In the week of the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Professor Dirk de Schutter delves into Hannah Arendt’s take on the implications for our collective humanity that the Holocaust has left behind. Questions of truth and judgment, evil and responsibility are laid out in relation both to the past and to the present.
Chatter in three languages – just from the six or so people within earshot – buzzes through the Maastricht University Aula on the Minderbroedersberg Monday evening as Dirk de Schutter, professor of philosophy at the KU Leuven and University of Antwerp, wrestles with his clip-on microphone (before he sets out to speak he jokes “philosophers and technology” with a knowing glance at the audience). His talk, organised by Studium Generale, is about the Holocaust, but the issues he raises may just be relevant again today, at least symbolically – how do we retain our collective humanity in the face of totalitarian rule?
De Schutter provides possible answers in the words of Hannah Arendt, 20th century political philosopher famous, and infamous, for her strong convictions concerning the Holocaust. What was the true crime committed by the National Socialists in Germany during the Second World War? For Arendt, says De Schutter, “the issue is not the victims and their suffering”. The issue, instead, was the systematic way in which those defined as subhuman were denied their humanity. “Murder doesn’t describe what happened to the camp prisoners.” A murderer, says Arendt, does not deny that their victim was once a full human being. De Schutter defines this denial more closely:“By completely isolating camp inmates from the rest of society, by depriving them of their ‘right to have rights’, by taking away their voices and their votes, the National Socialists took away their prisoner’s humanity in a way worse than death.”
This is why human rights are a failure, claims De Schutter. Arendt, he says, would not have approved of the way refugees are being treated today, not even in the countries that are putting efforts into receiving them. “Their human rights are covered”, his tone implying quotation marks hanging heavily on either side of this statement, “they have blankets, and food, and a roof over their heads. But they have no humanity.” Humanity is something else, he says, and can only be achieved by becoming a full member of society, by becoming political.
De Schutter elaborates: “To become political, we need to be able to make judgments. To be able to make judgments, we need to be able to distinguish what is true from what is false. Those who cannot do this become nobodies. It is these nobodies that are at the center of what Arendt deemed ‘the banality of evil’. Nobodies cannot be forgiven for a crime, because they are not able to make judgments, which include moral judgments about their own actions, and they lack the thoughtfulness to even imagine that they are connected to a crime”. He continues to say that Arendt believed that we never forget or forgive crimes but we can forgive criminals and this becomes impossible if the perpetrator forgets the act they have committed.
What happens if we can no longer make moral judgments? What happens in a world where true and false come dangerously close, when governments defend lies as “alternative facts”? When De Schutter finally mentions the United States election a sigh ripples through the crowd, like silently simmering water breaking into a rolling boil. Before the floor opens for questions he concludes by quoting Arendt about the necessity for human interaction and participation in public society: “Only politics can save the world. Only politics can save us.” For Arendt, to be political means to participate in society in a way that allows us to realize our humanity – we interact with each other and enact the exact “right to have rights” that the National Socialists violated for their camp prisoners.
“How can we protect ourselves from sinking into a swamp where the distinction between what is true and false disappears?”, comes a question from the audience, seemingly more intent on discussing the current state of the world and not the way it was during the Holocaust. De Schutter responds: “Read critical press. Argue with the people who no longer care about the truth.” “How can we resist dehumanization?” asks someone else. De Schutter gives succinct advice to the searching crowd: “Stay vigilant.”