You have misunderstood the relevance of Hannah Arendt

The thinker has been pillaged by those seeking to denounce Trump. They overlook her most vital insight

October 20, 2020
 Photo: Fred Stein/DPA/PA Images
Photo: Fred Stein/DPA/PA Images

In 1945, in an extraordinary essay entitled “Organised Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt warned that it would not be easy to tell the good from the bad German. The Nazis themselves had made it infernally difficult to distinguish heroes from villains, with dissidents forced by their police state into fleeting gestures and words of resistance they could not prove. More important, virtually all Germans—even dissident ones—were implicated in an enormous administrative horror. No one could be an open anti-fascist in Germany and survive, while those who stayed colluded in ways small and large—even when they were not directly involved. Yet Arendt made her most arresting case in favour of an even wider circle of responsibility at a moment when easy vengeance beckoned.

Those who were not in Germany but condemned it from the outside were going to be tempted to punish the bad Germans. But the truth is that their crimes (while they of course deserved prosecution) spread complicity far and wide. Until such evils were preventable, even those with no relation to them should admit that they earned not pride but shame. The religion of the Jews, Arendt suggested, taught humanity not comfortable moralising but “universal responsibility.” Even in the face of Nazism, Arendt insisted that responsibility allowed no one to say “I am not like that.” Compared to those with vengeful zeal for the punishment of Nazi perpetrators (which she supported), Arendt praised those “who are filled with a genuine fear of the inescapable guilt of the human race.” The trouble was that their shame at their own humanity was still a “non-political” insight.

Nothing remotely similar to what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945 has taken place in America in the four years since 2016. But if any comparisons between then and now are warranted, perhaps Arendt’s response to fascism’s aftermath is more relevant than her analysis of the thing itself.

Soon after Donald Trump was elected, Arendt became the most used and abused philosophical source to interpret his presidency. Earnest think-pieces appeared about the “lessons” Arendt taught, most of questionable relevance to understanding Trump’s ascendancy. And her work TheOrigins of Totalitarianism, a 1951 summa that culminates in a quickly written study of Nazi rule, became a bestseller for years.

The truth is that this part of her book is one of the least interesting and novel things Arendt ever wrote. And to make matters worse, commentators routinely pillaged it with an eye to denouncing Trump’s cavalier attitude to truth or to allege the coming of a new age of fascism or totalitarianism. It was, no doubt, one of the minor infractions of what people are now calling the “intellectual history” of the age of Trump that Arendt was bowdlerised for a good cause. But it was extraordinary all the same.

In the eyes of the American “Resistance,” Arendt became a commonplace liberal, a critic of the excesses of violent states, offering warnings about the dangers of mendacious leaders. States are often horrendous in their policies and their leaders prevaricate, but no one needed Arendt’s authority to say so. Arendt became a privileged citation for those not so much ignorant of as uninterested in her work, and who canonised her for a new age at the price of reducing her to utter conventionality. Referencing her gave many a think piece the patina of a famous name and pseudo-profundity. Her words opportunistically provided revulsion towards Trump with the imprimatur of a supposed philosopher of fascism, for those who were less willing to think about where he came from and how he was possible. It helped, of course, that Arendt—who fled to America—was among the most renowned analysts of the Nazi and Soviet foes that her new country put down one after another in the 20th century, before Trump so rudely tarnished its reputation and self-conception.

In their invocations of Arendt as a theorist for a new age of “post-truth,” her new fans missed that she argued that truth and politics have never mixed. On the contrary: politics is a realm of appearance, not one of correspondence with fact. For Arendt, we have always been post-truth. She acknowledged that fascist lies were unique, but their novelty—and that of later American ones, like the defence of the Vietnam War that the Pentagon Papers revealed to be so deceptive—allowed no “moralising,” since “the background of past history” is “itself not exactly a story of immaculate virtue.” That same belief guided her refusal to moralise once Nazism fell.

Arendt did not believe in what the Germans began calling a Stunde Null, a “zero hour,” a caesura before a new era untainted by the old. Far from it: the idea of a clean break with guilt was just another mode of convincing ourselves that we are exempt from universal responsibility. After a trip to Germany, Arendt observed that the people she met “developed many devices for dodging.”

It is ironic that, as Arendt was used to deflect responsibility and look away from America in recent years, her provocations about how to think about the aftermath of a bad regime will undoubtedly go missing now in postmortems of Trump’s presidency. Those provocations apply even though Trump turns out to be less a dictator than a charlatan.

In her 1945 essay, Arendt wrote that when she met people who told her they were ashamed of being German, she was always tempted to reply: “I am ashamed of being human.” In America, there is going to be an immense pressure to exact apologies, if not from Trump (who is incapable of them), then from those who enabled him. Not generalising responsibility, as Arendt demanded, but othering and scapegoating is how the mainstream will proceed, in an attempt to bracket the Trump era as if it never was, for the sake of a new zero hour. Her former aficionados will stop citing Arendt precisely when she is relevant. Not only will they skirt embarrassment at being human; few will even say that they are ashamed of being American.