Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen speaks at a May 8, 2019 event in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: New America/flickr/cc)

Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Böll Would Despise What's Been Done to Masha Gessen

Gessen’s real sin was the recognition that the exterminating impulse is not unique to one set of villains and victims.

Pro-Palestinian speech is routinely punished in the liberal Western world — in the name of democracy, of course. Now, the memories of German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt and German writer Heinrich Böll have been violated in a way that both would despise.

Masha Gessen (pronouns they/them), the Russian-Jewish émigré best known for in-depth reporting on their former country, has been denied the honor of a ceremony after receiving the Hannah Arendt Prize from Germany’s Heinrich Böll Stiftung (foundation).

Why? In the December 9 issue of The New Yorker, Gessen wrote:

… the more fitting term “ghetto” would have drawn fire for comparing the predicament of besieged Gazans to that of ghettoized Jews. It also would have given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated.

Cue the predictable blowback. Gessen wasn’t factually wrong; instead, the outrage was driven by context. It is culturally verboten in Germany (and the US) to equate any aspect of the Holocaust to the suffering endured by any other people – especially when that suffering is being inflicted by Israel. As others have noted, Arendt faced similar attacks over her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, which wasbased on reporting for the same New Yorker magazine.

What’s important is the idea that evil can seem ordinary, and that totalitarianism... can make a monster of almost anyone.

The Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s statement is a masterpiece of deflection and the use of the passive voice. It says that Gessen’s essay “led to heated debates in many places,” and that:

Against this background, the Senate of the City of Bremen has decided to cancel the event and award ceremony that was to take place on December 14th, 2023 and, as a consequence, the event has lost its venue.

The city’s decision is disgraceful but hardly surprising, given the German government’s expressed determination to crack down on pro-Palestinian voices. In fact, several Muslim countries have already brought complaints against Germany before the United Nations human rights forum over that issue.

In an attempt to deny the obvious, the foundation says:

We will try to organise a different type of event with Masha Gessen, an event enabling a nuanced dialogue – including about certain statements made by Gessen that we do not fully endorse – as today such dialogue is more important than ever before.

Why “different”? The foundation could have found another venue. Or it could have held the ceremony in a bus station some other public place, which would have made a dramatic statement against censorship. It would also have been very much in the spirit of its namesake, the writer and pacifist Heinrich Böll.

Böll was president of P.E.N. International, a group dedicated to protecting writers’ freedom of speech, and was fearless in expressing unpopular opinions of his own. Most famously, Böll defended the right to a fair trial of the much-loathed Red Army Faction (the so-called “Baader-Meinhof gang”) rather than trial by tabloid headline and mass media. For that, he weathered a firestorm of criticism that equaled Arendt’s.

Any organization bearing Böll’s name might be expected to defend unpopular speech. But the Stiftung is a political institution, not a moral or literary one. It is a wing of Germany’s Green Party, a formerly left-leaning and pro-environmental group that has become increasingly hawkish, tacking to the right of even the “centrist” Social Democrats on military matters.

But then, what’s in a name? The Greens have even pushed to re-open coal plants.

Like other elite-led ‘liberal’ institutions, the Greens have an organizational imperative to spout the language of inclusion, even when (as in this case) they suppress dissenting voices. This is how they presented their decision notto honor Gessen:

We want to make it very clear that this withdrawal does in no way mean that we are distancing ourselves from Gessen, nor that we want to strip Gessen of the award, or that we no longer value Gessen’s works.

We aren’t distancing ourselves from Masha Geffen, says the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. We just won’t honor them. And, of course, Geffen won’t be allowed to give a speech. But we do hope to permit a ‘nuanced dialogue,’ wherein Gessen will no doubt be forced themselves against a tribunal of hostile interlocutors. That’s ‘dialogue,’ Star Chamber-style.

Does anybody think this would have happened if that recent New Yorker article had not been published? And does anyone think the Greens would have refused Gessen a ceremony and a speech if the article had praised, rather than criticized, Israel?

We aren’t distancing ourselves from Masha Geffen, says the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. We just won’t honor them.

Irony upon irony: A nonbinary Jew who was forced to leave illiberal Russia for its anti-LGBTQ environment is being punished by establishment liberals acting in the name of two free speech advocates. Why? For criticizing a country (Israel) that denies basic freedoms to millions and where same-sex (and interfaith) marriages cannot be performed, by law.

There’s no time to adjudicate all the arguments surrounding Eichmann in Jerusalem but, whatever the criticisms, itis clearly the spiritual sibling of Gessen’s essay. The onslaught of accusations against Arendt was front page news at the time, resulting in what Israeli journalist Amos Elon likened to an “excommunication.” For one thing, as Elon writes, Arendt had fallen away from the Zionism of her youth and concluded that,

like other nineteenth-century nationalisms, Zionism had already outlived the conditions from which it emerged and ran the risk of becoming, as Arendt once put it, a “living ghost amid the ruins of our times.’”

A “living ghost” … that was heretical in 1963. It still is today.

Elon writes that Arendt also foresaw “the difficulty of confronting, morally and politically, the plight of the dispossessed Palestinians.” As he puts it, “The Palestinians bore no responsibility for the collapse of civilization in Europe but ended up being punished for it.”

Irony upon irony: A nonbinary Jew who was forced to leave illiberal Russia for its anti-LGBTQ environment is being punished by establishment liberals acting in the name of two free speech advocates.

Rereading Eichmann in Jerusalem, as I did recently, it was more striking than ever to consider the courage it took to write it. Less than two decades after the Holocaust, Arendt was challenging an already-established orthodoxy, one which Elon describes this way:

“... in Israel, the Holocaust was long seen as simply the culmination of a long unbroken line of anti-Semitism, from pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar to Hitler and Arafat.”

Arendt saw the role that this orthodoxy played in the conduct of the trial, writing of the prosecutor:

Like almost everybody else in Israel, he believed that only a Jewish court could render justice to Jews, and that it was the business of Jews to sit in judgment on their enemies. Hence the almost universal hostility in Israel to the mere mention of an international court ...”

This has never been an abstract intellectual debate. The immensity and horror of the Holocaust wields tremendous moral force, as it should. Israel’s leadership had by then developed an ideology based on the centrality of Jewish victimhood and the idea that only Jewish military might could protect Jews from future pogroms. Arendt saw that agenda at work in the Eichmann trial and describes it this way:

The Jews in the Diaspora were to remember how Judaism, “four thousand years old, with its spiritual creations and its ethical strivings, its Messianic aspirations,” had always faced “a hostile world,” how the Jews had degenerated until they went to their death like sheep, and how only the establishment of a Jewish state had enabled Jews to hit back, as Israelis had done in the War of Independence, in the Suez adventure, and in the almost daily incidents on Israel’s unhappy borders.

This argument was used to justify Israeli military actions. It also imbued Diaspora Jews, especially those living comfortably in the West, with the feeling that they had it too easy. They should be in Israel, fighting its wars and plowing the land. They certainly should never question its decisions.

To reinforce this argument, some Jewish victims of Nazism were judged as weak and compliant, in contrast with Israel’s vigor and strength. Arendt was attacked for criticizing Jewish leaders who cooperated with the Nazis, but the opposite is true: she challenges the prosecution’s implication that some Jews were to blame for their own suffering – which reinforces the idea that Jews must “hit back.”

Arendt saw things differently. To her, Nazism and the Holocaust reflected a crisis of modernity and totalitarianism, rather than a uniquely Jewish-centered phenomenon. It can be both, of course. But to deny that Jewishness and only Jewishness drove the Holocaust was to deny the Israeli state the moral impunity it sought.

To say that anti-Semitism is the sine qua non of Nazism also diminishes the suffering of Nazism’s other victims, including the Roma community, leftists, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ people like Gessen. It also preemptively renders the suffering of the Palestinian people invisible. Arendt wasn’t willing to do that.

She also points out that those questions have nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of Adolf Eichmann, who – in the spirit of Heinrich Böll– she insists should receive a fair trial. “On trial are his deeds,” she wrote, “not the sufferings of the Jews, not the German people or mankind, not even anti-Semitism and racism.” She criticizes the prosecutor as a media hound and Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion for orchestrating a “show trial,” but shows genuine respect for the judges and their devotion to justice.

Arendt felt that totalitarianism must be understood and punished as totalitarianism, because it’s both a crime against humanity and a global threat. That was her main complaint about the trial. Arendt was not alone in this interpretation. Bruno Bettelheim, the psychologist and concentration camp survivor, was among the public figures who agreed with her. Bettelheim wrote a glowing review of Eichmann in Jerusalem in which he called totalitarianism “the greatest problem of our time” and “the most important issue of our day.”

To Bettelheim the survivor, Eichmann personified a horror that was universal and a threat that was existential. In describing the value of Arendt’s book, Bettelheim wrote, “the best protection against oppressive control and dehumanizing totalitarianism is still a personal understanding of events as they happen.”

Arendt despised Eichmann but, correctly or not, she didn’t see him as specifically anti-Semitic. To her he was a dimwitted bureaucrat, a cog in a totalitarian machine, a personality type that had become common in the modern world. She thought he embodied a more universal and institutionalized depravity. (Gessen describes Vladimir Putin similarly: as dim and self-seeking, more of a pencil pusher than the incarnation of evil.)

The attacks on Arendt followed a blueprint that’s still used today. She was repeatedly described as a “self-hating Jew” — a phrase that has never gone out of currency — as when an author described both her and Bettelheim as suffering from “an essentially Jewish phenomenon...self-hatred.”

The attacks were well-organized, as Amon Elon writes:

A nationwide campaign was launched in the United States to discredit her in the academic world. There was a startling disproportion between the ferocity of the reaction and its immediate cause. A group of lecturers—some flown in from Israel and England-toured the country decrying Arendt as a “self-hating Jew,” the “Rosa Luxemburg of Nothingness.”
Four separate Jewish organizations hired scholars to go through her text, line by line, in order to discredit it and to find mistakes though most of them turned out to be minor: incorrect dates and misspelled names. A review of the book in the Intermountain Jewish News was headlined “Self-hating Jewess writes pro-Eichmann book.”

Arendt emphasized the universal nature, and universal threat, of totalitarianism. Her book’s controversial subtitle, “A Report on the Banality of Evil,” makes that clear. If evil can be ordinary—if it can be done by people who don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, by people who follow the rules—that might implicate anyone.

There have been endless debates about Arendt’s use of the word “banality,” but what matters most is not whether it’s the best label for Eichmann. What’s important is the idea that evil can seem ordinary, and that totalitarianism—whether it’s the old-fashioned, jackbooted kind, or the seemingly democratic misdirection of Prof. Sheldon Wolin’s “inverted totalitarianism”—can make a monster of almost anyone.

Journalists who censor themselves. Politicians who curry favor for campaign cash. Executives at Lockheed or Boeing. US government officials who ship antipersonnel weapons bound for Gaza. The leaders of Heinrich Böll Stiftung. Citizens who won’t question their own preconceptions. You. Me.

Bettelheim, like Arendt, was not afraid to implicate his adopted country. In his review of her book he wrote,

... it is also totalitarianism when a nation plans for atomic destruction on a grand scale, even if that nation is democratic and plans only for defense. This is because such plans fail to set limits within the human scope. To entertain the possibility of risking atomic destruction for millions is to toy with totalitarianism because it implies the right of a state to pursue its goals no matter what.

Daniel Ellsberg’s book The Doomsday Machine provides a vivid glimpse of the architects of global destruction at home in their bureaucratic habitat.

In the end, the word “banality” suggests that the Nazis were not as different from the rest of us as we’d like to believe. Masha Gessen’s real sin, like Arendt’s, was the recognition that the exterminating impulse is not unique to one set of villains and victims. It can arise and be executed anywhere, by anyone, at any time — in this country and its allies, among people who look and act like us, on a day like today. Even here, even now, even as these words are being written.

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