Hannah Arendt A photograph of Hannah Arendt, from the Vera List Collection.

A Letter From Hannah Arendt To Gershom Scholem

The following letter was written to Gerhardt Scholem, a scholar who made a number of pioneering contributions to the study of Jewish mysticism. The letter was written in response to the publication of Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, originally published as a series of essays in the New Yorker. This essay touched me deeply from the moment I first read it. Arendt manages to flippantly dismiss Scholem’s attack, carving a unique position on the direction that Israel in the early 1960’s had beginning to take. Branded a traitor for her criticism of Israel, and her perceived humanization of Eichmann, Arendt fearlessly considered the role that Jewish collaboration played in the Nazi project, seeking to make sense of events by objectively considering the happenings, believing that we shall only come to terms with the past if we begin to judge and be frank about it.

Dear Gerhardt,

I found your letter when I got back home a week ago. You know what its like when one has been away for five months. I’m writing now in the first quiet moment I have, hence my reply many not be as elaborate as perhaps it should be.

There are certain statements in your letter which are not open to controversy, because they are simply false. Let me deal with them first so that we can proceed to matters which merit discussion.

I am not one of the “intellectuals who come from the German Left.” You could not have known this, since we did not know each other when we were young. It is a fact of which I am in no way particularly proud, and which I am somewhat reluctant to emphasize – especially since the McCarthy era in this country. I came late to an understanding of Marx’s importance because I was interested neither in history nor in politics when I was young. If I can be said to “have come from anywhere”, it is from the tradition of German philosophy.

As to another statement of yours, I am unfortunately not able to say that you could not have known the facts. I found it puzzling that you should write, “I regard you wholly as a daughter of our people, and in no other way.” The truth is I have never pretended to be anything else, or to be in any way other than I am, and I have never felt tempted in that direction. It would be like saying that I was a man and not a woman – that is to say kind of insane. I know, of course, that there is a Jewish problem even on this level, but has never been my problem – not even in my childhood. I have always regarded my Jewishness as one of the indisputable factual data of my life, and I have never had the wish to change or disclaim facts of this kind. There is such a thing as a basic gratitude for everything that is as it is; for what has been given and was not, could not be, made; for things that are physei and not nomo. To be sure, such an attitude is pre-political, but in exceptional circumstances – such as the circumstances of Jewish politics – it is bound to have also political consequences though as it were, in a negative way, this attitude makes certain types of behavior impossible – indeed precisely those which you choose to read into my considerations. (To give an example; In his obituary of Kurt Blumenfeld, Ben-Gurion expressed his regret that Blumenfeld had not seen fit to change his name when he came to live in Israel. Isn’t it obvious that Blumenfeld did not do so for exactly the same reasons that had led him in his youth to become a Zionist?) My stand in these matters must surely have been known to you, and it is incomprehensible to me why you should wish to stick a label on me which never fitted in the past and does not fit now.

To come to the point; let me begin, going on from what I have just stated, with what you call ‘love of the Jewish people’ or Ahavath Israel. Incidentally I would be very grateful if you could tell me since when the concept has played a role in Judaism, when it was first used in Hebrew language and literature, etc.) You are quite right – I am not moved by any ‘love’ of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, for the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love only my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons. Secondly, this ‘love of the Jews’ would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, rather suspect. I cannot love myself of anything which I know is part and parcel of my own person. To clarify this, let me tell you of a conversation I had in Israel with a prominent political personality who was defending the – in my opinion disastrous-non-separation of religion and state in Israel. What he said – I am not sure of the exact words any more – ran something like this: “You will understand that as a socialist, I, of course, do not believe in g-d; I believe in the Jewish people.” I found this a shocking statement and, being too shocked, I did not reply at the time. But I could have answered: the greatness of this people was once that it believed in g-d, and believed in him in such a way that its trust and love towards him was greater than its fear. And now this people believes only in itself? What good can come of that? – Well, in the sense I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute of argument.


“Further, I never asked why the Jews, “let themselves be killed.” On the contrary, I accused Hausner of having posed this question to witness after witness. There was no people and no group in Europe which reacted differently under the immediate pressure of terror. The question I raised was that of the cooperation of Jewish functionaries during the “Final Solution,” and this question is so very uncomfortable because one cannot claim that they were traitors.”

Hannah Arendt A photograph of Hannah Arendt, from the Vera List Collection.

We could discuss the same issue in political terms; and we should then be driven to a consideration of patriotism. That there can be no patriotism without permanent oppositions and criticism is no doubt common ground between us. But I can admit to you something beyond that, namely, that wrong done by my own people naturally grieves me more than harm done by other peoples. This grief, however, in my opinion, is not for display, even if it should be the innermost motive for certain actions or attitudes. Generally speaking, the role of the ‘heart’ in politics seems to me altogether questionable. You know as well as I how often those who merely report certain unpleasant facts are accused of lack of soul, lack of heart, or lack of what you call Herzenstakt. We both know, in other words, how often these emotions are used in order to conceal factual truth. I cannot discuss here what happens when emotions are displayed in public and become a factor in political affairs; but it is an important subject, and I have attempted to describe the disastrous results in my book On Revolution in a discussion of the role that compassion plays in the formation of the revolutionary character.

It is a pity that you did not read the book before the present campaign of misrepresentation against it got under way from the side of the Jewish establishment in Israel and America. There are, unfortunately, very few people who are able to withstand the influence of such campaigns. It seems to me highly unlikely that, without being influenced, you would have misunderstood certain statements. Public opinion, especially when it has been carefully manipulated, as in this case, is a very powerful thing. I never made Eichmann out to be a ‘Zionist.’ If you missed the irony of the sentence – which was made plainly in oration oblique, reporting from Eichmann’s own words – I really can’t help it. I can only assure you that none of the dozens of readers who read the book before publication ever had any doubt about the matter. Further, I never asked why the Jews, ‘let themselves be killed.’ On the contrary, I accused Hausner of having posed this question to witness after witness. There was no people and no group in Europe which reacted differently under the immediate pressure of terror. The question I raised was that of the cooperation of Jewish functionaries during the ‘Final Solution,’ and this question is so very uncomfortable because one cannot claim that they were traitors. (There were traitors too, but that is irrelevant.) In other words, until 1939 and even until 1941, whatever Jewish functionaries did or did not do is understandable are excusable. Only later does it become highly problematical. The issue came up during the trial, and it was of course my duty to report it. This constitutes our part of the so-called ‘unmastered past,’ and although you may be right that it is too early for a ‘balanced judgment’ (although I doubt this), I believe that we shall only come to terms with this past if we begin to judge and to be frank about it.

I have made my own position plain, and yet it is obvious that you did not understand it. I said that there was no possibility of resistance, but there existed the possibility of doing nothing. And in order to do nothing, one did not need to be a saint, one needed only to say: “I am just a simple Jew, and I have no desire to play any other role.” Whether these people, or some of them, as you indicate, deserved to be charged is no altogether different question. What needs to be discussed are not the people so much as the arguments with which they justified themselves in their own eyes and those of others. Concerning these arguments we are entitled to pass judgment. Morever, we should not forget that we are dealing here with conditions which were terrible and desperate enough, but which were not the conditions of concentration camps. These decisions were made in an atmosphere of terror but not under the immediate pressure and impact of terror. These are important differences in degree, which every student of totalitarianism must know and take into account. These people had still a  certain, limited freedom of decision and of action, just as the SS murderers also possessed, as we now know, a limited choice of alternatives. They could say: “I wish to be relieved of my murderous duties,” and nothing happened to them. Since we are dealing in politics with men, and not with heroes or saints, it is this possibility of ‘non-participation’ (Kirchheimer) that is decisive if we begin to judge, not the system, but the individual, his choices and his arguments.

The Eichmann trial was concerned with an individual. In my report I have only spoken of things which came up during the trial itself. It is for this reason that I couldn’t mention the ‘saints’ about whom you speak. Instead I had to limit myself to the resistance fighters whose behavior, as I said, was the more admirable because it occurred under circumstances in which resistance had really ceased to be possible.

How you could believe that my book was ‘a mockery of Zionism’ would be a complete mystery to me, if I did not know that many people in Zionist circles have become incapable of listening to opinions or arguments which are off the beaten track and not consonant with their ideology. There are exceptions, and a Zionist friend of mine remarked in all innocence that the book, the last chapter in particular (recognition of the competence of the court, the justification for the kidnapping), was very pro-Israel as indeed it is. What confuses you is that my arguments and my approach are different from what you are used to; in other words, the trouble is that I am independent. By this I mean, on the one hand, that I do not belong to any organization and always speak only for myself, and on the other hand, that I have great confidence in Lessing’s selbstdenken for which, I think, no ideology no public opinion, and no ‘convictions’ can ever be a substitute. Whatever objections you may have to the results, you won’t understand them unless you realize that they are my own, and nobody else’s words.

I regret that you did not argue your case against the carrying out of the death sentence. For I believe that in discussing this question we might have made some progress in finding out where our most fundamental differences are located. You say that it was ‘historically false,’ and I feel very uncomfortable seeing the specter of History raised in this context. In my opinion, it was politically and juridically (and the last is actually all that mattered) not only correct – it would have been utterly impossible not to have carried out the sentence. The only way of avoiding it would have been to accept Karl Jasper’s suggestion, and to hand Eichmann over to the United Nations. Nobody wanted that, and it was probably not feasible; hence there was no alternative left but to hang him. Mercy was out of the question, not on juridical grounds – pardon is anyhow not a prerogative of the juridical system -  but because mercy is applicable to the person, rather than to the deed. The act of mercy does not forgive murder but pardons the murderer insofar as he, as a person, may be more than anything he ever did. This was not true of Eichmann. And to spare his life without pardoning him was impossible on juridical grounds.

In conclusion, let me come to the only matter where you have not misunderstood me, and where indeed I am glad that you have raised the point. You are quite right: I changed my mind and do no longer spear of radical evil. It is a long time since we last met, or we wouldn’t perhaps have spoken about the subject before. (Incidentally, I don’t wee why you call my term banality of evil a catchword or slogan. As far as I know no one has used the term before me; but that is unimportant.) It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never radical, that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like fugues on the surface. It is thought-defying, as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its banality. Only the good has depth and can be radical. But this is not the place to into these matters seriously; I intend to elaborate them further in a different context. Eichmann may very well remain the concrete model of what I have to say.

You propose to publish your letter and you ask if I have any objection. My advice would be not to recast the letter in the third person. The value of this controversy consists in its epistolary character, namely in the fact that it is informed by personal friendship. Hence, if you are prepared to publish my answer simultaneously with your letter, I have, of course, no objection.

Hannah Arendt


Der Briefwechsel: Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem (The Correspondence: Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem), Edited by Marie Luise Knott in collaboration with David Heredia. Jüdischer Verlag im Suhrkamp Verlag, 695 pp., €39.95.

Hannah Arendt A photograph of Hannah Arendt, from the Vera List Collection.