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Human Status and Politics: Hannah Arendt on the Holocaust Shiraz Dossa Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue

canadienne de science politique, Vol. 13, No. 2. (Jun., 1980), pp. 309-323.
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Human Status and Politics: Hannah Arendt on the Holocaust


University of Calgary

About nothing does public opinion everywhere seem to be in happier agreement than that no one has the right to judge somebody else. - Hannah Arendt*

The decline of political philosophy is one of the salient facts of contemporary intellectual life. Liberalism's significant role in consolidating the triumph of economics over politics has been noticed and documented. Sheldon Wolin, among others, has brilliantly charted the modern rise to pre-eminence of social and economic concerns at the expense of politics in the older sense of public citizenship and participation in the common realm. In this climate of relativism and free enterprise, it is to Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin that we owe an intellectual and moral debt of the first order. Strauss, in particular, battled unceasingly to recover and articulate the heritage of classical political philosophy. Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that the learned and magisterial presence of Leo Strauss lurks behind all those who read Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and even Locke and Marx. One may wish to challenge Strauss on Plato or Hobbes, but it is not possible to ignore him .2 Ironically Strauss's very success has in some ways worked against the impulse to think and speculate anew about political matters. Strauss brought to vibrant life the Socratic beginnings of political philosophy. He revived in his peculiar, cautious way the normative essence of the Platonic paragraphs; its moral vision, its intellectual coherence and its human excellence. He laid bare the heart of the classical teaching on politics as the quest for the just and the good order.3 In the wake of * Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Viking Press, 1965), 296.
1 Politics and Vision (Boston: Little, Brown, 1960), chap. 9. 2 Eric Voegelin is less well known because of the more esoteric and involved style of his thought and exposition. See for example The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952). 3 Stmuss's works include the Political Philosophy of Hobbes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963); Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago
Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue cnnadknw de science politique, XIII:2 (Jualjuin 1980). Printed b Canada 1 Imprim6 au Canada



Strauss, serious students ofpolitics and political things, not unnaturally, became adept students of the history of political philosophy. But there was an unnoticed price paid for the zealous mastery of the classical texts of our tradition. The original encounter which led to political philosophy, the ebb and flow of normal civic life, was almost entirely forgotten. The real world of political events seems not to invite the attention of the serious students of political philosophy. To put this matter otherwise: students of political philosophy are no longer doing political philosophy, that is philosophy which concerns itself with the fate and the quality of this world; most are satisfied with elucidating aspects of the political thought of a Plato or a Rousseau, for example, even though it is not self-evident that new and important things remain to be said about Plato or Rousseau. This in itself is certainly worthwhile as a contribution to the history of political philosophy but it is not the same as doing political philosophy. Strauss and Voegelin did political philosophy in the act of recovering the western heritage; it is many of their followers who seem unable to venture beyond the achievements of their mentors. Hannah Arendt stands out among contemporary "classical" thinkers as one whose thinking constitutes political philosophy in the proper sense of this term.4 Her forte is not patient and indiscriminate exegesis of texts in the tradition for its own sake, nor is her thought systematic and easily understandable. She can be properly criticized for her "opaque" style and "darkness" of t h ~ u g h tThese elements of her .~ approach account in large part for her marginal status in the recent history of political philosophy. But when all is said and done, it is obvious that she chose to study and understand the crucial political and moral issues of this age in the traditional manner of a theorist confronted with a deranged world. The Holocaust is one such significant event which occupied her erudite and probing attention. From this inquiry emerged a fundamental statement about man and politics. The purpose of this critical essay is a limited one: to examine the relationship between a particular notion of politics and that of human status which underscores part of Hannah Arendt's complex treatment of the totalitarian Holocaust. In particular, it will be argued that she saw an intimate connection between living in a political way and laying claim to human status. Further, it will be suggested that her thesis is ethnocentric in certain essential respects.
Press, 1953); and Thoughts on Machiavelli (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969). 4 This view is shared, for example, by Margaret Canovan, The Political Thought of Hannah Arendr (London: J . M. Dent and Sons, 1974), chap. 1 . 5 J. M. Cameron in his review of two of Arendt's books in The New York Review of Books, November 6, 1969. Soon after her death, Maurice Cranston quite rightly said that, as a thinker, "Hannah Arendt was altogether hors catkgorie"(in Encounter, March 1976, 56).

L'humain et le politique: Hannah Arendt et le totalitarisme

Le totalitarisme a Pte' l'objet de beaucoup d'attention au cours des dernitres anne'es. Aucune des e'tudes re'centes toutefois ne de'passe l'ouvrage de base de Hannah Arendt qui demeure toujours l'un des plus fouille's, des plus complets et desplus critiques. En effetpourHannah Arendt le totalitarisme suppose a lafois plus que l'inhumanite' et plus que l'immoralite'. Selon celle-ci, il repre'sente l'e'chec dramatique du politique et il implique une attaque de'libe're'e contre le concept de l'humain sicher a la tradition humaniste occidentale. Nous e'tudions donc le lien qu'il y a dans le traite' de Hannah Arendt entre le politique et l'humain. Nous pensons que sa thtse repose sure un point de vue essentiellement ethnocentrique.

In his review of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eric Voegelin disagreed with Arendt's method of treating the existential phenomena of totalitarianism as identical with its essential nature. Voegelin argued that its essence could only be grasped with the aid of "a well developed philosophical anthropology," otherwise "the emotionally existing will overshadow the e ~ s e n t i a l . "Voegelin ~ wished to stress the "essential sameness" of totalitarianism and similar catastrophes in the occidental past, not withstanding the phenomenal differences between them. By asserting the need for a "philosophical anthropology ," Voegelin intended to invoke the weight of the classical tradition as crucial in evaluating this phenomenon. He argued that totalitarianism could only be understood if it was acknowledged that its doctrinal root was the heretical "immanentist sectaranism" traceable to the Middle Ages.' For Voegelin, immanentism, the spiritual disease of modernity, was the anti-transcendental ground on which totalitarianism eventually flourished. Voegelin was claiming that modern totalitarianism was not new in essence because totalitarian practice was foreshadowed in the rise of the irnmanentist movement, and that it came to "fruition" in the twentieth century.* For Voegelin, modem totalitarianism was not unexpected since the immanentist attack on the classical tradition of Greek and Christian transcendence. Thus what came to pass was a matter of time, once the notion of spiritual limits had lost ground. Voegelin was both right and wrong. He was right to see that Arendt insisted on the essential novelty of totalitarianism. But he was wrong in arguing that Arendt derived the essential nature of totalitarianism purely in terms of the phenomenal evidence embedded in it. There was more to her analysis than that. In considering her view of totalitarianism we shall also be able to point to the substantial difference between Voegelin's and Arendt's attitude to the classical tradition.
6 Review of Politics 15 (1953), 74. 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid.

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Arendt sees the "event of totalitarian domination itself' as extraordinary. Nothing like it had ever occurred, even if close parallels could be found in the occidental past. The event itself was unprecedented in the most exacting sense of the word. But while its unprecedentedness was true on the level of phenomenal differences, it was not exhausted by it. For Arendt, the unprecedentedness of totalitarianism had also to do with the intimately related fact that "its considered policies have exploded our traditional categories of political thought (totalitarian domination is unlike all forms of tyranny and despotism we know of) and the standards of our moral judgement (totalitarian crimes are very inadequately described as 'murder' and totalitarian criminals can hardly be punished as murderer^')."^ Totalitarian domination was unique but unique in such a spectacularly immoral way that it made no sense at all. The grotesquely inhuman character of the event defied even the outer reaches of human credulity. Voegelin took this to mean that Arendt was arguing the essential and "positive" continuity of occidental practice until this event, and he was rightly dubious about her claim. In fact, Arendt's thesis centred not on the substantive continuity of occidental history as such, but on the intellectual and moral continuity of our capacity to understand historical practice prior to this event. In other words, totalitarianism constitutes an unprecedented event in the stream of occidental practice because it ruptured "all our traditions" of thought and judgment.1 Contra Voegelin, consequently, the extant "theoretical instruments" according to Arendt, are not just pitifully inadequate but irrelevant: the event had shattered the universe of meaningful moral and political discourse. Indeed, Arendt's thesis about totalitarianism is not fully intelligible unless this event is understood as an unprecedented assault on the hallowed categories of western metaphysics: totalitarianism "has usurped the dignity of our tradition."" For Arendt the nature of totalitarian domination largely undermined the validity of classical political judgment. Totalitarianism introduced practices into political life which were not anticipated in the most morbid speculations of classical thinkers on civil perversion. In Voegelin's view, on the other hand, totalitarianism was the direct result of the modern denial of classical transcendentalism: it fed on "the spiritual disease of agnosticism [which] is the peculiar problem of modern masses."12 For him, totalitarianism represented no more than another departure-albeit an extremely foul one13-from the classical wisdom on politics. Unlike Arendt's, Voegelin's faith in the absolute validity of the classical tradition has remained intact.
9 10 11 12 13

Ibid., 80. "Understanding and Politics," Partisan Review 20 (1953), 379. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian, 1958), ix. Review of Politics, 73. Ibid., 68

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For Arendt, there is another sense in which the event of totalitarianism marks a hiatus in occidental political practice; it is a sense so basic to human existence that it left a permanent scar on Arendt's moral sensibility and profoundly influenced her approach to politics. In her view, none of the recorded events in the history of western man prior to the Holocaust ever ruptured the human structures of reality;14notjust the particular reality of a specific period or time, but the sense and structure of reality as such. Unless this is appreciated in all seriousness, much of what she has to say about politics may seem peripheral, if not outlandish. Indeed, the notion of reality recurs in her work with an almost oppressive frequency. For Arendt, politics has much to do with the human sense of reality. From the outset Arendt concedes with equanimity that
through centuries the extermination of native people went hand in hand with the colonization of the Americas, Australia and Africa; slavery is one of the oldest institutions of mankind. . . . Not even concentration camps are an invention of totalitarian movements. They emerge for the first time during the Boer War. . . . All this clearly points to totalitarian methods of domination.15

Domination and extermination of men by men are as old as the history of man. For Arendt, violence and suffering are not unusual phenomena at all. To suffer and inflict suffering is for her quite normal: she is reconciled and somewhat inured to the practice of violence among men. More significantly she is far from condemning the exercise of violence per se: the human necessity for violence and domination emerges as one of the central motifs of her vision of true politics developed at length and with subtlety in The Human Condition .I6For her, violence is a natural and quite human activity, a legitimate prelude to founding a regime and to the life of citizenship. Hannah Arendt and Machiavelli are entirely in accord on this issue. Hardly less important is the fact that Arendt is not particularly perturbed by the numbers involved in past instances of violence, domination and extermination. She herself draws attention to the murder of over 25 million Africans in the Congo between 1890 and 191 1 during the reign of Leopold 11. To be fair to her, however, she does recognize the immensity of Leopold's crime but the nature of her remarks does not suggest that she was truly shocked by it. In fact, this occurrence serves as just another instance in her argument that grand atrocity is more or less a settled habit among men.I7 In view of her stand on these matters it may seem astonishing that Arendt was "moved" by the Holocaust.
14 Origins of Totalitarianism, 350-53. 15 Ibid., 440. 16 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1959), especially chaps. 27 and 28, and On Violence (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970), particularly 63. 17 Origins of Totalitarianism, 185 and passim.

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For Arendt the absolute uniqueness of the Holocaust has to do with the nature of the astringent and experimental aesthetics of Nazi terror and its implications for the status of men. The bureaucratic finesse, untainted by personal pleasure, with which the Nazis disposed of undesireables is truly shocking. The "normal kn~wledge"'~ that these people were human beings with some claim to humane treatment was effectively supressed. First, it is a fact, argues Arendt, that Nazi policies were devoid of any "utilitarian motives and self-interest of the ruler^."'^ Hitler was impelled by a sense of racial mission, sustained by visions of teutonic destiny, in which temporal motives were suspect. To Arendt, motives, no matter how sordid or silly, have limited aims and thus retain their human comprehensibility because they participate in the ordinary politics and economics of reality: power and wealth. This is a crucial point: the principle of self-interest is a necessary ingredient in the construction of reality and an effective foil against the ascetic selflessness of the totalitarian mentality .20 In Arendt's view selflessness, because of its indifference to personal interest, may well be a moral virtue; it is certainly not a political virtue and may even spell doom in the human world.21In human affairs, as was the case with Nazism, "moral" ideals often brook no opposition: the Jews stood in the way of a particular vision of German unity and they had to die. Second, the victims were treated "as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them was no longer of interest to anybody."22 In the privacy of the concentration camps, away from the public realm, the victims were deprived of the elementary right to be objects of human care and concern. Few relations and friends on the outside knew if those within were dead or alive. Unseen and unheard, they had ceased to exist for the world outside. The Nazis were thus able to "experiment" with, to consume bit by bit, the prepared bodies of its mastered victims without any trace of passion. Outside the realm of "life and death," which need public confirmation to assure their reality, even death was deprived of its minimal dignity. Third, there was the discovery of racial origin as the criterion of natural guilt. For the Jews as the "center of Nazi ideology"23 life in the most basic sense became impossible within this macabre context.
Eichmann in Jerusalem, 86. Origins of Totalitarianism, 440. Ibid., 439-41. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York: Viking Press, 1%8), 53; Arendt insisted that doctinaire morality had no place in politics. When it didemerge as the dominant impulse behind political action, as in the French Revolution of 1789, it invariably led to indiscriminate violence and terror; see her On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1965), especially chap. 2. 22 Origins of Totalitarianism, 145. 23 Ibid.,6-7.

18 19 20 21

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Whatever one did or did not do ceased to matter at all: to be Jewish (or Gypsy or Slav) was quite enough. In her own words, "under no circumstances [could] the concentration camp become a calculable punishment for definite offense^."^^ Death became the automatic consequence of the accident of racial origin. Hannah Arendt painfully notes that the choice of the Jews as the main target of Nazi policies was not fortuitous. As a people who insisted on their unique status as a chosen group (racial), they served as both the primary model of emulation and the primary threat to Nazi delusions about the "chosenness" of the Aryans. From the point of view of the Nazis, in other words, the conflict between the Jews and the Aryans was a moral battle between two superior peoples: either the Jews or the Aryans had to perish.25 Finally, there was the shocking efficacy with which the objective difference between murderers and victims was resolved into a tacit moral equality of the persecutors and the persecuted. This was the horrible result of the Nazi practice of using Jewish capos, "who were more hated than the SS,"26 to escort their fellow Jews to their death. Guilt and innocence became mere words in the face of this "reality," as irrelevant as the distinction between fact and fantasy outside the "structure of consequence and responsibility" of normal politics." In a nutshell, men were "plunged into the darkest and deepest abyss of primal equality, like cattle, like things that had neither soul nor body, nor even a physiognomy upon which death could stamp its seal."28 Willing victims for the most part, these people marched quietly to their death. And in the manner of their torture and death lies a profound challenge to the humanist tradition in Western thought and practice. In Arendt's view, the new forms of domination correspond to a new principle "completely unknown to us'' that "everything is possible."29 Implicit in this principle is the view that nothing is a priori forbidden even if the proposed course serves no utilitarian interest. In other words, there is no such thing as moral knowledge and therefore no sense of limits whatsoever in the human realm. Everything becomes possible when moral knowledge is itself denied. Arendt frequently laments the "monstrous immorality" of totalitarian domination because she sees the human condition in some ultimate sense as being distinctively moral in texture. Ironically, however, she refuses to see politics as primarily moral in intention or although she accepts that moral knowledge does exist.
24 25 26 27 28 29 30 Ibid., 449. Ibid., 6-7; see also Eichman in Jerusalem, 297. Origins of Totalitarianism, 452-53. Ibid., 445. Commentary, September 1946, 292. Origins of Totalitarianism, 440. See The Human Condition, especially sections I1 and V.



What is simultaneously fascinating and intensely disturbing about the scenario of horror created by the Nazis is its resonant unreality: its "fictitious topsy-turvey world."31 It dramatizes the more or less absolute demise of politics, and hence the source of the totalitarian denial of reality. For Arendt, politics is the articulation of the master or primary reality wherever men live together in an orderly fashion. Politics establishes the architectonic foundation of symbolic and practical order: it delineates the character and the limits of human relationships in the common world. In and through politics-the distinctive organization of power-men are beholden to an explicit catalogue of rights and duties, obligations and responsibilities: the "legally protected order of existence. "32 For Arendt, reality and minimal stability represent two sides of a structured order of commonly shared public life, namely politics. Furthermore the lineaments of the primary reality are shared by all in the widest sense of the term irrespective of personal talent or social rank. This reality exists independently of individual volition or sanction. It is incontrovertibly there and accepted as such by those who affirm it or those who seek to replace it. For Arendt this is the sense in which the "consistent a r b i t r a r i n e ~ s "of totalitarian practice was devoid of any ~~ vestige of reality. The most telling evidence for this fact is the human inability to speak intelligibly about its "actions." What cannot be spoken about in human terms is as unreal as it is beyond the realm of politics.34For politics is, in part, the common space which human beings share in speech and conversation. Hence in an entirely contrived forum of unreality it is possible to unleash the human capacity for terror. In other words, it is politics as the shared ground of reality and stability, as the common structure of consequence and responsibility which defines the limits of violence permissible in the human realm. Outside its parameters of restraint, brutality and violence prey indiscriminately on men oblivious to either guilt or innocence.35For Arendt, politics in this sense has elements in common with but is not identical to her dominant conception of politics as the display of excellence in word and deed between free and equal men in the shared space of the polis .36 Underlying both conceptions is the common view that the political way of life entails much more than the mere assurance of material security. The particular view of politics examined here may be characterized as the realm of existential politics which describes the conduct of human affairs within the specified boundaries of territory, law and m~rality.~'
31 32 33 34 35 36 37
Origins of Totalitarianism, 437. Ibid., 316. Ibid., 433. Ibid., 446. Ibid., 297. The Human Condition, especially section V . Origins of Totalitarianism, 460-62.

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For Arendt, then, the absolute uniqueness of the Holocaust is contained in the parallel assaults on the public structure of "normal reality," and the personal structure of individuality and freedom. In its successful (temporary) elimination of spontaneity and difference, Nazi totalitarianism radically undermined the human status of man: "human nature as such is at stake"38 that is, human nature as we had come to know it was being transformed in the concentration camps. Neither political practice nor political theory in the past had anticipated the challenge to human nature evident in the methods of totalitarian terror. The notion of reality in Arendt is intrinsically related to that of freedom: at this level politics is the affirmation and the shaping of freedom into an independent reality. Paradoxically freedom is as much the driving impulse of politics as it is a potential threat to its reality. If politics is impossible without the factuality of human freedom, then freedom is inconceivable outside the order of ultimate responsibility which politics establishes. Thus totalitarianism is in essence not distinguished by its mere abuse of freedom-as in the case of tyranny-but by its immoral discovery that freedom can be used to eliminate its own conditions of existence: plurality and individuality. Totalitarianism is an exercise in the liquidation of freedom and restraint, and the arbitrary mastery of men. In Arendt's amplification of her thesis on the uniqueness of totalitarianism a serious and significant tension merits critical notice. In her own terms human plurality is violated more intensely when more people are murdered. But the absolute novelty of the Holocaust is predicated specifically on the nature of the violation of individuality. Indeed, Arendt's real concern is less with the fact of mass murder or with "the number of victims,"39 than with the manner of murder. However, in her private sentence on Eichmann, she condemns him to death for "not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations. . . . This is the reason and the only reason you must hang."40 Eichmann stands accused of participating in the genocidal attack on both human plurality and human diversity. But Arendt is well aware that "genocide was the order of the day in ~ n t i q u i t y . "If, ~ ~therefore, violation of human plurality is the reason for hanging Eichmann, then the absolute uniqueness of the Holocaust becomes very doubtful because human plurality has been violated more effectively in the past. While it is true that Eichmann was condemned for "what he [had] done" it is crucial to remember that he was condemned
38 Ibid., 459; her view of human nature is neither ontological in the Platonic sense nor thoroughly historical in the Marxian sense. For her, man is to a large degree a historical creature but he is endowed with permanent capacities for thought. freedom and action. 39 Ibid., 458-59. 40 Eichmann in Jrri~salem, 279 (emphasis added). 41 Ibid., 288 (emphasis added).



for his deeds as a member of the Nazi state and its larger responsibility for the Holocaust. From The Origins of Totalitarianism to Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt shifts the ground of indictment from violation of individuality to the violation of plurality as the primary crime. Obviously the two are interrelated, but distinct enough as far as the character of the crime in question is concerned. In this case, then, it becomes vitally important to know how the Holocaust differs substantially from instances of genocide in the past. To put the issue bluntly, the manner of totalitarian genocide may have been unique but it is arguable if it indeed was unique bearing in mind the availability of new instruments of destruction in the twentieth century. What is beyond dispute is the identical nature of the consequences: genocide, or in Arendt's terms, violation of human plurality. And it is in fact the consequence--mass murder-for which Eichmann and others must be punished, even as we grant that the manner of murder was undescribably heinous. As Arendt herself says "mass murderers must be prosecuted because they violated the order of mankind."42 Genocide in the past, she knows well, violated "the order of mankind" with equal ease. Why then does she insist on the absolute uniqueness of the Holocaust? The answer lies elsewhere. The core of Arendt's thesis has to do with issues other than the factual horror of totalitarian crimes: it is about the morality of mass murder in the broad context of "culture" and "civilization." Consider her views on European imperialism in Africa. When imperialist adventures in Africa, "the Dark continent," encountered and killed "black savages" without any "historical record," they somehow were not aware that they had committed murder.43To think of murder in the presence of these people seemed in what way could wholly inappropriate, almost r i d i c u l ~ u s Indeed, .~~ one approach, wonders Arendt, strange and alien people who had the most tenuous claim to humanity? Here murder seemed wrong but did not matter much since how else could one respond to human beings
without the future of a purpose and the past of an accomplishment [people] who had not created a human world, a human reality and [for whom] therefore
42 Ibid., 272. 43 In her controversial report on the trial of Eichmann, Hannah Arendt noted with shock that Eichmann made a clear distinction between "cultured" and "primitive" Jews. On this basis, he was opposed not to the murder of Jews as such, but at "the idea of German Jews being murdered," that is, the cultured Jews (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 96). Arendt's apparent shock is quite incongruous with her lack of concern for the murder of "primitive" Africans. Perhaps it is not unfair to suggest that what offended Arendt was the Nazi attempt to divide agroup into higher and lower orders, who were collectively a civilized and cultured people. As well, the fact that the Jews are-for all intents and purposes-a European people, may well have something to do with her moral discomfort in this context. 44 Origins of Totalitarianism, 191-92.

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nature had remained, in all its majesty the overwhelming reality. . . "natural" human beings who lacked the specifically human ~ h a r a c t e r . " ~ ~

The blacks were proudly at one with nature in all its organic glory. They were as natural as nature had made them without any hint of "the specifically human character" evident in their conquerors. Inevitably they were murdered in good conscience. Yet, ironically, Arendt goes on to accuse the imperialists of doing exactly what she would have expected them to do in the circumstances. Inability to master nature sufficiently, to fabricate an artifice beyond the one naturally given, to establish public bodies-that is the combined political human failure of the Africans. In broader and related terms the blacks testify, in Arendt's view, to a general lack of human culture and morality: people who had "escaped the reality of c i ~ i l i z a t i o n . " For ~ ~ Arendt, although their murder is clearly unjust it is somehow not immoral. This shocking conclusion is unequivocally transparent in her claim that "in a certain sense. . . the real crime began" only when Indians and Chinese were murdered by the imperialists: "there could be no excuse and no humanly comprehensible reason for treating Indians and Chinese as though they were not human beings."47 In Arendt's view, Indians and Chinese were after all civilized, historical people with undeniable claims to human status. In the case of the Africans, on the other hand, no "real crime" was involved in their murder because they had renounced their humanity by their inability, or their unwillingness, to establish the human reality of politics. Humanness or human status, in other words, is partly a function of politics and its common life of citizenship; a political community is thus also a moral community which endows its members with a measure of humanity. The stoical point Arendt wants to make surpasses the factual one: that the right to life per se, let alone any other rights, is unavailable to anyone who can claim no more than "the minimum fact of [his or her] human origin."48 More accurately, the right to life itself is in jeopardy when that right is unsupported by a framework of politics. In passing, it is worth noting that her view of the black predicament is drawn in part from Conrad's Heart of Darkness: in her hands a literary tale becomes the vehicle for making a serious philosophical argument. What becomes strikingly apparent in the totalitarian Holocaust is the murder of eminently "civilized" victims by equally "civilized" killers. For Arendt, the issue becomes a profoundly moral one in this context when "unnatural" human beings are both reduced to and murdered as pathetically "natural" beings, as if they knew neither a history, a tradition, nor apast of human achievement. For the European
45 46 47 48
Ibid. Ibid., 190. Ibid., 206 (emphasis added). Ibid., 300.

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Jews, unlike the Africans, were unmistakably human. Their right to life and citizenship were established legal facts. In a series of Laws, from the "Nuremburg Laws" down, the Nazis carefully deprived them of their basic juridical and poltical rights: "the condition of complete rightlessness was created before the right to live was challenged." Thus, the Jews were systematically transformed from political beings into natural creatures without any legal claims. Only then could they be, and For were, expelled, literally, "from h ~ m a n i t y . " ~ ~ Arendt it is significant that the de-politicization of European Jewry (prior to their extermination) coincided with the Nazi celebration of blood and race-"natural" sentiments par excellence. In the new world there were to be no citizens, only "natural" members by right of race and destiny. The Nazis perfected the worst of all polities because it attempted to "do without any consensus iuris whatever,"50 and thus remained completely isolated from moral law and justice. In Nazi Germany, "natural" man viciously quashed "political" man, and the "human" being. In her words, "man's 'nature' is only 'human' insofar as it opens up to man the possibility of becoming something highly unnatural, that is, a man."51 For Arendt, then, the moral and cultural context decisively influenced her understanding of the absolute uniqueness of the totalitarian Holocaust. But only on the basis of a narrowly ethnocentric premise is her meaning apparent. To impute narrow ethnocentrism to a theorist of the calibre of Hannah Arendt has its share of difficulties. She was well known, after all, for her personal humanity, for her compassion for the displaced and the stateless, and for her critical appraisal of the role of some of her own people in the H o l o c a u ~ t . ~ ~ Nevertheless this accusation can be sustained, and sustained in a forthright manner. The ethnocentric strain is explicit in her reading of imperial history and implicit in her normative political theory. In the preceding pages her negative view of Africans was noticed; some further instances will help in clearly establishing her view on this matter. She understood African history as ahistorical, as the worthless doings of natural men: "the black tribes had vegetated for thousands of years." She took Conrad's damning descriptions of the blacks to be "the most illuminating work on actual race experience in Africa."53 As Arendt describes it, this experience brought out the worst in the white men who went through it. Indeed like Conrad's, her sentiments about the white explorers and adventurers faced by "black savages," turn out to be quite sympathetic.
49 50 51 52 53 Ibid., 296-97. Ibid., 462. Ibid., 455 (emphasis added). Ibid., chap. 9; Eichmann in Jerusalem, 124-26, 297. Origins of Totalitarianism, 194, 185.

Human Status and Politics


In particular, she began to understand their brand of racism: the blacks were "a horrifying experience of something alien beyond imagination or comprehension; it was tempting indeed to simply declare that these were not human beings."54 In her later works she made quite similar statements about blacks, although the contexts in which they were made were different. In the course of discussing the good fortune of eighteenth-century America and the equality of its citizens, she wrote "As it is, we are tempted to ask ourselves if the goodness of the poor white man's country did not depend to a considerable degree upon black labor and black misery.. . ."55 Speaking of the student rebellions in the United States, she had this to say about Negroes and Negro demands: "Negro students, the majority of them admitted without academic qualification. . . their interest was to lower academic standard^"^^ [No evidence was cited for this claim]; and "this 'education' in Swahili (a nineteenth century kind of no-language . . .) African literature, and other non-existent subjects will be interpreted as another trap of the white man to prevent Negroes from acquiring an adequate e d ~ c a t i o n . " ~ ~ To cite more passages in a similar vein is unnecessary. These sentiments are ethnocentric in the precise sense that they are judgments made from an intellectually and culturally European point of view, and in the sense that they presuppose the truth and the validity of this point of view. More crucially, these sentiments assume the "inhumanity" of the blacks as self-evident. The issue is not that all of these views are necessarily and entirely wrong but that they treat the matter as settled. Ethnocentrism entails an intellectual predisposition in favour of one's own group or race, and one which is used as the right measure of judgment. For this reason Arendt described the murder of Indians and Chinese, as we have seen, as a "real crime" because the latter measure up to European standards of humanity and civilization, notwithstanding their particular differences. From the philosophical side, ethnocentrism is tacitly sanctioned in Hannah Arendt's normative political theory. Theoretically, that is to say, the ethnocentric line of argument is not ruled out. In her ontological gallery of human types, the pride of the stage is the public actor closely followed by the worker, homo faber. On the lowest rung stands, or
54 55 56 57 Ibid., 195. Arendt, On Revolution, 65. Arendt, On Violence, 18. Ibid., %. Her ignorance of African culture and literature was truly astonishing. Suffice it to say here that Kiswahili is being taught and used in primary and secondary schools in Tanzania. It is the official language of debate and legislation in the national Parliaments of Kenya and Tanzania. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania, has translated Shakespeare's Julius Caesar into Kiswahili--certainly a startling achievement for "a nonexistent kind of no-language" !



rather lies, the labourer, animal labor an^.^^ He is the natural man par excellence, who lives to consume and consumes so that he may live. He knows no other code than that of nature and its cyclical rhythm of labour, consumption and rest. For Arendt, animal laborans is at one with nature, he is the legitimate prince of organic life.59He has nothing in common with the worker or the actor, he is their unequal in all significant respects, he barely belongs to the same species. The animal laborans is "imprisoned in the privacy of his own body, caught in the fulfilment of needs in which nobody can share and which nobody can fully comm~nicate."~~ For Arendt the inequality of the animal laborans is the natural inequality of men who know nothing apart from the laws of bodily appetite, instinct and aspiration. These are the natural slaves of Aristotle, though no longer in the legal garb of slaver-y.61 Their inequality however is the essential foundation of politics and humanity. Like Plato and Aristotle, Arendt understood the life of citizenship as lived in leisure and with dignity. The life of labour precludes by its very nature moral choice and the pursuit of public excellence. It is inimical to the formation of character and purpose, suited to the high-minded life of surpassing humanity .62 For this, it is essential to separate the higher from the lower to rank men in a manner befitting their capabilities. The bodily mentality of the animal laborans cannot and must not be allowed to intrude into and sap the higher life of politics. For Arendt, in sum, for there to be a truly human world, not all men can be human, nor is it necessary that they should be.63 To argue that the image behind her portrait ofthe animal laborans is the black man in his natural setting is not warranted. To say, however, that her picture of the animal laborans evokes much of her florid description of the blacks in Africa, is true and relevant. For Arendt, the blacks represent the animal laborans, as it were, at his natural best. In this sense, it is true and legitimate to say that her political theory entails a strong ethnocentric strain, in that, collectively, the blacks as contrasted

59 60 61 62 63

The whole of T h e Human Condition is essential to understanding her ontology of politics and the condition of man. In this context see also her shocking essay on desegregation of public schools in the United States, "Reflections on Little Rock," Dissent (Jan.-Feb. 1959), 45-56. In bare outline her argument was as follows: education is a "social" interest, as opposed to being a "political" one, and citizens have a right to discriminate in this sphere. Thus the federal government ought not to intervene and enforce desegregation of public schools. In effect the federal government, according to her, ought to turn a blind eye to segregation, in direct contravention of the principle of equal treatment enshrined in the Constitution. Needless to say the Negroes bore the brunt of the discrimination. T h e Human Condition, 102, 86, passim. Ibid., 102. Ibid., 30-31. Ibid., 112-13. Ibid., 156-57.

Human Status and Politics


with other races resemble animal laborans much more than the latter do. There is no escaping from this conclusion: the parallels between her view of the blacks and her depiction of the animal laborans are too strident to be accidental. In the light of these facts, it is difficult to resist the allied conclusion that the totalitarian Holocaust and its attack on "human status,"64 is conceived as a path-breaking event in human history precisely because it constitutes an irrevocable rupture in Jewish, in occidental and in "civilized" history. But its "Jewishness" and "Europeanness" need not blind us to the fact that the Holocaust marks an authentic hiatus in the history of man as well. To acknowledge this fact is to begin to understand why human beings require politics. In Arendt's words:
The real story of the Nazi-constructed Hell is desperately needed for the future.. . . Only from this foundation, on which a new knowledge of man will rest, can our new insights, our new memories, our new deeds, take their point of departure. . . . From innocence beyond virtue and guilt beyond vice. . . we m u s t return t o the reality of politics.65

Foreshadowed here is Arendt's subsequent preoccupation with Homer and Periclean Athens. Brute fact once diabolically outran the human imagination. The new politics and the new reality must necessarily take its cue from the immemorial promise of ancient Greece.
64 Eichmann in Jerusalem, 268. 65 Commenraiy (September 1946), 293.