The Evil of Banality
Troubling new revelations about Arendt and Heidegger.
It's a concept that has great relevance right now because there are still those who don't understand how theocratic police states can be called "fascist." Duh! It's because they're totalitarian. Whatever religion they profess, what they share with past fascist regimes is greater—in terms of denial of human rights—than what separates them. Just as political regimes adopt religious-type totalist worship of the state or the leader to enforce their oppression, religious or theocratic regimes adopt political oppression to enforce their orthodoxies.
But Wasserstein (who ironically delivered his conclusions originally at "the Hannah Arendt Lecture" at Holland's Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen in December 2008—probably not what they expected) has found some problems in her historical analysis of anti-Semitism.
He introduces his findings with a curt nod to the Arendt defenders: "In The New York Review of Books in 2007 Jeremy Waldron reproved the historian Walter Laqueur for having speculated that Arendt 'had read too much anti-Semitic literature for her own good.' " Waldron, Wasserstein observed, "considered the conjecture 'offensive.' "
"Actually," Wasserstein continues, "it merits serious consideration, as emerges if we examine the use of sources in her work. Consider, for example, Arendt's discussion, in the second section of Origins, of the role of Jews in the gold and diamond rushes in South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. She relies here on the account by the British economist J.A. Hobson in which he referred to Jewish financiers 'leaving their economic fangs in the carcasses of their prey. They fastened on the Rand … as they are prepared to fasten upon any other spot on the globe'—part of a passage that Arendt quotes with explicit and unironic approval, commending it as 'very reliable in observation and very honest in analysis.' "
"Fangs"? You say this sounds like pure Hitlerite rhetoric that could have been lifted from Mein Kampf? Well, yes, it does, doesn't it?
And then there's this: "One of her authorities on South African Jews," Wasserstein reports, is an article by Ernst Schultze, "a longstanding Nazi propagandist, that appeared in … a German publication founded and directed by the prominent Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg."
And then "in a new preface [to The Origins of Totalitarianism] written in 1967, Arendt commends the work of the leading Nazi historian Walter Frank … whose 'contributions,' " Wasserstein quotes Arendt, " 'can still be consulted with profit.' "
Wasserstein wonders about her motives here: "Was she bending over backwards not to be totally dismissive of ideological opponents who despised her on categorical (i.e. racial) grounds?" he asks.
"But there must have been more to it than that," he answers, "because modern Jewish history was the only subject where she repeatedly relied on Nazi historians as external authorities, that is, other than as evidence of what the Nazis themselves thought or did. Moreover she internalized much of what the Nazi historians had to say about Jews, from the 'parasitism' of Jewish high finance to the 'internationalism' of [Walther] Rathenau [the Weimar German minister assassinated by anti-Semites.]"
Of course, there have always been Jewish critiques of Jews. But Arendt's "aversion clearly ran much deeper" than has been supposed, Wasserstein asserts. He concludes his piece by wondering, "Why?"
I believe the new Heidegger revelations may shed some light on that question. It's always been controversial to discuss Arendt's lifelong romantic infatuation with the Nazi-sympathizing professor and how it might have shaped her intellectual positions. Arendt's defenders dismiss these as "tabloid" concerns, irrelevant to the purported transcendental purity of her thought.
But leaving Heidegger out of the equation is becoming ever more difficult. Not only did Arendt have an affair with him when she was an 18-year-old student about half his age, before Hitler took over, but despite his public exaltation of the Fuhrer, despite his firing Jews once he became rector of Freiburg University. We now know that she later resumed some kind of warm relationship with the brownshirt philosopher (yes, it turns out he often wore one to his lectures). Arendt helped usher Heidegger back into the intellectual version of polite society, indeed assisted in preventing his ostracism as a Hitlerite, at least by those who considered his notoriously opaque use of philosophical language to offer something of value beneath it—apart from further opacity.
The new Heidegger material offers further evidence of his slavish devotion to the Fuhrer, not merely in his public speeches but also in his desire to find a philosophical grounding for Hitlerism in the elevated realms of his thought.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.