Hannah Arendt on the Holocaust

Chuck Grimes cgrimes at tsoft.com
Mon Aug 14 11:14:38 PDT 2000

Any letters from Mary McCarthy?(Not as much as Mailer's, "The White Negro, "!!! or her Eichmann book, of coarse. On that see a piece by Norman Fruchter (is he still on the Bronx School Board?) in Studies On The Left, circa 1966 or so, on the NY intellectuals vs. Hannah. Only McCarthy, Alfred Kazin and Daniel Bell defended her. It was reprinted in, "For A New America, " edited by James Weinstein around 1970. Kinda rare, Vintage/Random House musta not printed that many copies. Other articles of note in the book are from Harold Cruse on Black Nationalism, Martin Sklar on Corporate Liberalism. (Michael Pugliese)


Eichmann's trial and Arendt's book on it came out the year I graduated from high school. After reading pieces of a serialize version, I got the book a little later and started to read it. I understood the factual descriptions, and not one word of the speculation and arguments in it or over it.

Three or four years later in the middle of college, I re-read it and still didn't really understand what Arendt was going on about in terms of law and moral judgment. About ten or fifteen years ago, I re-read it again in my forties, and finally started to understand it a little better. But I still didn't quite get the idea. And then about six or seven years ago in the midst of the rightwing take over of Congress, I went back to it, reading sections to refresh my memory while I was reading Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's biography. The light finally dawned, or at least my reflections on it finally took a form I could understand. By understand in this latter sense, I mean I could put together a general principle from it and use it to examine other events.

The problem I had was grasping the idea that the state is just a bunch of rules with administrators and offices, and it has absolutely no connection at all with anything like an ethics based on moral judgment. These two forms are completely disjointed phenomenon to the point that it is impossible to bring them into a coincidence with one another. Now, I figured that particular part out during Vietnam. But, to put Eichmann together with this realization was the missing key.

I realize this seems ridiculously simple minded. Of course I understood the idea as an argument or as a potential, or as an historical turn of events. But that wasn't the problem. It was understanding this idea was a fact of life and that it had no more depth than a parking ticket.

Now this is a different conclusion than Arendt's. She still believed that the disjunction in society between its laws and a habitable code of conduct for the well being for its members was an aspect and consequence of totalitarian governments.

What finally occurred to my sick brain, was that this isn't so. The fundamental disjunction exists in all government and it is only a constant resistance to and occasionally an open revolt against that disjunction that keeps us alive in some form of haphazard well being. What this does is make political, social, and economic resistance and revolt a permanent feature of life. Perhaps not a feature, so much as a conditional requirement for a tolerable or habitable life.

Here is a passage from an essay, called `The Aftermath of Nazi Rule'. What I think is remarkable is that while it was originally written in the context of Arendt's first visit back to Germany after the war, it sounds like an exaggerated impression of everyday life, now.

``But perhaps the most striking and frightening aspect of the German flight from reality is the habit of treating facts as though they were mere opinions. For example, the question of who started the last war, by no means a hotly debated issue, is answered by a surprising variety of opinions. An otherwise quite normally intelligent woman in Southern Germany told me that the Russians had begun the war with an attack on Danzig; this is only the crudest of many examples. Nor is this transformation of facts into opinions restricted to the war question; in all fields there is a kind gentlemen's agreement by which everyone has a right to his ignorance under the pretext that everyone has a right to opinion---and behind this is the tacit assumption that opinions really do not matter. This is a very serious thing, not only because it often makes discussion so hopeless (one does not ordinarily carry a reference library along everywhere), but primarily because the average German honestly believes this free-for-all, this nihilistic relativity about facts, to be the essence of democracy. In fact, of course, it is a legacy of the Nazi regime.

The lies of totalitarian propaganda are distinguished from the normal lying of non-totalitarian regimes in time of emergency by their consistent denial of the importance of facts in general: all facts can be changed and all lies can be made true.'' (The Aftermath of Nazi Rule, Essays in Understanding 1930-1954, HBJ, NY, 1994, 252p)

What I want to add, is the mechanism for transformation of fact into opinion is the mass media. That is to say, we can see the absurdity of a nazi propaganda film, because it is a cartoon of our own media experience. What is more difficult to perceive is the familiar cartoon we live, that it is a cartoon, for example. The most obvious current cartoon is that globalization of economic production brings benefit to all.

I might actually look for a copy of Steinberg's book to read, not to buy of course. These kinds of mis-readings have something to offer, which is an insight into the nature of a cartoon of history that seems to have become a constant potential, the distant mirror to the idea any given fact is equivalent to an opinion.

Chuck Grimes

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