During Eichmann’s trial, the prosecution continually emphasized the unfathomable suffering and desperation that European Jews faced during the Holocaust. Arendt (like the judges) agreed that these stories needed to be told but believed that Eichmann’s trial was the wrong forum—not only were these stories irrelevant to the question of Eichmann’s guilt, but they also reinforced the sense that there was nothing to be done in the face of Nazism’s unspeakable evil. Rather, Arendt preferred to center stories of resistance in her own account of the Holocaust to show that individuals and institutions fought for justice even in the darkest imaginable times, against monumental odds, or when they lacked a personal stake in the matter. These stories demonstrate the resilience and power of moral thinking even when morality is deliberately erased from the public sphere, and reveal how totalitarianism is never total and always vulnerable to protest.
The most salient, improbable, and uncomfortable stories of resistance (especially to the Israeli public, which conceived all German Gentiles as collaborators) are those of individual Germans who, recognizing that their voices would be taken more seriously than those of groups declared enemies of the state, risked their own safety to protest the Nazis and rescue Jews from extermination camps. In her sixth chapter, Arendt contrasts the “conspirators,” who were usually praised for resisting Nazis from within Germany—but really wanted to save Germany from the credibility crisis that Hitler’s anti-Semitism created and improve their chances at winning the war—with the “completely silent” dissenters who resisted the Nazi regime on moral grounds. The most salient story was that of Anton Schmidt, a German soldier who helped Jews escape from Poland, which Arendt includes at the end of the fourteenth chapter.
Arendt also focused on the incredible resistance that Nazi deportation campaigns faced from the people and governments of occupied nations around Europe. These stories, too, are often forgotten when stories of suffering take center stage. Slovakia and France were initially cooperative but eventually refused to let the Nazis deport more people from their countries; in Belgium, Italy, and Bulgaria government officials and private citizens simply tried as hard as possible to hamper the Nazis’ goals. But Denmark and Sweden were the most extraordinary examples of organized resistance: Sweden never fell to the German military and offered asylum to Jews from Norway and Denmark, while Denmark openly protested the Third Reich’s policies. Danes refused to identify foreign-born Jews and even convinced S.S. officials stationed there to resign or feed information to underground resistance groups. Danish citizens of all religious and class backgrounds helped Jews hide from the Gestapo and put enough pressure on the German government to ensure that Danish Jews who were deported received special treatment. Ultimately, less than 10% of Jews in Denmark were deported and less than 10% of these deportees died.
While it is important to record Holocaust survivors’ horrifying tales of deportation, forced labor, and their fellow deportees being gassed and shot, Arendt believed that stories of resistance have the essential and neglected political function of demonstrating that “most people will comply but some people will not,” that “‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere.” For one, these stories serve as inspirational models for citizens who want to resist totalitarianism. Anton Schmidt, for instance, demonstrated that no resistance is “practically useless” even when everyone else seems resigned to cooperate with violence. Arendt wonders “how utterly different everything would be today … if only more such stories could be told.”
Astonishingly, all these forms of resistance were reasonably successful despite the immense ideological power of Hitler’s regime: Germany “possessed neither the manpower nor the will power to remain ‘tough’ when they met determined opposition.” One reason that totalitarianism may be so vulnerable to protest is that, as Eichmann’s banality demonstrates, its success depends primarily on suppressing critical thought and normalizing violence; it is a centrally ideological project, and protest offers a counter-ideology that challenges the notion that violence and extermination could ever be an acceptable, normal order of things. This forces people to evaluate their governments as moral actors rather than absolute legal authorities—which even convinced Nazis in Denmark to abandon their beliefs.
Ultimately, Arendt’s discussion of resistance shows that she managed to at once confront the gruesome and inconvenient realities raised at the trial—Eichmann was banal, Jewish Councils cooperated with the Nazis, and Israel was more interested in justifying its own existence than truly pursuing justice—while also maintaining a deep optimism about the human tendency to pursue freedom and ensure that the world remains “fit for human habitation.” Stories of resistance, like those that she foregrounded whenever possible, serve to remind readers that moral behavior leaves a legacy—and organized moral behavior can block the advance of evil—even if everyone else seems to have resigned themselves to the inevitability of totalitarianism.
Storytelling and Resistance ThemeTracker
Storytelling and Resistance Quotes in Eichmann in Jerusalem
In this respect, perhaps even more significantly than in others, the deliberate attempt at the trial to tell only the Jewish side of the story distorted the truth, even the Jewish truth. The glory of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto and the heroism of the few others who fought back lay precisely in their having refused the comparatively easy death the Nazis offered them—before the firing squad or in the gas chamber. And the witnesses in Jerusalem who testified to resistance and rebellion, to “the small place [it had] in the history of the holocaust,” confirmed once more the fact that only the very young had been capable of taking “the decision that we cannot go and be slaughtered like sheep.”
In actual fact, the situation was just as simple as it was hopeless: the overwhelming majority of the German people believed in Hitler—even after the attack on Russia and the feared war on two fronts, even after the United States entered the war, indeed even after Stalingrad, the defection of Italy, and the landings in France. Against this solid majority, there stood an indeterminate number of isolated individuals who were completely aware of the national and of the moral catastrophe; they might occasionally know and trust one another, there were friendships among them and an exchange of opinions, but no plan or intention of revolt. Finally there was the group of those who later became known as the conspirators, but they had never been able to come to an agreement on anything, not even on the question of conspiracy.
The story of the Danish Jews is sui generis, and the behavior of the Danish people and their government was unique among all the countries of Europe—whether occupied, or a partner of the Axis, or neutral and truly independent. One is tempted to recommend the story as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence.
Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their “toughness” had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage. That the ideal of “toughness,” except, perhaps, for a few half-demented brutes, was nothing but a myth of self-deception, concealing a ruthless desire for conformity at any price, was clearly revealed at the Nuremberg Trials, where the defendants accused and betrayed each other and assured the world that they “had always been against it” or claimed, as Eichmann was to do, that their best qualities had been “abused” by their superiors. (In Jerusalem, he accused “those in power” of having abused his “obedience.” “The subject of a good government is lucky, the subject of a bad government is unlucky. I had no luck.”) The atmosphere had changed, and although most of them must have known that they were doomed, not a single one of them had the guts to defend the Nazi ideology.
It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June, 1942, on, to erase all traces of the massacres—through cremation, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing machinery—were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents “disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be “practically useless,” at least, not in the long run. It would be of great practical usefulness for Germany today, not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition, if there were more such stories to be told. For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.