious and it is still a stumbling block for some of the most astute and sympathetic expositors of Arendt's thought. [Return to text]
  5. A year later (1964), writing about Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy, Arendt found that the wartime Roman Catholic pope, Pius XII, was not exempt either. [Return to text]
  6. Arendt consistently opposed the idea of sovereignty as a power above law. [Return to text]
  7. It was due to his flagrant contradictions, which were by no means restricted to moral matters, that Arendt saw Eichmann as a "buffoon." Speaking for the last time to the witnesses at his execution Eichmann "began by stating . . . that he . . . did not believe in a life after death [and] then proceeded: 'After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again.'" (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 15) [Return to text]