The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought

Evil: The Crime against Humanity
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University


1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 PREVIOUS | NEXT

Caption Below

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.


1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 PREVIOUS | NEXT

The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought