photo blog_head_zpsfscr4tie.jpg
More adventurous than the average bear

Get email updates of new posts:        (Delivered by FeedBurner)

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Nazi Fear, Power and Collaboration

"Politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance. This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as non-violence; to speak of non-violent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it." - Hannah Arendt


"Most Nazis, Arendt argued, had an “innate repugnance toward crime.” The aim of ideology, then, was to overcome that repugnance by turning mass murder into a positive moral duty. Killing Jews required the same refusal to yield to inner temptation—in this case, the desire not to kill—that not stealing required in another era. Killing all Jews, without exception, even had the imprimatur of Kant’s categorical imperative, of which Eichmann possessed a fairly coherent, if simple, understanding. Thus, to kill a few Jews out of sadism or rage was less morally worthy than killing all the Jews, without emotion and for only the purest—that is, the most lawlike and universalizable—of reasons. While fanatical Jew-killing was reminiscent of the internal renunciation described by Arendt in Origins, it was of an altogether more traditional sort, resembling nothing so much as the Christian ideal of doing the good, however malignantly defined, for its own sake. So persuasive, if upside down, was this moral world that someone like Eichmann, according to Arendt, could committ “his crimes under circumstances that [made] it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong.”

But for the most part, Arendt realized, the Nazis’ moral inversions were not successful: party functionaries still sensed, however dìmly, that they were committing evil. Had the Nazis, after all, not possessed some notion that they were doing wrong, would they have resorted to euphemistic “language rules,” where nothing—not murder, concentration camps, nor gas chambers—could be called by its proper name? One of the purposes of this linguistic obfuscation, no doubt, was to confuse foreign visitors and to conceal the Nazis’ crimes: the Nazis were worried about bad publicity and feared that should they lose the war, they would be judged in a less than positive light. But the Nazis used these words even among themselves. The Final Solution required an extensive bureaucracy, with far-flung offices throughout occupied Europe, and not every employee was a reliable foot soldier. The Nazis resorted to code words because they could not guarantee that their own ranks would accept the horror of what they were doing: euphemism was an “enormous help in the maintenance of order and sanity.” Arendt’s discussion thus suggested that the purpose of ideology was to deflect attention from—or to justify—moral horror so that its executioners could carry on their murderous business.

What made Nazi ideology persuasive to men like Eichmann, Arendt concluded, was the simple fact that so many of the men he respected seemed to believe in it. “His conscience was indeed set at rest when he saw the zeal and eagerness with which ‘good society’ everywhere reacted as he did. He did not need to ‘close his ears to the voice of conscience,’ . . . not because he had none, but because his conscience spoke with a ‘respectable voice,’ with the voice of respectable society around him.” Eichmann genuinely believed in the authority of his social betters, that their opinions were worthy of respect and emulation. They also had power, so it behooved him to subscribe to the beliefs that accompanied that power. These twin elements in Eichmann’s ideological makeup—the sincere and the instrumenta], the moral and the careerist—were inseparable, for in Eichmann’s eyes, success was a moral good, the standard by which men were judged worthy or not. As he claimed of Hitler: “[He] may have been wrong all down the line, but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up from lance corporal in the German Army to Führer of a people of almost eighty million. .. . His success alone proved to me that I should subordinate myself to this man”...

The Nazis faced a significant obstacle in their quest to eliminate the Jews: in Europe, there were more non-Nazis or anti-Nazis than Nazis, and in the concentration camps, more victims than perpetrators. Like all wielders of fear, the Nazis worried that disgruntlement with their rule might coalesce into organized opposition. As the Nazis accumulated more power and territory, they had good reason to be nervous, for they were attempting morally perilous and unprecedented tasks in strange lands. Terror was a means of overcoming these obstacles. It enabled the Nazis to maximize the impact of the resource they did have—violence—and minimize the impact of the resource they did not have—people. It was thus a utilitarian adaptation of means and ends, turning potential opponents, Jew and non-Jew alike, into either collaborators or cooperators.

For many readers, Arendt’s discussion in Eichmann of collaborators and cooperators, particularly among the Jews, deflected attention from the Nazis themselves, and unfairly cast the Jews as the corrupt agents of their own demise. As one of her most vehement critics noted, “Our enemies have for years been engaged in a campaign of whitewashing the culprits and blaming the victims. The latter, brutally murdered not so long ago, are now being killed for a second time by the defilers. Among these enemies Hannah Arendt now places herself.” But by focusing on collaborators, Arendt was not seeking to minimize the role of the Nazis. She was instead trying to show that terror did not entail the simple monopoly of power by the fear wielders and the total lack of power among the fear sufferers. Terror was an affair of collusion, with no “clear-cut division between persecutors and victims.” Like Hobbes, Arendt believed that nonresistance was useful to the powerful, that it inflated their power, inspiring an image of their grim irresistibility, which intimidated potential opponents. Obedience was the result of nonresistance, and “in politics,” Arendt wrote, “obedience and support are the same.” With terror, obedience and support were not quite the same, but neither were they antithetical: in the few cases where potential collaborators and cooperators resisted their assigned roles—in Denmark, for instance, where the entire country, from king to commoner, mobilized to protect the Jews—the Nazis’ power eroded, their terror proved ineffective, and the genocidal project collapsed. “The Nazis, it turned out, possessed neither the manpower nor the will power to remain ‘tough’ when they met determined opposition.” It was for that reason that the Nazis, according to Eichmann, “regarded this cooperation [between the Jewish councils and the Nazis] as the very cornerstone of their Jewish policy”...

“There exist many things considerably worse than death”—like torture—which the SS made sure were never “very far from their victims’ minds and imagination.” In not resisting, the Jews had chosen, with good reason, “the comparatively easy death the Nazis offered them—before the firing squad or in the gas chamber.” It was important to raise the issue of the nonresistance of the Jews, how ever, in order to show that it contributed to the efficacy of terror and that the Jews exercised agency in opting for it. The Jews faced a choice between not resisting and heading to the gas chamber or resisting and being tortured. It was not a good choice, and the choice they made was more than understandable. But it was a choice, and treating it as if it were not only ascribed to the victims a passivity they did not possess and to the Nazis an omnipotence they never had. Such a view almost turned the Jews into the animals the Nazis imagined them to be. It also minimized the true evil of regimes of fear, which was that they asked their victims to cooperate, willfully, in their own death. The Nazis did not grant the Jews the grace of passivity or disappeared agency. They demanded far more, that the Jews “organize their own destruction".

But Arendt had a second problem with the question “Why did the Jews not resist?” She thought it presumed that the Jews acted as a cohesive whole. in fact, she argued, the Jews, like all peoples, were divided between elites and followers, and it was the leaders of the Jewish councils and Jewish organizations who counseled their followers to take the path of cooperation and non-resistance. Terror worked best, she argued, when it conscripted indigenous leaders whom the victims trusted. Contrary to what centuries of political theorists had taught—that terror requires the obliteration of civil society—and what she had claimed in Origins, she argued that social organizations and their leaders were the transmission lines of terror. The Jewish councils were not the simple puppets of the Nazis; had they been, the Jews would not have trusted them as they did. It was precisely that the councils were somewhat independent, that they were run by men of high standing, that made them such potent authorities among the Jews. Far from the Nazi regime requiring the total abolition of autonomous social organizations, it actively fostered them, so that when the time came for more severe measures, they would have garnered enough social capital among the Jews to help implement those measures. “The whole truth,” Arendt gloomily concluded, “was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.”

The Jewish leadership, according to Arendt, chose to collaborate with the Nazis for several reasons. First, they lacked allies in the wider population. In the few cases, in fact, where the surrounding cities and countryside came to their aid, Jewish leaders were able to mount a challenge. Second, they subscribed to a belief in eternal Jewish victimhood, and viewed anti-Semitism as an intractable gentile animus. This belief induced a kind of fatalism, in which working with the Nazis seemed like the only course of action. Finally, the Jewish leadership suffered from the illusions of realism. In the name of being realistic, they sometimes forsook genuine opportunities for rebellion or opposition. If nothing else, they failed to see that had they done nothing, the fate of the Jewish people could have been no worse, and might have been a good deal better. Their realism, in other words, was more than realism: it provided active support to the Nazis.’ Though subsequent scholars—and critics at the time—have demonstrated the faulty assumptions and factual errors underlying this last argument,’ it usefully suggests the distance Arendt had traveled from Origins to Eichmann. No longer were the victims of terror simple, unthinking automatons. Instead, they were rational agents, making calculations similar to those described by Hobbes. They assumed that if they cooperated in the here and now, they might buy enough time to survive until the Allies arrived. It was not a crazy calculus, but its claims to rationality supported a logic of fear arid induced obedience.

When the history of twentieth-century fear is written, Arendt suggested in Eichmann, it would be better to dispense with grandiose notions like total terror and radical evil, and confront instead the dull realities of careerists and collaborators. By insisting on this nexus between terror and triviality, Arendt did not seek to discount the gravity of the Holocaust or, by implication, of Stalinism. She sought instead to deprive fear of any legs, to show that it could not underwrite politics. Arising from and depending upon the normal exchanges of ordinary human beings, fear lacked the mythic power she had ascribed to it in Origins. Eichrnann, the Nazis, even genocide, did not deserve the imprimatur of radical evil, which inspired a terror verging on awe. Evil, as she wrote to Gershom Scholem, did not belong to a netherworld: it was very much a part of our world, the outgrowth of mundane compromises and human, all too human, vices. "I changed my mind and do no longer speak of radical evil.’. . . It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never 'radical,’ that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension.. .. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality.’ Only the good has depth and can be radical.”

Arendt thus dispelled the sacred aura that so many before her—and since—have found in the politics of fear, refusing to grant to it the primordial, religious overtones that linger around words like Holocaust. Her much-maligned tone of irony, her bitter laughter at the sheer comedy of Eichmann the man, reflected her effort to deny evil—and the fear of evil— the last word, something Origins had come close to granting. Laughter, as Arendt wrote in an essay on Kafka, “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.” Looking hard at Eichmann, Arendt finally heeded the wise counsel of Jaspers, who had warned her in 1946 not to allow the Nazis to take on a streak of ‘greatness’—of satanic greatness—which is, for me, as inappropriate for the Nazis as all the talk about the ‘demonic’ elements in Hitler and so forth. It seems to me that we have to see things in their total banality, in their prosaic triviality, because that’s what truly characterizes them. Bacteria can cause epidemics that wipe out nations, but they remain merely bacteria. I regard any hint of myth and legend with horror, and everything unspecific is just such a hint.” Though Arendt had never allowed the Nazis to take on a streak of “satanic greatness,” she had granted that mantle to total terror."

--- Fear : The History of a Political Idea: The History of a Political Idea / Corey Robin

Some claim that ideology is meaningless and just obscures more basic power relations (based on economics or politics), but really that effaces the complexities of life.
blog comments powered by Disqus
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Latest posts (which you might not see on this page)

powered by Blogger | WordPress by Newwpthemes