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

Image by Bernd Schwabe, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

When Eich­mann in JerusalemHan­nah Arendt’s book about Nazi offi­cer Adolf Eichmann’s tri­alcame out in 1963, it con­tributed one of the most famous of post-war ideas to the dis­course, the “banal­i­ty of evil.” And the con­cept at first caused a crit­i­cal furor. “Enor­mous con­tro­ver­sy cen­tered on what Arendt had writ­ten about the con­duct of the tri­al, her depic­tion of Eich­mann, and her dis­cus­sion of the role of the Jew­ish Coun­cils,” writes Michael Ezra at Dis­sent mag­a­zine “Eich­mann, she claimed, was not a ‘mon­ster’; instead, she sus­pect­ed, he was a ‘clown.’”

Arendt blamed vic­tims who were forced to col­lab­o­rate, crit­ics charged, and made the Nazi offi­cer seem ordi­nary and unre­mark­able, reliev­ing him of the extreme moral weight of his respon­si­bil­i­ty. She answered these charges in an essay titled “Per­son­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty Under Dic­ta­tor­ship,” pub­lished in 1964. Here, she aims to clar­i­fy the ques­tion in her title by argu­ing that if Eich­mann were allowed to rep­re­sent a mon­strous and inhu­man sys­tem, rather than shock­ing­ly ordi­nary human beings, his con­vic­tion would make him a scape­goat and let oth­ers off the hook. Instead, she believes that every­one who worked for the regime, what­ev­er their motives, is com­plic­it and moral­ly cul­pa­ble.

But although most peo­ple are cul­pa­ble of great moral crimes, those who col­lab­o­rat­ed were not, in fact, crim­i­nals. On the con­trary, they chose to fol­low the rules in a demon­stra­bly crim­i­nal regime. It’s a nuance that becomes a stark moral chal­lenge. Arendt points out that every­one who served the regime agreed to degrees of vio­lence when they had oth­er options, even if those might be fatal. Quot­ing Mary McCarthy, she writes, “If some­body points a gun at you and says, ‘Kill your friend or I will kill you,’ he is tempt­ing you, that is all.”

While this cir­cum­stance may pro­vide a “legal excuse,” for killing, Arendt seeks to define a “moral issue,” a Socrat­ic prin­ci­ple she had “tak­en for grant­ed” that we all believed: “It is bet­ter to suf­fer than do wrong,” even when doing wrong is the law. Peo­ple like Eich­mann were not crim­i­nals and psy­chopaths, Arendt argued, but rule-fol­low­ers pro­tect­ed by social priv­i­lege. “It was pre­cise­ly the mem­bers of respectable soci­ety,” she writes, “who had not been touched by the intel­lec­tu­al and moral upheaval in the ear­ly stages of the Nazi peri­od, who were the first to yield. They sim­ply exchanged one sys­tem of val­ues against anoth­er,” with­out reflect­ing on the moral­i­ty of the entire new sys­tem.

Those who refused, on the oth­er hand, who even “chose to die,” rather than kill, did not have “high­ly devel­oped intel­li­gence or sophis­ti­ca­tion in moral mat­ters.” But they were crit­i­cal thinkers prac­tic­ing what Socrates called a “silent dia­logue between me and myself,” and they refused to face a future where they would have to live with them­selves after com­mit­ting or enabling atroc­i­ties. We must remem­ber, Arendt writes, that “what­ev­er else hap­pens, as long as we live we shall have to live togeth­er with our­selves.”

Such refusals to par­tic­i­pate might be small and pri­vate and seem­ing­ly inef­fec­tu­al, but in large enough num­bers, they would mat­ter. “All gov­ern­ments,” Arendt writes, quot­ing James Madi­son, “rest on con­sent,” rather than abject obe­di­ence. With­out the con­sent of gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate employ­ees, the “leader… would be help­less.” Arendt admits the unlike­ly effec­tive­ness of active oppo­si­tion to a one-par­ty author­i­tar­i­an state. And yet when peo­ple feel most pow­er­less, most under duress, she writes, an hon­est “admis­sion of one’s own impo­tence” can give us “a last rem­nant of strength” to refuse.

We have only for a moment to imag­ine what would hap­pen to any of these forms of gov­ern­ment if enough peo­ple would act “irre­spon­si­bly” and refuse sup­port, even with­out active resis­tance and rebel­lion, to see how effec­tive a weapon this could be. It is in fact one of the many vari­a­tions of non­vi­o­lent action and resistance—for instance the pow­er that is poten­tial in civ­il dis­obe­di­ence.

We have exam­ple after exam­ple of these kinds of refusals to par­tic­i­pate in a mur­der­ous sys­tem or fur­ther its aims. Arendt was aware these actions can come at great cost. The alter­na­tives, she argues, may be far worse.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Han­nah Arendt’s Orig­i­nal Arti­cles on “the Banal­i­ty of Evil” in the New York­er Archive

Hen­ry David Thore­au on When Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence and Resis­tance Are Jus­ti­fied (1849)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (6) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (6)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Randy says:

    “fol­low the rules in a demon­stra­bly crim­i­nal regime”

    If you’re pay­ing atten­tion, you’ll note that we are ALWAYS in a demon­stra­bly crim­i­nal regime. It’s only mat­ters of degree that make one year, one con­ti­nent, dif­fer­ent from the next.

  • Colum McCaffery says:

    Arendt was talk­ing about con­sent when refus­ing or speak­ing out might be per­son­al­ly dan­ger­ous — even fatal. Her view is clear but talk­ing of con­sent should not be con­fined to extreme sit­u­a­tions. Look rather to the hero­ic sta­tus accord­ed to whistle­blow­ers while col­lab­o­ra­tors are tol­er­at­ed or the “wow” accord­ed to the per­son who mere­ly dis­agrees with the boss.
    From 2012 this might inter­est: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/05/03/from-the-cardinal-to-the-chancers-its-time-to-make-integrity-important/

  • Ivan says:

    You can tell she did­n’t have chil­dren. Par­ents val­ue their chil­dren’s lives more than moral­i­ty. They are ready to suf­fer and ‘lose their soul’ to save them. I would colab­o­rate with a dev­il if I had to.

  • Mathieu LeClair says:

    No one’s per­fect and thus the sys­tem is not per­fect and will nev­er be. Though as the lev­el of these imper­fec­tions ris­es, so does the prob­lems. Say­ing we’re “always in a demon­stra­bly crim­i­nal regime” is just to black and white.

    At the end of the day, how his­to­ry repeats itself over and over is how we teach are chil­dren. The way they are thought and the virtues that are ingrained in them at a young age could be a direct reflec­tion of how the future might unfold. Though an old dog can also learn new tricks.. but only if it wants to and feels as tho it has to. so neg­a­tive pro­pa­gan­da is effec­tive on adults.. does­n’t have to be per-med­i­tat­ed.

    Social unrest.. no mat­ter what the rea­son, is a creep­ing mon­ster that not to many see com­ing till it’s to late.

  • In zo een toe­s­tand is het moeil­ijk richt­ing te kiezen . Soms is er geen keuze, staan er voor de deur en sleuren
    fam­i­liele­den mee.. zodat je voor de rest van de huisgenoten toch in de ver­keerde richt­ing gaat . Niet

    over­tu­igend maar voor best­wil voor allen . De sociale onrust is een
    vre­tende onzicht­bare worm die we meestal té laat door hebben

  • Bill says:

    Today she would be cen­sored by YouTube and Twit­ter.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.