Forthcoming Books:
4 June 2014

¶ Ms NOLA sent us the link to Laura Miller’s quick interview with Marie Luise Knott, the German author of a book, Unlearning With Hannah Arendt, that has just come out in English. In one chapter, Knott writes about Arendt’s use of irony as an expressive tool (not its opposite) in Eichmann in Jerusalem. We’ve lost no time ordering the book.

Some have argued that the subject of the Holocaust is too terrible to ever admit anything like humor. Obviously, Arendt was not laughing off atrocities, but she was attacked for some statements she made ironically — such as noting that Eichmann resembled a “Zionist” for suggesting that Bohemian and Moravian Jews be resettled in a specific area — and for the implied laughter in what she wrote about Eichmann. Why do you think that bothered people so much?

Of course Hannah Arendt knew that Eichmann was an anti-Semite, an SS officer and the organizer of the murder of millions of Jews. What unsettled and shocked her was to hear this anti-Semite dressing up his testimony with whatever came to mind, even going so far as to call himself a philo-Zionist.

But what worried Arendt most fundamentally was the “totality of the moral collapse the Nazis caused … not only among the persecutors but also among the victims.” She also worried about the consequences of this collapse, the model and possible future heralded by the Nazi policy of extermination. The fact that she saw the collapse among the persecutors but also among the victims was not due to any desire to offend.

Arendt insisted on defending the existence of a common, shared world. As a Jew she had experienced the triumph of the Nazis and the way their ideology had permeated, step by step, every aspect of life and language in Germany. The collapse she discerns is the collapse of the fabric holding human beings together in this world, the fabric of laws and traditions and ideas that had in the past kept the world from falling apart, the idea of solidarity and of humans negotiating the present and the future together. “The totality of the moral collapse” meant for her that the Nazi perpetrators could perversely twist the Christian precept “Thou shalt not kill” into the command “Thou shalt kill.” It meant moreover that parts of mankind (first the mentally ill, then the Jews, then …) had been declared superfluous and step-by-step conditioned to fit the Nazis’ image of them, to be and behave like victims. They found themselves in a situation of total lawlessness and total powerlessness and were thrown out of the human world, i.e., murdered.


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