Frequent Reactions to Arendt’s “Auschwitz on Trial”

Hannah ArendtWeek 6, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the arguments made by men on trial in Arendt’s essay “Auschwitz on Trial.”
  2. Evaluate these arguments.

Here I will present some of the questions I’ve received from students who’ve read Hannah Arendt’s essay “Auschwitz on Trial.” I follow their questions (I’ve anonymized my interlocutors) with my own thoughts on the matters they’ve raised.

By assigning Arendt’s essay I am asking you to put to work your critical evaluation skills. I think these trials illustrate effectively the difference between having reasons and doing the work of reasoning.

Question 1: 
Were the trials corrupt since there were obvious discrepancies in witness testimonies?

What Arendt is pointing out here (230) is that German witnesses said one thing before the trial but in the courtroom are now saying something different.

Arendt seems to be suggesting that the witnesses have changed their tune because the mood of the country as a whole has shifted.

Popular opinion holds, apparently at the time of this trial, that the real criminals were the people that gave the orders for the camps to exist and operate.

The people on trial here have committed crimes, but they’ve had twenty years or so to move on with their lives. They’ve become neighbors and colleagues of their fellow Germans, just like many of the Nazi officials went on to maintain positions in the German government after the war.

It appears that the popular opinion is that there is no need for this trial because focusing on that horrible time means that the country cannot move forward.

So, the corruption appears to be in the people themselves, not in the courtroom.

Some of what makes the question (public opinion and the role of the media) slippery is that it’s not clear what “the media” means here.

Until the last thirty years or so, what we today call “the media” meant outlets of publications that reported on the facts around events and situations. Investigative journalism is not the same thing as an opinion column.

Since the mid-1980s there has been this trend to reduce “the media” to the presentation of entertaining “hot takes” on what celebrities think you should think.

See Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves To Death.

Question 2:
Why does Arendt uses negative language to characterize the people on trial, doesn’t that diminish her position?

I see what you mean and I agree with you in so far as, typically, when we are presented with these kinds of ad hominem attacks, the person issuing such attacks loses validity in their argument.

That said, we’re talking about people who have confessed to committing horrible crimes. On one register I can understand the impulse to “call a spade, a spade.” Recall that, as Arendt reports, the people on trial are often sneering or laughing at the proceedings, even demanding that apologies be issued to them for besmirching their character.

There are other times, however, where Arendt describes some of these folks in ways that are diminutive, but it is not precisely to insult the person but to illustrate how unremarkable these people were. They were not monsters, they were typical people who did horrific things.

Question 3:
There were no laws against the extermination of the Jews. Can the Nazis be held responsible for committing a crime if the laws don’t exist?

I think you’ve landed on the heart of the matter: what are a citizen’s obligations to their fellow citizens (and others) when the law obliges its citizens to commit evil acts? Does a citizen have an obligation to then do evil, or does the citizen have an obligation to become an outlaw?

Part of what makes this specific situation (the Holocaust) is that during the Nazi regime years there were trials prosecuting Nazis who committed crimes like these.

But, yes, ultimately, it was illegal to be Jewish in Germany and the only legal way to be Jewish in the Reich was to be exterminated, thereby adhering to the “Final Solution” that the Nazis had developed for the “Jewish Problem.”

Arendt is presenting these trials (the Auschwitz one here, the Eichmann one as well) because, as a philosopher, she is compelled to ask questions like yours.

Question 4:
Why were the trials so late and were the guards forced to work in the camps?

To the question of whether the people running the camps were forced, it would appear that they were not (see page 237).

It is often the case that in military matters, especially after wars, there simply isn’t the ability to prosecute criminal activities.

In the case of Germany after the end of WWII, the Allies were trying to fight the Soviet Union. The Soviets had lost millions and millions of soldiers and citizens to the war against Germany and the Soviets wanted to lay claim to the territories they had acquired through those sacrifices.
So, the Soviets claimed Czechoslavakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and took the eastern portion of Germany. This was called the “Iron Curtain,” which was established to act as a buffer against the imperialist capitalism and its agents.

The Allied powers raced to stabilize the government and society of western Germany and so– even though everyone was aware that many of the Nazis who had been in positions of power and so responsible for the atrocities of the Holocaust–trials like these were very slow to happen.

Some of the difficulty is that, if the Allies were to put all the responsible parties on trial, there wouldn’t be anyone left with enough experience to effectively govern Germany. This would mean that the Allies would have to, effectively, colonize Germany, and this would be totally unacceptable for the common German citizen.

If the Allies were to install their own government and put to trial all the folks complicit in the Holocaust (keep in mind it was a combination of government, military, and commercial interests who did this evil work), the common German citizen would see this as the actions of conquerors taking their spoils of war and the Allies would be in violation of the conventions of how wars are supposed to be prosecuted (these had been formalized after the first world war).

Question 5:
What do we make of Dürmayer’s suggestion that the accused be considered guilty until proven innocent?

While we’ve grown up with the term “genocide” the term itself did not exist as we mean it until 1945 and had to be coined to describe the acts committed by the Nazis. What the Nazi government required of its citizens and officers was, technically speaking, not illegal. They were obeying the laws of their country. Europe had not recognized a government to that point that mandated the elimination of an entire ethnic group.

Because of these acts were unprecedented, new laws and new ways of conducting trials had to be established.

The doctrine of the presumption of innocence can be found in Roman criminal law from the first century of the common era. During the middle ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe it was much more common for oath-helpers to testify that the accused could not possibly have committed the crime.

In thirteenth century France the doctrine was revisited and began to be exercised again in some localities.

Germany did not adopt the presumption of innocence into its legal proceedings until after the second world war and the country signed onto the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. This convention was itself the direct result of what was being discovered in the wake of the Holocaust.

So, Dürmayer’s proposition was, in a sense, a call to return to the former mode of conducting trials, but his suggestion flew in the face of what the country was trying to establish.

Click here for Questions 6–10.