We Are Free to Change the World
Where Do We Begin? It belongs to totalitarian thinking to conceive of a final conflict at all. There is no finality in history—the story told by it is a story with many beginnings but no ends.
On a cold and drizzly March day in 1962, Hannah Arendt lay in a hospital bed in New York, gazing thoughtfully up at the ceiling. The day before a truck had slammed into the taxi she was riding in through Central Park, smashing up her face and teeth and breaking nine of her ribs. She did not know how the truck had come to hit the taxi or how her body had got so broken because, as had become her habit of late, she had been using the ride for some precious reading time. One moment there had been words echoing in her head, the next, darkness.
When she regained consciousness she checked that she could still move and then, with considerably more attention, tested her memory; very carefully decade by decade, poetry, Greek and German and English, then telephone numbers, she recalled in a letter to Mary McCarthy. Everything all right. In that same moment, she realized she had to make a decision: she could die or choose to stay in the world. She was fifty-five years old. Death did not particularly frighten her, but I also thought that life was quite beautiful and that I’d rather take it (BF 126–27). As she squinted at the hospital ceiling through her undamaged eye, she recognized a familiar feeling: elation.
It had been a long time since Hannah Arendt had been so still, her hands free of either luggage or books, her mind free to roam. Events had moved so fast over the past year; at moments it had seemed as though her entire life was being replayed before her. Each time she’d caught her breath something else had happened and she had sped on again.
A year earlier, she had gone to Jerusalem to cover the trial of the senior Nazi Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker
. Eichmann was responsible for organizing the transportation of Jews from across Europe to their deaths in concentration camps in the east. He had escaped through one of the Nazi ratlines five years after the war ended, having hidden low in the countryside farming chickens. In May 1960, Israel’s secret service agency, Mossad, caught up with him in Argentina, drugged and then bundled him onto a commercial flight and brought him back to Israel to face trial. Abduction was a deliberately dramatic gesture—fugitive Nazis and international opinion were supposed to take note—but not an unreasonable option.
Hannah Arendt also wanted to catch up with Adolf Eichmann, which was why she had swiftly written to The New Yorker’s
editor, William Shawn, offering to cover the trial for the magazine. By this point, she was a well-known intellectual in the United States. Delighted, Shawn gave her as many words as she needed and an open deadline. The five articles that would eventually be published as the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
, appeared a year after her accident in the spring of 1963.
The journey to Jerusalem was personal. Adolf Eichmann’s lifetime was also Hannah Arendt’s lifetime. The career Nazi and the Jewish political theorist were born barely seven months apart. Their lives were already twisted around one another’s before her famous book bound their names together forever. He had spent his life in the service of a monstrous regime that had murdered millions and decimated Europe’s politics and morality. She had spent hers working to defy, escape, and destroy that same regime using the only weapon she knew she could rely on: her mind. Hannah Arendt did not just want to see Adolf Eichmann in the flesh; she was searching for a missing piece of her own history. I would never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t go and look at this walking disaster face to face, without the mediation of the printed word, she wrote to Karl Jaspers in December 1960. Don’t forget how early I left Germany and how little of all this I really experienced directly (AKJ 409–10).
She had fled Germany in 1933 after the Reichstag decrees made life there impossible for Jews and those who had the resources to do so began to leave for good. Sixteen years later, in her new home, New York, she completed the longest and most meticulously researched book she would publish in her lifetime, The Origins of Totalitarianism
. Nazism was undoubtedly tyrannical, and self-evidently fascist in its gray-black glamour, racist mythology, and disregard for the rule of law. However, Arendt argued that modern dictatorship had an important new feature. Its power reached everywhere: not a person, an institution, a mind, or a private dream was left untouched. It squeezed people together, crushing out spaces for thought, spontaneity, creativity—defiance. Totalitarianism was not just a new system of oppression, it seemed to have altered the texture of human experience itself.
Toward the end of her book, Arendt looked further east to Stalin’s Soviet Union and began to spot a pattern. Totalitarian regimes did not simply command obedience from the top, as had most tyrannies over history, but rather were organized like an onion. There was a dark heart at the center, but the system’s inhumanity soaked through every layer. Its odor dominated everything, even as there were those who claimed they could smell nothing at all. Clearly there were architects of evil at the regime’s core, men who set out to dominate, conquer, lie and manipulate, murder and terrorize, and there were obviously sadists, willing torturers and executioners, delighted to help them to do so. But this was not enough of an explanation for evil on this scale.
Totalitarianism had normalized mass oppression and murder at the heart of Europe. How did that happen? It was too easy to say that people were brainwashed. Nor would it do to plead, as many had after the war, that they had no choice, that they had feared for their lives. Others did not comply. They disobeyed. And while it was true that many had paid with their lives for their defiance, others survived to tell their stories because it turned out that you could disobey in certain circumstances. There was an entire universe of perplexities in the space between collusion and resistance. Brush past these too quickly because they are too difficult or obscure, Hannah Arendt feared, and the risk was not only that we would fail to understand the nature of modern evil, but also how to defy it.
She had been gathering material on anti-semitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism since she had left Berlin aged twenty-seven (although up until the late 1940s relatively few, including Arendt, used the word totalitarianism, which was first coined by the Italian “philosopher of fascism,” Giovanni Gentile, in the 1920s). The end of the war, the Nuremberg trials, and the Nazi mania for self-archiving had created a superabundance of evidence and documents with which she could complete her book in 1949. But back then her formidable scholarship was not enough to capture the deep human sense of the questions she knew were key to understanding the nature of totalitarianism. How—how—had men become so inhuman? And, as importantly, had they really stopped being so? These were the questions that she hoped going to Jerusalem might help her answer.
Eichmann’s was a new kind of crime: a crime against humanity itself. With others, he had murdered Jews, the Roma, disabled and queer people simply because of who they were. His crime was both against large groups of people and against the very idea of human plurality—that, to Arendt’s mind, was what made it a crime against humanity. Eichmann could not tolerate the existence of different kinds of people in his world, so he exterminated them. It followed that his was also a new kind of trial. The Nuremberg Trials had put crimes against humanity on the international books for the first time, but the genocide of the Jewish people had been deliberately muted and few Jewish witnesses were heard on the stand. Now, in Jerusalem sixteen years later, survivors stepped forward to speak for the first time of what they had witnessed and endured. To say it was a historical trial was an understatement.
But the prosecution saw an ancient crime in modern garb, and Eichmann was portrayed as the latest monster in the long history of anti-semitism who had simply used novel methods to take hatred for Jews to a new level. Hannah Arendt looked at the scrawny man wearing an ill-fitting suit and sniffing loudly in his bullet-proof box and thought she saw someone more familiar. Here was a small, vain person chuntering away self-importantly, seemingly unaware of what he was actually saying, who he was saying it to, or where he even was—in Jerusalem, the Jewish state, explaining away his role in the genocide of the Jewish people to Jewish people, many of whom already knew his reputation for horror intimately.