Situating Arendt within the context of U.S. intellectual, political, and social history, King reveals how Arendt developed a fascination with the political thought of the Founding Fathers. King also re-creates her intellectual exchanges with American friends and colleagues, such as Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, and shows how her lively correspondence with sociologist David Riesman helped her understand modern American culture and society. In the last section of Arendt and America, King sets out the context in which the Eichmann controversy took place and follows the debate about “the banality of evil” that has continued ever since. As King shows, Arendt’s work, regardless of focus, was shaped by postwar American thought, culture, and politics, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.
For Arendt, the United States was much more than a refuge from Nazi Germany; it was a stimulus to rethink the political, ethical, and historical traditions of human culture. This authoritative combination of intellectual history and biography offers a unique approach for thinking about the influence of America on Arendt’s ideas and also the effect of her ideas on American thought.
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Guilt and Responsibility
Near the end of Dwight Macdonald's 1945 essay "The Responsibility of Peoples," he cites a passage from an essay titled "Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility," which had appeared in The Jewish Frontier earlier in 1945. It was by a largely unknown writer, Hannah Arendt. What linked the two essays, above all, was an attempt to work out the relationship of guilt and responsibility in light of the moral and political problem of obedience to authority. As an example of the kind of insight Macdonald brought to the discussion, he wrote later in his essay: "It is not the law-breaker we must fear today so much as he who obeys the laws." And the Arendt essay that Macdonald mentioned, along with another piece that same year, "Approaches to the 'German Problem,'" foreshadows what was to come in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).
At first glance, very few of her New York intellectual colleagues were less like her than Macdonald (1906–82). Born into a welloff Protestant family, Macdonald attended Yale and then became an active participant in the complex (and sometimes comical) ideological battles of the 1930s in New York. Never an academic (with the exception of visiting positions later in his life), he wrote literary and especially film criticism for Partisan Review and later Esquire, while also dominating the postwar mass culture debate among American intellectuals. After serving on the editorial board of Partisan Review from 1937 to 1943, he and his wife Nancy founded the journal Politics, which appeared monthly for several years but eventually ran out of gas in 1949. While Arendt's style reflected the high seriousness of the European intellectual, Macdonald's prose was marked by considerable wit, as well as clarity and lucidity. Like Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken, he combined a finely honed moral sense with a sense of humor and even humility. The last term hardly fits Arendt, but both she and Macdonald had an uncanny ability to identify the crucial moral and political issues of the time, while remaining fiercely independent.
Exploring the relationship between politics and ethics has been a strong tradition in American thought, with Henry David Thoreau standing as its founder. Another contributor to this tradition, Randolph Bourne, condemned John Dewey's instrumentalist philosophy for failing to explore the dubious morality of supporting the American participation in World War I as a way of creating a more progressive society. Then in light of the Moscow Trials of the 1930s and Soviet charges against Leon Trotsky, Marxism itself was attacked for justifying the use of any means necessary to achieve its revolutionary ends. The related matter of ethical relativism was also much debated, since the Marxian teaching was that all morality was class morality, that is, it was socially and historically shaped by class interests. Orthodox Marxists gave as well as they got in these debates of the 1930s, but they were hard put to match the debating skills of philosopher Sidney Hook, a disciple of Dewey, who led the attacks on Stalinist orthodoxy. On the eve of World War II, Reinhold Niebuhr urged Christians and other "children of light" to recognize the necessity of adopting violent means, that is, going to war, to defeat the "children of darkness." The American people, inclined to object to organized violence and suspicious of the war aims of imperialist powers, had to shed their pacifist inclinations in the international arena. Finally, the 1930s also saw the emergence of a new ethical conservatism that — in opposition to the alleged relativism of Deweyan pragmatism and the realism of Marxists and Niebuhrians — emphasized the need to ground morality in natural law or theological claims.
For his part, Macdonald maintained a resolute antiwar position throughout World War II. He had been influenced by Randolph Bourne's earlier attacks on Dewey, but also belonged to the Trotskyist faction that no longer considered the Soviet Union to be even a "degenerated workers state." Thus he largely escaped the war fervor and triumphalism that swept others away. In contrast, Arendt supported the war and even called for the organizing of a Jewish army to fight against the Nazis in Europe. But what they shared was a concern with the moral and political dilemmas faced by the average citizen or soldier in Germany — and in an interesting twist — in America and Britain. This focus was part of their concern with the question of whether a whole population could be considered guilty of war crimes, that is, what was the status of the concept of collective guilt, a controversial political issue in the United States near the end of the war?
It is difficult to pinpoint the intellectual sources of Arendt's mid-1940s exploration of political guilt and responsibility. Writing as she often did in response to specific events of high moral and political urgency, she rarely grounded her positions philosophically or contextualized them in an academic manner. Her two main terms of reference — "guilt" and "responsibility" — echoed the dichotomy Max Weber proposed between an "ethic of conscience" (Gesinnungsethik) and an "ethic of responsibility" (Verantwortungsethik) in his influential essay of 1919, "Politics as a Vocation" ("Politik als Beruf"). Ironically, Arendt had always resisted the attempts of her mentor, Karl Jaspers, to convince her of the superior quality of Weber's character, politics, and thought. Indeed, as Peter Baehr has noted, Arendt and Weber were at odds intellectually and politically, particularly on the issue of German nationalism. Still, the opposition between those leaders who acted on the promptings of conscience and those who took into account the implications and impact of their decisions bore a certain resemblance to Arendt's distinction between guilt and responsibility (and, later, "morality" and "politics").
Because she thought what had happened during the war was a culmination of a decisive break, or rupture, with the traditions of the West, Arendt also assumed that she had to learn to "think without bannisters" (Denken ohne Geländer) in the area of ethics, too. Closer to home, her thinking about ethical dilemmas was undoubtedly shaped by Jaspers's idea of a "boundary situation," those situations where "the chips are down," where it was a matter of life or death. Strikingly, Arendt never developed an ethics of the ordinary or the everyday. While the most important political and moral virtue for her seemed to be courage, she never developed a systematic virtue ethics either; nor was she a stickler for adherence to hard-and-fast rules of behavior. Those who adhered unbendingly to principles all too often swapped them for another set of quite different firm principles. The point was to maintain the flexibility to think in reference to the situation at hand. Clearly, as we will see with Adolf Eichmann, Arendt placed great stock in the capacity of moral agents to think themselves into the place of someone else and also to think what it is that we are doing when we act or fail to act. Thus, the title of one of her last great essays, "Thinking and Moral Considerations," showed the close link she posited between the capacity for thinking and making of moral judgments.
Overall, then, her essays of early 1945 make clear that she was working with an ethics of judgment rather than one of rule following. As Elisabeth Young-Bruehl once noted, for Arendt: "Moral judging, like aesthetic judging, is guided not by laws but by examples." It depended more on constructing stories than developing theories of moral choice. No wonder Arendt assigned novels rather than works of philosophy or ethics to her students when they explored "the political experience in the twentieth century," the title of a course she offered several times in the 1960s. Indeed "Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility" was built primarily on examples and incidents rather than systematically developed principles or rules. Finally, her emphasis on judgment meant that Arendt was less concerned with the intentions of moral and political actors than with the impact of their decisions. In this respect, there was a strongly consequentialist cast to her moral thought, despite her debts to Kant.
Thinking without Bannisters
Macdonald's long essay was not merely an American version of Arendt's wider-ranging one. For one thing, Macdonald was interested in "victims" and "bystanders," while Arendt spent most of her time in her mid-1940s essays (and later in Origins) on the "perpetrators," whether members of the Nazi elite, middle-level bureaucrats, or ordinary foot soldiers and camp personnel. Later, she thought the survivor testimony in the Eichmann case was largely irrelevant to the case against him. Finally, where early postwar accounts of the camps drew on what Allied soldiers and journalists had witnessed and heard about Belsen and perhaps Buchenwald, Macdonald quite presciently homed in on the importance of the extermination centers of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Maidenek farther east.
Both took Germany as their main target. But, more than Arendt, Macdonald drew brief comparisons between Germany and the Soviet Union and occasionally used the term "totalitarian" to link the two regimes as in "the totalitarian Stalin" and "the Nazis' fellow totalitarian regime in Russia." As a confirmed anti-Stalinist radical and a recovering Marxist, he was not at all shy about making such connections, though they later proved to be controversial with the intellectuals, academics, and polemicists who interested themselves in Cold War politics. Arendt's analysis in the two 1945 articles, along with others she wrote in the second half of the 1940s, focused almost exclusively on the German situation and the global implications of the Holocaust. Neither Arendt nor Macdonald wrote much, if anything, about the Nuremberg Trials, which began on November 20, 1945, and continued until October 1, 1946. Macdonald later commented sardonically about the Soviet invasion of Finland in light of the Nuremberg principles, while Arendt's neglect of the war crimes trials derived from her conviction that what had happened in the camps was particularly beyond anyone's capacity to punish or to forgive. Only late did she come to see that the trials had a vital role to play in coming to terms with the past.
Before turning directly to Arendt's "Organized Guilt" and Macdonald's "Responsibility of Peoples," a look at her Partisan Review essay of early 1945 "Approaches to the 'German Problem'" is in order. Combining broad historical reportage with sharp political analysis, it was the first of several Arendt essays in which she assumed the quasi-Tocquevillean role as bridge between America and Europe. In line with her opposition to the idea of collective guilt, she argued firmly against identifying "fascism with Germany's national character" and seeing Nazism as a direct product of the German, much less the Western, tradition. It was worse than that: Nazism represented the "breakdown of all German and European traditions," though she did grant that it may have been somewhat easier to "dream the stupid dream of producing the void" in Germany. Skillfully shifting from a philosophical to a historical generalization, she contended that "The Nothing ... could be defined in less mystical terms as the vacuum resulting from an almost simultaneous breakdown of Europe's social and political structures." She also described Nazism as a way of "lying the truth." That is, the morally nihilistic project of the Nazis represented a deeply twisted but accurate response to what had been, she thought, the spiritual sickness of contemporary Europe.
Arendt spent the second half of the essay exploring the prospects for a republican and federal Europe. Specifically, she thought it should involve "nationalizing German heavy industry" and coordinating production in the industrial heartland of western Germany, eastern France, and Belgium. Anything like the Morgenthau Plan to dismantle German's industrial capability, she thought, could lead to the extermination of millions of Germans. She also prophetically noted the "sinister" implications of the proposed "population transfers" in eastern and central Europe. Overall, she thought that a European reconstruction based on the Resistance experience was much more promising than the "restoration" of the politics of "collective security, spheres of interests and alliance." In fact only Charles De Gaulle was "sincere" about such a return to status quo ante on Europe's part and he was considered out of touch.
Arendt's "Organized Guilt" essay explored a series of issues having to do with: the difficulty in detecting the difference between Germans and Nazis; the Nazi attempt to establish the idea of shared collective German war guilt; the nature of Nazism beyond the clichés about thugs and perverts; and the fear of the racialization of international politics. Macdonald's "Responsibility of Peoples" was, as Stephen J. Whitfield once suggested, "a meditation on her argument" in "Organized Guilt," but with a much stronger American focus. As a piece of high-level journalism, the text of "Responsibility" was replete with examples from newspapers and magazines and punctuated by Macdonald's broader effort to conceptualize the horrors his research had confronted him with. But it is also important to note here that Arendt's "Organized Guilt" essay was by no means a heavily scholarly or theoretical piece. Rather, it took the form of a set of reflections on contemporary events, with evidence and examples drawn from the contemporary media rather than historical archives or philosophical treatises.
That said, three issues in particular were central to both thinkers: (1) the uniqueness and/or the (ir)rationality of the German system; (2) the complicity, guilt, and responsibility of the German people; and (3) the possible relevance of all this to America.
Uniqueness and Irrationality
Macdonald began by discussing the uniqueness of the Nazi camp system. In this, he clearly anticipated Arendt's later analysis (in Origins), which stressed the centrality of the camp system to totalitarian systems of rule. He also shared her belief in the special nature of the Nazi system and the mentality informing it. He mentions the "gratuitous" nature of Nazi cruelty, some of which arose from individual pathology. The important point, as he saw it, was that violence was systematic and an "end in itself" not a "by-product" of larger plans or projects such as industrial development or the exigencies of war. Cruelty was "in conformance with the avowed Nazi moral code" rather than carried out, for instance, by rogue elements among the SS. He also contrasted the German system with the Soviet Gulag. Despite the fact that, "in the last fifteen years, millions of peasants and political prisoners have been starved to death in State-created famines or worked to death of forced-labor projects," the goal of extermination, he observed, was never really considered in the Soviet Union, despite borderline cases such as the famine in Ukraine in the 1930s. Later, in Origins, Arendt also noted the absence of genocidal intent in the Soviet system and emphasized the way that the Gulag system did not rationally serve Soviet economic, military, and strategic purposes.
Macdonald also characterized the historical context as one in which "rationality and system [had] gone mad." Science and technology were in the service of "murder" worthy of "Genghis Khan." But, "once granted the ends, the means were rational enough — all too rational," the very kind of claim that Weber's idea of instrumental rationality was meant to fit. All this clearly anticipated Arendt's emphasis in Origins on administrative murder and the industrial nature of the extermination system. In general, then, both thinkers posited the overwhelming contemporary power of state and corporate institutions, within which individuals were forced to make moral and political choices. This led them both to doubt that any idea of collective guilt or responsibility made sense since, as Robert Westbrook has noted, Germans (and by extension anyone living in a totalitarian society) were severely constricted in their choice and action. It was for this reason, not because of their virtue or courage, that the Germans should not be saddled with the charge of being collectively "guilty."
In addition, Macdonald wrote that "the extermination of the Jews in Europe was not a means to any end one can accept as even plausibly rational." As he noted to a correspondent to Politics, one might validly call the enslavement of Jews and other minorities "rational," if the use of their labor contributed to the success of the regime. But even then, it did not mean that the camp labor system was more productive because it made use of slave labor. Rather, as Arendt emphasized later in Origins, the camp system furthered the "preservation of the regime's power" through the creation of permanent "fear" and "totalitarian domination." In fact, neither the extermination of the Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies nor the creation of what Arendt would later call "superfluous" human beings, enhanced German military and economic power. If anything, the reverse was the case.
Excerpted from "Arendt and America"
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Table of ContentsIntroduction: Hannah Arendt’s World
1 Guilt and Responsibility
2 The Origins of Totalitarianism in America
3 Rediscovering the World
4 Arendt, Tocqueville, and Cold War America
5 Arendt, Riesman, and America as Mass Society
6 Arendt and Postwar American Thought
7 Reflections/Refractions of Race, 1945–1955
8 Arendt, the Schools, and Civil Rights
9 The Eichmann Case
10 Against the Liberal Grain
11 The Revolutionary Traditions
12 The Crises of Arendt’s Republic
Conclusion—Once More: The Film, Eichmann, and Evil