Hannah Arendt Explains the Rise of Totalitarian Regimes–and the Strategies Needed to Combat Them

“Adolf Eich­mann went to the gal­lows with great dig­ni­ty,” wrote the polit­i­cal philoso­pher Hannah Arendtdescrib­ing the scene lead­ing up to the promi­nent Holo­caust-orga­niz­er’s exe­cu­tion. After drink­ing half a bot­tle of wine, turn­ing down the offer of reli­gious assis­tance, and even refus­ing the black hood offered him at the gal­lows, he gave a brief, strange­ly high-spir­it­ed speech before the hang­ing. “It was as though in those last min­utes he was sum­ming up the les­son that this long course in human wicked­ness had taught us — the les­son of the fear­some word-and-thought-defy­ing banal­i­ty of evil.”

These lines come from Eich­mann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banal­i­ty of Evilorig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1963 as a five-part series in the New York­er. Eich­mann “was pop­u­lar­ly described as an evil mas­ter­mind who orches­trat­ed atroc­i­ties from a cushy Ger­man office, and many were eager to see the so-called ‘desk mur­der­er’ tried for his crimes,” explains the nar­ra­tor of the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son abovewrit­ten by Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Dublin polit­i­cal the­o­ry pro­fes­sor Joseph Lacey. “But the squea­mish man who took the stand seemed more like a dull bureau­crat than a sadis­tic killer,” and this “dis­par­i­ty between Eich­man­n’s nature and his actions” inspired Arendt’s famous sum­ma­tion.

A Ger­man Jew who fled her home­land in 1933, as Hitler rose to pow­er, Arendt “ded­i­cat­ed her­self to under­stand­ing how the Nazi regime came to pow­er.” Against the com­mon notion that “the Third Reich was a his­tor­i­cal odd­i­ty, a per­fect storm of unique­ly evil lead­ers, sup­port­ed by Ger­man cit­i­zens, look­ing for revenge after their defeat in World War I,” she argued that “the true con­di­tions behind this unprece­dent­ed rise of total­i­tar­i­an­ism weren’t spe­cif­ic to Ger­many.” Rather, in moder­ni­ty, “indi­vid­u­als main­ly appear in the social world to pro­duce and con­sume goods and ser­vices,” which fos­ters ide­olo­gies “in which indi­vid­u­als were seen only for their eco­nom­ic val­ue, rather than their moral and polit­i­cal capac­i­ties.”

In such iso­lat­ing con­di­tions, she thought, “par­tic­i­pat­ing in the regime becomes the only way to recov­er a sense of iden­ti­ty and com­mu­ni­ty. While con­demn­ing Eich­man­n’s “mon­strous actions, Arendt saw no evi­dence that Eich­mann him­self was unique­ly evil. She saw him as a dis­tinct­ly ordi­nary man who con­sid­ered obe­di­ence the high­est form of civic duty — and for Arendt, it was exact­ly this ordi­nar­i­ness that was most ter­ri­fy­ing.” Accord­ing to her the­o­ry, there was noth­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly Ger­man about all of this: any suf­fi­cient­ly mod­ern­ized cul­ture could pro­duce an Eich­mann, a cit­i­zen who defines him­self by par­tic­i­pa­tion in his soci­ety regard­less of that soci­ety’s larg­er aims. This led her to the con­clu­sion that  “think­ing is our great­est weapon against the threats of moder­ni­ty,” some of which have become only more threat­en­ing over the past six decades.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to the Life & Thought of Han­nah Arendt: Pre­sent­ed by the BBC Radio’s In Our Time

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

Large Archive of Han­nah Arendt’s Papers Dig­i­tized by the Library of Con­gress: Read Her Lec­tures, Drafts of Arti­cles, Notes & Cor­re­spon­dence

Han­nah Arendt on “Per­son­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty Under Dic­ta­tor­ship:” Bet­ter to Suf­fer Than Col­lab­o­rate

Take Han­nah Arendt’s Final Exam for Her 1961 Course “On Rev­o­lu­tion”

Watch Han­nah Arendt’s Final Inter­view (1973)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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