Thinking about Hannah Arendt and Adolph Eichmann on Erev Rosh Hashanah

by Corey Robin on September 24, 2014

George Steiner writes somewhere that the deepest source of anti-Semitism may lie in three Jews: Moses, Jesus, and Marx. Three Jews who formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, an almost unforgiving and humanly unbearable ethics/politics, that the rest of the world, whatever their formal embrace of institutionalized Christianity or communism, has repeatedly bridled at and hated. And never forgiven the Jews for. Setting aside the bit of self-congratulation that lies at the heart of that formulation—ah, we Jews, we’re so ethical and righteous—I wonder if some part of what Steiner says may not lie at the heart of the rage and reaction that Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem has elicited over the years. I mean, regardless of what you think of Eichmann’s arguments, you have to admit: the book does get under people’s skin. And not just for a moment, but for more than a half-century now, with no signs of abating. And that may be, taking my cues from Steiner, that there is something unforgiving at the heart of that book. It is a relentless indictment—not just, pace what Arendt herself said later of the book, of one man, but of many men, and women—an indictment, despite Arendt’s best and professed intentions, in which ordinary readers (ordinary men) can’t help but see themselves. And an indictment in the name of (or at least implicitly and distantly in the name of) a difficult and demanding ethics and politics. An indictment that seems to stir the same kind of reaction to Arendt that historically was stirred up against the Jews. Oh, that Hannah Arendt: she sets herself apart; she thinks she’s smarter than the rest of us; she belongs to no one, not even the Jews. Only this time it’s not the reaction of just non-Jews to Jews, but also of Jews to a Jew. Shana Tova.



AcademicLurker 09.24.14 at 3:48 pm

One thing that strikes me about the criticisms of Eichman in Jerusalem is the way the critics invariable position themselves as bold iconoclasts daring to buck the conventional wisdom, when in fact criticisms of the book began even before it was published and have basically never let up.


Matt McKeon 09.24.14 at 3:50 pm

It’s been many, many years since I read “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” The two objectionable things that struck with me was (1) victim blaming/they marched unresisting to their deaths blah, blah (2) Eichmann as careerist in the genocide business, like an executive for General Motors, which misses the mark.

If I’m remembering this incorrectly, or misunderstanding Arendt, I am willing to be corrected on this.


Martin 09.24.14 at 4:04 pm

Great article.
Shana Tova.


Mojrim 09.24.14 at 5:53 pm

Thank you for introducing me to this. I have been an occasional observer of the human condition and the human desire for belonging at any price but unaware of Arendt’s work.


Oliver Rivers 09.24.14 at 6:52 pm

From memory, the Steiner observation is in Bluebeard’s Castle. He’s probably said it elsewhere too.


Kaveh 09.24.14 at 7:40 pm

The NYT article’s mention of picking on Arendt reminds me of when Allison Cutty, who has a slightly girlish voice, interviewed a certain historian for Chicago Public Radio, about his book arguing that Arendt’s characterization of Jews relied substantially on an antisemitic source. He explained his findings like they were a punchline, I think with even a hint of condescension. And then she asked why they were significant, and he (with a bit of indignation) repeated himself. So she rephrased the question: what does this change about how we see her work? He didn’t really have a response–like, we’re supposed to take the hint that this proves Arendt is BAD. And when she didn’t follow the cue, he just kind of got stuck & didn’t know what to do next.


Eric Titus 09.24.14 at 8:00 pm

I think Benhabib’s article waters down Eichmann in order to defend it. Eichmann in Jerusalem has a 2-part explanation for how Eichmann became Eichmann (it also discusses the trial itself and the collective memories of the Holocaust). The main argument is that he was morally “thoughtless,” relying instead on cliche and pop “isms” to find a place in the world. The second is that he was a bureaucrat who deferred moral responsibility for his actions to others. It’s this second piece that has come under critique with recent work on Eichmann’s steadfast anti-semitism.

Benhabib argues that the bureaucracy narrative is not critical to Arendt’s argument. And she might be right–Arendt can be grouped among those who criticized shallow popular culture and lack of deep moral thought as causes of Eichmann’s behavior. But the questions about organizational ethics and Eichmann’s role as a bureaucrat are in my opinion far more interesting. It’s arguably more important in contemporary society to think about how bureaucracies (states and companies) can have negative consequences despite being manned by “ordinary” individuals. And that perspective might not be applicable to the Holocaust if some of these other works are accurate.


godoggo 09.24.14 at 8:18 pm

I have noticed that ne0-Nazi types on the Internet are very fond of quoting or citing Arendt, not on Zionism, (at least that I recall), but on Jewish responsibility for historical anti-semitism.

Anyway, I don’t know who that certain historian was, but it sounds to me las though he just had a bit of trouble converting his book spontaneously into soundbites.

Anyways, here’s the first paragraph of the section on “Arendt’s sources” from something I just googled.

Arendt’s treatment of sources encapsulates the problematic aspects of the “Antisemitism”section that opens Origins of Totalitarianism. Steve Aschheim has aptly observed that Arendtemployed “a defiantly anti-apologetic form of Jewish history” in this text.Yet her theoreticalintentions often seem at odds with her evidentiary basis. A conspicuous failure of judgementregarding sources impairs her analysis; while her account has the great virtue of recognizing antisemitism as a historical phenomenon, arising out of specific social formations, not as anatural fact, the particular lineaments she traces frequently lead her investigation astray. Notleast among the reasons for these missteps is Arendt’s extended reliance on antisemitic sources.The problem is not that Arendt cites antisemitic material for her history of antisemitism; this isthe foundation of any historical account. But historians of antisemitism usually draw onantisemitic texts critically, as primary sources to illustrate what antisemites believed. Arendtcites antisemitic texts affirmatively, as secondary sources to support her interpretation of antisemitism. She endorses antisemitic analyses of Jewish history and adopts a number of their arguments as her own


Tired of Blogs 09.24.14 at 8:40 pm

I use Arendt in a human rights class, with appropriate caveats. I think the touchiest parts of the book are Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann as banal in a situation where people want a devil and her unsympathetic accusations of complicity toward Jewish leaders who were in an impossible situation.

Christopher Browning, who’s a very bright guy, was quoted recently in the NYT saying that Arendt “had the right type but the wrong guy. There were all sorts of people like Eichmann was pretending to be, which is why his strategy worked.” (Well, on Arendt, at least; Eichmann was hanged, after all.) This is certainly born out by work on the ordinary practitioners of the Holocaust, as in Browning or James Waller.

Deborah Lipstadt’s short book on the trial is informative about what Arendt missed about Eichmann himself (including his cross-examination!).


Mdc 09.24.14 at 9:33 pm

which is why his strategy worked.” (Well, on Arendt, at least; Eichmann was hanged, after all.)

How did it “work” on Arendt? I thought the whole point was that banality is no excuse. One of the most effective parts of the book, I think , is where she shows that Goebbels deployed the same anti-thought techniques. In any case, her view may be easier to understand for those who take original sin seriously. (Presumably most of her audience did not fit into that category .)


Anderson 09.24.14 at 9:37 pm

Eichmann’s ability to mouth and internalize the Nazi ideology vs. Jews is not any sort of disproof of what Arendt wrote. Anti-semitism is intellectual junk, and thus perfectly consistent with Arendt’s study of how Eichmann could profess it & brag about it while at the same time being an ambitious careerist.

“Victim-blaming” always struck me as an odd takeaway from Arendt’s book. She is scathing about the Jewish councils that cooperated with the process of selecting deportees to death camps, but she’s never been the only one on that – she was following Hilberg – and was she so very wrong?

Her book is still the best short read I know to recommend to people for how the Nazis went about their program of genocide.


Anderson 09.24.14 at 9:41 pm

“her unsympathetic accusations of complicity toward Jewish leaders who were in an impossible situation”

Refusing to collaborate is a difficult, even deadly, situation, but it is not an *impossible* situation, as Arendt specifically points out.


paraplanet 09.25.14 at 12:02 am

I read Eichmann in Jerusalem recently for the first time. I was struck by how very little of it is about the banality thesis. I think one could read the whole thing and miss that supposed message, which is more like an afterthought. The main things I got from the book were a great respect for Arendt’s objectivity and an impressive survey of the evidence (at that time) for the horrors of the Holocaust.


godoggo 09.25.14 at 12:15 am


While I’m awaiting the final judgment of the moderator… I don’t know who that historian was, but my guess is his main problem was quickly converting his book into sound-bites, and I’m also guessing he was not talking about Eichmann in Jerusalem but Origins of Totalitarianism, which I know has been criticized for taking anti-semitic sources at face value, and also interpreted as blaming Jews for antisemitism. Certainly a lot of antisemites interpret it that way.


floopmeister 09.25.14 at 12:25 am

Sounds like a pun I heard once (can’t remember from where):

“Christianity has been tried, and found…

…too difficult”


godoggo 09.25.14 at 12:29 am

Actually, just go ahead and leave my previous comment in moderation, Mr. Moderator Sir. I’ve decided I don’t especially like it anyway.


godoggo 09.25.14 at 12:29 am

Oops, too slow.


Glenn 09.25.14 at 1:55 am

I like the part of “Eichmann” (page 154 in my copy) where the Nazis thought they were culturally closer to the Scandinavian nations and annoyed that only the more “subhuman barbarian hordes” of Ukraine, among others, were really all on board with Nazi anti-Semitism.

The passing years haven’t changed that much among Obama’s new friends in Kiev.


James Q 09.25.14 at 5:05 am


Surely you’re thinking of G.K Chesterton:

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” (What’s Wrong with the World, Part 1, Section 5)


Alex 09.25.14 at 10:30 am

Christopher Browning, who’s a very bright guy, was quoted recently in the NYT saying that Arendt “had the right type but the wrong guy. There were all sorts of people like Eichmann was pretending to be”

That’s a really good point. As a student in Peter Longerich’s class I had to joint-review Goldhagen’s Willing Executioners and Browning’s Ordinary Men. The distinction was violently obvious; Browning is a genius.

Of course Lynndie England and the rest of the great folk from the 800th Military Police Brigade, US Army National Guard [tellingly, much the same kind of outfit as the 11th Reserve Police Battalion Browning studied], would give us all a live demonstration of Browning’s thesis about two years later.


ZM 09.25.14 at 1:31 pm

I have only read Eichman in Jerusalem all the way through once, as quite some time ago, I do not recall it getting under my skin like you mention. She does not seem to evoke this sort of controversy in Australia generally I would say – Raimond Gaita who is the other of our two most famous contemporary philosophers in Australia (the other of our two famous philosophers is Peter Singer – but people are more fond of Raimond Gaita I think because he writes more about his family and small towns and pets contextualised by philosophy – he had a popular movie made about his life growing up with his father Romulus near here and nowdays he is campaigning for a the railroad between this town and Maryborough to be restored and put back into use and against the development of an enormous chicken broiler farm in Mooloort nearby, but I digress ) and Robert Manne who is an important academic and writer here have both written of Hannah Arendt as an influence.

In Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception , Gaita writes about Socrates criticism of oratory and rhetoric for violating the I-Thou relationship through pandering and and the impersonal nature of oratory as a discursive form (in opposition to dialogue) ‘[Soctrates’ point is not merely that they must say what they mean and mean what they say….His lesson is that the ‘part’ of us which must be obedient to the ‘claim of Reason’ and which must ‘follow the argument wherever it goes’ must be the same part of us which can be a proper respondent to another’s call to seriousness.’

Gaita sees a ‘grotesque but instructive example’ of this falling into thrall with ‘winged words’ in Arendt’s account of the trial of Adolf Eichman – where Eichman is caught up in his cliched and contradictory oration in his final moments – so much caught up and elated he forgets the gravity of his own impending death. ‘Arendt spoke of his terrifying thoughtlessness – terrifying because it was, she believed, the same kind of thoughtlessness which explained his conscientious service to Hitler’s genocidal policies. One could also speak of how unconstrained his thought was by any discipline internal to it, or by reality.’ ‘But he did not really contradict himself. I do not say that because the words he spoke do not entail belief in an after-life, but rather because he meant nothing determinate by them. The words that came to him had little to do with his belief in their content.’

Gaita ties this back to Socrates again, and his statement ‘I think it better, my good friend, that my lyre should be discordant and out of tune and any chorus I might train, and that the majority of mankind should disagree with me, than that I, who am but one man, should be out of tune with and contradict myself.’ With the idea that Arendt shows Eichman as not being himself but playing a character and therefore not being genuinely in tune with himself or able to relate genuinely with others.

This idea of genuine engagement versus playing a character is quite interesting I think in relation to all the controversy over the professor Salaita’s tweets recently. Is there a standard that professors should play the character of a distanced professional at work – but are free outside of work? Or should the rigours of maintaining a distanced professional disposition be imposed outside of work also? But there seems to be an agreement that the professor should not be genuinely engaging with students in class like Socrates calls for (of course Socrates did end up having to drink Hemlock).


Ronan(rf) 09.25.14 at 2:27 pm

” Her book is still the best short read I know to recommend to people for how the Nazis went about their program of genocide. “

Is it still ? That’s not a rhetorical question, I’ve never read the book, but has ‘what we know’ changed so little over the past 4+ decades ? I was re-reading the relevant chapter in Mazower’s ‘Hitler’s Empire’ last night and wondering what books other people would recommend on ‘how the Nazis went about their program of genocide.’ ? (I hope that doesn’t read too flippant a question on my part)
Is ‘Bloodlands’ the best contemporary overview ? (Looking online there seems to be some relatively serious reservations from specialists, although some of that could be professional politics I dont know)


Anderson 09.25.14 at 4:07 pm

19: ” As a student in Peter Longerich’s class” … LUCKY!

21: “Is it still ? That’s not a rhetorical question” … wish I knew. Longerich’s “Holocaust” book is very good, but academic. Friedlander’s “Years of Extermination” is also very good (and incorporates a lot more of the sufferers’ perspectives), but long. I’m meaning not just broadly correct (because she drew upon Hilberg’s great work), but highly smart & readable, like the New Yorker articles it originally was.


Dylan 09.25.14 at 4:24 pm

Everyone is always dragging Arendt down and impugning her motives:


Anderson 09.25.14 at 4:44 pm

23: love it!


the other DSCH 09.26.14 at 1:56 am

I haven’t read Bloodlands, but Jacobin published a pretty heated polemic against it:


godoggo 09.26.14 at 2:25 am

Me neither (though I’ve been keeping my eye out for it on the shelves at the Sally; I’m sure a copy will turn up sooner or later), but that particular criticism surprised me a little, since I’ve seen the book (or at least the NY Review review) cited to argue that the death toll under Stalin has been exaggerated by those who want to equate communism and Nazism.

Anyways, here’s something from my bookmarks.


godoggo 09.26.14 at 2:29 am

Huh, never looked at Proyect’s own post, which that guest post links to…


Gordon Barnes 09.26.14 at 2:48 am

In her recent book, Hitler’s Philosophers (2013), Yvonne Sherratt documents the extent to which Arendt helped to cover up Martin Heidegger’s active service to the Nazi party. As most people know, Heidegger willingly fired his Jewish colleagues, including his own teacher, Edmund Husserl, and gave many speeches in support of the Nazis. When Walter Benjamin asked Heidegger how he could support someone like Hitler, Heidegger replied “You should see his hands. Have you seen his hands?” (?!?) What I did not know, until I read Sherratt’s book, is that Arendt was romantically involved with Heidegger, and even after the war, and with full knowledge of Heidegger’s Nazi activities, Arendt again became involved with Heidegger, and then proceeded to help whitewash his Nazi past, in order to help him promote his career. So when Arendt harshly criticizes Jews who did not resist the Nazis, isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black, and then some? Or have I been misinformed by Sherratt? Is Sherratt mistaken about this?


john c. halasz 09.26.14 at 4:19 am


That is an incredibly stupid and factually error-ridden account of the matter, in these endless go-arounds. The “hands” comment comes from Karl Jaspers, not from W. Benjamin, who likely never had any personal contact with H. Nor did he ban Husserl, who was already retired and who’s privileges weren’t revoked. (The philosophical split between the two had already long occurred with the publication of SZ). Further 2/3 of the German Philosophical Association, i.e. the professional organization for philosophy professors, joined the Nazi Party at the same time that H. did. The only difference is that most of the others are no longer remembered as of any philosophical significance. And Arendt herself was well aware of the “problem” and remarked quite acerbically about it in her correspondance, specifically with her other mentor, Jaspers.


Meredith 09.26.14 at 5:37 am

As someone, a Christian, awaiting both Jewish (observant) and Muslim (secular) grandchildren, I would observe: reading Eichmann in Jerusalem in college, I took away: each of us is responsible for not only our own actions but our role in others’ actions. No excuses. Live with that responsibility gladly, humbly, lovingly. We have all and each been given a great gift, the gift of life. Which is a gift we give on.


godoggo 09.26.14 at 10:16 am

I didn’t know there was such a thing as a secular Muslim.


J Thomas 09.26.14 at 11:10 am

I didn’t know there was such a thing as a secular Muslim.

You learn something every day.


Ronan(rf) 09.26.14 at 11:37 am

Secular Muslim obviously makes sense, as a shortcut to describe someone who grew up in a specific religious context though no longer believes/practices. I’d label myself secular Catholic, as a simplification.

anderson – thanks for the recomendations.


Anderson 09.26.14 at 11:41 am

26: Bloodlands is a good, depressing book. I’m afraid it’s getting where Jacobin’s disapproval is a mark of quality. They should stick to mocking women threatened online.


godoggo 09.26.14 at 1:49 pm

Well I found a tripod site that says it means believing but not practicing.


godoggo 09.26.14 at 1:53 pm

What really confused me was when I heard about secular priests for the first time.


Ronan(rf) 09.26.14 at 2:18 pm

I don’t know who the secular priests think they’re fooling.


zbs 09.26.14 at 2:48 pm

The movie was not terrible.


Merian 09.26.14 at 3:08 pm

I believe I read Arendt’s book in 1998, when I lived in France during Maurice Papon’s trial. Another one to think about under the banality of evil angle.

The need to turn disagreement into vilification confuses me. I’m observing these historical arguments somewhat from the sidelines and don’t have to drop any of the respect I have for Arendt and her work should it turn out that not all of her assessment of Eichmann-the-person will stand.

From the NYT review, the bit about conscience and the morality of the Vaterland as well as the twisted bit of Kant reminds me of the book that I happened to recommend for people who want to know what Nazism looked like for average Germans: Ödön von Horváth’s 1938 novel Jugend ohne Gott (“Youth without God”, available in a current English translation).


Harold 09.26.14 at 3:14 pm

Although I am usually not very enthusiastic about Jacobin, Daniel Lazare’s critique of Timothy Snyder in that periodical makes some good points, IMO. Thanks to The Other DSCH for the heads up.


Gordon Barnes 09.26.14 at 4:22 pm

To John Halasz,

I stand corrected on the hands quote, and if Jaspers could not have heard it, then I stand corrected on that too. Now, as I understand it, Arendt herself at one point was disturbed by the fact that Heidegger had signed a paper that, as Arendt put it, could have gotten Husserl killed. Is that correct or incorrect? More to the point, do you deny that Heidegger gave speeches in support of the Nazis? Do you deny that he played a role in the firing of Jewish academics from the universities? And do you deny that Hannah Arendt continued to support Heidegger and ignore his Nazi record after the war? If you don’t deny any of those things, then I don’t think that the specifics matter so much. I’m very puzzled by this statement of yours:

“2/3 of the German Philosophical Association, i.e. the professional organization for philosophy professors, joined the Nazi Party at the same time that H. did. The only difference is that most of the others are no longer remembered as of any philosophical significance.”

Is this “Everybody was doing it.” defense really supposed to justify Heidegger? You can’t really think that.

Finally, here is why I think that this is relevant. One of Arendt’s claims seems to be that a lack of critical thinking or thoughtfulness was one of the main causes of Nazi behavior. But Arendt’s own behavior suggests that critical thinking or thoughtfulness is easily overcome by other psychological forces. Arendt’s view sounds like an inheritance of the Enlightenment — if only we would use Reason, we would do better. But her own behavior suggests that Reason is too frail, and too easily undermined by other psychological forces to do the work that the Enlightenment, and Arendt wanted it to do.


jonnybutter 09.26.14 at 4:43 pm

Arendt’s own behavior suggests that critical thinking or thoughtfulness is easily overcome by other psychological forces.

Ah, ‘suggests’! This is a kind of sotto voce circular argument. It assumes your point of view about Arendt’s behavior to…bolster your point of view about Arendt’s argument.


Donald Johnson 09.26.14 at 5:03 pm

I thought the Jacobin review of Snyder was a hatchet job- he seems to be saying that Snyder is a Nazi apologist. To quote Merian (speaking about Arendt a few comments up from this one) “The need to turn disagreement into vilification confuses me.”

Snyder specifically said that Hitler killed more than Stalin, but that doesn’t fit Lazare’s polemical needs, so he doesn’t mention that unless I missed it somewhere. He seems to be one of those intellectuals who gets all worked up over exactly why one must condemn this particular mass murderer much more harshly than this other one over there. Simple-minded folk like myself see that Hitler probably killed more civilians than Stalin (according to Snyder’s own writings) and planned to kill many many more if he’d won, so that’s good enough for me. But really, outside the context of WWII where one had to side with one or the other, why should anyone care whether one was the “moral equivalent” of the other? Are Hitler and Stalin running for President in 2016?


Plume 09.26.14 at 5:10 pm

The comment about the hands likely comes from Toynbee, not Jaspers. Though when Hitler is involved, the apocryphal is often not far behind. He’s like Jefferson in that way. They both draw misquotes and apocryphal stories, especially on the Internet, like proverbial moths to flame.


godoggo 09.26.14 at 5:26 pm

I do think that proyect link (on Bloodlands) was quite a bit more thoughtful.


godoggo 09.26.14 at 5:37 pm

Also, you know, if you spend too much time on the internet, you’ll eventually come across the Communism is Jewish, Communism is worse than Nazism, therefore Jews are worse than Nazis argument, which the Jacobin article touches on, even if it’s not fair to attribute it specifically to Snyder.


Jim Harrison 09.26.14 at 5:47 pm

The significant issue with Heidegger’s Nazism is not biographical or historical; it’s philosophical. Do his philosophical ideas justify and promote authoritarian, irrationalist politics? The guy is dead, after all, but his philosophy is not.

When I first encountered Heidegger’s writings back in the 60s, his relationship with Hitler and company was explained away by a story about an ivory-tower intellectual who didn’t understand the reality of what he was supporting. That struck me as a dodge at the time because I dimly recognized the political implications of what I was pondering in Being and Time. Fifty years later, the naive prof story has been largely replaced by the Evil Heidegger narrative. I’m not sure that’s an improvement—Heidegger really was a deplorable man in many respects—but even accurate biography is just gossip, a way of avoiding the scary prospect of engaging with ideas of proven virulence and seductiveness.


Gordon Barnes 09.26.14 at 6:04 pm

I’m not attacking Heidegger’s ideas. Apparently Frege was deeply anti-semitic, but I agree that this does nothing to undermine his ideas. What interests me is this. Hannah Arendt paints a picture of Nazis and their supporters as people who didn’t think enough. They did not reason enough. They were thoughtless. But if that was the source of the problem, then one wouldn’t expect 2/3 of the philosophers in Germany to sign up for the Nazi party, would you? So this phenomenon — the large number of academics, and especially philosophers, who signed on with the Nazis, seems to call Arendt’s explanation into question, doesn’t it? One suspects that even if Eichmann had gotten a PhD in philosophy, he just would have used his new abilities to rationalize his actions more effectively.


Harold 09.26.14 at 6:12 pm

I did read Arendt, but so long ago it hardly counts. Timothy Snyder is a serious historian. One doesn’t have to agree with a historian to be greatly put off by their point of view / method/ axe to grind. I prefer Jan Gross and Omer Bartov.

Some years ago I read Michael R. Marrus, The Holocaust in History, 1987, which I thought was really excellent, though I now see he accepts the view attributed to Arendt, perhaps erroneously, that the Jews went too willingly to their deaths. At any rate, he argues against such a thesis, whoever actually held it. The fact is that virtually no one acted well during those times. Some groups of people still seem awfully reluctant to accept this.


roger gathman 09.26.14 at 6:19 pm

Lazare’s critique of Snyder echoes with a whole lotta critiques of Snyder for the same thing. Here’s a link to a site with a list of links.

Snyder’s reportage on Ukraine makes me suspect that Lazare is on to something: Snyder employs the cover up technique to hide the far right’s participation in Maidan and certainly in the events that have happened in that country, and he does this repeatedly and consciously.
The arguments about Eichmann are important because the states of Eastern Europe still seethe with anti-semitism, usually under the guise of being “anti-Russian”. A sad state of affairs.


john c. halasz 09.26.14 at 6:31 pm


The work you cite is, judging from reviews a hackish gossipy account without intellectual merit or substance. If you want a carefully balanced account of Heidegger’s Nazi involvement, you might consult Szafranski’s journalistic biography of him. (That author studied philosophy for his university degree, even studying for some time with Adorno at the end of his life, so he can be accounted well informed and not unduly sympathetic). A lot of the overblown and even slanderous accusations from the interminable controversy over H.’s Nazi involvement are corrected there. It was a 1 year rectorship, which he resigned in failure and about a 2 year active involvement, followed by gradual disillusionment. And it’s not a matter of “justifying” heidegger’s Nazism,- (why would anyone want to do that?),- but simply of setting it accurately in context.

Arendt, needless to say, had nothing to do with anti-semitism, and her student affair with H. long preceded the Nazis rise to power. She generally seems to have regarded H.’s Nazi involvement as dreadful stupidity on his part. (In private, that was H.s own excuse to his friends, just like Zara Leander’s, that he was a “political idiot”). YMMV but it might be unfortunate that one of the most seminal Philosopher’s of the mid-20th century and the founding figure of existential phenomenology and hermeneutics was self-seduced into supporting the Nazis rise to power, but there you have it.

What Arendt meant by “thinking” isn’t simply upholding Kantian Enlightment or traditional rationalism and humanism. In later work, she would cite Platonic dialogues, which go round and round and never seem to arrive at at any firm conclusion, (because philosophical thinking is at bottom aporetic). But such thinking seemed to her to be crucial preparation for forming judgments, (as opposed to producing or certifying knowledge), rather than blindly adapting to the given world.

Getting back to the OP, I think it’s fair to say that Arendt constructed the Eichmann she wanted, rather than portraying the actual man in fully empirical terms, though it was based on observation of the actual trial. But her construction did capture an considerable aspect of the man. After all what distinguishes the “Final Solution” from other such events was the efficiency and precision of the operation, a kind of “rationality”. (Solzhenitsyn similarly remarked on the “rational” procedures of the Nazis, in contrast to the sheer adventitiousness of the Soviets). But what I’ve never understood is the claim made by her denouncers that the infamous observation on “the banality of evil” contradicted her earlier discussion of “radical evil”. Her definition of “radical evil” was that it was rooted in the “ability” to regard all of human life, including one’s own, as sheerly superfluous. I fail to see any contradiction between the two.


Plume 09.26.14 at 6:33 pm

Jim Harrison @48,

I never read Heidegger’s Being in Time, but I did read some of his shorter works, like Poetry, Language, Thought, and a lot about him. From William Barrett’s Irrational Man (arguably the finest intro to Existentialism yet penned) to several essays by Rorty and others. My exposure is limited, but I never got the connection between his philosophical works and his embrace of Nazism. It didn’t fit for me. At all.

It’s been several years since I read him, or about him, but I do remember his work spurring a lot of searching for me. His work on Holderlin and Rilke, for instance, and many of the poetical concepts such as truth/Aletheia as unhiddenness. That humans are set up biologically to look forward, and going forward, if light is cast into the darkness ahead, reveals. Truth. But as we move forward, darkness then covers our past and our periphery. He was also a rebel against the mind/body split, the subject/object split . . . . and, indirectly, a rebel against the Western Tradition from Descartes on. That seems likely to counter an ultra-nationalistic, backward looking, reactionary ideology — which is Nazism in a nutshell.

And his discussion of Death, Anxiety, our being thrown into the world . . . . I can’t find a desire to rule over others, much less the world in that.

Knowing he was truly a part of the Nazi regime, which is indefensible, it was pretty clear that I was missing some key clue in his philosophy.

Chapter and verse for those clues would be appreciated.


Plume 09.26.14 at 6:40 pm

One possible, indirect commonality. Though it strikes me as a long shot:

Heidegger saw himself as continuing the work of the Greeks in a way. Going back to them. His use of Aletheia being a prime example. And the Nazis sometimes saw themselves as heir to the Greeks. Which was strange. The original Aryans were more likely from parts of present day India and Persia, not Greece.


Mdc 09.26.14 at 6:52 pm

Others would know more than I, but check out Intro to Metaphysics for some connections between the question of being and German nationalism. Also, Fried’s ‘Heidegger’s Polemos’ is pretty good.


Merian 09.26.14 at 6:56 pm

Gordon Barnes @49: “What interests me is this. Hannah Arendt paints a picture of Nazis and their supporters as people who didn’t think enough. They did not reason enough. They were thoughtless.”

I don’t have Arendt’s text in front of me, so I’m loath to affirm that this is not the argument she makes, but from my memory and just from pointing to the Gedankenlosigkeit (glossed as thoughtlessness) as a characteristic trait of the bureaucratic Nazi killer it doesn’t follow that if people just thought more it would have prevented Nazism. I also very much doubt that this trait or quality is incompatible with being an academic, or even an academic philosopher.


LFC 09.26.14 at 7:03 pm

I don’t know exactly what Arendt meant by ‘thoughtlessness,’ but Nazi beliefs about the Jews were obviously irrational. R.J. Evans, in The Third Reich at War, p.281, says that the Nazis believed the Jews, “wherever and whoever they might be, threatened to undermine the German war effort, by engaging in subversion, partisan activities, Communist resistance movements and much else besides” (emphasis added). Even on its own (warped) terms, this makes no sense. Were Polish Jews scraping a living as shopkeepers or whatever (cf. Evans, p.49) really likely to engage in partisan activities, etc., and threaten the German war effort? No; rather, the Jews, “wherever and whoever they might be,” stood for those who had supposedly stabbed Germany in the back in 1918, as Evans suggests in that same passage. I would think the history of antisemitism must be v. relevant here, even if one rejects Goldhagen’s particular argument.


Plume 09.26.14 at 7:10 pm


Thanks. Will do.

On the questions of German Nationalism. Nietzsche was thought by some to have set the ground for Nazism with his thought — fooled as they were by his sister’s later manipulations and her very real fascistic connections. But there are far too many instances in his writings just skewering the idea of that nationalism. At times it seemed, in fact, that he detested the Germanic. As mentioned, I didn’t bump into Heidegger on that subject at all, so must have missed all the clues, etc. etc. His philosophical work usually struck me as above political and ideological storms.

Knut Hamsun is another curious case for me. When I read his four great novels, Hunger, Pan, Mysteries and Victoria, I was at a loss for connections to the Nazis.

Strange bedfellows, etc.


bianca steele 09.26.14 at 7:30 pm


You should read Benhabib’s op-ed. She makes it very clear. Eichmann, apparently, believed that Kantian principles taught that he should obey the Fuhrer. For Arendt, this would have been absurd (Reason could not lead to such principles), and she must have believed Heidegger’s understanding was the same. What I’ve read about Heidegger, though, makes me wonder how she could have thought so.


Plume 09.26.14 at 7:43 pm


Can’t remember where I read it first, or who said it. But, a rough paraphrase:

The Kantian prohibition against lying (a perfect duty) would yield this:

You’re hiding Jews, keeping them safe from the Nazis. The Gestapo knocks on your door and asks if you are hiding Jews. You tell them you are. They push you aside and ask you if you’re hiding them in the basement. Again, you tell them yes. The Gestapo agents capture them and send them to their deaths.

I think most people would lie in that case, Kant be damned, etc. They would choose his imperfect duty for that instead.


Jim Harrison 09.26.14 at 8:21 pm

For Plume.

For Heidegger, heir to a tradition of radical historicism, everything was up in the air, not merely what was right or wrong or true or false, but what rightness and truth could mean as the old dispensation lost its force. In the sciences and mathematics, he understood this situation as a crisis of the foundations. For ethics and politics, it was a question of the
set towards the future that made sense of the world and action in it or, to be more accurate, the set towards the future that made the things and people around us into a world. Heidegger wrote a lot about what he called Nietzsche’s word: “the wasteland grows.” His real fear was the entropic triumph of a humanity that didn’t need a purpose any longer, what Nietzsche called “the last man,” the guy who only stays awake all day so he can fall asleep at night.—the last man reappears in Being and Time’s phenomenology of human existence as das man, the subject or non subject of our ordinary, half conscious life. Das man is like the one in “one doesn’t do that” or the they in “that’s what they say.” In the usual reading of Being and Time, the authentic alternative to living like that is a resolute being-towards-death, an ethical stance to which we are called by conscience; but even in Being and Time there is a political dimension because we are intrinsically social beings—Dasein is always mitsein, if you want the Heideggerian jargon for it. In order to transcend the nihilism of modern times, an authentic politics would have to go beyond the bargaining and compromising that characterize civil society and obsesses both bourgeois and socialist parties. It would call on the individual to face death for something that went beyond shorter hours and better pay or the maintenance of a profitable monopoly, for that matter. (How this relates to antisemitism is left as an exercise to the reader.)

Heidegger never wrote the promised second volume of Being and Time. I’ve thought for a long time that one of the things that was missing from the first volume was an explicit political philosophy. The possibility of no more possibilities conceived of as the death of the individual cannot be the ultimate horizon of being if Dasein really is always mitsein. What’s missing from Heidegger’s description of the fundamental structures of authentic existence is apocalypse, the true possibility of no more possibilities. At least if you read it as I do or did—I haven’t reread in years—Heidegger’s pre-World War II philosophy seems very appropriate to Hitler’s essentially aesthetic politics right down to its Wagnerian conclusion in the bunker.


Plume 09.26.14 at 8:47 pm

Jim Harrison @61,

Are you saying that Heidegger acknowledges the essential “being with” nature of Dasein? Or that he was opposed to the idea and chose the solitary instead?

I’m still not following you as to why Heidegger’s philosophical work would somehow lead to his embrace of Nazism. Though the unsaid is kinda horrific. The part about the (Wagnerian) apocalypse. His authentic confrontation with death and the anxiety of that confrontation being a sort of call for bringing it on? That would give a completely different reading for his wanting to prepare a place for the holy, for a new god, a la Holderlin . . . .as well.



Jim Harrison 09.26.14 at 9:08 pm


Heidegger is perfectly clear about “being with” as a fundamental characteristic of Dasein (human existence, roughly). That much is uncontroversial. Incidentally, I think it’s also true. In fact, I think that much of the description of human existence in Being and Time is extraordinarily illuminating. Which is why the political angle is so problematic for me. I don’t like Heidegger, but I owe him.

You certainly don’t have to become a Nazi because you value some parts of Heidegger’s philosophy. For that matter, Heidegger didn’t have to become a Nazi, though embracing Nazism was a natural way for his thinking to evolve. What is more relevant, perhaps, is that some of the same passages of thought that led Heidegger down the road seem to be in operation in other protests against the modern condition. There’s a lot o’ existentialism in Qutb and other theoreticians of fundamentalist Islam, and the ideology of the Red Brigades was more a left-wing Nietzscheanism than anything obviously Marxist.


bianca steele 09.26.14 at 9:34 pm

The problem with seeing Heidegger in Kantian terms–I honestly don’t know how this was supposed to be done, and my understanding is that Heidegger was radically new, comes out of historicism, and so on–is that he’s also reacting against deracinated reason, which sounds a lot like Kant, but which was associated with Jewishness. The Frankfurt School, and William Barrett, get around this, I think–it’s not ahistorical reason we oppose, but instrumental or mechanistic versions of reason (Barrett seems kind of weird in associating this with Wittgenstein)–though I’m no expert on this. It seems to me Arendt assumes the reaction against ahistorical reason and doesn’t reject the association of it with Jewishness, which is part of the squeamishness with what she wrote.

Plume–on Aryan Greeks–I believe the idea is that the Attic Greeks, and those in Homer, were supposed to be Aryan conquerors from the north.


Plume 09.26.14 at 9:50 pm


But Existentialism was also key for Camus and Sartre, both anti-Fascists, with Camus fighting the Nazis directly. When a philosophy has followers all across the political spectrum, I think it’s problematic, at the very least, to blame the philosophy or to conclude there is some inevitable progression from there. If that were the case, the end points wouldn’t be in conflict. You’d mostly get people who followed X philosophy to X part of the spectrum . . . . not pro and contra and everything in between.

In some ways, Heidegger was a Luddite, and one could say that anti-modernist views are often linked with Fascism and Ultra-conservative religious movements. But you also find the Luddite view with the Amish, certain Quaker groups, leftist, peace-lovin’ organic farmers/communalists, etc. etc. Basically, “it takes all kinds” applies.

In short, I’m not convinced (yet) that it’s in his philosophical writings. It seems more likely that people are reading his Nazism back into that, rather than accurately deriving his Nazism from his philosophical works. Almost as if the assumption is that it must be in there. “How could we miss it?” etc. etc.

Asking for actual quotes in context might be too much for a comments section of a blog, but it would be appreciated.


Plume 09.26.14 at 9:55 pm

Thanks, Bianca,

I had forgotten about the theory of the various waves entering Greece from the north. Some mythographers (like Robert Graves) have attributed the supplanting of the (indigenous) Mother Goddess cults by father gods, such as Zeus, as an allegory for those different invasions. Marriages between gods and goddesses (Hieros Gamos) are like a rapprochement between the old and new ways, the indigenous peoples and the Aryan invaders from the north. He (and others like him) may go to that well too often, but it is at least grist for poetic mills.


Anderson 09.26.14 at 11:14 pm

48: well said. Seems to me that if a philosopher’s life can really be divorced from his philosophy, then what use is the philosophy?

I finally got around to reading B&T last year, and my reaction was probably typical: the first half was fascinating, & the second half went off on a rather forced tangent, & by the time “history” walked on stage, I was thinking, oops, here we go.

… Re: the comments on Snyder & the fascist elements in the Maidan movement: the Snyder stuff I read at NYRB acknowledged there were such elements, but one should be very, very careful of buying into Putin’s line that the Ukrainian nationalists in general are fascist or reliant on fascists. That is, unless one wishes to drink the Kool-Aid that Stephen Cohen’s been drinking over at The Nation. Which it seemed to me that the Jacobin writer had been sipping upon.


Anderson 09.26.14 at 11:17 pm

“But Existentialism was also key for Camus and Sartre, both anti-Fascists, with Camus fighting the Nazis directly …”

Existentialism, in my limited understanding, shares a problem with atheism: it tells you much, much more about what not to believe in than to offer much positive advice. I see no reason offhand why a Nazi, a Communist, and a liberal can’t walk into a bar oops, meant to say, “be existentialists.”


John Quiggin 09.26.14 at 11:54 pm

@67 “Seems to me that if a philosopher’s life can really be divorced from his philosophy, then what use is the philosophy?”

It depends pretty critically on what you mean by “philosophy”. Frege, invoked above as an example of separation between ideas and those who put them forward, was a logician and, in formal logic, ad hominem argument is a fallacy. A syllogism, like a mathematical theorem is valid, or it isn’t, regardless of who puts it forward. But, as DD pointed out ages ago, the exclusion of ad hominem arguments in ordinary informal reasoning amounts to giving known liars the benefit of the doubt.

You can’t make the “ideas and life are separate” excuse for people like Heidegger and Sartre (or Camus if you think his politics need excusing). They regarded their philosophy as the basis for their political commitments. If you reject the commitments, and want to salvage something from their philosophical arguments, you need to work out where they went wrong.


J Thomas 09.27.14 at 12:37 am

… in formal logic, ad hominem argument is a fallacy. A syllogism, like a mathematical theorem is valid, or it isn’t, regardless of who puts it forward. But, as DD pointed out ages ago, the exclusion of ad hominem arguments in ordinary informal reasoning amounts to giving known liars the benefit of the doubt.

In formal logic, it doesn’t matte whether somebody is a known liar. Their argument is valid, or it is not valid. This is not something people can lie about and still be upright formal logicians.

People can lie about things like “I saw it with my own eyes”. They can lie about their experience. But if they lie to you about logic and you believe them, it’s “fool me once, shame on me”.


Anderson 09.27.14 at 12:45 am

If Frege’s mastery of logic was consistent with his holding deeply irrational beliefs, then at the very least, that suggests something about the limits of logic. No?

(Bear in mind, my main philosophy prof in undergrad made fun of me, because I was “actually looking for answers.” Even worse , I ended up in law school. Ad hominem might be valid re my statements.)


J Thomas 09.27.14 at 1:07 am

If Frege’s mastery of logic was consistent with his holding deeply irrational beliefs, then at the very least, that suggests something about the limits of logic. No?

Yes, certainly. Logic only considers how well you draw conclusions from your initial assumptions. It can’t do anything about the initial assumptions themselves, except that if you have some that are inconsistent among themselves it can point that out.


john c. halasz 09.27.14 at 1:18 am

JQ @ 69:

Philosophy, classically conceived as metaphysics, is about limning the “necessary” order of the world, by means of some sort of logic, (classically rooted in the notion of substance/ousia), with indirect implication for the ethical conduct of life. Heidegger himself was highly ambivalent about “metaphysics”, at once holding fast to its concerns and pursuing a project of its critical liquidation. But when dealing with existential philosophy/existentialism, and its motif of personal commitment, it’s important to grasp both the personal and the impersonal dimension, with the clash between the “subjective” and the “objective” commitments, which get “cashed out” as contingency and “absurdity”. Otherwise you’re just missing the whole point, with respect to modernity, and just reading the whole mess in terms of political labels.


J Thomas 09.27.14 at 2:37 am


“But, as DD pointed out ages ago, the exclusion of ad hominem arguments in ordinary informal reasoning amounts to giving known liars the benefit of the doubt.”

DD is pigshit.

Imagine how impoverished our discussions would be if we could not use ad hominem….


Ze Kraggash 09.27.14 at 9:02 am

“DD is pigshit.”

I tend to agree, in this case. Why shouldn’t a known liar have the benefit of the doubt? Sounds like a very bad rule, and, IMO, leading to other fallacies, like in 67: “one should be very, very careful of buying into Putin’s line”. And, of course, the infamous “objectively pro-Saddam”.


Donald Johnson 09.27.14 at 8:24 pm

“Lazare’s critique of Snyder echoes with a whole lotta critiques of Snyder for the same thing. Here’s a link to a site with a list of links.

That part didn’t impress me–any person’s writings can be used or misused by racists. Snyder might be wrong in thinking that Stalin’s crimes were somehow linked to those of the Nazis–it doesn’t mean he’s guilty if anti-semites latch onto his work.

“Snyder’s reportage on Ukraine makes me suspect that Lazare is on to something: Snyder employs the cover up technique to hide the far right’s participation in Maidan and certainly in the events that have happened in that country, and he does this repeatedly and consciously.”

Now that accusation might be accurate, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to judge it. But the fact (if it is a fact) that Snyder might be misrepresenting current events doesn’t make him guilty of doing the same thing in his writings on the 30’s and 40’s. At best it might make it more likely, but the fact is that Snyder has not concealed the fact that (in his accounting) Hitler killed more civilians and if he’d won, would have killed tens of millions more. Which is a funny thing to do if he’s a closet rightwing apologist.


geo 09.28.14 at 12:00 am

Jim Harrison @61: Thanks for that precis of Heidegger, which, as an illiterate in Continental philosophy, I found very helpful. But when you say that an “authentic politics,” for Heidegger, would “call on the individual to face death [why not simply ‘”to live”?] for something that went beyond shorter hours and better pay,” I can’t help feeling that it’s a bit banal. Who says, or ever has said, that the only things worth living for are more calories and more leisure? Everyone who advocates shorter hours and better pay, including the bourgeois and socialist parties everyone mocks, does so on the (pretty much universal) understanding that shorter hours and better pay are necessary in order that those who work long hours for low pay should be able — or at least that their children should be able, even if they themselves are already irretrievably stultified — to pursue “something beyond” sleeping and eating.

Once we’ve vanquished unnecessary suffering and put everyone in a position to live for something “higher” — ie, once we’ve won the class war — the money question is “What should we live for?” Mill, Marx, Ruskin, Morris, Wilde, Russell, D.H. Lawrence, and many others in the supposedly benighted liberal and socialist traditions have good answers. What does Heidegger say?


Jim Harrison 09.28.14 at 12:39 am


To be clear, what I wrote wasn’t a précis of Heidegger, just a comment on one angle or two. For example from what I wrote you’d never guess that the description of human existence in Being and Time has been very influential among theorists of artificial intelligence. That, as they say, is another story.

Heidegger hardly owns the patent on the idea that something is missing from civil society and its values, in fact that way of I put the issue could almost be a translation of Hegel on the topic. Hegel famously argued that participation in the life of the state represented a higher expression of human nature than ordinary civilian life. If polities are no more than arrangements to further material prosperity, if the state or nation doesn’t represent something higher, it really is hard to see how I can be reasonably called upon to sacrifice my life for my country since the material advantages my country might promise me aren’t as valuable to me as my life. On this accounting, the Congressional Medal of Honor would more properly be called the Stupidity Ribbon. (N.B. I’m not endorsing this line of thought, just reporting it. I don’t think it’s that easy to dismiss, however, and note that the issue of what really matters in the wake of the Death of God and the emergence of the democratic welfare state surfaces in many places. You can’t just blame it on Heidegger. Francis Fukuyama addressed the topic in his End of History, for example. )


geo 09.28.14 at 2:42 am

Sorry, Jim, but I do think that line of thought is easy to dismiss. States and polities are just shorthand names for complicated arrangements; they don’t have an independent existence or an inner life or “represent” anything. They don’t have lives or purposes; only their members do. Those members associate, under conditions and for purposes more or (usually) less of their own choosing, continually renegotiable (in a democracy) in the form of constitutional debate and revision. Nearly always, one of these purposes includes collective self-defense, which is the usual (and only legitimate) reason for members to be called on to sacrifice their lives. Other possible purposes, which may be but need not be pursued through the polity, include succoring the needy, advancing knowledge, and beautifying the world. The latter purposes are just as “material” as everything else that exists outside the minds of metaphysicians, and they may well call forth, even (if agreed on politically) compel, sacrifices, though usually short of life.

The question of what purposes we should pursue, individually and in common, once we’ve achieved genuine democracy, which presupposes a reasonable degree of economic and civic equality, is a worthy one. I’d still like to know whether Heidegger had any to suggest beyond those I’ve mentioned.


john c. halasz 09.28.14 at 2:45 am

geo @ 78:

I suppose that Heidegger could respond that your question is merely “ontic”, not “ontological”, (which is his version of the empirical/transcendental split). But, by the same token, Heidegger’s own Nazi commitments, however one assesses its content, motivation or duration, would also be “merely” ontic.

J. Harrison was somewhat off in attributing SZ to Nietzsche. The window dressing of the book is extensively borrowed from Kierkegaard. (Nietzsche would be extensively dealt with in his later work and retrospectively he would claim him as the lodestar of his thinking, but it’s not so prominent in SZ. Though N.’s prospect of “European nihilism” is clearly a present animating concern, leading to Adorno’s quip that attempts to “overcome” nihilism are always worse than the “thing” itself).

The authentic resoluteness that is supposed to arise from Sein-zum-Tod, (in which all worldly meaning is lost in the angst of realizing one’s potential and inevitable nothingness and thus in realizing that one is only the sheer potentiality that one finitely projects), is a limit condition. Go back to Aristotle, whose ethics involve an inter-nesting of means/ends relations: but where to such deliberations come to and end? For Aristotle, the limit condition would be theoretical contemplation of the divinized order of the cosmos. But such a notion of a pre-existent teleological metaphysical order is precisely what is lost to, impossible for, the modernized historical world. Hence such a limit condition can only be found in the recognition of the through-and-through finitude of human existence, both individually and collectively. In seizing hold of one’s authenticity in Sein-zum-Tod, one rises above one’s immersion in the world qua self-interested egotism and adaptive conformism, and comes to face the question of “ultimate” ends, in a manner akin to traditional notions of “disinterestedness”, which itself is no longer possible in the thoroughly technologized and instrumentalized world, which modern forms of theory themselves increasingly just subserve. But one likewise can’t take refuge in any pre-existent “necessity” somehow inscribed in the “foundations” of the world, and one can only retrieve any basis in tradition by interpretively transforming it. “Der Grund ist ein Abgrund”. IOW human existence is a thrown project and whatever “ultimate” ends are chosen are always projectively constructed and solely a human responsibility. At the same time, Heidegger is emphatically clear that authenticity is only a modification within a more basic inauthenticity, such that the two almost inevitably can switch places and must always be retrieved anew. The matter is “tragic”.

OTOH as Max Horkheimer replied to a woman who claimed that at least Heidegger had placed us squarely before death, Gen. Ludendorff did it better.


Jim Harrison 09.28.14 at 3:16 am


There’s no need to apologize to me. I’m not selling Heidegger to anybody. I am, however, taking note of the power of some ideas that have had quite a career animating the actions of people who never heard of Heidegger.


Vanya 09.28.14 at 8:42 am

“Snyder employs the cover up technique to hide the far right’s participation in Maidan “

People on the left in the Anglo-Saxon world like to go on about “Neo-Nazis” in Ukraine. Yet the European far right – Le Pen, Orban, the Austrian FPÖ, the AfD – are all enthusiastic Putin supporters, and all enamored with his homophobia, promotion of virulent nationalism, hatred of democracy and cultural outsiders, and distrust of economic liberalism. Not that there aren’t nasty anti-semites and nationalists on the Ukrainian side, but I can certainly understand why Snyder considers Maidan folks to be the more progressive side.


mattski 09.28.14 at 11:45 am

geo @ 80

Well said.

The question of what purposes we should pursue, individually and in common, once we’ve achieved genuine democracy, which presupposes a reasonable degree of economic and civic equality, is a worthy one.

ISTM that question can’t be answered ‘from here’ so to speak. Once we’re ‘there’ it’ll take care of itself.



William Timberman 09.28.14 at 1:22 pm

Fascinating interchange, this. Echoes of vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas, and of the Vedantic Maya in Heidegger, it seems, although certainly not in Ludendorff. (Anyone who wears a spear on his hat — or a chicken, like his boss the Kaiser — is hardly aware of his own insignificance in the larger scheme of things.)

The wonderful thing about philosophy from my perspective is its kaleidoscopic quality — the colorful, and seemingly endless permutations of what goes around comes around.


drfrank 09.28.14 at 2:51 pm

Going back to Arendt, I recently reread the greater part of The Origins. I found it to be a very badly written work, disorganized and full of controversial assertions not adequately supppoerted. Nonetheless, I feel Arendt’s views have great merit. For instance, I do not entirely accept her background analysis of the nation state, capitalism and imperialism, but I suspect she is on to something important when she differentiates anti-semitism in a pre-capitalist context from anti-semitism in the age of imperialsim, or to put it somewhat differently, anti-semitism against a ghettoized orthodox Jewish minority in a Christian imperium and anti-semitism in an era of secular, assimilated non-practicing citizens of Jewish origin. Her opening question is still a good one: why did the Jews, a relatively insignificant group already in process of losing its distintiveness, become so essentially important to Nazism? As for Eichmann, it seems to me that for Arendt he had to be seen as an illustration of what she earlier described as one of totalitarianism’s chief attributes, the diminished capacity of individuals to make moral judgements and engage in political action based on such judgements. I suppose that is what she meant when she decried the absence of “thinking.”


geo 09.28.14 at 4:18 pm

Agreed, m-ski, at least for practical purposes. Right now, getting to democracy is challenge enough. Still, I do think visions of the exquisite life that’s possible if we do get there — visions like Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Morris’s News from Nowhere, Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism — can be very good for our morale.


Ze Kraggash 09.28.14 at 6:28 pm

83 “I can certainly understand why Snyder considers Maidan folks to be the more progressive side”

Indeed, during the protests the “Maidan folks” was a coalition of well-wishing pro-EU liberals and the neo-Nazis. But today the politics of that place is only one thing: “Glory to The Nation, Death to The Enemies!”. In some schools children chant it every morning, after singing the national anthem. I don’t know (and frankly I’m kind of curious myself) how the liberals are supposed to behave in this situation, what their role might be. Probably to hide quietly in the attic.


Ze Kraggash 09.28.14 at 8:49 pm

@83 Here’s a relevant piece by a Ukrainian anti-fascist (or, in your terminology, ‘pro-Putin’) activist:


mattski 09.28.14 at 11:19 pm


Yeah. God knows we need it.


Jesse 09.29.14 at 4:28 am

Eichmann was not simply portrayed as an ambitious careerist who would do anything to get ahead, he was a “true believer” in Nazi ideology until the end. The banality line referred to Eichmann’s intellectual laziness and endless usage of cliches. I wonder how many people who reference this book have actually read it? I came away with a far different picture of the man than as a “mid-level manager on the rise.” I was confused why my take away from the novel had been different from others. Roger Berkowitz comments on the phenomenon in the New York Times:

The problem with this conclusion is that Arendt never wrote that Eichmann simply followed orders. She never portrayed him, in Cesarani’s words, as a “dull-witted clerk or a robotic bureaucrat.” Indeed she rejected the idea that Eichmann was simply following orders. She emphasized that Eichmann took enormous pride in his initiative in deporting Jews and also in his willingness to disobey orders to do so, especially Himmler’s clear orders — offered in 1944 in the hope of leniency amid impending defeat — to “take good care of the Jews, act as their nursemaid.” In direct disobedience, Eichmann organized death marches of Hungarian Jews; as Arendt writes, he “sabotaged” Himmler’s orders. As the war ground to an end, as Arendt saw, Eichmann, against Himmler, remained loyal to Hitler’s idea of the Nazi movement and did “his best to make the Final Solution final.”

The widespread misperception that Arendt saw Eichmann as merely following orders emerged largely from a conflation of her conclusions with those of Stanley Milgram, the Yale psychologist who conducted a series of controversial experiments in the early 1960s.


Seth Gordon 09.29.14 at 2:31 pm

I don’t think there’s a contradiction, or even a tension, between being a careerist bureaucrat and being an ideologue.

In order to recruit John Sculley from Pepsi to become CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs asked Sculley, “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” And I don’t think Apple is an outlier for telling its employees that they are serving some kind of Higher Purpose while they earn their paychecks; when my startup was bought by Nokia, we all got to see a propaganda video touting “Nokia values”.


roger gathman 09.30.14 at 10:34 pm

77 Lazare’s article is very large. To dismiss it as a hatchet job is away of avoiding the argument he is making. Let’s just go to two points.
One has to do with the Soviet partisans. Snyder has a wholly insane view, I think, of partisan warfare against the Nazis. It is that the partisans stirred up the Nazis to atrocities – so I guess the partisans should have gone back to their fields, eh? This is insane in terms of Nazi policy – it wasn’t like the Nazis weren’t going to commit atrocities if only the guerrillas hadn’t made them so mad! – and it is insane to say that the Soviets didn’t care about the human cost of partisan warfare, how it made the Nazis inflict pain on the innocent. Given that the Soviet Union was fighting for its life, yeah, I think that is right. In Snyder’s view, perhaps the allies should have sent an engraved RSVP note to the Nazis before landing on Normandy.
This is of course not simply a dead historical issue. By blaming the Soviet partisans, Snyder is giving ammunition to those who want to reinsert old Nazi collaborators as heros. As Lazare points out, and as has been too little reported, the revisionists in Lithuania are trying to prosecute holocaust survivors for war crimes – because they joined the partisans. Here’s a link about this process from 2008, although it still goes on.

Second, Snyder’s weird attitude towards Polish antisemitism. Lazare quotes a sort of symbolic rewriting that keys Snyder’s whole defense: -[he] says of the Polish peasants viewing passing trainloads of Jewish deportees that “[t]he gesture of a finger across the throat, remembered with loathing by a few Jewish survivors, was meant to communicate to the Jews that they were going to die — though not necessarily that the Poles wished this upon them” Sure, and Southern whites who took pictures of themselves with the victims of lynchings weren’t necessarily opposed to civil rights. With this in mind, Snyder, as Lazare shows, produces a highly obfuscating view of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which the Polish resistance refused to help in any major way – they contributed a few pistols. Read the passages from Snyder and Lazare’s comments. I think Lazare is absolutely right about this. Just as I think Snyder is right that the Soviets let the Warsaw uprising later go on without intervening in order to weaken the Poles.


john c. halasz 10.01.14 at 9:59 am

BTW since this is a dead thread, the article cited by Jesse above is spot on. (Click on his handle to read it). The only thing I would have to add is the implicit comparison between Eichmann’s stupidity and Heidegger’s, since the latter was by no means as thoughtless, nor as stupid, as people would want to make him out to be or have been.

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