In 1945, in an extraordinary essay entitled “Organised Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt warned that it would not be easy to tell the good from the bad German. The Nazis themselves had made it infernally difficult to distinguish heroes from villains, with dissidents forced by their police state into fleeting gestures and words of resistance they could not prove. More important, virtually all Germans—even dissident ones—were implicated in an enormous administrative horror. No one could be an open anti-fascist in Germany and survive, while those who stayed colluded in ways small and large—even when they were not directly involved. Yet Arendt made her most arresting case in favour of an even wider circle of responsibility at a moment when easy vengeance beckoned.
Those who were not in Germany but condemned it from the outside were going to be tempted to punish the bad Germans. But the truth is that their crimes (while they of course deserved prosecution) spread complicity far and wide. Until such evils were preventable, even those with no relation to them should admit that they earned not pride but shame. The religion of the Jews, Arendt suggested, taught humanity not comfortable moralising but “universal responsibility.” Even in the face of Nazism, Arendt insisted that responsibility allowed no one to say “I am not like that.” Compared to those with vengeful zeal for the punishment of Nazi perpetrators (which she supported), Arendt praised those “who are filled with a genuine fear of the inescapable guilt of the human race.” The trouble was that their shame at their own humanity was still a “non-political” insight.
Nothing remotely similar to what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945 has taken place in America in the four years since 2016. But if any comparisons between then and now are warranted, perhaps Arendt’s response to fascism’s aftermath is more relevant than her analysis of the thing itself.
Soon after Donald Trump was elected, Arendt became the most used and abused philosophical source to interpret his presidency. Earnest think-pieces appeared about the “lessons” Arendt taught, most of questionable relevance to understanding Trump’s ascendancy. And her work The Origins of Totalitarianism, a 1951 summa that culminates in a quickly written study of Nazi rule, became a bestseller for years.
The truth is that this part of her book is one of the least interesting and novel things Arendt ever wrote. And to make matters worse, commentators routinely pillaged it with an eye to denouncing Trump’s cavalier attitude to truth or to allege the coming of a new age of fascism or totalitarianism. It was, no doubt, one of the minor infractions of what people are now calling the “intellectual history” of the age of Trump that Arendt was bowdlerised for a good cause. But it was extraordinary all the same.
In the eyes of the American “Resistance,” Arendt became a commonplace liberal, a critic of the excesses of violent states, offering warnings about the dangers of mendacious leaders. States are often horrendous in their policies and their leaders prevaricate, but no one needed Arendt’s authority to say so. Arendt became a privileged citation for those not so much ignorant of as uninterested in her work, and who canonised her for a new age at the price of reducing her to utter conventionality. Referencing her gave many a think piece the patina of a famous name and pseudo-profundity. Her words opportunistically provided revulsion towards Trump with the imprimatur of a supposed philosopher of fascism, for those who were less willing to think about where he came from and how he was possible. It helped, of course, that Arendt—who fled to America—was among the most renowned analysts of the Nazi and Soviet foes that her new country put down one after another in the 20th century, before Trump so rudely tarnished its reputation and self-conception.