Here’s Why Hannah Arendt is Still Relevant on Violence and Politics

Image of Hannah Arendt on German postage (2006), via Wikimedia Commons

My partner and I have been watching the French series “Un village français” on Hulu. Each evening, we stream a single episode of the show set in the fictional village of Villeneuve, beginning in 1940, as its residents learn to live under Nazi occupation. The show combines elements of soap opera and life during wartime, showing the domestic travails of a group of French families where infidelity, envy among families, infertility, and conflict between siblings, are integrated into a larger story about how each member of these families made decisions—seemingly small at the time—which would later determine the level of collaboration or resistance they demonstrated as the Nazis demanded more and more from the villagers.

I thought about the show’s characters while reading an interview with Hannah Arendt, the remarkable German philosopher who left Nazi Germany and came to the United States. Arendt collided with the show when she discussed with German historian Joachim Fest all the ways in which people convince themselves to “go along.”

Those who did go along always justified themselves the same way, as we can see. They always said, “We only stayed on so that things wouldn’t get any worse.” Right? But, well—this justification should be rejected once and for all—it couldn’t have gotten any worse.

Somehow, people convince themselves that they can perform these awful tasks in a “kinder, gentler” way than someone else who may come behind them. In “Un village francais,” that plays out when townspeople are told to do something they recognize as wrong, but are also told that if they don’t do it, the Gestapo will do it and it will be worse. This was one of the many ways that the Nazis convinced “ordinary folks” to take part in mass murder.

Arendt is perhaps best known to general audiences as the woman who wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, her book about her observations of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Nazi Holocaust. She coined the term, “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann. The term was controversial, but Arendt argued that Eichmann was not some insane person with a deep-seated hatred for Jewish people, but rather, a rather banal businessman, who had treated the work he was doing as a rational business rather than the murderous enterprise that it was.

Arendt has helped many scholars of Nazi Germany to understand and investigate how the people who participated were not “evil.” They were fairly ordinary people who chose to obey orders and to carry out their work as if it were any other ordinary manufacturing or business project. This has led some scholars to argue that Nazi Germany is actually an example of the “rational state,” rather than a collection of insane criminals who killed willy-nilly.

She also insisted that Eichmann was, above all else, a clown. In a discussion with Roger Errera, her last interview, she quoted Bertold Brecht. “The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter. They are not great political criminals, but people who permitted great political crimes, which is something entirely different.” Arendt argues for this view in order to counter the vast number of biographies that have emerged since World War II in which Adolf Hitler is painted as an “evil genius,” someone larger than life who was the only one capable of commanding the Holocaust. But Arendt sees danger in glorifying Hitler in such a way. As she comments to Errera:

What is really necessary is—if you want to keep your integrity under these circumstances—then you can only do it only if you remember your old way of looking at such things and say: No matter what he does, if he killed ten million people, he is still a clown.

The essay collection, Thinking Without a Banister, includes essays that Arendt published between 1953 and 1975. And while some of these essays show her continuing to wrestle with the enormity of the “Nazi question,” the essays also highlight Arendt’s deep thinking about how the human animal operates within the political sphere. In one of the notable essays, “Culture and Politics,” Arendt contrasts the ancient Greeks and Romans in order to explore the questions of the relationship between art and the state. One of her premises is that art only becomes problematic when it comes out into the public. Art produced in the private sphere was not an issue for the Greeks in their politics, since the only mode of political interaction that they recognized was “the art of persuasion by talking to one another.”

In a fascinating discussion of the Greek method of politics, Arendt shows how violence, which theorists such as Max Weber saw as the basis for the state’s creation, was wholly “outside politics” for the Greeks. For those who’ve read of the horrific violence committed against other islands by the Greeks in The History of the Peloponnesian War, she addresses that also: because the war took place outside the Athenian polis, its military actions were beyond politics, thus allowing the military to commit atrocities.

Arendt also posits that the differences between politics and culture arise because our appreciation of culture is built
upon taste, and of making judgments about what we “like.” Politics is supposed to take place in a rational sphere, where decisions are based not on what one likes, but the facts. Therefore it’s not hard to see how, whenever people start making political decisions based on what they like rather than what they’ve thought, that politics is in trouble.

Hannah Arendt’s writings are being re-discovered by those who look at the current state of affairs in the United States, Western Europe, and the rest of the world and seek to understand the origins of totalitarianism. Arendt’s insistence that a leader does not need to be an evil genius to cause ordinary people to do bad things is an important thing to be cognizant of when considering the impact that Twitter clowns have upon ourselves as political actors.