Hannah Arendt on Thinking, Consent and Obedience, or Who Goes Nazi

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Sally Yates, former acting Attorney-General of the United States, who refused to appeal the judgements of lower courts against President Trump’s executive order banning travellers from seven majority-Muslim countries. Her letter directing lawyers at the Justice Department not to prosecute on the grounds that she believed the order to unlawful can be found here.

The original “Who Goes Nazi” parlour-game as created by Dorothy Thompson appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1941. Twenty-five years later, Hannah Arendt added some refinements, but Thompson’s essential observation, that “nice people don’t go Nazi”, stands. For Thompson, “Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t-whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi.” Arendt gathers all these qualities, lacking in the Nazi in potentia, under the simple category of thinking.

In the tumultuous discussion of moral issues which has been going on ever since the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the disclosure of the total complicity in crimes of all ranks of official society, that is, of the total collapse of normal moral standards, the following argument has been raised in endless variations: We who appear guilty today are in fact those who stayed on the job in order to prevent worse things from happening; only those who remained inside had a chance to mitigate things and to help at least some people; we gave the devil his due without selling our soul to him, whereas those who did nothing shirked all responsibilities and thought only of themselves, of the salvation of their precious souls. Politically speaking, this argument might have made sense if an overthrow of the Hitler regime had been achieved, or even attempted, in the very early stages … But the people who speak in this manner were by no means the conspirators – successful or not. They are as a rule those civil servants without whose expert knowledge neither the Hitler regime nor the Adenauer administration that succeeded it would have been able to survive. Hitler had inherited civil servants from the Weimar Republic, which inherited them from Imperial Germany, just as Adenauer was to inherit them from the Nazis, without much difficulty.

I must here remind your that the personal or moral issue, as distinct from legal accountability, hardly arises with those who were convinced adherents of the regime: that they could not feel guilty but only defeated was almost a matter of course, unless they changed their minds and repented. And yet even this simple issue has become confused because when the day of reckoning came it turned out that there had been no convinced adherents, at least not of the criminal program for which they stood trial. And the trouble is that, though this was a lie, it is not a simple or total lie. For what had started in the initial stages with politically neutral people who were not Nazis but cooperated with them, happened in the last stages with the party members and even the elite formations of the SS: there were very few people even in the Third Reich who wholeheartedly agreed with the late crimes of the regime and a great number who were perfectly willing to commit them nevertheless. And now every single one of them, wherever he stood and whatever he did, claims that those who, under one pretext or another, had retired to private life had chosen the easy, irresponsible way out. Unless, of course, they had used their private station as a cover for active opposition – a choice which can be easily dismissed since it is obviously not everybody’s business to be a saint or a hero. But personal responsibility is everybody’s business and there, it is argued, it was more “responsible” to stay on the job no matter under what conditions or with what consequences.

In their moral justification, the argument of the lesser evil has played a prominent role. If you are confronted with two evils, thus the argument goes, it is your duty to opt for the lesser one, whereas it is irresponsible to refuse to choose altogether. Those who denounce the moral fallacy of this argument are usually accused of a germ-proof moralism which is alien to political circumstances, of being unwilling to dirty their hands; and it must be admitted that it is not so much political or moral philosophy (with the sole exception of Kant, who for this very reason stands accused or moralistic rigorism) but religious thought that most unequivocally has rejected all compromises with lesser evils …

Politically, the weakness or the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil very quickly forget that chose evil. Since the evil of the Third Reich finally was so monstrous that by no stretch of the imagination could it be called a “lesser evil,” one might have assumed that this time the argument would have collapsed once and for all, which surprisingly is not the case. Moreover, if we look at the techniques of totalitarian government it is obvious that the argument of “the lesser evil” – far from being raised by those who do not belong the ruling elite – is one of the mechanisms built into the machinery of terror and criminality. Acceptance of lesser evils is consciously used in conditioning the government officials as well as the population at large to the acceptance of evil as such … Unfortunately, it seems to be much easier to condition human behaviour and to make people conduct themselves in the most unexpected and outrageous manner, than it is to persuade anybody to learn from experience, as the saying goes; that is, to start thinking and judging instead of applying categories and formulas which are deeply ingrained in our mind, but whose basis of experience has long been forgotten and whose plausibility resides in intellectual consistent rather than in their adequacy to actual events. …

Let me now raise two questions: First, in what way were those few different who in all walks of life did not collaborate and refused to participate in public life, though they could not and did not rise in rebellion? And second, if we agree that those who did serve on whatever level and in whatever capacity were not simply monsters, what is it that made them behave as they did? On what moral, as distinguished from legal, grounds did they justify their conduct after the defeat of the regime and the breakdown of the “new order” with its new set of values? The answer to the first question is relatively simple: the nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones capable of doing so not because they disposed of a better system of values or because the old standards of right and wrong were firmly planted in their mind and conscience. On the contrary, all our experiences tell us that it was precisely the members of respectable society, who hand to 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 for another. I therefore would suggest the nonparticipants were those whose consciences did not function in this, as it were, automatic way – as though we dispose of a set of learned or innate rules which we can then apply to the particular case as it arises, so that every new experience or situation is already prejudged and we need only act out whatever we learned or possessed beforehand. Their criterion, I think, was a different one: they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves at all. Hence, they also chose to die when they were forced to participate. To put it crudely, they refused to murder, not so much because they still held fast to the command “Thou shalt not kill,” but because they were unwilling to live together with a murderer – themselves.

The precondition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but rather the disposition to live explicitly with oneself, to have intercourse with oneself, that is, to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which, since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking. This kind of thinking, though at the root of all philosophical thought, is not technical and does not concern theoretical problems. The dividing line between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences. In this respect, the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds. Best of all will be those who know one thing for certain: that whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves.

But how is it with the reproach of irresponsibility levelled at against these few who washed their hand of what was going on around them? I think we shall have to admit that there exist extreme situations in which responsibility for the world, which is primarily political, cannot be assumed because political responsibility always presupposes at least a minimum of political power. Impotence or complete powerlessness is, I think, a valid excuse. Its validity is all the stronger as it seems to require a certain moral quality even to recognize powerlessness, the good will and good faith to face realities and not to live in illusions. Moreover, it is precisely in this admission of one’s own impotence that a last remnant of strength and even power can still be preserved even under desperate conditions.

… when we turn our attention to my second question, to those who not only participated willy-nilly as it were but who thought it their duty to do whatever was demanded. Their argument was different to those of the mere participants who invoked the lesser evil, or the Zeitgeist, thereby implicitly denying the human faculty of judgement, or in surprisingly rare case the fear which in totalitarian governments is all pervasive. The argument from the Nuremberg trials to the Eichmann trial and the more recent trials in Germany has always been the same: every organization demands obedience to superiors as well as obedience to the laws of the land. Obedience is a political virtue of the first order, and without it the no body politic could survive. Unrestricted freedom of conscience exists nowhere, for it would spell the doom of every organized community. All this sounds so plausible that it takes some effort to detect the fallacy. Its plausibility rests on the truth that “all governments,” in the words of Madison, even the most autocratic ones, even tyrannies, “rest on consent”, and the fallacy lies in the equation of consent with obedience. An adult consents where a child obeys; if an adult is said to obey, he actually supports the organization or the authority or the law that claims “obedience”.

… In our context, all that matters is the insight that no man, however strong, can ever accomplish anything, good or bad, without the help of others. What you have here is the notion of an equality which accounts for a “leader” who is never more a primus inter pares, the first among his peers. Those who seem to obey him actually support him and his enterprise; without such “obedience” he would be helpless, whereas in the nursery or under conditions of slavery – the two spheres in which the notion of obedience made sense and from which it was then transposed into political matters – it is the child or the slave who becomes helpless if he refuses to “cooperate”. Even in the strictly bureaucratic organization, with its fixed hierarchical order, it would make much more sense to look upon the functioning of the “cogs” and wheels in terms of overall support for a common enterprise than in our usual terms of obedience to superiors. If I obey the laws of the land, I actually support its constitution, as becomes glaringly obvious in the case of revolutionists and rebels who disobey because they have withdrawn such tacit consent.

In these terms, the nonparticipants in public life under a dictatorship are those who have refused their support by shunning those places of “responsibility” were such support, under the name of obedience, is required. And 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 would be. It is in fact one of the many variations of non-violent action and resistance – for instance the power that is potential in civil disobedience – which are being discovered in our century. The reason, however, that we can hold these new criminals, who never committed a crime out of their own initiative, nevertheless responsible for what they did is that there is no such thing as obedience in political and moral matters … Hence the question addressed to those who participated should never be, “Why did you obey?” but “Why did you support?” This change of words is no semantic irrelevancy for those who know the strange and powerful influence mere “words” have over the minds of men, who, first and foremost, are speaking animals. Much would be gained if we could eliminate this pernicious word “obedience” from our vocabulary of moral and political thought. If we think these matters through, we might regain some measure of self-confidence and even pride, that is regain what former times called the dignity or the honour of man: not perhaps of mankind but of the status of being human.

– Hannah Arendt, “Personal Responsibility Under a Dictatorship” in Responsibility and Judgement (New York, 2003)

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