Hannah Arendt: How to Think About a “Wound That Will Not Heal”

By Alan West-Durán

“Remorse is for children.” (Eichmann)

“I cannot look at any more maps. The names of cities reek of burnt flesh.” (Elias Canetti)

“Genocide is the absolute integration…Auschwitz confirmed the idea of pure identity as death.” (T.W. Adorno)

“My turn to state an equation: colonization = ‘thingification’.” (Aimé Césaire)

The Holocaust or Shoah is an historical event that still challenges us even seventy years after the end of WWII: its magnitude not only causes revulsion, horror, and incomprehension but is also a summons to think and respond to the realities of genocide and other forms of mass killing, as well as the lethal dimensions of racism, exclusion, and discrimination.1 A recent film by Margarethe Von Trotta, Hannah Arendt (2012), has foregrounded these issues once again. Arendt is played by German actress Barbara Sukowa, a Fassbinder veteran (Lola, Berlin Alexanderplatz) who has also been a lead actress in two other von Trotta films, Rosa Luxemberg and Vision (where she plays Hildegard of Bingen). Sukowa is perfect for the role, able to capture Arendt’s grit, irony and steely determination to be a respected female thinker in an overwhelmingly male world.

The film was originally planned to cover all of Arendt’s life (1906-1975), but ultimately von Trotta focused on the period when Arendt went to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann trial, her subsequent five articles published in The New Yorker (February 16-March 16, 1963), and their ultimate publication later that year as the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The film’s focus remains a cinematic exploration about how we try to understand catastrophe, including not only the Shoah but also other forms of ethnic cleansing (politicide, classicide, ethnocide2), forced or unwitting acts of mass starvation, large acts of terrorism, and massive killings of civilian populations. Further, the film invites us to come to terms with evil, especially in its political dimension.

At one level the film must be applauded for trying to portray the life of a political philosopher, someone who truly led a life of the mind. Arendt grew up as an assimilated Jew immersed in high German culture, nurtured on the likes of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Cassirer, Scheler, Husserl, Lukacs, Bloch, Buber, Jaspers and Heidegger, as well as writers like Heine, Goethe, Kraus, Mann, Walser, Döblin, Broch, Musil, and Kafka. Her contemporaries were an equally talented cohort such as Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, Herbert Marcuse, T.W. Adorno, Gershom Scholem, Max Horkheimer, Hans Georg-Gadamer, Leo Lowenthal, Erich Fromm, Emmanuel Levinas, Bertolt Brecht, and, of course, Walter Benjamin. For a filmmaker to even approach this tradition and thought is risky, and von Trotta deserves praise for the effort. Maybe Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s seven-hour Our Hitler: A Film From Germany (1980) would be a better match in sheer exhaustiveness, but his over-the-top baroque-kitsch aesthetics are not well-suited to Arendt’s exacting and austere thought. Von Trotta had to make hard choices in order to produce a two-hour film. She thus limited not only the time-frame but also the philosophers presented (Heidegger, Jonas, Scholem, albeit indirectly).

The crux of the film is Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial, which lasted from April 11 to August 14, 1961. Eichmann had been captured by Mossad agents in Argentina on May 11, 1960. The judges delivered their verdict on December 11-12, 1961, finding him guilty on all charges. The verdict was upheld on appeal on May 29. Two days later Eichmann was hanged. The film shows Arendt following the trial in a separate room with a TV monitor, where she takes notes. She also went through transcripts and thousands of pages of court documents. From this she wrote both the articles and the book.

Both caused enormous controversy, with Arendt being widely attacked in the Jewish community in the US and in Israel. Life-long friends such as Hans Jonas (1903-1993), Kurt Blumenfeld (1884-1963) and Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) were dismayed by the book and criticized it vigorously. Three main criticisms were leveled against Arendt: first, her depiction of the Jewish Councils and their role in facilitating the extermination of Jews;3 second, her use of the celebrated phrase “the banality of evil” in referring to Eichmann and his role in the Holocaust; and third, the legal issues involved with having the trial take place in Israel.

Our focus here will be on the philosophical issues that she addressed.

Detecting the Elusive Face of Evil

Gideon Hausner, in his opening statement for the prosecution, evoked the memory of the 6 million Jews who perished under the Nazis, and sought to paint Eichmann as someone whose crimes made those of Attila, Ivan the Terrible and Genghis Khan seem insignificant. Before the court was a monster, an enemy of humanity, someone who had obliterated the difference between human and beast. Visually, the trial was meant to showcase that monstrosity: Eichmann was in a glass box (bulletproof) where he could be seen by all, and the television cameras often had medium shots or close-ups that showed his face and hands. For those seeking visual proof of Eichmann’s depravity on his face, however, the trial was mostly disappointing: dressed in a dark suit, wearing eyeglasses, balding, very measured in his gestures, he looked more like an accountant than a sadistic butcher of millions. His answers to questions, sometimes long and rambling, were filled with the officialese he had mentioned and even apologized for. Occasionally he would tilt his head, make a twitching move with the right side of his mouth, shift his hands, or seem to be smirking, but for the most part he was impassive, often polite, as he obsessively went over details. Many expected there would be a moment where he would break down, burst into tears, shout in anger, or rave like a maniac, shouting anti-Semitic slogans, but it never happened: Eichmann’s calm was unnerving. His calm was that of the colonialist, who in turning the colonized subject into a thing, becomes dehumanized himself, incapable of thought, compassion, and solidarity.

Even in the 2007 film Eichmann by Robert Young, which focuses on the interrogation of Eichmann by police captain Avner Less before the trial begins, we expect that in more intimate surroundings (albeit in an Israeli prison) Eichmann will open up and show his true Nazi colors. While the film does reveal some of the personal dimensions of his life (family, an affair in Vienna, his love of the violin), there is no “breakdown moment.” A documentary from 1999, The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal by Eyal Sivan and Rony Brauman, is made up entirely of footage from the trial, with certain enhancements and alterations (mostly through music and editing). There is no voice-over and the film is edited to include not only Eichmann, but the three judges, prosecutor Hausner, and several witnesses. A key moment in the film comes when the courtroom is shown an 80-minute film about Nazi atrocities, which Eichmann watches.4 Some of the images from the film are distortedly reflected on the glass box where Eichmann is sitting, giving the whole scene a ghostly and macabre feel. Then the film ends, the lights come up and we see the three judges visibly shaken and with their heads down (one of them in tears). The camera finally cuts to Eichmann, unperturbed, who then scratches his nose.

What struck Arendt during the trial was how this face of fascism never revealed itself, at least not on the visage of Eichmann. Both the common expectation and Arendt’s critique might be explained by Walter Benjamin’s understanding of fascism (“Theories of German Fascism,” 1930), linked to his physiognomic interests, which one critic has called his “defacement of fascism.”5 According to Benjamin “fascism was characterized by a rhetoric of presence; the delusions of subjective heroism; the questionable ability to show the masses their own face; the effacing of differences (such as that between civilian and military populations); the radical application of l’art pour l’art to politics; historical misreadings; cultist thinking in variety of guises; a war-driven technophilia; the rhetoric of eternity; the efforts of total coordination; and myth-inspired irrationalism.”6 Benjamin viewed the fascist face as one of stability and monolithic meaning suitable for exploiting by nationalism and the state. This is why he constantly tried to deface fascism’s visage, aware that behind the face of heroism, national unity, racial purity and “Aryan beauty” was an array of forces leading to catastrophe.

Testimony: Silence and Justice

The way the Eichmann trial tried to “deface fascism” was through the testimony of witnesses and survivors. This flood of testimony made Arendt uncomfortable, since it detracted from the trial’s ability to render justice. She was critical of the “spectacle of Jewish suffering” since it shifted the focus away from Eichmann (and his crimes). But more significant is the truth told by the witnesses, which transcends the narrow logic of legal concerns.

Testimony does not pretend to exhaust all possible explanations; on the contrary, because it is personal (and partial) it raises more questions than it answers, it cannot “close the case” to speak. The partiality of testimony raises questions because the truth will always be beyond a person’s individual testimony. Testimony’s power derives from speaking about those who have not been able to speak (the vanquished), as Primo Levi has eloquently written. Benjamin notes similarly, in his essay “The Storyteller,” “Death is the sanction of everything the storyteller has to tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.”7

The witness really asks his listener or reader to be a judge, to be part of addressing the injustice committed. That is why Levi says to his readers “You are the judges.”8 Still, Levi struggles with the issue of speaking for the drowned, those referred to as the musselman in the camps, who had giving up on living and were termed “ghastly marionettes,” “walking corpses,” “living dead” or “agitated and grotesque mannequins.” The German guards called them figuren (puppets, dolls) or schmattes (rags).9 The physical, moral, and spiritual decline was extraordinary and catastrophic, and Levi’s attempt to capture this world of the “bare life” speaks to both a necessity to write about it and a recognition that it is also almost impossible to do so. And yet, as Levi says, it is “the drowned” who must be given voice because they did not survive and yet must live on through testimony, through their being somehow “saved” by a future memory of injustice.10

Philosophy in ‘Dark Times’: Thinking, Ethics, Judgment

The large philosophical shadow in Arendt’s world was cast by her mentor Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), author of Being and Time (1927), who joined the Nazi party in 1933. Heidegger’s associations with the Third Reich have been documented: his Rector’s speech of May 1933 praising National Socialism, his support for the dismissal of Jewish professors, his call for the denial of teaching appointments to Christian scholars, the fact that he never renounced his party membership before 1945, his expressing the need for Nazi censorship in 1938, the fact that he continued to praise Hitler even after he resigned from being Rector (1934), and his recommendation of two prominent Nazi philosophers to be the editors of Nietzsche’s work. In January 1944, with severe paper shortages, the regime authorized delivery of paper for publishing Heidegger’s works. Statements that Heidegger made post-1945 trying to paint his pro-Nazi inclinations as short-lived (that is, as having come to an end with his resignation as Rector in 1934) have proven to be half-truths or outright lies.11

It is surprising that despite Arendt’s revulsion at Heidegger’s pro-Nazi past she continued to maintain the friendship and even made significant and successful efforts to have his works published in English. To her credit (or not) she was able to separate Heidegger the follower of National Socialism from Heidegger the philosopher, teacher, and mentor. Heidegger appears in five scenes during the film, all flashbacks. The first shows Arendt in his office and he says to her “You say you want me to teach you how to think. Thinking is a lonely business.” True enough, though not a startling revelation. In another scene of Heidegger, he is lecturing and offers a definition of thinking: “1) Thinking does not bring knowledge as do the sciences. 2) Thinking does not produce usable practical wisdom. 3) Thinking solves no cosmic riddles. 4) Thinking does not endow us directly with the power to act.”12 In the film, this flashback leads us to believe that Arendt heard these lectures, but they were given at Freiburg University in 1951 and 1952. Although she was not present, these remarks are presented in the film as having influenced her. She might have agreed unequivocally with statements one and three, but with two and four she would have had grave reservations. In saying that thinking does not produce “practical wisdom,” Heidegger might be right about the “practical wisdom” in terms of, say, riding a bicycle, but it conjures up two terms from the Greek philosophical vocabulary, phronesis, and sophrosyne, both related to concerns of the soul and ethics – the former, often translated as practical wisdom and prudence; the latter, related to self-control and moderation. Arendt would certainly agree that phronesis and sophrosyne were key elements in thinking and judging, activities that allow us to avoid political evil. On the fourth definition she might agree with the “directly” (with the power to act), but for her, all important action must be guided by thinking and to think that evil is being committed and not act upon it would for her be unconscionable. From a more cynical standpoint one could take all four of Heidegger’s comments – especially since they were made after 1945 – as a coy way for him to admit that philosophers and their thinking are not so important and are removed from the concerns of the world. This interpretation would see Heidegger’s remarks as an evasion of responsibility, politically irresponsible, and ethically suspect.

For Arendt, as highlighted in a lecture she gives to a packed hall, thinking involved taking responsibility, making political judgments, and acting upon them to combat injustice or evil. More significant is what Arendt, Jonas, Lévinas and Löwith saw as Heidegger’s nihilism and lack of ethical perspective since his work was so preoccupied with ontology. All of them have pointed out that Heidegger’s thought leaves no room for the victims of history, the oppressed, the stateless, the exiled.

The counterpoint to Heidegger in the film is Hans Jonas, a colleague of Arendt’s at the New School, where he taught from 1955 to 1976. Like Arendt, he studied with Heidegger at Marburg, left Germany in 1933, moved to London and then Jerusalem (she went to France). He later joined the Jewish Brigade of the British army, fighting in Italy and participated in the liberation of Berlin. It was only when he returned to Jerusalem (1945) that he found out his mother had died in Auschwitz. Jonas fought in Israel’s War of Independence (1948), then emigrated to Canada where he taught at McGill and Carleton; then he finally went to the US. In the film Jonas is portrayed as a close friend who then breaks off the friendship for two years due to the Eichmann articles and book. They renewed the friendship but agreed to never discuss this issue again. Jonas saw Eichmann as a monster, not the faceless bureaucrat/desk-killer that Arendt describes in her book, and was highly critical of her “banality of evil” argument. Jonas also completely distanced himself from Heidegger, though he did write a moving letter to Heidegger after Arendt’s memorial service, where he delivered a eulogy.

Though more overtly religious than Arendt, Jonas did not believe in a theodicy to explain the Holocaust, be it secular or religious. The notion that God (or history) could account for the evil of Jewish extermination was obscene to him (as it was also for Lévinas, Primo Levi, Wiesel, and many others). Like Arendt, despite acknowledging that the Holocaust was unique in many ways, both were loath to analyze it as demonic evil, and wanted to strip it of any mystery or enigma that stands outside of history. Jonas, however, in trying to establish a post-Auschwitz morality did not claim that the events proved that God did not exist (as did Levi or Wiesel); instead of asking where was God or why didn’t God help man during the Shoah, he turned the question around. It was humans who let God down, which implied a belief in God as a being that is not omnipotent.13 There are two important consequences from Jonas’s remarks: first, that despite the belief in God a theodicy to explain this evil is ungrounded (since God is not omnipotent), and second that it is we as humans that bear the responsibility for Auschwitz. In this sense Jonas is close to Levinas’s ethics of the Other as infinite responsibility that disrupts ontology (and our egoism).

The philosopher who haunts this film does so by virtue of his absence: Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Arendt knew Benjamin personally and was responsible for the first English-language collection of his writings in 1968 (Illuminations: Essays and Reflections), which she edited, including a 50-page introduction. Benjamin was the only one of her cohort of intellectuals to die at the hands of the Nazis, albeit indirectly.14 Like Benjamin (and Adorno), Arendt believed that true thinking meant freeing ourselves from false universals, rejecting historical teleology, and totalizing systems. Benjamin speaks about “crystallizing monads,” Arendt “fragmentary constellations,” arguing that history is not a linear and progressive process. Arendt states:

Causality, however, is an altogether alien and falsifying category in the historical sciences. Not only does the actual meaning of every event always transcend any number of “causes” which we may assign to it…but this past itself comes into being only with the event itself. Only when something irrevocable has happened can we try to trace its history backward. The event illuminates its own past; it can never be deduced from it. Whenever an event occurs that is great enough to illuminate its own past, history comes into being. Only then does the chaotic maze of past happenings emerge as a story which can be told, because it has a beginning and an end.15

Statements like this recall Benjamin’s images (from his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”) of “brushing history against the grain” (VII) or being able to articulate the past as it “flashes up in a moment of danger” (VI). In these brief texts Benjamin speaks about history as intimately related to redemption and justice, themes that underline Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial. In Thesis VII Benjamin speaks to a version of history that is the story of the victors which must be demystified, and then delivers one of his most quoted thoughts: “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”16 Benjamin has more than the Third Reich in mind in making this statement (one thinks of all of Europe’s great cultural treasures made possible by the subjugation of the toiling classes, whether at home or in the colonies); it is a sharp rebuke to Germany’s cultural uniqueness (and splendor) as well.

But it is in Thesis VI that Benjamin speaks about two visions of the past (or history): the traditional one, a narrative of great events and progress (that of the dominant classes), and another suppressed or silenced, which “flashes up in a moment of danger” and is the tale of those who have suffered, those who have been forgotten. The job of the radical historian is to interrupt the narrative of the dominant class and redeem the injustices of the past. Benjamin further states “The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer; he comes as the victor over the Antichrist.” This appeal to justice, with rich Judaic overtones, where the Messiah is the voice of justice and the oppressed, is opposed to the Antichrist (ruling classes, fascism). The struggle between the Messiah and the Antichrist is a hermeneutic one since the latter has caused harm in the past and wants to make that past insignificant, while the Messiah must wrench meaning and hope from that past. That is why he ends Thesis VI as follows: “The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe if he is victorious. And the enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”

Arendt in Jerusalem could not help but be reminded of Benjamin’s thoughts on history, as history itself was on trial, although she insisted that the trial should be specifically about Eichmann’s crimes, not history or Anti-Semitism, nor the Nazi regime. And yet she was acutely aware of what Pierre Vidal-Naquet called “the crime within the crime” (that is, not only the Holocaust but the Nazi attempt to cover it up) and that the justice to be attained by addressing the silence could not be met just by sentencing Eichmann. “Injustices remain if they are not addressed, even if there is no way to completely settle accounts. Justice is not a matter of punishing the guilty (as the law seeks to do) but of responding to injustice, otherwise injustice will reign as long as there is no response to it.”17 For Arendt, this response to injustice is part of what she calls understanding and political judgment, which includes an analysis of imperialism as part of her overall understanding of Nazism.

Arendt and Imperialism

One of the least discussed aspects of Arendt’s work when dealing with the Holocaust as well as Nazi totalitarianism, is her analysis of imperialism. In her renowned book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), there are three sections, a first on Anti-Semitism, a second on Imperialism, and a third on Totalitarianism. The Imperialism section is almost the same length as the final section. Arendt sees imperialism —particularly the period 1884-1914— as one of the key contributors to the Nazi phenomenon. She explores colonial empires from the period (mostly British and French) and their views of race, their exploitation of resources and peoples as having a boomerang effect on Europe. One can understand the Third Reich as a colonial enterprise beginning in Europe, then extending east and eventually south.  In their plans for Eastern Europe, led by Himmler, the Nazis envisioned areas populated by Germans and the depopulation of vast areas: a decrease of Poles by 85%, Belarusians by 75%, Czechs by 50%, and Ukrainians by 65%. Central to the settling of these areas was a set of interlocking genocides in which the Jews occupied a central (but not the only) place.18

Aimé Césaire captured the colonial and imperialist nature of Nazism brilliantly:

Yes it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished humanistic very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century, he has a Hitler inside of him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied European colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘niggers’ of Africa.19

Césaire’s powerful indictment of colonialism is a sobering reminder of the violence wrought by colonial role and its genocidal implications. He critiques a certain view of humanism (that later will echo in the conclusion of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth) and of the racial dimensions of that violence. He is not suggesting that all Europeans are little Hitlers, but that the centuries of colonialism have produced a racist, hateful, and destructive core that cannot be easily exorcised. Césaire’s words also echo Benjamin’s comments on civilization and barbarism, drawing links between culture and violence, periphery and center, white and non-white. Significantly, Césaire is suggesting that by being non-Aryan, Jews (and Slavs) became non-white in the racial logic of the Nazis, the Other who must be controlled, exploited or exterminated. Arendt’s lived experience and historical research made her cognizant of how Jews have been the Other within European history, submitted to an “internal colonialism” that would be expanded during European imperial expansion.

Arendt’s anti-imperialist analysis has led to what some scholars have termed the “colonial/post-colonial turn” in Holocaust studies, or what Michael Rothberg calls “multidirectional memory.”20 This is a welcome direction in linking the Holocaust with imperialism and colonialism, as well as an opportunity to discuss Arendt’s work in a more global context. However, one must be careful with Arendt’s analysis of imperialism, since her understanding of Africa was often stereotypical, filled with Eurocentric notions about their cultural development. Even when Arendt speaks from a clearly anti-colonialist perspective, she often reproduces notions of European superiority. Equally troubling is her limiting of imperialism to the 1884-1914 period, which she obviously does because it is the period when Germany becomes a colonial power. And yet she focuses her analysis mostly on the French and British imperial systems. There is almost no analysis of the German extermination of the Herero people (1904-07), as result of their rebellion against the German colonial presence in South West Africa, currently known as Namibia. Those not killed were driven into the Omaheke Desert; most then died of starvation and thirst. Others were put into concentration camps where the death rates were appallingly high. Medical experiments were performed on the Herero, led by Eugen Fischer, who later trained German doctors in eugenics, including Joseph Mengele.21

Despite some of Arendt’s limitations in studying imperialism, her linking of the phenomenon with Nazism is significant (she was one of the first to point this out), not to mention her condemnation of colonial violence and racism. We do well to remember her argument that despite certain factors that led to the Holocaust (racialized colonial bureaucracies, imperialism, and Anti-Semitism), those antecedents do not necessarily have to lead to genocide. This is consistent with her anti-teleological view of history, but also a reminder that imperialisms and colonialisms vary widely, despite the commonalities that Césaire, Fanon and others have underlined.

A Conclusion?

Von Trotta’s film brings out many important issues related to Hannah Arendt’s thought, particularly around her best-known book Eichmann in Jerusalem. At the same time, it also either hints at or leaves out other concerns that need addressing (notions of bare life, testimony, Benjamin’s thoughts on history, the complexities of Nazi ideology, imperialism and Nazism). The end of the film suggests that Arendt’s thinking until her death would be centered on the issue of good and evil, which is only partially true, but still captures how large the Holocaust loomed in her life and thought, even if she was not directly dealing with it. The film shows how her thinking about the Shoah brushed against the grain of history, often causing her personal anguish with esteemed colleagues like Scholem, Jonas, and Blumenfeld.

To its credit, the film does not try wrap up Arendt’s thought in a phrase nor provide a simplistic understanding of the Holocaust. The Shoah has something to teach us, no doubt. But what exactly? How does its atrocious example help or hinder our understanding of the slaughter of a million communists in Indonesia (1965), Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge (1975-79), the killing in East Timor, the Dirty Wars of Argentina and Uruguay, the ethnic cleansings of Bosnia and Rwanda, the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar? Are there sufficient mechanisms in place to prevent other Bosnias or Rwandas? Globally, some progress has been made since 1998, with the creation of the International Criminal Court, but it has been criticized for its caseload (of mostly African countries), and for political manipulation by the US as well as by other members of the Security Council.22 Arendt would clearly applaud efforts like the ICC, but given its limitations would be wary of its abilities to prevent genocide since it functions mostly after the fact.

More importantly, Arendt warned that ethnocide, politicide or genocide in the future would more than likely come from countries that were not similar to Germany under the Third Reich or the USSR of the great Stalinist purges. So-called democratic regimes could (and will) resort to torture, the use of internment camps, of “special rendition,” as well as subtle and not so subtle regimes of exclusion (from surveillance and profiling to denial of legal status and incarceration, and voter disenfranchisement).23

Jean Améry (1912-1978), a Viennese Jewish survivor, offers us a sobering reminder of what (if any) lessons can be drawn from the shattering experience of the Shoah:

We did not become wiser in Auschwitz, if by wisdom one understands positive knowledge of the world…In the camp, too, we did not become ‘deeper,’ if that calamitous depth is at all a definable intellectual quality…[I]n Auschwitz we did not become better, more human, more humane, and more mature ethically. You do not observe dehumanized man committing his deeds and misdeeds without having all your notions of inherent human dignity placed in doubt. We emerged from the camp stripped, robbed, emptied out, disoriented —and it was a long time before we were able to learn the ordinary language of freedom. Still today, incidentally, we speak it with discomfort and without real trust in its validity.24

Améry’s words might seem pessimistic, but one can read his comments otherwise, as a corrective to any facile optimism, superficial ideas about dignity and human rights, homages to the indomitable human spirit, idealized notions of freedom. He warns us that to recover from Auschwitz (or Rwanda, Cambodia, Argentina, etc.) is a long process and that the wound does not entirely heal, that not even justice, important as it is, can bring “closure.” In 1943, Elias Canetti wrote: “We are never sad enough to improve the world. We are hungry again too soon.”25 A corrective to Canetti is in order: instead of sad, the word outraged should be used, and his lament should be read as a challenge for us: that our outrage be shaped into a lucid demand for change (the true meaning of thought envisioned by Arendt, Césaire and Fanon), that our desire for improving the world never fall into arrogance and false morality, and that our hunger be one for justice and solidarity.


1. Both Holocaust and Shoah are terms that have been widely discussed, disputed, and even rejected by some. I share those concerns, but will use them in this article as a kind of shorthand, despite reservations. See Giorgio Agamben, Remnant of Auschwitz, The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 1999), 28-31, and Stuart Liebman, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 6-7.

2. Michael Mann, The Darker Side of Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1-34.

3. This issue was exhaustively treated in Raul Hilberg’s 1961 study, The Destruction of the European Jews (New York: Harper & Row).

4. Valerie Hartouni, Visualizing Atrocity, Arendt, Evil and The Optics of Thoughtlessness (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 84-91.

5. See Gerhard Richter, Walter Benjamin and the Corpus of Autobiography (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000), especially chapter one, “Benjamin’s Face: Defacing Fascism,” 93-124.

6. Ibid., 79.

7. Walter Benjamin Selected Writings, Volume 3 (1935-1938) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 151.

8. Reyes Mate Memoria de Auschwitz Actualidad moral y política (Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2003), 178-184.

9. There is debate as to the origin of the expression, which reflects a Eurocentric bias (in seeing Muslims as completely fatalistic). The important thing is that for the “normal” camp inmates these “walking corpses” were disruptive (they did little work, stole food, abandoned any personal hygiene, soiled themselves, and interrupted camp routines), not to mention that their presence was a horrible reminder of what their fate might become. For a full (and frightening) description of the “walking corpses” see Wolgang Sofksy The Order of Terror, The Concentration Camp (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 199-205.

10. For a somewhat lengthy, complex (but not unproblematic) discussion of being a witness for “the drowned,” see Agamben, Remnant of Auschwitz.

11. This is not the place to delve into whether Heidegger’s philosophy overall was consistent with National Socialism. The debate and bibliography around this issue is extensive and ranges from those who argue that Heidegger’s philosophical importance for twentieth century philosophy is unquestionable (Derrida, Arendt, Beaufret) to those who are mixed (Wolin, Löwith, Steiner, Caputo) and those who think that Heidegger should not even be considered a philosopher (Faye, Farias). A good place to start is Richard Wolin, The Heidegger Controversy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).

12. Martin Heidegger What Is Called Thinking? (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 159. (German original Was Heisst Denken? published in 1954).

13. Jonas Mortality and Morality A Search for the Good after Auschwitz (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 191-92. Jonas’s views were inspired by the diaries of a Dutch Jew Etty Hillesum who volunteered to go to the Westerbrook camp to help there and share the destiny of her people. She died in Auschwitz in 1943.

14. Benjamin took his own life, fearing that he would be captured by Spanish authorities and eventually deported to Germany.

15. Hannah Arendt “Understanding and Politics” in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954 (New York: Schocken Books, 1994), 319. The essay is from 1954.

16. Michael Löwy Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’ (London: Verso, 2005), 42, 47.

17. Reyes Mate Medianoche en la historia, comentarios a las tesis de Walter Benjamin ‘Sobre el concepto de la historia’ (Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2006), 126. Mate is paraphrasing Primo Levi.

18. Alon Confino, A World Without Jews, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2104), 163.

19. Aimé Césaire Discourse on Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 36. The French original does not have scare quotes on the words coolies or niggers.

20. Michael Rothberg Multidirectional Memory Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

21. See Olusuga & Erichsen The Kaiser’s Holocaust Germany’s Forgotten Genocide (London: Faber & Faber, 2010). The estimate of Herero that died range from 25,000 to 100,000. The first Imperial Commissioner of German South-West Africa was Heinrich E. Göring, father of Hermann Göring.

22. See Somini Sengupta “Politics Seen Undercutting Credibility of a Court,” New York Times, June 3, 2014, A4. The U.S. has bilateral agreements with 100 countries to ensure U.S. soldiers cannot be handed over to the court, nor has the U.S. signed the Rome Agreement.

23. See Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008). Wolin refers to increasing corporate control of the US, a hierarchically managed democracy, with a strong military, technical innovation always seeking new markets, and concentrated wealth, with citizens turned into consumers and decision-making centered on cost-effectiveness. Wolin calls these trends inverted totalitarianism because although its control is vast, power is not exercised like in classical fascism (one party, a strong leader, an omnipotent state, a totally ordered society). The market and corporate hierarchies rule, but with elections, a “free” press, greater social liberties and the illusion of personal autonomy.

24. Jean Améry At the Mind’s Limits, Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1980, 19-20.

25. Elias Canetti, The Human Province (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1986), 37.

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