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The Evil of Banality

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Troubling new revelations about Arendt and Heidegger.

By Ron Rosenbaum
Hannah Arendt.
Hannah Arendt
Will we ever be able to think of Hannah Arendt in the same way again? Two new and damning
critiques, one of Arendt and one of her longtime Nazi-sycophant lover, the philosopher Martin
Heidegger, were published within 10 days of each other last month. The pieces cast further
doubt on the overinflated, underexamined reputations of both figures and shed new light on
their intellectually toxic relationship.

Ron Rosenbaum
RON ROSENBAUM
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book
is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.

My hope is that these revelations will encourage a further discrediting of the most overused,
misused, abused pseudo-intellectual phrase in our language: the banality of evil. The banality
of the banality of evil, the fatuousness of it, has long been fathomless, but perhaps now it will
be consigned to the realm of the deceitful and disingenuous as well.

The first of the two new reportsand the one most overlooked here in America, perhaps
because it's not onlineappeared in the sober pages of London's Times Literary Supplement
on Oct. 9. It was titled "Blame the VictimHannah Arendt Among the Nazis: the Historian and
Her Sources." Arendtthe German-born refugee intellectual, author of the influential The
Origins of Totalitarianism and the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the
Banality of Evilhas come under fire before for "blaming the victim" in her Eichmann trial
book, but the author of the TLS piece, the distinguished British scholar Bernard Wasserstein,
breaks new ground here with material I found shocking.

In a long, carefully documented essay, Wasserstein (who's now at the University of Chicago),
cites Arendt's scandalous use of quotes from anti-Semitic and Nazi "authorities" on Jews in her
Totalitarianism book.

Wasserstein concludes that her use of these sources was "more than a methodological error:
it was symptomatic of a perverse world-view contaminated by over-exposure to the discourse
of collective contempt and stigmatization that formed the object of her study"that object
being anti-Semitism. In other words, he contends, Arendt internalized the values of the antiSemitic literature she read in her study of anti-Semitism, at least to a certain extent.
Wasserstein's conjecture will reignite the debate over Arendt's contemptuous remarks on
certain Jews who were victims of Hitler in her Eichmann book and in her letters.

Could these revelations help banish the robotic reiteration of the phrase the banality of evil as
an explanation for everything bad that human beings do? Arendt may not have intended that
the phrase be used this way, but one of its pernicious effects has been to make it seem as
though the search for an explanation of the mystery of evil done by "ordinary men" is over. As
though by naming it somehow explains it and even solves the problem. It's a phrase that
sounds meaningful and lets us off the hook, allows us to avoid facing the difficult question.

It was the banality phraseand the purported profundity of it in the popular mindthat
elevated Arendt above the ranks of her fellow exile intellectuals in America and made her a
proto-Sontag figure, a cerebral star of sorts and a revered icon in cultural-studies departments
throughout America. It was the phrase that launched a thousand theses.

To my mind, the use of the phrase banality of evil is an almost infallible sign of shallow
thinkers attempting to seem intellectually sophisticated. Come on, people: It's a bankrupt
phrase, a subprime phrase, a Dr. Phil-level phrase masquerading as a profound contrarianism.
Oooh, so daring! Evil comes not only in the form of mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash types,
but in the form of paper pushers who followed evil orders. And when appliedas she originally
did to Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's eager executioner, responsible for the logistics of the Final
Solutionthe phrase was utterly fraudulent.

Adolf Eichmann was, of course, in no way a banal bureaucrat: He just portrayed himself as
one while on trial for his life. Eichmann was a vicious and loathsome Jew-hater and -hunter
who, among other things, personally intervened after the war was effectively lost, to insist on
and ensure the mass murder of the last intact Jewish group in Europe, those of Hungary. So
the phrase was wrong in its origin, as applied to Eichmann, and wrong in almost all
subsequent cases when applied generally. Wrong and self-contradictory, linguistically,
philosophically, and metaphorically. Either one knows what one is doing is evil or one does
not. If one knows and does it anyway, one is evil, not some special subcategory of evil. If one
doesn't know, one is ignorant, and not evil. But genuine ignorance is rare when evil is going
on.

Arendt should have stuck with her original formulation for the Nazi crimes, "radical evil." Not
an easy concept to define, but, you might say, you know it when you see it. Certainly one with
more validity than banality. (Wasserstein dryly notes that "her epigones have tried valiantly to
reconcile the two positions, she herself recognized the inconsistency"between radical and
banal evil"but never satisfactorily resolved the fundamental self-contradiction.") But Arendt
fled from radical evil into banality in more ways than one.

Where the Wasserstein article breaks new ground is in his citation of some of the anti-Semitic
sources Arendt used for what is considered her major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Of
course, Arendt has been called hostile to Jews, particularly those who lack the Germanic
acculturation she was so proud of.

But The Origins of Totalitarianism has not, until now, come under fire on these grounds. And I
must say that even though it's a book massively bloated by irrelevant show-your-work history,
it serves as ballast for an important theoretical insight: that the similarities among policestate surveillance regimes are more important than the differences, that the similarities can
be summed up by a single wordtotalitarianismthat applies to dictatorships of the left and
right, of any ideology and by extension any theocratic regime or movement.

It's a concept that has great relevance right now because there are still those who don't
understand how theocratic police states can be called "fascist." Duh! It's because they're
totalitarian. Whatever religion they profess, what they share with past fascist regimes is
greaterin terms of denial of human rightsthan what separates them. Just as political
regimes adopt religious-type totalist worship of the state or the leader to enforce their
oppression, religious or theocratic regimes adopt political oppression to enforce their
orthodoxies.

But Wasserstein (who ironically delivered his conclusions originally at "the Hannah Arendt
Lecture" at Holland's Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen in December 2008probably not what
they expected) has found some problems in her historical analysis of anti-Semitism.

He introduces his findings with a curt nod to the Arendt defenders: "In The New York Review
of Books in 2007 Jeremy Waldron reproved the historian Walter Laqueur for having speculated
that Arendt 'had read too much anti-Semitic literature for her own good.' " Waldron,
Wasserstein observed, "considered the conjecture 'offensive.' "

"Actually," Wasserstein continues, "it merits serious consideration, as emerges if we examine


the use of sources in her work. Consider, for example, Arendt's discussion, in the second
section of Origins, of the role of Jews in the gold and diamond rushes in South Africa at the
turn of the twentieth century. She relies here on the account by the British economist J.A.
Hobson in which he referred to Jewish financiers 'leaving their economic fangs in the
carcasses of their prey. They fastened on the Rand as they are prepared to fasten upon any
other spot on the globe'part of a passage that Arendt quotes with explicit and unironic
approval, commending it as 'very reliable in observation and very honest in analysis.' "

"Fangs"? You say this sounds like pure Hitlerite rhetoric that could have been lifted from Mein
Kampf? Well, yes, it does, doesn't it?

And then there's this: "One of her authorities on South African Jews," Wasserstein reports, is
an article by Ernst Schultze, "a longstanding Nazi propagandist, that appeared in a German
publication founded and directed by the prominent Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg."

And then "in a new preface [to The Origins of Totalitarianism] written in 1967, Arendt
commends the work of the leading Nazi historian Walter Frank whose 'contributions,' "
Wasserstein quotes Arendt, " 'can still be consulted with profit.' "

Wasserstein wonders about her motives here: "Was she bending over backwards not to be
totally dismissive of ideological opponents who despised her on categorical (i.e. racial)
grounds?" he asks.

"But there must have been more to it than that," he answers, "because modern Jewish history
was the only subject where she repeatedly relied on Nazi historians as external authorities,
that is, other than as evidence of what the Nazis themselves thought or did. Moreover she
internalized much of what the Nazi historians had to say about Jews, from the 'parasitism' of
Jewish high finance to the 'internationalism' of [Walther] Rathenau [the Weimar German
minister assassinated by anti-Semites.]"

Of course, there have always been Jewish critiques of Jews. But Arendt's "aversion clearly ran
much deeper" than has been supposed, Wasserstein asserts. He concludes his piece by
wondering, "Why?"

I believe the new Heidegger revelations may shed some light on that question. It's always
been controversial to discuss Arendt's lifelong romantic infatuation with the Nazi-sympathizing
professor and how it might have shaped her intellectual positions. Arendt's defenders dismiss
these as "tabloid" concerns, irrelevant to the purported transcendental purity of her thought.

But leaving Heidegger out of the equation is becoming ever more difficult. Not only did Arendt
have an affair with him when she was an 18-year-old student about half his age, before Hitler
took over, but despite his public exaltation of the Fuhrer, despite his firing Jews once he
became rector of Freiburg University. We now know that she later resumed some kind of warm
relationship with the brownshirt philosopher (yes, it turns out he often wore one to his
lectures). Arendt helped usher Heidegger back into the intellectual version of polite society,
indeed assisted in preventing his ostracism as a Hitlerite, at least by those who considered his
notoriously opaque use of philosophical language to offer something of value beneath it
apart from further opacity.

The new Heidegger material offers further evidence of his slavish devotion to the Fuhrer, not
merely in his public speeches but also in his desire to find a philosophical grounding for
Hitlerism in the elevated realms of his thought.

Consider this quotation from a delightfully acerbic review essay by Carlin Romano in the Oct.
18 Chronicle of Higher Education,which discusses new revelations about Heidegger's
shameless adoption of Nazism.

Next month Yale University Press will issue an English-language translation of Heidegger: The
Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy, by Emmanuel Faye, an associate professor at the
University of Paris at Nanterre. It's the latest, most comprehensive archival assault on the
ostensibly magisterial thinker who informed Freiburg students in his infamous 1933 rectoral
address of Nazism's "inner truth and greatness," declaring that "the Fhrer, and he alone, is
the present and future of German reality, and its law."

Faye, whose book stirred France's red and blue Heidegger dpartements into direct battle a
few years back, follows in the investigative footsteps of Chilean-Jewish philosopher Victor
Farias (Heidegger et le Nazisme, 1987), historian Hugo Ott (Martin Heidegger: Unterwegs zu
Zeiner Biographie, 1988) and others. Aim? To expose the oafish metaphysician's vulgar, often
vicious 1930s attempt to become Hitler's chief academic tribune, and his post-World War II
contortions to escape proper judgment for his sins. "We now know," reports Faye, "that
[Heidegger's] attempt at self-justification of 1945 is nothing but a string of falsehoods."

Romano's Chronicle piece generated an often-furious comments thread, a spectacle of


postmodernists in temper tantrum mode.

I can understand the splenetic attacks on Romano for not taking Heidegger seriously,
although the angry Heideggerian academics never explained exactly why we should.

In general, I'm in favor of separating the man (or woman) from the work, but it was Heidegger
himself,his defenders don't seem to recognize, who claimed Nazism for his own. He didn't
make the separation between man and philosophy that they conveniently claim to excuse his
personal racism.

The debate about Heidegger reminded me of a conversation I had with philosopher Berel Lang
on "the evolution of evil," an exchange I wrote about in Explaining Hitler. We discussed
whether Hitler represented a new depth of evil and what the next step down into the abyss
might be. Were there degrees of evilthat led to Hitler? And would Hitler lead to degrees of
evil beyond his own? I had suggested Holocaust denial was such a next step, in the sense that
it added insult to injury, but Lang disagreed, arguing that Heidegger's postwar silence on
Nazism exemplified the next step in the evolution of evil. After the war, this purportedly great
and comprehensive philosopher never published anything that addressed the fact of the
Holocaust that his party perpetrated. It just didn't impinge on his worldview. He had time to
write polemics against mechanized agriculture but not industrialized murder. Lang thought
Heidegger's indifference was a whole new kind of evil. (He even wrote a book called
Heidegger's Silence.)

Which brings us back to Arendt again. As the extent of Heidegger's enthusiastic embrace of
Nazism becomes more apparent, and as it becomes ever clearer that the allegiance was not
merely opportunistic and careerist but derived from a philosophical affinity with his Fuhrer's
effusions, it becomes impossible not to reexamine certain questions. Such as: How much did
Arendt know about the depth of Heidegger's allegiance? Did Heidegger lie to her? Did she
believe him the way she believed Eichmann? Did she assume his complicity with the
genocidaires was something careerist and banal? Or worse, did she know? And did she
disingenuously (or self-deceptively) construct her false banal Eichmann from her false banal
Heidegger?

Writer Paul Roazen once speculated on this question:

If Eichmann was simply following orders, and his conduct was certifiably normal within the
context of Nazi Germany, her own defense of Heidegger can reflect the way a social thinker
such as herself might be conditioned by circumstances and advantage to curry favor in the
midst of the most vile forms of evil. Having as a Jew escaped from Germany in 1933, Arendt
remained for the rest of her life loyal to the whole philosophic tradition that had helped lead
to Hitlerism. ...

It may forever remain a mystery, even more so now. Wasserstein believes she internalized
anti-Semitic literature; I would perhaps modify this to say she internalized the purported
universalism of Germanic high culture with its disdain for parochialism. A parochialism she
identified with, in her own case, her Jewishness, something she felt ashamed of on intellectual
grounds, so primitive, this tribal allegiance in the presence of intellects who supposedly
transcended tribalism (or at least all tribes except the Teutonic).

One can still hear this Arendtian shame about ethnicity these days. So parochial! One can
hear the echo of Arendt's fear of being judged as "merely Jewish" in some, not all, of those
Jews so eager to dissociate themselves from the parochial concerns of other Jews for Israel.
The desire for universalist approval makes them so disdainful of any "ethnic" fellow feeling.
After all, to such unfettered spirits, it's so banal.

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_spectator/2009/10/the_evil_of_banality.single.html