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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From "Ideology and Propaganda," The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

Both Hitler and Stalin discovered in the camps the means to realize their belief in total power, a belief that meant not only that "everything is permitted" but implied the far more radical proposition that "everything is possible." The camps were designed as "laboratories" in which "experiments" were conducted to test that proposition, and what those experiments demonstrated was that "the omnipotence of man" is bought at the price "of the superfluity of men." (see "Ideology and Propaganda") In the camps all men were remade into one man, all human beings into one utterly predictable "living corpse," a body permanently in "the process of dying." Human beings were reduced "to the lowest common denominator of organic life," (see "The Image of Hell") rendered "equal" in the sense of being interchangeable which, it should be noted, is exactly the opposite of political equality. Arendt understood political equality as the equality of peers, the achievement of a plurality of distinct individuals who join together in freedom to generate power and take responsibility for their common world.

Human existence, according to Arendt, is in part conditioned and in part free, but the terror induced in the concentration camps corrodes from within the part that is free. Unlike fear that is intelligible in its relation to an object in the world, or to the objectivity of a threatening world, terror conditions human beings in much the same way that the behavior of animals is conditioned by such means as electric shock. Pavlov's dog, which Arendt called a "perverted" animal, was conditioned to salivate not when it was hungry but when a bell was rung, and systematically starved men and women were likewise conditioned to behave inhumanly in the hope of being fed.2 In the contrived world of the camps the categories of right and wrong, virtue and vice, individual innocence or guilt, and almost everything else that since time immemorial has been associated with the specific nature of human beings ceased to make sense. As yet, at least so far as is known, totalitarian camps are the only places on earth where the total domination of the human person was "scientifically" implemented and accomplished.

When compared with its "insane end-result"--the realization of hell in the midst of life without pretense to "an absolute standard of justice" or recourse to "the infinite possibility of grace"--the assault on human nature in the camps was methodological and threefold. The "first, essential step" is the destruction of juridical or political man by disfranchisement; secondly, the moral person is destroyed by rendering his or her conscience impotent; and thirdly, the "unique identity" of the individual is obliterated by annihilating the human capacity for spontaneity in thought and action. Disfranchisement means the elimination of every legal status, including even that of the criminal. Human beings are subjected to torment not only unfit for any conceivable crime but also unrelated to anything they have done; they are punished for having been born a Jew, for being the representative of a dying class, for being "asocial," or mentally ill, or the carrier of a disease. New categories would be invented when old categories became exhausted, or victims would have to be selected at random, as in fact they finally were in Stalin's "more perfect" system. The arbitrariness of the choice of victims aims at destroying "the civil rights of the whole population," and such destruction is by no means a matter of brainwashing since it is not "consent" that is wanted but only absolute "discipline." In the camps every legal right and political institution that for centuries had been wrought to stabilize the world and clear a space for human freedom, including the expression and debate of diverse opinions, is swept away as if it had never existed. In this sense the destruction of juridical or political man "is a prerequisite for dominating him entirely."

Next, the ability to make a conscientious choice is negated. Prisoners are made to choose not between good and evil but between evil and evil. When a mother is forced to choose one of her children to be murdered in order to save the life (or postpone the death) of another, she is implicated in the crime committed against her. Martyrdom was not possible since the camps were what Arendt called "holes of oblivion," places completely cut off from the outside world in which a martyr's story might be told, remembered, and become an example for others. The dead are immediately forgotten "as if they had never existed," their deaths as superfluous as their lives had been. Finally, the concentration of human beings, massing them together and binding them in terror's "band of iron," destroys every relation to and distinction from one another, obliterating not only their individual place in the world but their individuality itself. They are submitted to torture, not to learn what they know but to so hurt them that they became bundles of insensate flesh. Far from being able to act spontaneously, to begin anything new by acting or thinking, they walk "'like dummies to their death'" (David Rousset, Les jours de notre mort [Paris, 1947], quoted by Arendt). In the slave labor camps of the Gulag, with their supposed economic "rationale," the laborers are starved or frozen to death, at once replaced by others whose lives and deaths are no less superfluous than those of their predecessors.


2. Arendt quotes the Polish poet Tadeusz Borowski on his experience in Auschwitz: "Never before was hope stronger than man, and never before did hope result in so much evil. . . . We were taught not to give up hope. That is why we die in the gas oven." Agreeing that hope "stronger than man" is "destructive"of humanity, she added that the victims' innocence, "even from the viewpoint of their persecutors," further dehumanizes them: that their "apathy" toward their own death is "the almost physical, automatic response to the challenge of absolute meaninglessness" (see "Why Did the World Remain Silent?" reprinted in The Jewish World 2 [September 1964]).


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