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


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Caption Below

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."


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