Hannah Arendt on the Holocaust

Chuck Grimes cgrimes at tsoft.com
Sat Aug 12 02:17:46 PDT 2000

[from Michael Pugliese fwd]:


A Study of the Suppression of Truth

The unique contribution of this study consists in the discovery and presentation of concrete textual evidence of a major shift in Arendt's political thinking between 1951 and 1958, textual material that has been ignored by all Arendt scholars, because it presents Arendt endorsing a radically inegalitarian and anti-democratic doctrine called "the rule of masters," which Arendt discovered in "ancient political theory." On the basis of this evidence, the book explains why Arendt's The Human Condition rehabilitates the pattern of antiliberal and antidemocratic thinking that formed one of the major ideological premises of fascist political thinking. It demonstrates comprehensively that Arendtian antiliberalism shares a great deal in common with the right-wing German tradition of "antisemitic antiliberalism" that arose in the immediate aftermath of 1789 and 1806, where modern liberalism was ridiculed and rejected as Jewish "slave morals" The study contends that the key to deciphering Arendt's Holocaust scholarship lies in the recognition that scholars are wrong to portray Arendt's thinking as highly original, and that the most conspicuous feature of Arendt's thinking is its systematic lack of originality. This leads to the central claim that we can understand the Nazi hatred of the Jews and the ensuing mass murder by reading Arendt's accounts of these matters in order to figure out how and why she got these matters wrong, even though we find evidence of the truth in her own writings, which Arendt suppresses dishonestly in order to reconcile her interpretation of Nazism with her own defense of a right-wing Nietzschean-Heideggerian pattern of antiliberalism, of the precise kind endorsed as the central premise of Nazi ideology.

"This is a well-written and important study which provides a new interpretation of Hannah Arendt." - Rabbi Daniel Cohn-Sherbok

Table of Contents:

Introduction: Lethal Equations and Flagrant contradictions in the Holocaust Scholarship of Hannah Arendt

1. Animal Laborans Equals Jew: A Lethal Equation: The Human Condition and the Fascist War Against "the Jewish-Liberal-Democratic-Marxist-Humanitarian Mentality"

2. "What Terrible things the Jews Must Have Done to the Germans": Arendt, the De-Germanization of Nazism, and the De-Nazification of Heidegger

3. Marxism, Zionism, and Jewishness: Disclosing Hannah Arendt

Notes; Bibliography; Index

[Symposium Series No. 62]

0-7734-7760-8 89.95/49.95 284pp. 2000

About the author: Jules Steinberg is a Professor of Political Science at Denison University. He received his PhD from The University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is the author of two previous books, Locke, Rousseau and the Idea of Consent and The Obsession of Thomas Hobbes.


This is bad and it sounds like the sort of twisting half truth that will make it difficult to refute. I don't have the expertise, scholarship, credentials, intellectual acuity, or the required insight into the labyrinth of interscene wars among Jewish intellectual worlds to do it. I sure hope somebody does. I suspect some kind of agenda at work beyond a merely scholarly review and question of sources.

But I'll try to set up a ground for a counter to this attack, because Hannah Arendt has had a very large influence on the way I think. I feel I owe her a serious intellectual obligation. `The Human Condition' was one of those books that helped form how I think, even if I can't match its scope. She was one of my intellectual heros.

What follows will probably be full of errors in text and impressions and will touch on some very touchy subjects for which I have no credible ground to fall back on. It is also curiously relevant to the current election and the state of an international intellectual community since it touches on politics, religion, identity, national states, and status of personal moral codes.

As far as I know there are two major breaks that Arendt made with what I think as the core tenets of a traditional Jewish intellectual community in the US--in other words part of her home based audience, so to speak. I am bringing these breaks up, because I think they reflect what I suspect is part of an agenda at work in the brief sketch above of Jules Steinberg's work on Arendt. I could be wrong, but I suspect Steinberg is probably an arch conservative jerk and is trying to tarnish one on my heros. So with that prejudice made explicit, here goes nothing. I could be way off about Steinberg since I know absolutely nothing about him and obviously haven't read the work.

The first and most important break Arendt made, was a break with the upper ranks of the Zionist movement who were in the process of arguing and defining the concept of a modern Jewish state. Part of this debate occurred in Germany, prior to Hitler and later in the US among the established Jewish community here and the newly arrived immigrants. Her break consisted in arguing against the founding of an explicitly religious state, and for a secular state with a formal separation between church and state. She lost that debate and created permanent enemies in process.

Some of the ideas she explored particularly in `The Human Condition', arose originally in the context of debating the conceptual framework of forming Israel. She lacked a considerable amount of personal creditability in these debates since her own background could be used against her. And, although she didn't mention it, as I recall, I can't help but think her status as a woman, didn't help. She was facing a strong patriarchal community. In addition, she was not religious, had had a well known love affair with Martin Heidegger as a graduate student, and had spent a considerable part of her youth and early adulthood completely separated from traditional Jewish communities in Germany.

It was specifically in response to the intensification of anti-Semitism, and the extreme race bating tactics of the early nazis political movement, that essentially forced her to confront her status as a Jew, rather than a German who was Jewish. Her intellectual response was in a sense ambivalent and that ambivalence was furthered when she arrived in the US and also began to look into US and French history and its concepts of state founded in the Enlightenment (On Revolution). She wanted to find a way to remain intellectually consistent with her own evolving social philosophy, and find a place for religious background in these very complex contexts that criss cross much of western european history.

That is to say she began to look into formal religion and not just a vague sort of spirituality of the kind she had been attracted to through philosophy and literature. The prospect of re-establishing a Jewish state was one part, and the simultaneous rise of the nazis was a second part, and her arrival in the US was yet a third part, that lead her into considering the nature of the modern nation state. Prior to this turn in her ideas, she was originally involved in a much less specific kind of intellectual investigation that dealt more with what I think of as a cultural philosophy and investigating the intellectual history of ideas, with a strong and obvious emphasis on German philosophers and writers.

Before I go back to this topic, I should mention the other break, which is intellectually related to the first. This break surrounds the collection of thoughts and impressions done while Hannah Arendt followed the Eichmann trail in Jerusalem (Eichmann in Jerusalem, a report on the banality of evil). This was a controversial book and was not universally acclaimed by either the Jewish intellectual community, nor as a matter fact, very much of the rest of intellectual community. I think the gut level reaction against it from Jews in the US, Europe and Israel was to considered the work a form of betrayal. On the other hand, I think I understand more clearly why much of the rest the intellectual community might have been rather cool to the work and many of its implicit questions.

Eichmann in Jerusalem, indirectly, I have to emphasize indirectly, eschews the concept that there can be such a thing as an ethical public institution. That is it calls into question the core ideas behind morality, law, and the implementation of these within concrete public institutions. After reading the Eichmann work, I was lead to a dilemma, which I have never resolved and which I think is unresolvable. Is there such a thing as a just State? My provisional answer is no. I don't think this is what Arendt intended, but it is certainly a question that seemed to jump off the page at me then, and now.

The link with `The Human Condition' is that religious tenets or what constitutes concepts such as good and evil, belongs to a private realm and therefore these are not compatible with an active political life in a concrete world. Her distinction in this context is the distinction between a private and public life, and she draws extensively on Greek and Roman thought as well as Machiavelli, Augustine and Luther to make this distinction.

What is pushed further (and indirectly) in the Eichmann work, is the move from private and religious tenets, into a public and more secular re-working of these tenets as moral and ethical codes of conduct which are supposed to inform a public, concrete, and active political life. In this context, her readings of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Kant come into play. And, inadvertently Arendt must re-question somewhat less explicitly the foundation arguments that surrounded the formation of the Israeli state, more particularly were identity, religious practice, secular law, and moral conduct are all merged together without some of the formal distinction between church and state, private and public life that are customary in the US.

The conflict between private belief and public action arose partly because Eichmann maintained as part of his defence that in his private life he was not an anti-Semite! In Arendt's understanding, that may well have been true, and yet Eichmann's opinions and private conduct were irrelevant. He was not being tried for anti-Semitism, but for crimes against the Jewish people. This elaborate distinction evidently escaped him. And, I think it was the fact that he couldn't tell the difference between a lack of personal hatred or explicit bigotry, and bureaucratically managing the industrialize slaughter itself, that was what suggested to Arendt the concept of the banality of evil.

>From the point of view of the Kantian partition of reasonings, in the
realm of judgment, there is something completely unsatisfactory about Arendt's view of Eichmann. This is why her book on the Eichmann trial was not well received by much of the intellectual community and was found more or less a betrayal by some section of the Jewish intellectual community. The problem here is that most of us do identify with the state in our various roles as public people, and so it is ludicrous to suggest that one could possibly separate belief and opinion from policy and action. So, it immediately appears that Eichmann was simply lying.

What Arendt suggested (again indirectly), was, what if he wasn't lying? What then? For example, it is quite possible that many US politicians are not personally racist, yet everyone of their public votes and policy proposals point inexplicably to the concrete fact that they are racist.

These are some of the possibilities that Hannah Arendt was willing to investigate and come to terms with in a series of evolving concepts about the nature of society. She spent a considerable amount of time and words on Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and Heidegger all of whom have been linked to theories of fascism and totalitarian states. It is little wonder she wouldn't eventually be accused of being an advocate of both totalitarian states and fascism. Of course she spent much of her life attempting to understand them and then utterly defeat them in the world and in their intellectual ground in a history of ideas.

I'll leave the other review which is actually the subject heading, Two Views of the American Left, for another time.

Chuck Grimes

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