Arendt: Death Camps and the Shapeless State

Well, I’ve just hit the part where Arendt starts talking about the concentration camps, and it turns out that it’s some pretty heavy reading. I’m feeling totally overwhelmed right now, and (for me) one of the best ways of dealing with that feeling is by writing – so here we are. On Violence arrived yesterday, which is cool – it’s only like a hundred pages, so I’ll rip through it pretty quickly. I think after that I’ll move on – I’m ready for a different writer now. Let’s get back to the death camps.

There’s a lot to cover here, but I think in this post we’re going to look at how the totalitarian state systematically destroys the nation-state as we know it. We’ll start with the Jews, who were pushed outside of the laws of the nation-state, and continue from there. Let’s start with human rights, which are linked to the modern nation-state. You only get guaranteed your human rights as long as there’s a nation-state behind you to back those rights up. We’ve talked about that in a previous post: Hitler revoked the German citizenship of Jews and other ‘undesireables’, thus putting them outside the protection of the state. The Jews don’t (didn’t) have their own state to defend their human rights in the face of the Nazis, and the Nazis took advantage of that fact to destroy them. Arendt points out that if a de-nationalised Jew committed a crime, they were actually in a better position – because for the law to punish that Jew, it has to recognise them – and as soon as it recognises them, their human rights come flooding back.

Arendt compares again the condition of slaves: being a slave is a terrible situation, but the slave remains within a political framework. Slaves are humans treated as tools, but they have a price and a value – you can buy and sell them, and they’re sharing basically the same space as the rest of us. It’s not a good situation, by any means, but it’s within the social order. By contrast, if you’re in the concentration camp, you have no value, and no price, and no function within society. You’re de-nationalised, removed from society, and (in economic terms) superfluous. The slave is none of those things. The slave is at the bottom of society, but the inhabitant of the death camp is outside it.

In a similar vein, all of the concentration camps (Soviet and Nazi alike) had some number of regular plain old garden-variety criminals. This supposedly proved that the camps only existed to contain the anti-social elements of society. Naturally, the criminals became what Arendt describes as the “aristocracy” of the camps, because they at least had a legal status. They were there because of actions committed within the legal system, and they were therefore punished under and according to the legal system (well, sort of, anyway). Again, this was not the case for the Jews. They were not criminals, because that would imply a legal status. They had done nothing wrong, because that would imply they were subject to the laws which governed the rest of society (which would, in turn, guarantee their human rights).

This next bit requires a bit of background knowledge. Part of the idea of the totalitarian state is that power is concentrated solely in the leader. Normally, political power has a kind of trickle-down effect: the government official has authority because they work for a government department, and the leader of that department (the Minister) has authority because they were given their role by the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister has authority because the people democratically voted them in. However your political system works, power trickles down – any authority wielded by any official can be traced back to the top. What this means is that state structures tend to stabilize power: there’s a typical pattern of how things work, and that pattern more or less holds true regardless of who’s in power. The Minister of Education deals with education – that’s their thing. What happens under a totalitarian state is that power is located solely in the leader.

This happens through the duplication of offices. When the Reichstag Fire happened, the SA were the real seat of power in the Nazi party – the party itself was just a shell. Then power shifted to the SS, and from the SS to the Security Service. Of course, the SA are never formally disabused of the notion that they’re carrying out the will of the Fuhrer – so there’s all these empty shell groups, and a constantly shifting seat of power. What this means is that your role doesn’t guarantee you any authority – in contrast to our current society. Normally today, if you’re the Minister of Education, you’re in charge of education, and that’s that – it’s authority (more or less) guaranteed by the very structure of the state. By contrast, in totalitarian Nazi Germany, your authority at any given moment derives exclusively from the fact that Hitler has picked your shell office to carry out his will.

Because political power is located solely in the person of the leader, the police can’t just go out arresting people according to a set of fixed rules. There’s no law, in that sense of the word. Instead, they’re the instruments of the leader’s will: Hitler arbitrarily decides who he wants to persecute on any given day, and off go the police. The point here is that there’s no stability to the totalitarian society – there’s no rhyme or reason beyond the will of the Fuehrer. Therefore, everyone is equally vulnerable to incarceration in the death camps. What you legally say today might be declared an illegimate action tomorrow – in which case you’ll be thrown under the bus by anyone who heard you, because they’re trying to protect their own skin. This is how isolation works in a totalitarian state: the lack of stability means that everyone’s a victim, or a potential victim, and everyone’s an informer, or a potential informer.

In that regard, the de-nationalisation of the Jews was only the first step in the dissolution of the state. The Jews were pushed outside of the laws of the nation-state, and then the systems and laws were torn down themselves, leaving only the shapeless apocalyptic nightmare of the totalitarian ‘state’.


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