Fascist typefaces/typemakers (and beyond!)

jacob_'s picture

Hi!

First post, and all that. Pardon the english in advance. Anyway:

I'm looking for typefaces who are and/or typemakers who was/i outspoken fascist/-s. Preferably typefaces designed during any of the world wars or in a fascist regime.
Even, to an extent, any typefaces and/or -makers who are to be associated with "evil"; fascism, rasism, domestic abuse, almost anything goes.

And, one a side note; is Helvetica in any way relatable to fascism? Are there any (be them questionable) essays on the subject?

Thanks in advance,
J

refusenik's picture

> And, one a side note; is Helvetica in any way
> relatable to fascism?

You bet. There's no telling the amount of damage that typeface has done. It's THAT evil! ;-)

andreas's picture

They used all the good and common stuff available in Germany at that time. Fraktur, Blackletter-Gothics & Grotesks. There was no straight rule: "Let's use Tannenberg for the corporate design of the Third Reich." Your kind of questioning implies a simplicity what is not suitable for this matter.

Please read the threads in typophiles blackletter section too: http://www.typophile.com/forums/messages/4077/4803.html?1106070377

A font specimen by Bauersche Gie

Nick Shinn's picture

>is Helvetica in any way relatable to fascism?

Yes. I did so in an essay, "The face of uniformity".
It's at my website, www.shinntype.com

queso's picture

Just a heads up NIck.

Helvetica means Switzerland, not the Swiss.
Helveti means the Swiss.

;) Join the confederation!

refusenik's picture

>> is Helvetica in any way relatable to fascism?

> Yes. I did so in an essay,
> "The face of uniformity".

Just read the essay, very entertaining. However, now that it appears we are taking the original question in this thread somewhat seriously, I don't get the supposed link between Helvetica and fascism, other than the fact that both are mentioned in the essay.

Oh, and for what it's worth: Helvetica is latin for "Swiss", as in "of Switzerland". The name of the country would be "Helvetia", or, more precise, "Confoederatio Helvetica" (Swiss Confederation), which explains the CH found on the back of Swiss cars.

jacob_'s picture

Andreas: enormous thank you. I'll read/catch up on what you wrote.

Re: my questioning, I am aware that the simplicity is perhaps foolish, but I thought better to start out uncomplicated, since it's bound to get the opposite rather soon... :-)

Nick Shinn's picture

>I don't get the supposed link between Helvetica and fascism,

Jacob asked for "any way relatable to fascism".

I was very impressed by an essay Umberto Eco wrote in 1995, "Eternal fascism: 14 ways of looking at a blackshirt", in which he stated,

'Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, "I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares." Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances

John Hudson's picture

I love that Eco piece on fascism. My favourite bit is: If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine, who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge -- that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.

antiphrasis's picture

Nick,

You've got some great essays on your site. I'm definately bookmarking that page. I'm currently reading your style guide. Thanks for a great resource!

hrant's picture

I don't see much fascism neither in Helvetica's forms nor its genesis. That said, I do suspect that there are more fascists among [current] Helvetica-lovers than among the lovers of most any other face.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

As you say Hrant, it's not the forms or the genesis that are related to fascism.

Form has no relation to politics or ethics -- this is one of the lessons of the 20th century, made clear in the mythical anecdote of the beautiful, functional lampshade made of human skin.

It has also been pointed out that there's a great resonance, in formal aesthetics, between drill sargeant Busby Berkley's Hollwood spectacles, and the Nuremburg Rally as filmed by Leni Riefenstahl.

And in type, the Nazi flip-flop over whether blackletter or humanist typeform was better for the Third Reich is clearly documented in Chris Burke's "Renner".

As for genesis, Helvetica is a revival, made in the WW2-neutral Switzerland, of a widely-used genre (grotesque) at least 60 years old at the time (from Akzidenz Grotesque), while its capitals go back at least to the 1830s, in London (as I show in my essay). There can hardly be a type of less political provenance.

The evidence against Helvetica is entirely circumstantial (nonetheless, such evidence can be grounds for conviction).

For those who have not read my essay, the gist of the argument is that the dominant typefaces of today are a limited number of mid-20th Century sans serif faces.
The quality of typography is hence traditional, conformist, utilitarian and banal: these are the qualities of a fascist aesthetic.

Helvetica was entrenched in digital culture by the mass-scale distribution of two organizations Apple (as a Laserwriter and system font) and Microsoft (with IE) which enjoy a virtual monopoly -- akin to a totalitarian position.

While both communism and fascism were totalitarian movements, the communist aesthetic was anti-traditional and experimental (eg Stalin and Mao's democidal collectivization of agriculture).

The origin of the word "fascist" is the Latin word "fasces", meaning a bundle of reeds (an image used in Nazi regalia). It denotes being bound to the Leader, the Party, the Fatherland, the Ideology. "Bundle" is also the word used to describe how Helvetica etc. are distributed. Hmmm...

William Berkson's picture

> traditional, conformist, utilitarian and banal: these are the qualities of a fascist aesthetic.

I really don't think that is accurate, Nick. The distinctive thing to me about the fascist aesthetic is that it favors the grand, pompous and brutal, with as much glamor as possible.

Helvetica is more an outgrowth of the egalitarean socialist 'one with the worker' aesthetic, with an added sheen of stylishness.

If Helvetica were used occassionally as a display face, it would be fine with me. As it is, it is so overused that it makes me cringe. But that overuse is not fascist. It is just a consequence of corporate conservativism and ignorance. It is a boring side of the democratic societies with mixed economies that we have now in rich countries, but it isn't fascist.

hrant's picture

> Form has no relation to politics or ethics

Oh, it most certainly does - just on a level that near-sighted Modernism cannot fathom.

As for the lessons of the 20th century, not only were most of them quite dumb, few people learned anything anyway. It was one of the worst centuries in human history (surpassed only by the Mongol invasions), although the 21st century is even "ahead" of the 20th at this point...

> communism and fascism were totalitarian movements

And of course Global Capitalism is a timid white lily.

hhp

Chris Rugen's picture

The mention of fascism, uniformity, and the Gap reminds me of this little spoof from a while back.

Anyway. Jacob, put simply, Helvetica is related to fascism the way a bulk of modern* san serif type is related to fascism, as Nick indicated. It's not like the VW or IBM in that it doesn't stand higher than the rest in this regard. Homogeneity is not a fascist invention, nor is it necessarily fascist, though the two often go hand-in-hand. I suppose I'm just re-summarizing at this point.

Anyway, the Futurists are another creative bunch who loved to get their war on and had strong fascist sentiments (from what I've read on them), so that's another avenue to explore.

*I use "modern" in the design history sense, not to mean contemporary.

John Hudson's picture

There are plenty of conformist societies that are not fascist. The primary indicator of fascism is the militarisation of society (usually leading pretty rapidly to the fascist ideal of 'total war'). This has been the identifying feature of every fascist regime.

So, for example, when your president lands on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier dressed in a military uniform, one has grounds for concern (especially when contrasted to President Eisenhower, who had every right to wear a uniform but, during his time as president, never did). I can't say I've ever felt the same discomfort looking at Helvetica.

Nick Shinn's picture

>Helvetica is more an outgrowth of the egalitarean socialist 'one with the worker' aesthetic, with an added sheen of stylishness.

That's imprecise. I've described the Fascist aesthetic by four features which may be applied to design objects such as typefaces, but I have no idea what aesthetic qualities you assume are associated with egalitarianism, socialism, and "one with the worker".

Besides, while a type design may emerge from particular ideological-historical circumstances, the formal qualities (the shapes) of that typeface have no innate relationship with that ideology, and that typeface may subsequently be used to serve different ideological ends. Typefaces acquire ideological significance through association.

These four aesthetic qualities are independent of the appearance of the typeface, and yet they have been acquired by it during use:

Traditional. Helvetica is a revival of the 19th century grotesque.

Conformist. Helvetica is chosen because people don't want to stand out in a crowd by using something with a unique personality: "timeless and neutral".

Utilitarian. Helvetica is the preferred face of timetables, labels and signage.

Banal. Helvetica is the default.

The same aesthetic qualities also belong to Times Roman, a face of quite different appearance to helvetica.

But are these fascist qualities, William asks?

>The distinctive thing to me about the fascist aesthetic is that it favors the grand, pompous and brutal, with as much glamor as possible.

That could be said of any militaristic state. The four qualities I am focusing on are likewise not exclusive, but I present them as a coherent group, with support from Eco:

Traditional. Eco: "The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition...there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all..."

Conformist. Eco: "Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference."

Utilitarian. The fascist state exists not for the pleasure of its citizens, but to enforce its ideology on the world.

Banality. Eco: "...the cult of action for action's sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation." This viewpoint follows from Hannah Arendt's perception of the banality of Nazi evil as perpetrated by thoughtless bureaucrats.

hrant's picture

> Typefaces acquire ideological significance through association.

Not just - also via our physical reality.
We are animals, not ethereal beings.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

>via our physical reality

Well of course, that's understood.

To amplify:
Typefaces acquire ideological significance for the reader through their association with the ideological circumstances in which they are encountered.

Nurture not nature.

The shape of a typeface carries no inherent ideological message, such as a racist serif or communist proportions.

hrant's picture

> Well of course, that's understood.
> Nurture not nature.

Make up you mind.
And please mind the gravity that keeps you from simply floating off! :-)

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

>floating off

Bye now.

William Berkson's picture

1. Eco is talking about 'Ur-fascism' - his concoction - not fascism. Without the militarism and brutality and anti-egalitarianism of fascism, he seems to be just pasting an emotionally charged word on something that he doesn't like. To me it looks like he is just blowing smoke, but perhaps in context I would be more impressed.

2. Your the way in which you - or is it Eco - use 'utilitarean' is incorrect. Utilitarean means useful to people, not useless.

3. Hannah Arendt was just blowing smoke also. Eichmann was just evil, and not banal. He knew damn well what he was doing and her thesis doesn't hold up against actual testimony against him.

You know more about the history of type than I - and I do admire your essays, with the exeception of the stuff about fascism! - but wasn't 'modernism' in architecture and type motivated partly by socialist ideals? The Bauhaus I believe were overtly socialist, and they saw their work, including the type as furthering their ideals. Isn't Helvetica a further wrinkle in the modernist movement in type, a furthering of Bauhaus ideals? Just asking.

John Hudson's picture

Re. Hannah Arendt. I wish people would read the totality of her account of the Eichmann trial, which is a complex work. 'The banality of evil' has become an empty soundbite, much more banal than that to which she referred (the everydayness of the way in which Eichmann went about the destruction of the lives of millions of people, the obsessive bureaucracy that the Nazi's erected to manage their murder, and the small mentality of the people who ran it). Eichmann in Jerusalem is a challenging book, and I disagree with much that Arendt wrote -- and I'm flummoxed by her continued affection for Heidegger, who appears to have remained unrepentant of his Nazi past throughout his life --, but her writing deserves not to be reduced to a misunderstood journalistic snippet.

Nick Shinn's picture

William:

1. To distinguish between historical instances of fascisim, and a general ideological form, Eco came up with the term "Ur-fascism'. As he admits: "In spite of some fuzziness regarding the difference between various historical forms of fascism, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it." Yeah, cultural theory tends to be a bit smoky!

2. Certainly, Utilitarianism as a philosophy means useful to people (the greatest good for the greatest number). However, the word utilitarian is generally understood to mean "merely" useful for material ends -- inhuman, in fact. It's a put-down, stemming from the realisation in the latter 19th Century that cold-blooded industrial capitalism could easily be rationalized by such a "Benthamite" philosophy, with devastating results for a large number of the population.

3. I trust Arendt's assessment. She was at Nuremburg, and her concept of the "banality of evil" makes sense in relation to Milgram's behavioral studies of obedience, from the same era.

Helvetica, modernism, and socialism:
there is some overlap, and many ironies.
The grotesque letterform was modern, invented in signage during the birth of the modern industrial era, in London, 1805 (Justin Howes spoke on this at the Bad Type conference). No doubt the sign painters were Chartists (the socialists of the day), but it's more likely that this extreme trend in letterform was just the way that people expressed themselves in the most tumultuous of times.

The bauhaus "socialist" ideal you refer to: that the artist has a duty to society.

If that is the case, the duty of artists is to use today's typefaces designed by members of today's society, not Helvetica.

Nick Shinn's picture

John, what you said about Arendt's phrase:

>(the everydayness of the way in which Eichmann went about the destruction of the lives of millions of people, the obsessive bureaucracy that the Nazi's erected to manage their murder, and the small mentality of the people who ran it)

What I said:

>This viewpoint follows from Hannah Arendt's perception of the banality of Nazi evil as perpetrated by thoughtless bureaucrats.

Not much difference there. What's your problem? Or did you just want to show off that you'd read the whole book :-) ?

mncz's picture

Re: Ur-Fascism
I've read Hannah Arendt's books, but to which Eco book are you referring to?

William Berkson's picture

First about Hannah Arendt. I'll post later on other issues.

>I'm flummoxed by her continued affection for Heidegger, who appears to have remained unrepentant of his Nazi past throughout his life

Arendt was once Heidegger's lover, and remained a loyal defender of his throughout her life, including defending him against charge of being pro-Nazi, which he clearly was 1933, and never renounced.

Arendt was brilliant but extremely muddle-headed, and at the heart of her muddle was her effort to condemn totalitareanism and defend Heidegger at the same time. She never faced the question of whether something in Heidegger's philosophy condoned or supported Naziism - which is indeed the case.

>3. I trust Arendt's assessment. She was at Nuremburg, and her concept of the "banality of evil" makes sense in relation to Milgram's behavioral studies of obedience, from the same era.

Eichmann's trial was in Israel, not at Nuremberg.

My friend Stephen Miller wrote 'A Note on the Banality of Evil' for the Wilson Quarterly Unfortunately you can only view it on line if you are a subscriber. However, here is a bit of it:

'Was Arendt right about Eichmann? She was right to say that it made no sense to call Eichmann, as the Israeli prosecutor would have it, "a perverted sadist." And she was right to say that "with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann" (though no serious thinker has suggested that evil people are necessarily diabolic or demonic). But she was wrong to conclude that because Eichmann was not a fanatical anti-Semite he therefore wasn't a fanatic. She herself admits that he was a fanatical believer in Hitler; she speaks of "his genuine, 'boundless and immoderate admiration for Hitler' (as one of the defense witnesses called it)," and she implies that he subscribed to the Nazi formulation of Kant's categorical imperative: "Act in such a way that the F

William Berkson's picture

> the artist has a duty to society. If that is the case, the duty of artists is to use today's typefaces designed by members of today's society, not Helvetica.

Are you saying that all contemporary designs are better for society than all revivals? So I would be committing a grevious injustice - becoming an 'Ur-fascist' I suppose - by using your Walburn or Goodchild instead of your Panoptica or Eunoia?

John Hudson's picture

I don't think Arendt ever claimed that Eichmann was 'a thoughtless cog in a bureaucratic machine': the famous banality phrase refers to the way he went about murdering millions of people, having once decided that he would do it (what Eichmann called his 'Pontius Pilate moment'). Arendt is contrasting the reality of this small minded man, obsessing about the train schedules to and from Auschwitz, to the kind of sadistic monster who gets personal pleasure from specific acts of murder (e.g. Stalin's secret police chief, Beria, who insisted on personally executing many 'enemies of the revolution'). Eichmann's Final Solution was designed to depersonalise the murder, by turning it into a bureaucratically ordered, mechanised, assembly line for corpses and ash. And this was something new in our understanding when Arendt wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, as the comments of the prosecutor show: we expect people who perform monstrous acts to be monsters, and their ordinariness is apalling. I think Arendt's famous quote mischaracterises evil: it is not that evil is banal per se, but that evil can become part of the everyday and the normal. It does not require monsters: Eichmann's system, while it permitted individual sadism, did not require sadism. Nowhere in any of this is it suggested that Eichmann was an unthinking cog in a bureaucracy: he designed the bureaucracy.

William Berkson's picture

>Nowhere in any of this is it suggested that Eichmann was an unthinking cog in a bureaucracy

Not so.

Here is Miller quoting Arendt:

'According to Arendt, ... he was an ordinary bureaucrat who "except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement . . . had no motives at all." Her point is that Eichmann, though a high-level Nazi official, was not strongly influenced by Nazi ideas."'

Then follows Miller's paragraph I quoted earlier refuting Arendt's claim. She is simply wrong about him having no motives, for he was in fact a fanatical devotee of Hitler.

Furthermore, she says, 'in the postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem...: "The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them." In her view, Eichmann was so much the bureaucratic man that he "never realized what he was doing [emphasis in original]."'

But the reality was that, contrary to Arendt, he did realize what he was doing and knowingly choose to do it.

Miller, as I quoted earlier, does not think that anyone has made a general claim that people must be specially monsterous to do great evil. In fact in the view of both Judaism and Christianity ordinary people have the capacity for great good and great evil alike, and the choice. The fact that the prosecutor had this view is not indicative that his view is the traditional one, even though it may be common in drama.

The important point here is that you cannot shift the blame from individuals to bureaucracy itself, which is what seems to be the thrust of Arendt's argument, and what Nick and Eco were refering to.

Bureaucracy certainly puts pressure on people to do wrong, but so does the rest of life. Some people have more moral courage and some less. Living with bureaucracy is one of the central moral challenges of our times. Arendt says that it is the nature of bureaucracies to dehumanize. But families and rulers could do that before. This pressure is not radically new; what is new is not the pressures but the efficiency of bureaucracy.

Her getting it wrong is to the point here, because a knee jerk reaction of many on these discussion boards is to see every bureaucracy and large organization as evil. All have tendencies to evil, but some are largely good and some largely evil, and there are all gradations in between. And it is up to us as part of them or dealing with them to do our part in a good way, and not to cooperate when they are going to do wrong.

What I see often on these boards is people totally condemning all corporations and also working for them or with them. This to me is an unsound as well as confused attitude. I would rather see a realization of the pressures, and a consciousness that it is within our power to deal with them.

bieler's picture

Jacob

Going back to your original question. I think the best approach for the historical part of your inquiry is just look at some of the faces used by the Italian Fascists during the years approaching WWII, not the German (the Germans weren't into type in that specific way, the earlier nationalistic allegiance to blackletter was kind of in the way). There was a much higher developed theoretical modernistic approach in Italy that had links with the typographic concerns of the earlier Futurism.

bieler's picture

Ouch

Well, if the way to propagandize the concept of fascism is through graphic design (and the use of typefaces per that design) et al, they would be typefaces that could "sell the message." The Italian Fascists had that down pat. The same kind of typefaces are used today in Anglo-American corporate advertising and political campaigns. How many of you have contributed to that crap?

That blackletter may now be associated with what the world considers an "evil regime" has nothing to do with the propagandistic nature of the form, it is simply an historical association, and only powerful in its retrospective use. If the Nazis thought it was so great a propaganda device they wouldn't have tried to kill it off halfway through the friggin war.

johnbutler's picture

So, for example, when your president lands on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier dressed in a military uniform, one has grounds for concern

That was a flightsuit he was wearing, and the flightsuit itself was obviously more for its function than for symbolic purposes.

There is no well-established definition of Fascism. Attempts to define it seem to invariably include a list of current world leaders that do or do not fit the definition. I would argue that Baathism is easily a form of Fascism, and of course others will call me a Fascist for having said such a thing. Or a naïve fool, or ignorant American, or whatever the favored stereotype is at the moment.

I have been reading Robert O. Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism which may be the most successful effort yet at such a definition, though I won't know until I finish it. I'm also reading Canetti's Crowds and Power which, while incisive and well written, suffers from howyousay "Charismatic Atheism." I am also still struggling through Frakturstreit.

hrant's picture

Ah, the Defender of the Empire is aroused!
It's a shame that's the only way to get him to contribute anything.

> the flightsuit itself was obviously more for its function

Of course. And obviously Dubya just happened to be in the neighborhood of the carrier, so... That banner will always hold a special place in people's hearts though.

> Baathism is easily a form of Fascism

John, you seem to be behind the times:
Iraq is already ruined, now it's Iran's turn.

You're not strong enough to be a fascist, and you're not isolated enough to be [sufficiently] ignorant. As for being American, yes your omnipotent media is a peon-control mechanism, but it's encouraging that an increasing number of Americans are realizing this; a declaration of a military state of emergency is not too close yet, but we're nicely headed that way. Your own main problem is family circumstances, which are in part -if not totally- out of your control: your father was in the US military. It takes an exceptionally strong man to realize his father's limitations (I know I struggle with it sometimes), and even without knowing of your political lopsidedness I wouldn't assume that of you.

And I could tolerate this part of your character better (as I do William's) if only you would make more (or at this point any) non-political posts as well. Re-evaluate the nature of your presence.

hhp

johnbutler's picture

Oh, to one day earn your approval, O Hrant.

hrant's picture

Not that I ever pretend that should be the point,
but just for the record: you used to have it.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

>Are you saying that all contemporary designs are better for society than all revivals?

No. I would never be that dogmatic (or fascist).
William, we were discussing something you had raised, the "socialist" element of Helvetica and modernism.
If today's design workers wish to express a socialist sentiment, they should not merely pay lip service by using old Helvetica, but should support their fellow designers (solidarity!), by using typefaces designed by today's type designers.

***

I haven't read Eichmann in Jerusaslem, and I am not an Arendt scholar. As I am aware, her term "the banality of evil" had a great resonance, to the extent of becoming a cliche. From what I have read of the commentary, including here, it appears that the connection she made between banality, fascism, bureaucracy, and not thinking for oneself made a lot of sense to a lot of people. To repeat one of John Hudson's points: she was contrasting the banality of evil with the sadism of evil. And at the time, when it was customary to demonize and project evil onto the other, her idea of describing evil as banal was a revelation.

That is, because no-one had taken Eliot seriously when he wrote "This is how the world will end. Not with a bang but a whimper." (The Hollow Men, 1925)

In connection with typography, what could be more banal than a default choice of typeface, absolving the typesetter of any choice in the matter?

If the default is a corporate standard, then it is a strictly bureaucratic banality. If it is made by the software, then it is another kind of banality: although the user is more at liberty to replace the default, how much freedom of choice is there really? When a graphic designer buys a computer and installs professional software, already (s)he has a default library of typefaces which cleverly appears on the font menu. Of course, (s)he may still buy and install other fonts, but the default library is a coercive banality, no matter how marvelous the fonts may be, because it derogates freedom of choice by taking away the need to exercise it.

Is this evil? Of course not, because on the moral scale, evil is an extreme, and banal typography is merely a slightly numbing practice.

Is it inflamatory to speak of the "banality of evil" and typography in the same breath? Perhaps, but the moral dimension of banality is a genuine concern for many graphic designers and art directors, who are aware both of the ephemeral nature of their individual work and the problematic nature of the hyper consumerism which it promotes.

Maurice Meilleur's picture

My $.02, for what they're worth:

Nick and John's association of Arendt's "banality" with mindless action (and not merely poor taste) is exactly right. There was no question in Arendt's mind that Eichmann was evil, or that he tried hard to please his superiors by coordinating the movement and distribution of rail stock in order efficiently to move Jews to internment centers and finally to the camps, or that he knew where the Jews were headed.

William's secondhand reading of Arendt is wrong. Arendt never argued that Eichmann was an innocent tool; she argued that he was a thoughtless functionary who managed in his own mind and to his great guilt to dissociate performing his tasks and promoting the reputation of his section of the bureaucracy from the gruesome reality of their function. The bureacracy was not to blame. She was making a larger point in the book about "a new type of criminal" who "commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong." Consider the other Nazis who spent the end days of the war destroying the records of their crimes; was this proof that they knew what they did was wrong? Far from it, she answers; it shows no more than that they knew they had lost the war and were aware of what others would think of their conduct once they discovered it, and they were trying to avoid paying the price for their decisions--nothing more. "Would any one of them," she asked, "have suffered from a guilty conscience if they had won?"

But that did not negate or excuse their crimes, or the fact that they were criminals. There was no question in her mind about their guilt, and that of Eichmann. She put that conclusion in stark language at the end of the book, when she imagines the better and more honest argument for his culpability the judges in Jerusalem could have put to him when they pronounced their sentence:

William Berkson's picture

Maurice, I am not an expert on Arendt, but Miller is. If you want to refute him, then respond to his arguments and to the evidence he cites, which you don't do.

You quote Arendt in part as saying that he was a person who "commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong." And you characterize him as a 'thoughtless functionary', following Arendt. But Miller points out, using the evidence he quotes and I report, that her view is factually wrong - he thought of himself as a complete devotee of Hitler, and acted against his duties as a functionary. Lengthy quotes are not responsive to Miller's evidence, but simply a question-begging repetition of Arendt's views.

What I myself find dishonorable in Arendt is that she did not face the issue of Heidegger's culpability in supporting Hitler, but defended him with misleading statements. If you want to defend her honor, explain why her sometime defence and general avoidance of the issue is honorable.

John Hudson's picture

This discussion about Arendt put me in mind of a very good article I read last year, a review of her Responsibility & Judgement that discusses both the Eichmann trial and her relationship with Heidegger. This evening I tracked down the article: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/menutest/articles/sp04/greif.htm

Nick Shinn's picture

Thanks John, that article does much to explain Arendt's hypocrisy in not living up to her ethical philosophy .

William, it appears that love (carnal and person-to-person) was the reason she excused Heidegger.

Perhaps she could have put a "notwithstanding" clause (Canadian term) or a "derogation" (EU term) to provide an exemption for close family/lover -- although this would have weakened her argument in many eyes. In certain jurisdictions the testimony of a spouse is invalid.

Anyway, the fact that she compromised on her own standards doesn't discredit them.

Maurice Meilleur's picture

(Warning: long post, and the words

William Berkson's picture

John, thanks for the article, which is enlightening, and to my reading confirms very clearly one place where her theories themselves show moral cowardice.

As I said earlier, Arendt was very muddled. You can quote her saying many quite sensible and morally upright things. But also the opposite. And she never forthrightly sorts it out. This is a key to her popularity, in my opinion, as by staying muddled she is able to condemn the Nazis without ever appealing to liberal standards such as truth, democracy, protection of minorities and honest science.

Since many intellectuals, including Heidegger, were and are illiberal, this is a clever way to make herself and them them feel righteous without challenging their illiberalism.

Her quoting with approval Cicero saying he would rather be wrong with Plato than hold true views with people he doesn't like is exactly a point of betrayal of liberal standards.

The contrast here with Popper is noteable. Popper deeply admired Plato, but recognized his illiberalism, and so wrote his lengthy attack on Plato's illiberalism in 'The Open Society and Its Enemies'. Of course Popper is not a darling of the illiberal and so not as popular.

However, it is he, and not Arendt, whom people in oppressed regimes have read as a beacon of light. When I was at the Popper Centenary conference in Vienna in 2002, it was very touching to hear how people in East Germany and Poland were strengthened and given hope and direction by reading Popper. And now he is being read in China and Iran by the champions of liberty.

The liberal standard is truth, and if your friend is supporting an evil, you don't go with him. And that by the way is not only a liberal standard, but a traditional Jewish and Christian one.

My problem with Arendt isn't so much that she compromised her standards as that her standards were compromised.

Arendt tried to replace acknowledgement of the truth with another standard of 'thoughtfulness'. But, as Miller also points out, this standard is also rubbish when applied to the Nazi situation. The Nazis were thoughtful. They had a whole system of pseudo-scientific racial theories that justified their actions. And exactly on point they had the 'great' philosopher Heidegger endorsing obedience to the Fuehrer as justified by his system of thought. But they weren't honest.

Nick said earlier that cultural history is 'a bit smokey'. Well not when I write it. I try to stick to real facts, and use them as a test of whatever I say. Understanding history of ideas is a very difficult and slippery, but important subject. I have been working in this field for forty years, and I try to follow what the great English liberal, Bertrand Russell, said on this subject. He said that he always tried to be as clear as possible. He understood that the truth often lay behind a fog of mystery and confusion, but he never took the fog for the reality, but rather strived to get through the fog to the reality.

So I do strongly disapprove of those like Arendt who reject the standard of truth and generate fog, however beautiful the fog may appear at times.

Finally, I find rather peculiar, Nick, that you put family/lover in one category. What Heidegger did in having an affair with his 19 year old student, then dumping her, threatened his marriage and children, exploited her, and is morally reprehensible. Arendt's behavior of maybe getting her jollies by sleeping with a famous man with a wife and children is also wrong.

You could argue that Heidegger was more culpable than she, as he was the one with the power in the situation. But the idea that she owed him something because he exploited her for sex - or was it for gratitude for the priviledge of being screwed by a famous Nazi - when she was 19 seems to me grotesque.

Finally a note on one thing mentioned in the article John references. Greif notes that Arendt made something of the fact that Eichmann knew Kant's ethical theories. However Eichmann interpreted the 'categorical imperative' as meaning 'do whatever the Fueherer would approve of, if he were in the same situation'. Um, not exactly true to Kant, an apostle of liberalism and the enlightenment. And very much on point as to what motivated Eichmann, though minimized by Arendt.

hrant's picture

If people had only lavished even just 10% of this attention on the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust might never have happened. :-(

hhp

Maurice Meilleur's picture

William--

See my post above yours. If you disagree with me over Arendt's views, fine. I think I have the better argument, but I could be mistaken.

But to write that "Arendt's behavior of maybe getting her jollies by sleeping with a famous man with a wife and children is also wrong," and to condemn her for "the idea that she owed him something because he exploited her for sex," or out of "gratitude for the priviledge [sic] of being screwed by a famous Nazi" is just gratuitous and mean-spirited.

I can't think of a better definition of "calumny" than to suggest that Arendt got such a charge out of having adulterous sex with an anti-Semitic fascist that it put her so deeply in Heidegger's thrall to feel compelled to whitewash his crimes for the rest of her life. (By the way, Heidegger did not join the Nazis until 1933, and most of his anti-Semitism would likely have been kept delicately out-of-conversational-bounds during the time he and Arendt were together in the mid- to late 1920s.) Was it wrong to have an affair with a married man? Yes. Does it contradict her later views on judgment and responsibilty that she downplayed Heidegger's flaws even in later life and never lost her devotion to his mind? Yes. Was she therefore a self-hating Jew, harlot, and home-wrecker whose ideas deserve no consideration? No, and it's pretty slimy to suggest otherwise.

By the way: Arendt's take on Cicero means nothing close to what you take it to mean. Read Greif's article again--or, better, read Arendt's actual essay. Plato does not represent in that passage the "illiberal tyrant" (Cicero would not have looked at Plato that way), and the differences between Plato's views and those of the Pythagoreans were not ones that Cicero's imagined characters could resolve with reference to the facts. Greif is using the passage as a metaphor for Arendt's moral cowardice on the question of Heidegger. Arendt, for her part, simply was arguing that when reason and facts fail, you wind up falling back on character, for better or worse. She was not saying that "when I have to choose between being with a tyrant and being with people who tell the truth, I chose the tryant"; she was saying, if anything, "when I have to choose being right with people of poor character and being wrong with people of good character, I choose to be with people of good character." That that position regarding Plato (not hers, but Cicero's) is questionable, and that she let her regard for Heidegger blur her own judgment of his character, in themselves takes nothing away from this point, arguable as some may find it to be.

(It's useful, by the way, to think of this in the context of what was to be the opening epigram to Arendt's book on judging, from Cato: "Victrix causa Diis placuit, sed victa Catoni" [the victorious cause pleases the gods, but the vanquished cause pleases Cato]--questioning, as I read it, the belief that alignment of one's views with power guarantees the justice or truth of one's beliefs.)

There's just no need to take these kinds of swipes at Arendt. Disagree with her, argue with her, but don't churn the swill like that.

Nick Shinn's picture

>Nick said earlier that cultural history is 'a bit smokey'. Well not when I write it. I try to stick to real facts,

The facts, William: I said that "cultural theory tends to be a bit smokey."

>I find rather peculiar, Nick, that you put family/lover in one category.

They are different kinds of love, but sexual love and the love between parent and child are the strongest of emotions, and will easily compromise any moral position.

William Berkson's picture

My rude language on Arendt's behavior was in response to Nick's comment that it somehow mitigated her later behavior. My point, and I acknowledge that my language should have been less angry, is that her behavior as a student in no way excuses her later behavior in relation to Heidegger's reputation. The term 'calumny' implies that what I said is false. But it is true. I offer different interpretations of her affair, and I don't know what is correct, but whatever way you slice it it doesn't come out honorable.

I never said that she was a self-hating Jew whose views don't deserve consideration. They should be considered and rejected.

Miller's argument is not self-contradictory. He is pointing out that Arendt acknowledges facts that contradict her thesis, and she refuses to accept the implications of these facts, which refute her.

You say above:

"Nick and John's association of Arendt's "banality" with mindless action (and not merely poor taste) is exactly right."

and "she argued that he was a thoughtless functionary"

You say that my charactization of her view as Eichmann as a "a thoughtless cog in a bureaucratic machine" is somehow off base. How is my characterization different from yours?

Furthermore, you are not getting Miller's point. If Eichmann were just doing his job as a bureaucrat, then he would have done what his superior told him. But he went against it because of his fanatical devotion to Hitler, a motive Arendt minimizes, but which was primary.

More generally, you can distinguish between and weak and strong version of the banality thesis. The weak version is that Eichmann was a shallow and silly man, and not a demonic mastermind. Everyone would accept the weak version, including me. The strong version is that he was a "thoughtless functionary", as you put it. The strong thesis is false as Eichmann thought about it, and wanted to do whatever Hitler wanted, whatever the moral consequences. Eichmann may have lacked a moral sense, but he was thoughtful to the extent that he knew what he was doing and why he was doing it - to carry out Hitler's dreams.

It is significant that, as Grief points out in the article John referenced, Arendt never made clear what she meant by the phrase 'banality of evil'. This muddiness in what she is talking about is what I most object to. It enables she and her defenders so slide between different positions to avoid looking the facts about Eichmann in the face.

It is muddle-headedness in defence of illiberalism, and its popularity, that I find objectionable.

William Berkson's picture

>The facts, William: I said that "cultural theory tends to be a bit smokey."

My apologies for getting you wrong. I read too hastily.

>but sexual love and the love between parent and child are the strongest of emotions, and will easily compromise any moral position.

You had earlier put love between husband and wife and between an adultrous man and his young mistress on the same plane as far as both deserving a 'notwithstanding' clause - some kind of excuse I assume. They are both powerful forces, but not equally excusable.

One is enshrined in law, at least in the US, and the other is not. A person defending a spouse when they don't deserve it is one thing, and an ex-mistress turning a blind eye to her philandering lover for important support of the Nazis is another.

Maurice Meilleur's picture

William--

The rub here I think concerns the definition of "thoughtless." You, and Miller, want "thoughtless" to mean "accidental" or "inadvertent." On that reading, of course, Eichmann was not "thoughtless" at all. If anything, he was meticulous and even obsessive, a trait he shared with most of the Nazi leadership and bureaucracy.

It might surprise you to learn, then, that Arendt, far from minimizing this, agreed with you, and documented this quality of Eichmann thoroughly in her book. To put that evidence against her as proof she was wrong about Eichmann is thus misguided; it doesn't "refute" her if she never argued to the contrary in the first place. Indeed, so far as I know, no one--not Arendt, not anyone--argues that Eichmann sleptwalked through World War II and the Final Solution, or that he was hoodwinked or brainwashed into genocide, or that he did not understand the consequences of his actions.

As Arendt used the term, "thoughtless" meant "ethically mindless" or "without judgment"--that is, not thinking what one is doing, morally speaking. What Eichmann showed Arendt was that one can know what one is doing and why, yet simultaneously and without guile or irony proclaim contradictory and even pure motives, and even (and monstrously) express astonishment at the lack of gratitude from one's victims (as Eichmann expressed of German Jewish leaders and of his captors) for having done one's job so well.

For Arendt to point this out and trace the consequences of failing to recognize this phenomenon for our moral and political judgment is not at all "muddleheaded." She is holding something ugly and troubling about the human condition up to the light for inspection. That she called this the "banality of evil" without quite being able to put her finger on its precise definition, or to reconcile it with her other accounts of "radical evil" and the nature of totalitarianism, shows only that she was struggling honestly with something complex but of great signifcance.

This doesn't mean that there aren't potential problems with Arendt's account; it just means you and Miller haven't raised any of them by accusing her of minimizing Eichmann's evil.

William Berkson's picture

Maurice,

Even if you mean 'ethically mindless' and 'without judgment' these terms do not apply to Eichmann. He did believe in an ethical system, namely that of the Nazis, according to which it was good to kill Jews in order to purify Europe of racial pollution. He made an ethical choice, a horrific choice, but a choice none the less, and did it knowingly.

Also it is a grotesque irony that the person whom Arendt would probably have taken as the epitomy of 'thoughtful', namely Heidegger, made the choice also to say that his philosophy meant that you should support the Fuehrer completely.

It is interesting that, Steve tells me, the reception of Arendt's book on Eichmann was much better in literary circles than among historians, almost none of whom agree with her.

I have spent way too much time on this, and it is also off topic, so I will not add to the debate for a few days at least.

On topic, Andreas' and Gerard's comments were very interesting on the typography of the fascist regimes. Hopefully others knowledgeable on this history will follow up on these

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