The honorable tradition of criticism carries with it a displeasing aspect. This is especially the case in the higher academic circles. Reputations are too frequently made when pygmies stand on the shoulders of giants and when iconic and sometimes heroic figures are symbolically cut down to size. The theory is that, if the critic saws off the legs of those who have managed to stand tall for generations, the midgets can win handily in face-to-face combat with the dead. This is not to deny that even the most talented are sometimes in error; criticism is a useful art. It is, however, a derivative art. Criticism finds acceptance in a culture that measures success by small errors rather than by large-scale successes.
The recent critique of Hannah Arendt is a case in point. The most comprehensive assault to date, some thirty-five years after her death, is also the most recent. Bernard Wasserstein, professor of modern European Jewish history at the University of Chicago, comments on Arendt in the Times Literary Supplement in October 2009 under the title “Blame the Victim: Hannah Arendt Among the Nazis.” He offers not just a selective summary of “the historian and her sources” but also an umbrella of charges and allegations from other prominent figures over the past half century. One of the most infamous is that of my good friend Walter Laqueur”a significant figure in his own right. Wasserstein spares us the need to pick through the emotive rubble that has plagued Arendt’s career, stitching together a picture of her as either a gullible reader of neo-Nazi literature or a closet Jewish anti-Semite in need of intellectual detoxification. In summary, but not in any way an exaggeration, Wasserstein claims the following:
• The success of Arendt’s earlier work is owed more to the way it locked on to mid-twentieth-century Western guilt over imperialism and the continued strengthening of the Cold War than to The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt’s conception of the dynamics of historical change is little more than a confused mishmash of the structural, the social-psychological, and the conspiratorial.
• Her works display a deep ignorance of political economy, diplomacy, and military strategy. Furthermore, she had little grasp or even interest in the mechanics of the political process in the states about which she wrote.
• Rather than examine hard evidence, she deals in trifles and inflates them into richly colored balloons of generalization. At a time when superior historians were rejecting and becoming disenchanted by the idea of totalitarianism, her work in this area did not explain the generalization.
• Her comparisons of Nazism and communism were sporadic and uneven, and she hardly dealt with Italian fascism as predecessor of these test cases of totalitarianism. The concept was incorporated into the vernacular of the 1960s and 1970s only because it served the useful ideological purposes of the Cold Warriors at the time.
• The burden of her later work is blaming Jewish victims rather than anti-Semitic perpetrators. In her inversion of victims and victimizers, her bile knew no ethnic boundaries or rationalizations.
• There was always a special edge to her criticism of her own Jewish people. She swallowed sometimes in whole cloth the poisonous anti-Semitism hatched in the Weimar period, much of which was shrouded in the Nazi literature of the age.
The ferocity of his critique blinds Wasserstein to several uncomfortable facts. The Origins of Totalitarianism , a foundation stone of Arendt’s reputation, is not a work about the origins of imperialism; it is about the origins of totalitarianism. Wasserstein conflates two different aspects of modern dictatorships in a clever way to trivialize Arendt’s formulations. By extension, this allows Wasserstein to make it appear that Arendt’s responses to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are simply different ways to deal with nineteenth-century European and American colonial expansions. What makes Wasserstein’s formulation eccentric is his insistence on Arendt’s tendencies to accept at face value, without explanation, neo-Nazi historical formulations of the Jewish question and plain old Leninist approaches to the imperial tradition. We shall deal with this later. For now, let me observe that it is precisely Arendt’s formulations of the totalitarian strains in the revolutionary periods of German and Russian state power that separate her work from shabby comparative linkages.
Just why Wasserstein thinks Western democratic “guilt” has much to do with the unitary features of totalitarian systems is inexplicable, much less unexplained. There is hardly a trace of causal theorizing in his critique. He fails to identify either Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia with classical Western imperialism. It could not be otherwise, unless one is to accept at face value Hitler and Lenin’s arguments that European”and, by extension, American”expansion closed off the economic possibilities of their own regimes. The dictatorial source and direction of state power had many sources in both Germany and the Soviet Union, and some of those sources doubtless derive from imperialism. That is a key point linking these regimes and their ideologies. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that Arendt saw her work as part of Cold War fever. Quite the contrary: She emphasizes the juridical basis of democracy. She blames sociologists for emphasizing massification and movement without giving proper regard to the Federalist Papers, the Founding Fathers, and the rule of law. Indeed, her constant disparagement (wrongly) of Dwight Eisenhower as a weak president indicates not so much a fear of Cold Warriors as a fear of a domestic leadership that looks to public opinion and that is unable to cope with global issues. These are not exactly issues alien to our time.
As Arendt makes clear in her original preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, the book was written and essentially completed in 1945, just at the termination of the Nazi regime but very much at a high point of the Soviet regime. The work could not be a function of Cold War theorizing at that point in time. Beyond that simple fact, recognition of the totalitarian syndrome of the communist system did not take place during the wartime period when the book was being written; such recognition came about after the Second World War was long over. The final piece of the puzzle for Arendt was the conflation of Hitler’s vision of Jewish world domination as a cause of the animus he held for Western democracy and the Stalinist ideology of cosmopolitanism, which she tells us is the “fictitious world conspiracy that provided a more suitable background for totalitarian claims to world rule than Wall Street, capitalism, and imperialism.” In other words, not only the historical but also the theoretical organization of Arendt’s book belies Wasserstein’s claims. The need for a revised edition in 1966 was precisely the problematic status of the postwar turn in Stalinism.
Arendt’s theoretical construct of totalitarianism united party structure and government with the brutality of modern dictatorship as such. More importantly, in Arendt’s view, totalitarianism concerns an illicit fusion of power and personality that makes political legitimacy dangerous and at times impossible. Arendt was a staunch opponent of McCarthyism and a defender of the rule of law. Her own assessment of the Cold War was to see the anticommunist crusade as an end in itself embedded in McCarthyism, which was an indicator of the growth of populist lawlessness and a breakdown of the federalist balance of powers. She saw the anticommunist crusade as a high risk. “The republic which should define the framework and the limits of democracy is being dissolved from within by democracy. The society is overwhelming the republic. This process is underway, and whether it can be stopped is very, very questionable, even if [Joseph] McCarthy is defeated. But his defeat is crucial, the condition sine qua non. Then at least one could start fighting for the republic again.” It was historians with a feeble grasp of the fragility of political democracy that most concerned her, not global issues or diplomatic maneuvering. To identify Arendt as giving the Cold War succor is not only wide of the mark but reveals ignorance of the legal foundations of her thinking.
Arendt’s attitude toward the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an informal gathering of anti- and ex-communists, indicates how severely critical she was of such CIA-sponsored clandestine activity in the early 1950s. She viewed this as the inversion of “good old American know-nothingness.” The ideology embraced by the Congress for Cultural Freedom went hand in hand with the ideology of Americanism that was just beginning to emerge. She was harsh with many of her friends and supposed supporters, among them Sidney Hook and Melvin Lasky, and she dissociated herself from the gatherings of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. “It is symptomatic,” she wrote, “that the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which God knows, has never lifted a finger in this country for either culture or freedom, has become a kind of collecting point for these types.” Her judgment of this focal point of intellectuals at the time hardly exemplifies a Cold War view of things. To traffic in such guilt by association between Arendt and the Cold War is ludicrous; it is forgivable in journalistic rhetoric but hardly from a respected historian such as Wasserstein. Indeed, even on this point Arendt’s touchstone was not only the mission of the Congress for Cultural Freedom but also what she perceived as its bias against those thinkers of German liberal extraction, such as Paul Tillich and herself.
On a somewhat related matter, Arendt’s near-total absence of study of Italian fascism may simply signify a lack of interest in dealing with the exceptional and idiosyncratic features of that system’s totalitarianism. Then again, the same could be said of a wide variety of totalitarianisms that were more rooted in numbers of people purged than in systemic characteristics. In point of fact, Arendt had an interesting response to the famed Huey Long quip that “if fascism comes [to America] it will be in the guise of democracy and it will start in Congress.” In seconding the sagacity of Long’s opinion, if not its motive, Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers that “all of it would be brought about without violence and only through pressure.” It should be clear that she well understood that the forms of totalitarian rule varied, but the Nazi and communist maximum uses of force were fused at the top, much as Gaetano Mosca’s vision of a political class that could achieve dangerous ends occurs in a wide variety of situations and conditions. In ideological retrospect, the fierce struggle between Nazism and communism served as forms of Hegelian historicism”left, right, and both hideous.
The idea that the unitary character of totalitarianism is negated by the situation in Italy during Mussolini’s rule in Italy is absurd. The history of Italian unification”Italian fascism having more than a decade’s existence as a special place in radicalism; the role of the papacy in severely constraining manifest forms of statist rule; the cultural tradition of Italian major cities, which had autonomous forms of city development; and the weaknesses of Italy with respect to economic concentrations of power in the early twentieth century”all argue against a muscular totalitarianism. Even the well-known animosity between Hitler and Mussolini may have been a factor. Fascism did not in any way define Italy as a democratic power. Italy was guilty, belatedly, of mocking the Nazi and Soviet regimes with their racial laws, anti-Semitism, and cosmopolitanism. Italy in the 1930s searched out ways to raise its own feeble imperial claims in northern Africa. Mussolini may have modified Italian fascism, but the softening of its totalitarianism did not necessarily mean a turn to democratic rule, as a myriad of exiles and opponents of the regime revealed only too well. In one of her more unusual comments on Italian fascism, in On Revolution , Arendt says that the “greatest and somehow inexplicable shortcoming of Maurice Duverger’s work was his refusal to distinguish between party and movement.” She concludes that “the enormous differences between the Fascist and Nazi Movements and the parties of the democratic regimes were even more obvious.”
Wasserstein introduces a strange comparison between the work of Hannah Arendt and that of Jacob Talmon. The latter is a great figure of mid-twentieth“century scholarship in his own right. Having known both of these scholars and having written about Talmon at some length, I must point out that Talmon wrote expressly on the French postrevolutionary and restorationist traditions and not about the later period that concerned The Origins of Totalitarianism. While they held sentiments in common, Arendt and Talmon arrived at them by different routes. Talmon’s work laid the groundwork for understanding what took place under the Soviet and Nazi periods of power. But the structural overlaps between the work of the two were never made transparent. The point of contact between them came much later, when Arendt wrote of the differences between the French and American revolutions. She contrasts the unbridled, “passionate” French approach to change, with its apocalyptic reliance on violence and political assassination, with the “compassionate” approach of the American Revolution, with its uses of persuasion and legal mechanisms to achieve radical ends. The idea that she was making invidious comparisons between her work and Talmon’s is ludicrous on the face of it. The sly implication that this was the case has the same intellectual worth as a comparison of apples and oranges.
In all areas of social, political, and military affairs, Arendt is so ignorant”at least according to Wasserstein”that the great wonder is that anyone, past or present, has paid attention to her. Perhaps the best answer to the charge that she failed to credit Alfred Kazin for his editorial work on The Origins of Totalitarianism is in Kazin’s own words. In Harper’s, Kazin identifies “Arendt as a scholar who writes with deeply moving personal urgency about politics in its classic signification”when it meant no context for office or administration but the public realm in which alone, through action, man knew freedom.” Then again, Kazin was not exactly Carl von Clausewitz either! To recite areas of research in which an author is ignorant is surely no worse, perhaps less so, than to charge an author with knowledge of which she pretends but in fact does not possess. The emotive quality of Wasserstein’s charges is indicative of his problems, not Arendt’s, with the Jewish condition under Nazi rule.
I will avoid Wasserstein’s transparent bias and animus toward Arendt as a stylist; he criticizes matters that range from her “Teutonic style” to her “oracular prose” to her “half acknowledgment” or presumed duplicitous laundering of the efforts of Alfred Kazin. Add to that Wasserstein’s criticism of her attempts at humor, “nearly always poor and directed at the Jews and their history.” Add further Arendt’s “self-contradictory” statements on major themes, and what one ends up with is an assertion that Arendt is guilty not only of empirical error but also rhetorical calamity. Wasserstein cites almost all historians of European thought who are critical of Arendt, but he cites no political scientist or social scientist who responded to her work in a positive way. The final irony is that this advanced critic of Arendt speaks disparagingly of her “lack of several of the essential qualities of the historian: sympathetic imaginative insight, open mindedness, compassion, balanced judgment and the capacity to sift and weigh evidence.”
Perhaps the final straw in Wasserstein’s accusatory judgments against Arendt is her presumed perverse reliance on Nazi historians as authorities on modern Jewish history. She shares the collective contempt and stigmatization that characterized Nazi ideologists and propagandists. As someone bearing the name of Hannah Arendt as part of a named chair, I cannot be unaffected by such allegations and condemnations. It might well be that my response could be termed a defense—part of the syndrome of loyalties and disloyalties that one comes to take on from bearing that appellation for more than thirty-two years. That said, I want to put forth a rebuttal to what amounts to unmitigated, if ingenuous, slander.
After reading, reviewing, and writing on Hannah Arendt, I have come to think of her, fairly or otherwise, as a special voice, one of many—they range from Thomas Mann to Karl Jaspers to Marlene Dietrich—who came through the fires of hell called Nazi Germany with their consciences intact. An entire people was mesmerized by the rupture of a culture and a tradition that were entitled to be called the best in Western civilization but that ended up as the worst ever in Western civilization. The German nation began as a metaphor of Schiller’s ode to the spirit of human freedom and concluded with Hitler’s spirit of life taking on a scale of unparalleled horror.
Each person who made the trek from Germany to seek survival and liberation carried the scars of that period writ large. Each person who made the journey, each person who tacitly or actively acquiesced to the Nazi slaughter of the innocents as well those who opposed it, had to define and redefine the meaning of his or her career and life in improbable conditions of place, language, and tradition. In that sense, Hannah Arendt was one of many Jewish, Christian, and nonreligious intellectuals—of whom there were many, if not a majority, in Germany—as well as working people, whose spirit was dulled by memories of a deeply flawed national ambition and shattered personal expectations. Little wonder that the major European powers, and not Germany alone, preferred to fasten onto anything but the Holocaust at the end of the Second World War. It was not banality as such but the quotidian nature of the Nazi dictatorship that made coming to terms with Nazism so difficult after as well as between 1933 and 1945.
Arendt in no shape or form “blames the victim” for the terrible punishment inflicted by the Nazis. What she does do—in my opinion, correctly—is identify the extraordinary depth to which the Nazis went to exterminate a people. Sadly, a large bloc of German Jews felt that, if the Nazis could not be turned back at the gates of genocide, they could at least be prevented from carrying out their worst ambitions. An equally large bloc felt that that was not possible once the machinery of terror and the political order were enshrined in jurisprudence. The end result was a disaster for the survivors. Arendt’s bitterness was indeed focused on Jews who urged and even advocated compromise. In light of historical events, one might argue against her views on the Eichmann trial but most certainly not that the theme of banality reflected anything other than despair over the German Jewish community’s failure to recognize the pervasiveness of the system and the corrosion of the legal groundwork of its Nazi-infected mass movements.
Issues with Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem keep turning up. The theme of the banality of evil did not win favor with Arendt’s critics; psychological explanations of human behavior rarely settle matters. But Wasserstein has raised criticism of a possible loophole for disquieting personal behavior—a criticism introduced by Walter Laqueur many years ago—to a much higher level. Wasserstein condemns Arendt’s views as little more than using the Holocaust to “blame the victim.” The idea that such a grotesque reading can pass without evidence is difficult to entertain. Arendt, echoed by many in the German Jewish communities of the Nazi era, did not blame anyone but the Nazi state (at one level) and the German people as a whole for the Holocaust. What Arendt may have failed to appreciate was the enormity and the gravity of the situation, that she as well as others see as a failure of nerve and verve alike and to take appropriate measures and safeguards.
Reinhard Bendix’s fine work From Berlin to Berkeley tells us that, even within his own family and as late as 1939, Jewish people decided to return to Germany to resume their occupational roles. Others, like Arendt, opted for migration, escape—call it what you will—to Paris, London, and New York. (As I have written elsewhere, very few saw the trip to Moscow as an escape route from Nazism.) In his charming memoir, Frederic Warburg says that the prominent Jewish community in Berlin appeared to be split down the middle between those hundreds of thousands of Jews who elected to stay and seek a restoration of judicial norms for both the Jews and citizens in general and the equally large numbers of Jews who chose the hard road of migration and a loss of what seemed to be personal security as well as homes and possessions. These were difficult decisions and often impossible to make with comfort in either direction. Factors included the health and ages of family members, the pain of being separated from loved ones, and the comforts of private homes. Such decisions went far beyond the love of country and culture.
What afflicted Jews on all sides was no easy moral battle. It was a battle fought in home and hearth, in each family. The victims were the Jewish people as a whole—believers and nonbelievers, nationalists and internationalists, conservatives and liberals. To use these facts to level charges against Arendt is a simplistic way to blame the author while exonerating the victim. In such circumstances, the choice between remaining in opposition, in somber silence, or leaving shattered families and dreams to migrate to foreign lands was not inviting. It was itself a challenge. Few people fared better in the intellectual life of the democratic West than Arendt. But to expect perfect creatures to emerge unscathed from such wrenching decisions is simply implausible. All human beings face contradictions and sharp differences within their souls, but few have the conflicts in their souls put on display as a national tragedy no less than a personal contradiction. As revealed in her correspondence, Arendt gave representation to the best of what Germany was and the worst of what it became. In a deeply candid 1953 letter to Jaspers, Arendt put the pain plainly: “I will never cease to be a German in your sense of the word, that is, that I will not deny anything. Not your Germany and Heinrich’s [her husband, Heinrich Bluecher], not the tradition I grew in or the language in which I think and in which the poems I love best were written. I won’t lay false claims to either a Jewish or an American past.”
Arendt’s life was a testimonial to the open transparencies of the Jewish and American traditions and to the disastrous fall from grace of German liberalism. To have that life besmirched by Wasserstein serves no useful purpose in truth or tradition. It was Arendt’s remarkable ability to face the double tradition from which she emerged with a sharp-eyed focus that characterizes much of her work: its generosity for the practice of democracy and her fierce determination to explain for herself as well as for others the failure of her former culture to endure despite its qualities. I would say that Hannah Arendt’s work, along with that of Primo Levi, brought to the surface the silence and even suppression of the Holocaust that gripped postwar Europe.
Having had the pleasure of knowing Hannah Arendt, albeit much too slightly, and moreover of having known more closely Heinrich Bluecher when I was his assistant in the World Civilizations program at Bard College in 1958–1959, I can say there are few people who, in their writings and their persons, could face with such clear determination the heights and the depths of European civilization in the last century. Hannah Arendt’s work serves as a metaphor for all of that. Even if she would be uncomfortable with such symbolic meaning, she is entitled to the respect of the countless others who have faced similar problems of migration and wandering and those who might once again be faced with similar macroscopic challenges. That it should be the Jews who, uniquely, are subjected by the self-righteous to such charges of “blaming the victim” is perhaps the price of so much migration and so little appreciation of the Jews’ dangerous situation. This is the consequence of confronting the tyrants of this world and the world’s torrent of critics from within. Tony Judt put it best in his book Post War: “If Europe’s past is to continue to furnish Europe’s present with admonitory meaning, and with moral purpose”then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation.” Arendt was one such special teacher.
Irving Louis Horowitz is Hannah Arendt Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Sociology at Rutgers University. He is author of Behemoth: Main Currents in the History and Theory of Political Sociology; Radicalism and the Revolt against Reason; and Ideology and Utopia in the United States: 1956–1976.