Book Review: Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thoughtlessness by Valerie Hartouni
by Matt Stahl
Valerie Hartouni’s 2012 book Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thoughtlessness argues that the most widely-circulated ideas about the Holocaust serve divergent ideological ends, impeding our ability to learn from Nazi atrocities and to imagine and construct a more just world. The book’s main concern is to reevaluate and reassert the usefulness of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Hartouni employs and explains Arendt’s analyses by using them as tools to interrogate historical and contemporary representations of the Holocaust and the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials: in media (television and film), scholarship, and political rhetoric.
Visualizing Atrocity takes up challenging questions. Hartouni suggests that Nazi atrocities stand as an example of mass dehumanization and extermination by a modern technocratic state of its own people. How does the treatment of others as means rather than ends become routine? How do the personal and political components of totalitarian technocracy interact? How do we reconcile our understandings that modern society both enables the expansion of human freedom (of conscience, for example) and of human health, security, and lifespan (on the one hand) and enables the expansion of human suffering, including catastrophic, systematic genocide, ethnic cleansing, political mass murder, and so on? Hartouni argues that ideological knowledge of the Holocaust plays a crucial role in stilling or closing off these questions. Ideological knowledge silences alternative interpretations that would much better serve efforts not only toward producing more complete historical knowledge, but also toward expanding justice in modern society.
The first chapter of Visualizing Atrocity outlines some of Arendt’s main findings about the trial and the public reception of her reporting. Arendt found that the way Eichmann’s trial was conducted and interpreted allowed for only two possible roles: victim and victimizer; innocent and perpetrator. Trial participants and most other observers refused to acknowledge or engage the facts of Jewish complicity with Nazi activities. Arendt was attacked for questioning this strict victim/victimizer binary. Hartouni argues that the Eichmann trial squandered opportunities to begin to make judicial sense out of the new phenomenon of “administrative massacre” and to recast genocide as a crime against humanity that would require the supersession of national jurisdictions.
Chapter Two challenges the premise that Nazi anti-Semitism was the motive for the extermination project by examining the historical record. In fact, Hartouni shows, the industrial scale extermination process was the outcome of failed Nazi territorial policies for population management and relocation. The Nazi regime aimed to sort out regions ethnically by moving hundreds of thousands of people around occupied territories, yet they realized partway into the war that the scale of housing, food, and transport required for this project was simply beyond their capability to produce and organize. Populations to be moved were soon categorized as superfluous, and only when the impossibility of moving them became apparent did mass killing emerged as an option. The success of either plan depended on massive systems of registration and bureaucratic information and communication systems – types of data creation and information management that have only flourished since. The idea that anti-Semitism was the original driving force of the extermination process serves political ends, Hartouni argues; the ideology of absolute victim and absolute victimizer and Zionist claims about the singularity of the Holocaust protect Israel and its defenders from criticism about their own activities.
It is Hartouni’s third chapter—”Thoughtlessness and Evil”—that to me is the book’s center of gravity. It begins by exploring (mis)interpretations of Arendt’s memorable phrase “the banality of evil” and outlining the two principle, contesting conceptions of evil underlying commonsense accounts of the Holocaust: the idea that evil is situational—circumstances could prompt anyone to behave as Eichmann did—and that evil is monstrous—exceptional, outside of history and the world as we know it. The ideological “work” done by the former is to reinforce an idea that we live in a “conventional moral universe” that, while disrupted by the Holocaust, “remains curiously intact.” The latter conception is a “narrative necessity” for “Israeli nationalism and [Israel’s] assertion of righteous state power under the auspices of security.” In other words, an absolute monster is required for the plausibility of an absolute innocent. Arendt rejected both of these interpretations, and, crucially, she also rejected characterizations of Eichmann as lacking in empathy or emotional intelligence. According to his own testimony and historical evidence, Eichmann had regular, even friendly, contact with Jewish leaders, paused several times to ask himself if he really should be doing what he was doing, and so on. Instead, Arendt ascribed to Eichmann “sheer thoughtlessness.”
The meat of this chapter concerns Arendt’s understanding of thought and thinking. Mass murder becomes routine at least in part because people in positions like Eichmann’s fail to think in the sense Arendt means: to carry on an inner Socratic dialogue in which one “thinks from where one is not,” a form of activity that “requires a certain retreat from the world.” Part of this process, writes Hartouni, “entails imagining, representing, making present to ourselves what is absent—the views of others as a countervailing set of claims and perspectives…as a way of determining and evaluating (by contrast) where one stands oneself.” Hartouni writes that thinking is an “ongoing if tenuous achievement;” she quotes Arendt: “the business of thinking is like Penelope’s web; it undoes every morning what it has finished the night before. For the need to think can never be stilled by allegedly definite insights of ‘wise men’; it can be satisfied only through thinking, and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew.” Eichmann failed and refused to think in this way; we must learn and practice such thinking in order to understand our own inclinations toward action and others, in order to others’ knowledge and needs into our decisions.
Chapter Four examines the use of film in the Nuremburg trials as a way of understanding the precedent for and context of the Eichmann trial. The visual and rhetorical vocabularies developed in and for the Nuremburg trials provided meanings and language and an example (and counter-example) for the orchestrators and participants in the Eichmann trial. Several documentary films were specially prepared for the Nuremburg trials using existing footage of the camps and their liberation, and of Germany during the war. Hartouni argues that these films worked primarily on an emotional level to connect the crimes at issue to the accused and to convince the justices and the public of the accused’s guilt. At Nuremburg too, Hartouni suggests, a binary frame of victim/victimizer constrained debate and discussion and squandered opportunities to recognize the continuities of Nazi activities, institutions, and perspectives with those of the “civilized” world.
The Conclusion highlights Hartouni’s argument for recognizing continuities between Nazi and other Western regimes, and the pressures and restrictions on thought necessary for totalitarianism to thrive. It was only in certain circumstances, it seems, that individuals were able to refuse to comply. Hartouni points out that the bureaucratic and conceptual and ideological apparatuses that enabled and served the Nazis remain in place, now with more efficiency, presence, and tenacity than ever. How do we recognize and refuse the imperative to see others as superfluous? Hartouni quotes Arendt: the few Germans who refused to comply “never went through anything like a great moral conflict or crisis of conscience. They did not ponder the various issues—the issues of lesser evil or loyalty to their country or to their oath, or whatever else there might have been at stake. …[T]hey never doubted that crimes remained crimes even if legalized by the government and that it was better not to participate in these crimes under any circumstances.”
Hartouni’s book is premised on the idea that we can learn to think in ways that can lead to better decisions, to fewer catastrophic results. We can learn to see more clearly and act more quickly when technocratic systems show dehumanizing tendencies. We can unlearn rigidities of thought that enable routine dehumanization. The messages I take from Hartouni and Arendt are many, but one is most prominent: Before burgeoning circumstances require us to make decisions about our positions regarding policy, we are well advised to do whatever it takes to achieve the type of certainty Arendt found in those individuals who refused to comply with the Nazis. We must learn to think from where we are not, for example, before we are required to help register non-white, non-Christian neighbours.